The future of the church is in serious jeopardy.
At least that’s the opinion of researchers who have been tracking the decline of participation in church activities over the last 10 to 20 years.
While the causes for this decline are myriad and complicated, the one cause that no one disputes is the manner in which the inward focus of many declining congregations has finally caught up with them.
Their fixation with measuring the numbers of people they attract to the church has created a standard that is impossible to sustain, particularly in places where the community in which a church is located is not experiencing significant population growth.
Many churches are finally waking up to the possibilities of gauging their effectiveness in other ways, ones that are more outwardly focused.
Instead of counting the number of people who come to their church, these congregations are counting the number of people they are sending from their church.
The shift in focus for these churches is anything but a show of surrender to the habits of a culture that doesn’t value regular church participation as a past culture did; it is more a recapturing of a principle Jesus taught – that the one who gives life away will ultimately find it (Mark 8:35).
Mountain Brook Baptist Church (MBBC) in Birmingham, Alabama, seeks to be one of those “outwardly focused” congregations.
Situated in a neighborhood that ranks in the top 10 of the wealthiest communities in the nation, the MBBC congregation chose years ago to take seriously another of Jesus’ teachings – that “to whom much is given, much is also required” (Luke 12:48).
Consequently, the church has invested itself over the years in a host of missional ministries that have contributed greatly to the well-being of the global community in general and the local community in particular.
One of MBBC’s most unique ministries is its ministry to the Medical Apartments complex at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where people come from all over the country, as well as from other countries, to receive care for medical needs that is unavailable in their own communities.
This ministry began as a simple hospitality ministry by the Torchbearers Sunday school class of MBBC for the families of patients who came with their loved ones for such specialized care.
The class has led the church to support two apartments in the UAB complex and sees that they are well equipped for the daily needs of those who occupy them.
In addition, members of the class provide and serve a dinner meal on the third Tuesday of each month for all guests in the complex, which gives opportunity for those guests to share their stories with one another and experience the encouragement that all caregivers so desperately need.
The comments the church regularly receives from this ministry bear witness to its effectiveness, as most of the guests have limited resources and would not be able to stay with their loved ones to support them if it were not for the church’s response.
This ministry is an example of what any congregation can do once it begins to focus its attention and energies beyond its walls to wherever pressing needs are going unmet.
When it does, the spirit of service becomes contagious among others in the membership, and similar ministries begin to emerge, which also enable the church to extend the Kingdom’s influence into the larger community.
People start looking for places in which to invest themselves and find fulfillment for their service in ways they never dreamed were possible.
The upshot has been that our church has maintained a happy and healthy attitude over the years, which has allowed us to avoid the kinds of conflicts and disagreements that have torn other churches apart.
The irony has been that our church has not experienced the decline in participation that other churches have seen, even in a community like ours where the population growth is virtually flat.
People everywhere are attracted to faithfulness, and if your church shows that you take seriously the gospel mandate, people will find you. After all, isn’t that what Jesus promised?
Any church that trusts deeply enough to give itself away will find that in the mystery of God’s economy they will always have more from which to give and hope for a good future that nothing will ever take away.
Doug Dortch is the senior minister of Mountain Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on local churches bringing social capital to their communities. An article by Barry Howard of First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, will appear tomorrow.
Previous articles in this series are: Social Capital: Congregations Investing in Their Communities
Doug Dortch is senior minister of Mountain Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and a past Moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.