Invitational Ministry (Laurene Beth Bowers): A Review

INVITATIONAL MINISTRY: Move Your Church from Membership to Discipleship By Laurene Beth Bowers.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2014.  Xv + 144 pages.

                The word membership has a very different sense to it than the word discipleship.  You can be a member of any number of clubs and groups.  You just pay your dues, attend meetings, and maybe join a committee.  The groups we become members of can do good things, and are often worthwhile participating in.  To be a disciple is to be a learner and a follower of one who gives meaning and form to one’s life.  Much more is demanded of a disciple than a member.  Jesus called to himself women and men who would be his disciples, but over time as the church became more and more institutionalized (a natural and normal reality), discipleship was replaced with membership.  Indeed, within a few centuries membership in the church and membership in the nation were essentially synonymous.  This cultural definition of Christianity and the church became the norm and remains the norm today.  To be a Christian is to be a member of the institution called the church.  It is, of course, an institution with many brands, some of which are even generic (nondenominational). 

                In Mainline Protestant circles, which flowered during the height of the linkage between church and culture, the idea of evangelism was largely set aside.  One assumed that one’s neighbors belonged to particular brand, and it would be impolite to impose on them to switch to your brand.  As a result many in the church lost the ability to invite others.  Today, we find ourselves in a post-Christian age.  The numbers of non-churched is growing rapidly, especially among those under forty.  As a result many faith communities are aging and shrinking.  They have lost the ability to extend an invitation to the non-churched people who live around them.  The church has become a club, focused inward, that is member oriented.  But is this the way it should be?

                The alternative is to see the church as a community of disciples, equipped and called to invite one’s neighbors into a life-giving and life-changing relationship with God.  To be a disciple is to follow Jesus’ injunction to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).  Laurene Beth Bowers made a discovery a number of years back about what it meant to be a disciple who invited others into the life of discipleship.  She writes from the perspective of one who served congregations as a pastor and who now helps congregations affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Central Pennsylvania make the transition from being member-oriented to disciple-making.  She serves the Penn Central Conference as conference associate minister for congregational life and vitality.  She has a D.Min. degree from Andover Newton and has written to prior books covering similar topics.

                As a pastor who has embraced the “missional” cause and who believes the church should be focused on ministering to not only the members but the community, I dove into this book with a relish.  The idea of invitational ministry speaks to my own sense of call – even if I have been shy myself about making invitations (I was raised not to impose on others).  I want to see my congregation grow and flourish.  I’ve read a lot of missional and church growth books, so I didn’t expect to find anything earth shaking here, and most of what is present here isn’t new.  But, much of what is present in this book is largely untried.  It’s not easy to be an invitational church. 

                To be invitational requires that one be able to say why one is part of a church.  For some it is experiencing God, but that’s not always easy to express.  It might be friendships, but there are so many other places we can make friends, so that won’t be a big draw.  So, being able to share with others, especially the non-churched why one finds church to be central to one’s life experience likely need to be a learned habit – one that not just a select few engage in, but everyone. 

The focus of the book is using special events, to which one invites a non-churched person, as an entree into church.  Bowers reminds us that for many persons attending worship can be intimidating – but a special event (as long as it’s not a fund raiser) can be a more comfortable way of becoming acquainted with the people who make up the congregation.  Invitational ministry also is focused on the spiritual needs of those outside the church rather than those of persons already inside.  Who is it, who will sacrifice their needs the churched or the unchurched?   If the latter, then likely they won’t come in.  As one engages in this ministry, it is important to be clear about motive.  If it’s more workers or givers, then the unchurched will quickly see through this and be turned off.  But numerical growth has spiritual benefits with new spiritual vitality and access to new spiritual practices and experiences.

As a pastor of a congregation that moved from the city to the suburbs, and who counts a significant portion of a relatively small congregation commuting in to the church building, Bowers helpfully delineates the mission field.  A thriving congregation will have, she notes, 80% of its members living within five miles of the building.  It doesn’t mean that those living outside that ring are not welcome or not important, but they aren’t the mission field.  It’s unlikely their unchurched friends and family will make the same trek as they do.  So, it’s important to connect with one’s neighborhoods through prayer walks and canvases – both of which she gives helpful details.  The key is finding out who our neighbors are, what their needs and concerns are, and then planning accordingly.  Another way of putting it is that an invitational church is one that is invested in the local community.

After discerning the nature of the neighborhood, then one can begin to plan the events.  She notes that it’s not always best to have them at the church.  That might be too intimidating – so maybe a park would be better.  These events are not focused on the members, but on the neighbors.  They can be large scale – like a concert – or small scale – a dinner with a few invited guests.  These events will take a lot of energy and commitment.  And this is where things will get tricky.  Small, older congregations are going to struggle to makes this work.  A successful event will likely be “all hands on board,” including the pastor.  Other activities might be put on the back burner – even worship.  I must confess that I struggled with her suggestion that we might take a worship sabbatical to focus on event planning. 

When it comes to the invitations, Bowers makes a rather radical declaration.  For this to work, the members will need to invite unchurched persons to the event.  And, a member can only attend the event if she or he brings an unchurched person.  There are no exceptions.  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a member or how big a giver.  You have to bring an unchurched person – and preferably each brings one.  The point is well taken.  If you begin making exceptions then the event ceases to be invitational and simply is another church activity.  Bowers goes into detail as to who to select for the planning team, their duties, and the expectations.  Pastors are called to equip, not do all the inviting! 

With the event planned and on the calendar, then comes the moment of truth – inviting persons.  How do you frame the ask?  People have so many reasons why they avoid church.  So what will be your answer?  Bowers provides some help with this dilemma.  But, while there may be resistance in some quarters, we may discover that there are many people in our lives who are waiting to be invited.  While interest needs to be stirred among some, there are others who are ready but need the invitation.  Because we’re not always comfortable with this task, Bowers provides guidelines for workshops that will help one to do this work.  As for how to do this – there is a place for mass invitations, but the personal ones are the most effective.  People are most comfortable going to new places with people they know.  One way to do this is through face to face connections, but don’t forget social media – Facebook invitations can be very effective.

The key to success is to create a climate where being invitational is deeply embedded into the culture of the church.  For many Mainline Protestants this will be difficult, for they (we) came of age at a time when church attendance was expected.  That is no longer the case.  But, that is not to say that modern people don’t have spiritual longings that can find their fulfillment in congregational life.  We just have to help them make the same connection that we’ve made.  Of course that means that our reason for being part of this community is spiritually rooted.  Church isn’t the same as a club.

Laurene Beth Bowers offers us a helpful, even challenging look at what it means to be invitational.  She offers us guidance and guidelines, along with rationale.  This is a book that clergy and church leaders should read and take to heart.  It is, in my mind, an excellent follow up to, Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism series (also from Chalice Press).   But here’s the caveat – you have to know your neighbors if you’re going to grow.  Our goal can’t be simply filling seats in worship and raising the budget.  It must emerge from a true love for one’s neighbor.  And as we do this, we move from being member focused to being disciple-makers. 


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