Short-term commitment to church? I can relate.

The other day I wrote about my struggle to keep running after completing my first marathon, an effort that was itself a capstone to an amazing year of running after 17 years of inactivity and poor eating habits. You see, for a year – and particularly for the few months leading up to the marathon – I somehow got up the gumption to change my life, to commit to running, and to run a race I never thought I would be able to run. But I did it. And I felt great. 

And then I stopped. Goal achieved. Box checked. Motivation, it seems, left somewhere out on 26.2 miles of asphalt in the District of Columbia.

My experience with running is not unlike many people's experience with church.

I've seen people get really involved in church for a while, as if to complete a project – a very tangible "project" such as the Confirmation of their teenager, or a more "spiritual" project of healing following a personal trauma. But once the project is complete, they drift away, having "achieved" what they first came to church seeking, but not having made the patterns of church or faith routine enough to be part of everyday life.

I can relate.

My project was to run a marathon. Since the physically and emotionally rewarding experience of running the marathon, however, my commitment to running has dropped off. Likewise, many people experience a period of intensive involvement in church, but then later drop off.

I don't begrudge folks who slip into the church for a time and then find themselves away, and not only because I can relate with this experience within the realm of running. Rather, part of what we're called to do in the church is to walk with people where they're at, and in that moment strive to be a welcoming community of Christ for them. Our doors are open.

Some come and sit for years on end. Others just wander through and take a look. Others hang out for a while but then move on. That's OK with me. Life-long membership is not the goal. Meeting people in their spiritual need and awakening them to the saving presence of the Triune God in their life – through shared practices of faith, including worship & praise, Bible study, prayer, service, fellowship, and giving – is what we're about, it seems to me.

In my own struggle to make running a daily and on-going routine rather than a time-limited project, perhaps I'm learning a little about those who come to church for a good, long stretch, and then who are absent for an even longer stretch.

As I try yet again to re-re-commit myself to running, I am grateful for friends who know the joy of running and who make running a part of their everyday life. They share their joy with me, and they encourage me despite my inconsistent commitment to running.

May I be as good a pastor, and our church as welcoming a community of faith, as these running friends are to this on-again, off-again, on-again wannabe runner.

“Joining God in the Neighborhood”

I was very excited to see Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan J. Roxburgh arrive from Amazon. Please know that I didn't order the book and wasn't anticipating its arrival. My wife, a seminary professor, ordered it. However, upon reading the second paragraph on the back of the book, I knew I had to read it:

Missional calls you to reenter your neighborhood and community to discover what the Spirit is doing there – to start with God's mission – and join in, shaping your local church around that mission. With inspiring true stories and a solid biblical base, this is a book that will change lives and communities as its message is lived out.

It was a few years ago, when I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers, that I first began to think of God having a mission in the world. Up until that point, I had always associated mission with the church – that the church is on a mission. I had never really thought of God having a mission. But Kelly Fryer wrote an excellent Bible study series called No Experience Necessary – which I, as an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, was charged with selling. One of the themes of No Experience Necessary was, "God is on a mission to love and save the world." I asked myself, "What does it mean for God to be on a mission in the world … and what does it mean for us to join in that mission?"

Then a few years later, while planning for a mission trip to El Salvador, a North American missionary with extensive work in Central America described the work that God was doing through the church in El Salvador. Our job as North American mission partners, he said, was to join in the mission that God was already accomplishing through the Salvadoran church. Too many North American church groups travel to Latin America to "do mission" in Latin America, assuming that there isn't any mission going on unless they bring it. But the truth is that God has been at work in Latin America, through the local churches, long before we even thought about traveling there for our "mission trip." Thus, our calling is to recognize and participate in what God is already doing, to accompany the Latin American church on its mission.

This idea that God is already at work in the world has been an ongoing theme in my preaching, too. I'm convinced that God is at work within the church walls, yes, but also beyond the church walls. God-things are happening at the altar and font, but also at the corner store, the barber shop, the shelter, the county government offices, the public schools, social service organizations, ten mile runs, and more. The church's mission is to carry out its God-given call to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to baptize and to teach, yes. But its mission must also include seeing where God is at work in the world and to joining in that blessed work.

If this book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, examines and extends these themes, I'm sure it will be a worthy read.