The Christian world has been atwitter for quite some time about the diminishing church attendance. Our conventions these past few years have featured the greats in current thinking about the church, Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Ian Douglas, and Reggie McNeil. Themes of our recent annual gatherings asked pithy questions like “What’s God Up To?” Or urged us to “Catch the Spirit!” Or made claim to “Mission Possible!” We are constantly being encouraged to look at ourselves and at the same time investigate what’s going on in our communities, while engaging in worship that praises God and nourishes us in order to do God’s will.
Whew! I am a bit exhausted reflecting upon the enormity of what God expects from me! How can I break these expectations down into something digestible? What is my role in living into this orchestra called Christian life, acutely listening for guidance from the conductor?
I have to say, I ask these questions all the time. About six months into my life here at the Episcopal Church Center (ECC), I was asked to report at the clergy conference about the Center. My business background urged me to show measureable progress and intent. So I put together a list of activities and the number of people either attending AA or receiving a meal and I talked about the six month report card in the context of lives touched.
Shortly after attending the clergy conference, I read Reggie McNeal’s, Missional Renaissance. I was captivated by McNeal’s notions of the “confluence of three cultural phenomena fueling current collaboration and creativity: the emergence of altruism economy, the search for personal growth and the hunger for spiritual vitality,”. But hey, where does one begin?
Service contacts can be defined as a way of tracking the number of times you touch someone’s life. It can be as easy as enumerating services, counting people who receive services once or multiple times, or counting pounds of food distributed. It can also mean counting attendance at your school or the number of hours you and your fellow parishioners contribute to hosting the Interfaith Shelter Network. And as McNeal reminds us, ”Missional is not a place you arrive at but a direction in which you are moving,”.
Here at the Center, service contacts have sharpened our focus and intentions, enlightened our volunteers and inspired people, both those served and those serving, to deepen their spiritual lives. While meals are still served here and food provided, we have added services, like job counseling and identification assistance that help people become self-sufficient. We know from tracking service contacts that we touch the lives of over 36,000 men, women and children each year. Knowing this level of activity motivates volunteers because they understand the impact their service has on the lives of others. Our focus increasingly turns to personal development and transformation, both of those served and those who serve.
Service contacts are simply one tool for looking at congregational vitality. But it’s a great place to begin this missional journey. +
Nancy Holland is the canon for mission enterprise and the executive director of the Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach.