I asked the pastor and congregation members, “What’s your church’s mission?” The answers were all over the landscape:

  • To carry on our tradition in the community.
  • To make people feel good and want to come back.
  • To show God’s love through acts of kindness.
  • To keep our old building open and maintained.
  • It’s the same mission as the Rotary club.

This church has experienced decades of decline. Its story is depicted in our documentary film When God Left the Building, releasing this week on DVD and video on demand. The film compares the current struggles of the American church to the demise of the Eastman Kodak Company. Former Kodak engineer Steve Sasson describes how his company’s mission drifted, leading to the company’s eventual bankruptcy. Watch this brief clip from the film: 

Organizations and institutions begin to unravel when their mission loses clarity or begins to drift. That was true for Kodak. And it’s true for churches.

Church leaders and members are using this film to spark conversations about some crucial questions–questions that can lead to new vitality in any congregation:

  • What–really–is the church?
  • What is its core purpose for being?
  • What is our congregation’s core mission?
  • Who are we here for?
  • What does our budget say about our mission priorities?
  • What are our signs of success and effectiveness?
  • What is God calling our church to become?

These questions threaten some who fear any answers that don’t align with the shape of the institutional church as we’ve come to know it. But for others, these questions lead to revitalization and spirited hope for the future of the church.

Stories in the film show the results of God’s people who have illuminated the church’s mission. These include a church in Texas that lives out a seven-day-a-week ministry through hundreds of mini-congregations, and a church in Pennsylvania that dared to extend their ministry to the patrons in a local pub. They’re seeing what happens when “God leaves the building”–in a good way.

Others across the country, and around the world, are finding new vitality as they hear God’s call to really become the church. An organization called Fresh Expressions serves to “give permission” to those who are inspired to be the church in new–and sometimes ancient–ways.

Fresh Expressions comes out of a movement in England that is finding encouraging sprouts of new growth in an otherwise barren spiritual landscape that has spread across Europe. British ministry pioneer Jonny Baker describes a Church of England study that validated over 20 types of “fresh expressions of church. Over half are lay led. They genuinely are reaching people who were not followers of Christ before.”

“Mission is the key,” says one of the subjects in When God Left the Building. As long as some consider the tacit mission to be the self-preservation of the current institutional machine, the American church will continue its decline. But when we embrace the true identity and mission of the church, incredible things will happen.