Many older congregations across rural North Carolina ask themselves the same question: how can we bring younger generations in to our church?
The question itself is the wrong question to ask. Before even talking about “bringing young people”, the church must ask itself how it is witnessing God. And the church typically responds that it is witnessing God through serving the community through various outreach events.
But, these outreach events, designed to reach out to the community, tend to become “self-service outreach events.” The outreach events actually become “insular” – catering to the people who are like us. Ultimately, we suffer from the limits of our own expectations.
While we are limited to our own expectations, I think we can develop outreach ideas by observing and understanding what is happening in our community. We have to follow Karl Barth’s slogan: Christians should always have the bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. Specifically in these times in North Carolina, the church can do something about the rising number of hungry children and the limitation of the public education.
Today, North Carolina is in a heated debate concerning teacher’s salary. Yet, just raising the salary of the teachers will not alone improve children’s performance in the classroom. Teachers need more than just a salary increase. In North Carolina alone, roughly 28 percent of children struggle with hunger. Hunger easily creates a toxic learning environment. Teachers need help filling the needs of the impoverished kids who are struggling with just surviving life.
One of the ways that rural churches can witness God in this situation is by sponsoring a backpack ministry for a local school. A backpack ministry provides a needy child with a backpack filled with food each Friday that will help them cover one weekend. Another way for the rural church to witness is by sponsoring a school. The church can assist a school in buying the school supplies that the school needs in order to have a somewhat functioning classroom. The church also can provide volunteers to assist teachers and their students, in order that children may have a more effective learning environment.
I refer to these ministries as invisible ministries. By invisible ministries, I mean that these are thankless ministries. All the work is done behind the scenes. However, to me, these invisible ministries speak volumes. In fact, these ministries are prophetic in North Carolina. Instead of just expressing our opinion on Facebook or Twitter, we are putting our convictions into action. We are reaching out to the hungry. We are letting the children to taste and see the reality of the coming Kingdom of God.
The focal point is not to gain a lot of members through these local ministries. No, the important thing is that the church serves the community, and serves in a way that glorifies God. By serving rightly, the church becomes the church that the world needs, not what it wants. In other words, by serving in these invisible ministries, we, the servers, are learning what it means to serve God. Through this service, we ourselves unknowingly come to love Jesus more. By loving more, our eyes and our hearts open up so that the Spirit can move us to bring the people in need to the church.
When we serve, it is not just about achieving something in the name of the Lord, but it is about being closer to God. We are God’s servants. By serving, we are witnessing to God. By witnessing to God, we are unleashing the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that captured the attention of Israelites from the nations around Jerusalem (Acts 2).
We can’t just attract people to our churches on our own strength. Well, we can, but I do not believe that is not how we should grow. Instead, we can witness God through these invisible ministries. Through these invisible ministries, we are then able to unleash the Holy Spirit. And by unleashing the Spirit, we, the servers and the receivers, taste and see the goodness of Jesus Christ. Through tasting the sweetness and the goodness of Jesus Christ, we are then captivated to accept His invitation to the table to “come and see.”
We can’t just sit and ponder why the “younger generations” are not coming to our churches. We just don’t have time for that. Instead, we have to witness Jesus Christ to others by serving the broken world around us. And by witnessing and serving in invisible ways, we are unleashing the Holy Spirit to those who we serve. In other words, by serving rightly, we are letting God move powerfully in their lives.
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow