Every morning one of my daughters and I head out to the car to get to school. We open the doors, adjust our seats, put on our seatbelts, and I turn the key to start the car. By many of the indications used by most churches, we are doing pretty good – we’ve shown up, we’ve done something to get some power – but in point of fact, we aren’t going anywhere until I do one thing: engage the transmission. You see, the car won’t move (forward or backwards) without the transmission engaged. And unfortunately, many of our congregations find themselves stuck where they are due to a lack of engagement.
Engagement, according to Merriam Webster, involves emotional commitment and involvement, and the state of being in gear. Simply put, vital congregations are places where people are committed to moving forward and are willing to commit their emotions, their resources, and their energy toward that forward movement.
The Bishop’s Call to Action report suggests that church vitality involves a “state of engagement,” which I think most any pastor would agree with. In fact, I would suggest that a big part of my job as a pastor is to encourage, cajole, and motivate people to become engaged in the life and ministry of their church. That is, I think, part and parcel of the focus on pastoral accountability – the belief that it is the responsibility of the pastor to lead people to engagement. And yet, in a established, traditional congregation, that can be an amazingly difficult task.
For many years I have been surprised how often congregations can function and even grow numerically through inertia. You know what inertia is – the continued motion of an object even after the power source is removed. There are thousands of congregations in the U.S. who were in gear, moving forward with great passion and energy, but through a variety of circumstances have shifted into neutral and are still rolling but with less and less energy until the force of gravity and/or friction brings them to a halt. These are congregations where participants are going through the motions of church without any real sense of emotional commitment or involvement, but rather out of a sense of duty – duty to God, to family, to an image of what it means to be a Christian American, and all sorts of other motivators that leads them to do things that don’t especially excite them. These are people who are active in church, but not engaged by the love and grace of Jesus Christ who sets them moving and leads the church to the places He wants them to go. The work of the church continues on because it always has . . . not because there is much sense of a direction or purpose that we are moving towards.
Inertia can carry a congregation a long way, but it isn’t energizing. The goal in an inertia driven church becomes survival – how long can we keep this thing moving until it finally gives out. However, a church that is in gear experiences power directly in energizing, even somewhat terrifying ways. With God’s foot on the gas these congregations have no limit to how fast they will go and where they might be headed. But like the guys in “Easy Rider” on the open road with “Born to Be Wild” running through their heads, they feel the power, and their emotional commitment is strengthened for the hard journey ahead.
The question for those of us in leadership is how we are able to move from ministry by inertia to helping folks to pop the clutch and get in gear? What are the best means for encouraging emotional commitment and involvement? In a church whose story is more connected to who we were and energy is focused on the maintenance of a building, what are the best ways to help people become reengaged by the amazing love and story of Christ?