At the churches we visited, we listened closely to the announcements. Neither those, nor the response to the sermon resulted in a call to action. We scoured through bulletins and message boards, but to no avail. Alas, we come up with nothing until we visited one hip East Nashville church that met in a local elementary school. Finally, someone was offering a place to serve! Unfortunately, their one and only offering was in the nursery.
Time after time, church after church, apparently all the needs were being met by someone else. Maybe the pastor was doing all the ministry? Maybe they didn’t do ministry? It was mind-boggling to us.
Several years ago when we were recent ministry graduates getting ready to strike out on our own and create the dream church we were sure God was calling us to, our vision wasn’t super clear about location, kinds of people, or music genres – but what was clear was this: our church was going to make a difference. We would create a church that served others.
As we set out to create that community, we found that it was a foreign way of understanding church and success. (The numbers in attendance on a Sunday morning or a well- appointed building were much more typical markers.) Also, it was not as easy as it sounded. The problem with creating a church that serves like Jesus is that the individuals in that church have to be discipled in the ways of Jesus before they will embrace a life of service. And that gets into some very deep issues that some people (even in the church) go their whole lives without addressing.
So over the past 7 years, we have started to reimagine a new paradigm of ‘success’ as a way to track our progress in this venture that has nothing to do with gaining numbers or finishing building projects. It comes in three stages/steps:
Success is: Coming to the Table
The first stage looks like someone deciding to be present, to show up for relationship and deciding that this is a group of people they want to identify with. Sometimes this means showing up at a church service, but it can also mean moving in with another family or being a consistent presence at community or social events. However it happens, coming to the table is a HUGE step. Folks at this stage have to decided to be present against everything in them that is telling them not to. It is a massively courageous act.
Success is: Receiving what is Offered at the Table
Our central Christian practice revolves around a table: receiving the symbols of Christ is the sign of ‘salvation’ or ‘belonging.’ We approach the table with open hands to receive the bread. We thank God for a salvation we could not earn.
This second stage of receiving what is offered at the table is a step further than coming to the table. It is admitting our own inability to control the outcome of our lives. It is admitting we need help from those around us. It is a testimony to our true state; a state of vulnerability where we are basically in the hands of another to be crushed or lifted up.
Receiving what is offered at the table means receiving help from God and from our fellow man. It is a gracious reception, not a trade of services that we vow will be paid back someday. It is not a selfish act. It is a true act: confessing we have needs that we do not need to be apologetic about. The gifts at the table are not received with an anxiety that comes from a mindset of scarcity, but rather are received with a calm peace that comes from meeting with the living God and realizing that God is our Advocate.
Success is: when Someone responds to God's call of self-sacrificial service
In this last stage, a person is ready and able to hear the call of God; the call to lay down their lives in service to others. This call is not self-deprecating. It is not a call to being walked on by someone with a stronger will or personality. It is the kind of call that Jesus received when he went to the cross. He was called to do something that he didn’t want to do, but something he did willingly, purposefully and intentionally.
Responding to this kind of call reorients someone’s life. Suddenly, everything matters. Every grocery trip, financial planning meeting and casual conversation becomes packed with endless meaning.
Those who are in this final stage are the ones that create a church’s culture of service to others. They take the baton when others are fatigued and get taken advantage of. They love with such vulnerability that their lives are hard and their money never goes as far as they wish it would.
Over the years it has been my joy as a pastor to find myself engaging with those who have decided to come to the table and engage in relationship at a new and deep level. But, not only that, it has been my joy to serve them and serve alongside them. It has been especially gratifying to see people enter that last stage time and again: responding to God's call of self-sacrificial service. My husband and I are still showing up at church looking for places to serve. Thankfully now we are doing it with a community beside us, and hopefully, challenging the status quo in the process, not to mention the definition of what successful church ministry looks like when all is said and done.
Emily has been a pastor, along with her husband Caleb, in Nashville, Tennessee for the past seven years. Their church, Kaleo Nashville, pursues a holistic communal faith experience through living in community, sharing food and resources, and through community service and outreach. She has two young daughters, Story DeAnn and Daily Mae. She defines herself as a wife, mother, witness, advocate and adventurer who loves good coffee, authentic conversations, creativity and community.