“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:31-32).
O God, if you have sent me here to help this church die in peace, help me to do that well. If not, show me what to do.” That was my prayer almost 20 years ago when I started as pastor of a congregation of 6 people over the age of 60, my husband, and myself.
I went into that situation determined to serve God wherever he was leading. I prayed, listened, encouraged, and prayed some more. I didn’t try to give people what they wanted or make the church the best entertainment on the block. I tried to give my people what they needed to grow closer to God. I tried to listen to God and obey his voice. Today, the congregation has an average attendance in the mid 20s. Most Sundays a third or more of the attendees are under the age of 18.
Last year, we had a huge conflict. Our attendance, which had often been in the low 30s, dropped. People were feeling emotionally and spiritually battered. When I asked God, “Why?” his response surprised me. I became convinced that we had been attacked by the devil because we were doing too many things right, and our service to God was being too successful.
When we as a congregation were able to see the conflict as an opportunity to stay strong in Christ, praise God that we were doing his work enough to face opposition, and work to serve God in the midst of the pain, things turned around. While we are not completely recovered, God has been in control in surprising ways that have worked for the strengthening of his kingdom.
As I think of my congregation’s story, I ask myself what it says about the problems we are facing as a denomination. I think we have tried too many of the wrong approaches. We have tried seeker-sensitive models that never led to deep commitments or lives of discipleship. We have tried to tighten up our polity, revamp our denominational offices, and go through one program approach after another.
It is time for us as a denomination to ask God, “What do you want us to do?” When we hear the answer, we need to have the courage to act on it. It is time to return to a focus on prayer, Bible study, accountable community, and making disciples instead of counting how many bodies are in the pews. It is time to realize that tough times mean one of two things: It may be that we are doing something wrong and need to ask God to be in control again. It may be that we are doing something right, and we need to ask God to give us the courage to press on. Either way, we need to be in close communication with God.
In addition, we need to return to realizing that each congregation and each member is part of the Church of the Brethren. We need to become a body again, instead of scattered outposts of independence. We need to help each other, pray for each other, and feel responsible for each other. I am convinced that when we can seek God’s kingdom together, he will allow us to find it.
Jan Orndorff is pastor of Sugar Grove Church of the Brethren in Wardensville, W.Va.