When I worked for the seminary bookstore, local church pastors and lay leaders would often stand in front of the “Church Leadership” section pondering which books to buy for long stretches of time. “What are you looking for today?” I asked one person. “The answers,” was the reply.
Congregations struggle. First Baptist is like most American Baptists, and indeed most mainline Protestant churches, with a very familiar story: figuring out how to address our changing context for ministry. Many churches join us in the experience of declining attendance numbers since the late 1960s, or wondering where all the “young people” went, or becoming anxious about the rising costs of maintaining buildings, salaries, and programming with ever-shrinking dollars. The region office calls this effect being “stale, stagnant, or stuck.” And about 2/3 of the ABC V/NH congregations are there right now!
How we choose to live in this day as a congregation will help First Baptist see today as a new day for ministry or as a waning memory of past success and minimal hope for the present. The good news is: we are choosing to be in transition and transformation, and we celebrate success in 2006. Now it’s time to wrestle with the more significant long-term issues of being a congregation ready for “what’s now?” and “what’s next?”
At month’s end, there will be a significant opportunity to learn together as a congregation. Dr. Ron Carlson from ABC National Ministries will offer a weekend event for the church to learn about the present day for ministry and mission work. This is an “all church” retreat for adult members of the congregation. It is my hope and prayer that you will be able to work around work, family, and other obligations to attend this event.
We will begin on Friday evening, February 23, at 6 PM for a potluck meal and a time to reflect (up to about 8 PM or so) about our understandings of where we are and how we can “beat the odds” that congregations like First Baptist are past their prime. We continue on Saturday, February 24, from 9 AM to 3 PM, trying to connect Dr. Carlson’s thoughts on church transformation to our own ministry field: the Bennington area. On Sunday morning, February 25, at 9:30 AM, Ron will share in worship about churches that he has worked with across the denomination, and afterwards as part of a special coffee hour time, we will reflect together as a congregation about “okay….what do we do now?”
To give you a little bit of background about Ron Carlson, let me share some observations: I met Ron when he came to Central Seminary as a professor of evangelism and church growth. What impressed me about Ron’s thinking on the matter was that he was not the type who believed in “one size fits all” evangelism programs. He is particularly interested in helping congregations learn how to become more open to growth in ways that suit where they are. If you are in an urban area, your ministry opportunities will differ from churches in a small town. For a church rooted in the Bennington, Vermont, area, what will help us play our strengths as a congregation and be proactive in addressing challenging needs within the community?
Ron will share part of what is a growing vision among various churches. This movement of churches refer to themselves as “missional” churches. Indeed, “missional” is becoming a new vocabulary word for seminary students readying to go out into ministry, and it is a word that many churches are finding varying and diverse definitions to what this word means for them.