It’s almost the Thanksgiving season. I can tell because the big box stores have become schizophrenic with Halloween Ghouls in one aisle and Christmas Trees and Nativities in the next. As a pastor of a church in a county seat the pressure was on to help plan, publicize, and participate in the local ecumenical “community wide” Thanksgiving service. Typically, this annual service was held the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving and offered an opportunity for the local churches to support the local food bank or the ministerial alliance.
Let me preface what I’m about to say that I’m not particularly opposed to these ecumenical shows of solidarity, harmony, cooperation, and good will. And I’m certainly not against joint mission work … so long as it’s not an anonymous handout and ultimately Jesus (and the capital-C Church) gets credit. On the other hand, given the amount of resources most participating churches expend on these Community Thanksgiving Services I have to ask the question … “What’s the Kingdom payoff?”
I acknowledge that ecumenical solidarity, harmony, cooperation, and good will are nice payoffs. But the last time I participated in one of these events my church choir invested several hours preparing for the Community Choir. My missions and marketing committees met multiple times making plans and preparations. Of course the ministers in the “Alliance” met a couple of times to assign responsibilities. And none of that includes the combined hours that church secretaries expended making arrangements for set up, breakdown, bulletin printing, coordinating schedules, ensuring their pastors and choirs and committees and volunteers were where they were supposed to be by when they were supposed to be there. Add the time up, multiply it by the number of churches participating, and you’ll get a rough estimate of the time resource expended, to say nothing of the ultimate financial cost of the event. To bring it home in terms of the church’s mission of evangelism and discipleship, divide all those hours (and other costs) by the number of people who left the event as a new Christ Follower or as a measurably more effective disciple of Jesus Christ and you’ll most likely get a “divide by zero” error on your ecumenical calculator.
As I said, I’m not opposed to these events, but I am rather concerned about the energy we put into them. If most churches put as much effort into effective evangelism or discipleship as they do into the annual Thanksgiving Community Service they’d be experiencing growth rather than struggling with debilitating decline (and an overwhelming percentage of US churches are struggling with debilitating decline). The question we need to be real about is whether or not the payoff is proportionate to the energy expended.
I don’t believe the solution is to stop participating in these events altogether … Christian unity demands making an effort. However, most churches desperately need to drastically reduce the energy they’re expending on these events. The solution, at least for your church, is to do one of two things. You can simply say “No” to much more than showing up and participating in the food drive or joint offering. Or you can host the event.
I know … hosting the event seems like a heaping helping of expended energy, but it doesn’t need to. In fact, if you set your church’s boundaries appropriately you’ll spend considerably less energy than you have in the past.
How to Host an Energy Efficient Event
The first order of business is to set firm boundaries. In my experience, those who host a community event gets “stuck” with the lion’s share of the work. Don’t let that be you. Remember that an event such as the Ecumenical Community Thanksgiving Service is probably well beyond the mission of your church (which is likely to be “To make disciples of Jesus Christ”). Therefore you must set your limits accordingly. Hosting an ecumenical event does not mean taking responsibility for the event itself … or for providing or doing anything beyond the necessary space. Deciding up front that you will not summarily provide refreshments, entertainment, preaching, technology or creative arts production, bulletin making, set up, break down, clean up, the community choir director, the accompanist or the worship band, or even greeters isn’t out of line. Instead of approaching your offer to host as an in-house church event, treat it as if you were the landlord of a local community center where their clients have to provide everything or else pay dearly for it.
Once the building use boundary is set, your next task is in deciding what the congregation is willing to take on. Just because you’ve set a boundary of what you will not summarily be responsible for doesn’t mean you can’t do something. But whatever you choose to do make sure energy conservation is your top priority. For instance, you may volunteer to provide the hosts and the set up. For most community services this shouldn’t require more than a half-dozen people, perhaps ten at the most.
One of the biggest pushbacks I hear when I recommend this is: “But our choir wants to perform!” Great. Let them. But have them limit their involvement. Instead of preparing some new anthem, have them sing one of their “oldies and goldies” that they could almost do with their eyes closed. Sure, they’ve performed it dozens of times in the congregation, but it’s unlikely the community congregation will have heard it … at least probably not more than once. By recycling/reusing a standby anthem the choir need not rehearse multiple times … in fact, they can probably fit it in during their next regular choir rehearsal.
Similar responses should be handled for other pushbacks. It’s not about prohibiting but limiting the proportionate energy expended.
A well-balanced Community Thanksgiving Event is a beautiful thing. Common heritages are celebrated, great worship is shared, and food pantries and/or ministerial alliance funds are restocked. In the end, the energy expended will be proportionate to the results – which is a win-win for the church and the community.