By Ed Thompson

I’ve been thinking about mission studies lately. For some, even mentioning those words will cause them to start twitching or perhaps break out in a cold sweat. Others might begin to curse and vow never to do that again.

I certainly hope that’s not the case. I think mission studies can be helpful, maybe like a visit to the doctor or dentist is helpful. We may not want to hear what our health care providers have to say. I think they automatically tell you to lose weight, start exercising, and eat more fruits and vegetables regardless of what brings you to their office.  Nevertheless, they have our best interests in mind, and if we follow their advice, we will be healthier in the long run.

I think doing a mission study regularly – say every five years – will also make us healthier in the long run. It seems like there are lots of different ways to do mission studies, but essentially a good mission study helps us look at the past, the present, and the future.

While I don’t want to obsess on worship attendance and giving because there are other ways to measure the health and vitality of a church, I nevertheless think we need to take a look at our average worship attendance over the past five years. We also need to look at what has been our annual income as well as our annual expenses in that same time frame. Do we notice any trends? Same thing with Sunday school attendance, the number of baptisms (especially the number of adult baptisms), the number of members who have moved their membership as well as the number of members we have received as transfers from other churches or by reaffirmation of faith. Again, are there any noticeable trends, and how do these trends compare to the last time we did a mission study?

We probably also need to look at how our community has changed over the past five years. What’s happened in the local schools? Has the number of students increased, decreased, or stayed the same? That probably means we need to have conversations with the local elementary, middle, and high school principals. What changes have they seen? What changes do they anticipate? I suspect they may have a better pulse on the community than some local politicians, although it’s probably worth talking to them too. They may have or be able to access statistics on the population of the community as well as projections on how those numbers are expected to change over the next 5-10 years.

Some information could also be gathered by having a conversation with your church members. What changes have they seen over the past five years in your community? What businesses have closed, and what new stores have opened? You could ask them the same questions about nearby churches. Which ones have closed or perhaps now share a pastor with another church? Have any new congregations started recently? How are they doing, and what kind of people do they seem to attract?

You might also consider how – as well as how often – your building is being used? Are there any other groups that meet there regularly, like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, AA, Weight Watchers, or others? Have any groups stop meeting in your building? Why? What does that tell you about them, about the community, or about your ability to be a good landlord and a good partner? If you have a preschool in your building, what do their numbers look like? If you have a food bank, what changes are they seeing in their clientele as well as the amount of food they distribute?

There are groups like PERCEPT that can give you a detailed analysis of who’s living in your community based on census data, among other things. If you have the funds, that might be very helpful information. It might turn out to be too much information, though, unless you have some individuals who like looking at that kind of information and who can interpret it for you. I suspect, though, that you can find out most of that information by taking the time to talk to people in your local schools and local politicians. Your local library may also be able to help you find this kind of information. I think having these kinds of conversations may actually be more helpful in establishing relationships or perhaps strengthening already existing ones.

You also need to spend some time dreaming about the future and asking members of the church where they would like the church to be in the next five years. Not that there’s anything wrong, necessarily, about wanting more members or wanting to have families with children join your church, but we need to move beyond that kind of automatic response. Perhaps a better question would be, “What does God need you to do now?” Or as Jan Edmiston, one of the co-moderators of the 221st General Assembly puts it, “What breaks God heart?”

Jesus is already there, at work in your community, caring for the members of your church as well as for the people outside of your church. What would Jesus want us to be doing? How can we join our Savior in caring for the people in our community who are hurting, many of whom have also been hurt by the church? We don’t need to try to double our membership – that simply seems unrealistic – but maybe we can try to help some of the people in our community; maybe we can make a difference to them and for them if we try something new. What could that be? What might we realistically do? We can get so caught up in being realistic that it paralyzes us and prevents us from trying. But what can we try to do differently? I say differently because if we keep doing the same things, we’ll get the same results. Although I suppose if we keep doing the same things with fewer people and less money, the results will probably be even worse.   

This work won’t necessarily be easy. It will probably take some time. But if we can take a hard look at ourselves and our community, if we can take a look for trends in our membership and look at the changes happening around us, we increase the odds that we will discover what God is calling us to do. This doesn’t guarantee success, but I think it increases our odds of being faithful. I think it also increases the odds of avoiding failure, which is what will happen if we fail to at least try to look at and learn from our past, our present, and our future.