How do you evaluate church? How do you decide if your congregation is doing well?
While many factors influence how a person answers these questions, a popular measure is the “happiness factor.”
Essentially, members ask themselves how happy or content the majority of members are with the church. If most are, this means the church is doing well. This is a major dynamic flowing through church life in 2013.
Add to this contentment tendency the post-modern influences of our society, and we find ourselves in whitewater times.
Some congregations are learning to swim in these strong currents while others are stuck in the happiness trap.
In such times, how do congregational leaders, clergy and laity help congregations find their swimming strokes?
Gil Rendle writes a pithy article in an Alban Institute book on congregational happiness, encouraging congregations to consider their core values by asking important questions. Are we about keeping as many people as possible happy? Or are we about something larger and more significant?
My experience with congregations is that most find themselves on a continuum somewhere between these questions.
Pastors, church staff and lay leadership teams play out their ministries on the same continuum.
How happy or content does this group need to be in order to risk missional ministry? How much security and comfort are needed in this congregation in order to embrace missional change?
These questions reflect the challenge of congregational leaders who seek “to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable,” as a country preacher once said.
Ideally, our hope as Christian people who are heavily invested in Christian faith communities is that we can choose higher purposes.
In “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness,” Rendle encourages congregations to refocus priorities onto mission and calling by “learning to make decisions based on their understanding of the congregation’s call to ministry or its core purpose, rather than according to an individual’s or group’s preferences.”
The false god of happiness needs to go. When congregational happiness is enshrined, God’s Holy Spirit is constrained, change is minimized or eliminated, and leadership energy is consumed internally rather than in external ministry.
Our world needs more from the church than a lazy float trip. One way to refocus on mission rather than happiness is by paying attention to our questions.
Contentment and happiness questions are:
â— Who wants what?
â— How do we satisfy (a person or a group)?
â— What should we do about (a problem or complaint)?
Purposeful, identity and missional questions are:
â— Who are we and who are we called to be?
â— What are we called to do in this chapter of our congregational history?
â— What are the goals and/or objectives that we set out to accomplish in our ministry?
â— What are the appropriate strategies for our ministry, and how will we measure its attainment?
When clergy and laity ask this second set of questions and lead with purpose, the congregation finds an opportunity to define itself by considering whether they are more concerned with contentment or with missional ministry.
I am hoping Christian churches will rise up by defining themselves in terms of faithfulness to God’s calling because we are about so much more than contentment.
I am hoping we can delay gratification now, serve strong and faithfully, and find contentment in a ministry well done with a world more aware of God’s love.
Happiness or faithfulness? May God strengthen Christian faith communities with resolve to swim well.
Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.