As I’ve mentioned here, my church is in the process of replacing a popular pastor. It’s early days, and a certain amount of uncertainty hangs in the air. Last week, at a committee meeting, a dedicated brother spoke passionately about his perception of the present season: “We have to stop the bleeding.”
The “bleeding” that this man perceived was an apparent decline in church service attendance. Frankly, I’m not sure, in the middle of July, that we can really see a dramatic reduction in numbers, but I’ve never been good at eye-balling crowds. Let’s take his perception as true. Let’s assume that we examined the numbers and discovered that, in the wake of the pastor’s departure, we saw a 20% reduction in average attendance compared to the same time last year. Should that cause alarm?
Bleeding, I’m told, is a good thing. Last week, I cleverly rammed my left thumb onto the sharp point of some garden clippers I held in my right hand. It hurt, but then it bled. That bleeding let me know that I needed to stop my work and attend to the wound. It also, so I’m told, cleaned out any of the dirt and debris that might have been injected into the wound by the clippers. Bleeding can purify.
But of course bleeding can also kill, so let’s not get too giddy over that bodily process. What I would ask my friend to consider is that “bleeding” might not be the best metaphor for what we’re seeing.
Pruning and Dieting
One of our pastoral leaders used the term “pruning.” That has the advantage of being biblical. In John 15:2, we read of God as the gardener:
He cuts off every branch in me [Jesus] that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
That would suggest that if people leave, they do so not on their own volition but as God cut them away. Pruning makes sense, but I’d like to suggest another metaphor.
Looking in the mirror this morning, I was reminded of something that has been nagging me for more than a year. I need to lose weight. At the same time, however, I find that I don’t have all of the strength that I had a couple of years back. If I should manage to get myself back into discipline and drop 10 or 50 pounds, I want to ensure that what leaves my body is fat and not muscle. In fact, I’d like not just to eliminate fat-weight but add some muscle-weight.
The Fat in the Church
If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.
We’re using these metaphors, both the pruning and the weight-loss ones, to refer to the entire body of the church, but we could also apply them to the individual within the church. Just as I look in the mirror and realize that I’ve allowed my physical fitness to get away from me, I can–in fact I should–look at myself as a spiritual creature and recognize that I’m not as fit as I should be.
What if every member of my church, starting with me, were to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror? What if they were to truly evaluate their dedication to Christ and to His body? What if we were to all ask ourselves some hard questions, rather than saying, “What the church ought to do is . . .” They might ask:
- Should I be using my gifts in service more than I am?
- Should I be spending more time in God’s Word?
- Do I have a proper burden for the unsaved people around me?
- Am I giving an appropriate amount of my money to build God’s kingdom?
- What’s the state of my prayer life?
- Am I wasting time, money, or energy on the vapors of this world that will be gone in a few years?
- What am I doing to ensure that my church is a tool for God’s projects?
The list could continue. If 20% of our people would take seriously such a self-evaluation, if only one in five were to honestly ask and try to respond to these questions, then we would be stronger and more fit even if we did lose 20% of our total number.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, far too many of us respond to our spiritual obesity in the same way that we respond to our physical obesity. We think good thoughts, generate good intentions, and then eat a big bowl of ice cream on the couch.
Just as it was important for me to stop my bleeding last week, it is vital that truly committed Christians take seriously their own spiritual fitness even as they aim to be part of the solution for the whole church body.
That process, my friends, will begin with me. How about you?