Every Monday morning, I am supposed to record statistics about what has happened in the previous week in our church. These statistics are supposed to be indicators of whether or not our church is on the path to vitality. I don’t object to recording these numbers. They are indicators. It’s part of my job as a pastor to keep an eye on these things. No argument there.
But I have to admit that I feel uneasy about the seriousness with which some people take these numbers. It is almost as if we think that counting harder will make the numbers improve. And beneath that philosophy is an assumption that the church, like any other organization, should strive for efficiency. The resources taken in and expended should somehow be justified by the output of the organization. Investments should yield profits, if not souls.
To be sure, the church should be run as efficiently as possible, especially in a time when resources of people and money are more and more scarce. But the truth is, if the goal of the church is simply to be efficient, then I’m not sure I’m cut out to produce that exact outcome.
The church, as I see it, is perhaps the only institution on earth that has been intentionally formed around a number of inefficiencies.
My own sense of calling to ministry did not come out of a feeling that I was sufficient in and of myself, that the church somehow needed me to be more productive and efficient. No, like many others I know, my sense of calling came out of a sense of my own imperfection, my own need. I really believed it when others told me that God uses people’s weaknesses for good, that God heals brokenness, and that the church is a place where people who don’t have it all together are welcome.
In my awkwardness as a teenager, I struggled with my own sense of self worth, bouts of what I now know were depression, and feelings that I just didn’t always fit in. I took the church at its word when the church told me that Jesus had a special place in his heart for all kinds of people that others had said didn’t really fit in—the lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, the lame, and other assorted sinners.
And as I found acceptance and healing and growth, I delighted in being part of a community whose mission was to help the whole world find those same gifts.
Through the years, I have felt that the church has been at its best not when it has sought out people who could contribute to its efficiency, prestige, and vitality, but when it has offered grace to people who were still works in progress—the homeless, the lonely, the confused. I’ve felt that the church has been at its best when it’s tried to do things that the world and even experts in church growth consider to be antithetical to the numerical expansion of the church—embracing people who are imperfect, spending energy trying to create community based not on commonality but difference, and dropping back to pick up those who are wounded and bring them along for the journey.
One of the most powerful images of the church that has nagged at me for many years comes from a little-known work by Thomas Klise called The Last Western. In this novel, the main character is a multi-racial young man named Willie who has washed out as a star major league pitcher and faced the worst forms of discrimination society can hand out. In a time of brokenness, anger, and confusion, he finds his way to a strange monastic-like community in the desert that functions as an alternative model of church. This community of broken, forgotten people has no resources for its work, except their great capacity to love one another. Instead of focusing on the numbers in their community or the grandeur of some edifice, they simply take on the hard, but blessed work of helping one another find life. They do not name themselves after a great saint. They call themselves The Silent Servants of the Used, Abused, and Utterly Screwed Up. From this odd collection of poor, broken people, Willie receives healing and discerns a call to be a priest. Because of the love and patience of these broken vessels of God’s love, Willie embarks on a path consistent with the mission of the community in which he has found healing. Though Willie eventually becomes pope, he never deviates from the lessons he learned from the Servants. He only wants to help others find peace, life, and healing—even when that turns out to cost him his own life.
It may sound odd, but I want to be part of that kind of church. Truthfully, that’s the only kind of church I care anything about joining. I want to be part of a church that is willing to slow itself down enough to walk with, care for, and listen to people who are searching for acceptance, healing, forgiveness, and hope. I want to be part of a church that is willing to take a deep breath and not worry so much about its own survival—a church that really wants to provide a safe and sacred space where people can honestly tell their stories and know they will be loved anyway. I want to be part of a church that equips people to challenge the selfishness of our world with infinite love, even if that causes the church to suffer.
In short, I want to be part of a church that realizes we worship and serve one who renounced all the accouterments of worldly pride and efficiency and instead embraced the most inefficient strategy one can imagine, death by crucifixion on a cross. Who knows how such a church will fare statistically, institutionally, or financially? I only know that such a church will have to trust God, and God alone, to raise it to life and guarantee its future. So, there it is. It’s out in the open. I’m working on building a church that is blessedly inefficient.