Prayers for the Unfaithful

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I traveled last week, and in my travels, I encountered three different people. Three people with their own stories and their own complicated relationships with the Church. Three people I have felt compelled to pray for. Let me share a bit of their stories.

First, I met Brian. Brian is thirty years old, and currently serves in the U.S. Army. His father left when he was a toddler, and in the years that followed, Brian's mother moved them around as she married two more times. Brian did not grow up in the church, but considers himself a Christian today. Brian has found community in the U.S. Military.

A couple of days later, I met Teresa. Teresa grew up in the Church, her parents faithfully taking her to church every Sunday. Yet as an adult, Teresa has no desire to be part of the Church. "It just doesn't seem important," she told me. "I don't need to be part of a church to follow God." Teresa and her husband share their lives with friends and neighbors.

Finally, I met Jake. Jake, I was surprised to learn, grew up in a Christian Reformed congregation. After graduating college, he could no longer take what he calls "the oppressive culture of the CRC." He moved south, and now belongs to a Pentecostal congregation. An active Christian, he loves God and serves as a leader in his church.

I have changed the names and some of the facts to disguise their real identities, but the stories of these three people, and their relationships with the church, are no less real. Each one of these people was once part of a community that shaped their faith, but ultimately, two of them no longer saw the need for it, and one rejected our denomination. As a pastor, I wish differently for them.

I wish that Brian was part of a Christian community.

I wish that Teresa recognized the value of church.

I wish that Jake knew the CRC that I know.

But my wishes for them do not translate into their desire to be part of the Church that I love. That will only come through what God does, and we can see God at work most clearly through our prayers, in Scripture, and our relationships. It is easy to meet and care for people like Brian, Teresa, and Jake, and get discouraged. It is much more difficult to commit to being in relationship with them, and loving in ways that demonstrate Christ's love for them, that show them the beauty of the Church and the belonging they can find in the CRC.

How can we in the CRC be a community for those who walk away, for those who don't see the need to belong to a church, or those who don't see the CRC as the answer to their need for belonging? In what ways can our Christian Reformed congregations meet people where the are and offer the hope of the gospel?

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Community Builder

Good questions. Would love to hear some ideas.

I've been thinking a lot about something similar: people who have attended our church regularly for quite some time, and then stopped.

We connect with them, visit, call, and ask what can we do, what did we do, etc. The reasons vary but 2 common reasons are:

-- Not enough for their kids. (We're a small church and there are quite a few young children in grade school, but no high schoolers and just a couple in junior high.)

-- Something along the lines of "I suffered.....something such as a sickness, a loss of a loved one, and so on...and the church never contacted me." In nearly all cases, friends within the church family did contact them and often helped them in a substantial way, but it seems if it wasn't the pastor or some other official type of contact, they're hurt and they stop coming.

Any thoughts or ideas?

Participant

Those are great questions, Mavis! I think similar situations are found in congregations across both the U.S. and Canada.

Congregations can't be expected to serve people like they are consumers and the church is a business. And people definitely place a lot of expectations on pastors to do the work that elders and others in the church are also called to do. So, how do we as congregations cultivate the kinds of communities where people know they belong and are needed, where everyone feels called and equipped to serve?

Last fall, Bob and Laura Keeley wrote an article about what they call the "Building Blocks of Faith." In it, they assert that people have four basic needs from their congregations: to find belonging, to know and understand God, a sense of calling and equipping, and hope. Many churches have used these four building blocks to look at the different groups in their churches to see how they are doing in each of these areas (for example, do senior citizens in our congregation feel called and equipped for ministry? do children find a sense of hope here? do youth feel like they belong?). It's a really interesting way to look at our ministries, and to help us figure out where there are gaps. 

But as you point out, the burden does not all rest on the Church here. People need to commit to being part of church communities, in times when people disappoint them and maybe even infuriate them, because we recognize that we all belong to one body--the body of Christ--where we can't easily write each other off.

Syd Hielema and Mike Johnson, from Faith Formation Ministries, lead great workshops on how we can cultivate church cultures where people feel safe to express their vulnerabilities and needs, and are empowered to serve in ministry.   

Thanks for this, Shannon!

Community Builder

What good questions! I think we live in a culture that is starving for community and belonging. What a wonderful opportunity for the Church. Thanks for the article Shannon.