A few weeks ago, I asked whether the church was really declining. That may seem like an odd question, given the constant bemoaning of attendance and membership declines in mainline congregations, but I pointed to the unparalleled growth of Christianity across the rest of the globe as indicating that perhaps our vision is at times to narrow when we consider God's work in and through the church.
This time, I'd like to suggest that we also at times unnecessarily narrow our vision when thinking about God's work through the church by limiting our imagination only to congregations. When we do this, we overlook the profound ministry of the church carried on in, by, and through Social Ministry Organizations (SMOs) of all shapes and sizes.
Did you know, for instance (and talking for a moment about my tribe), that each and every day in the U.S. 2% of the American population receives assistance and services from institutions founded by Lutherans. That's roughly 6-7 million people who are being helped by Lutheran SMOs every single day! (And this is only Lutherans - imagine how that number multiplies when you add other Christian traditions and organizations into the mix!)
And here's the kicker - these ministries are only growing, serving more and more people each day and every year.
It seems to me that if you take Jesus' words seriously in Matthew 25 that we are called to serve "the least of these," knowing that when we do so we are being encountered by God, than it sure looks like one of the core elements of the Christian Church is only growing.
So here's my question: if this has been a new thought to you, or if this is new information for you, I'd love to ask why. Why, that is, do we hear so little of what these fantastic organizations are doing when we gather on Sundays in our congregations? Why are we given so little information about how we might get involved and contribute our time, talents, and finances to strengthen their crucial ministry? And why - again staying with Lutherans for the moment - when we talk about the church do we talk about the "three expressions of the Church" as congregation, Synod, and national or churchwide body, leaving out Social Ministry Organizations (and camps and colleges too for that matter) entirely?
This, I think, has to change. And I'll make bold to ask your help in doing that. If you know of, or are connected to, an SMO in your area, invite your congregational leaders to invite someone from that group to come preach and/or teach at your congregation, advocate for regular updates on the activities of local SMOs in your newsletter and on your website, and see how much support your congregation directs from its budget to local and national SMOs.
And if you're not familiar with any SMOs, I'd invite you to become more so by visiting the website of Lutheran Services in America. While LSA doesn't represent all the SMO's in the U.S., it's a good place to start. (No doubt there are similar alliance-organizations in other denomination as well.)
Together, we can help celebrate and advance a part of our church that is growing and through which God is doing amazing things. Thank you!