A couple of years ago, I attended a conference on ministry in the downtown setting. One of the things the pastor of the church, where the conference was being held, asked the pastors gathered there was, "When your congregation assembles for worship on Sunday morning, do they look at the empty pews and see the people who used to sit there, or do they envision the people who they hope will sit there in the future?"
This is a great question. Too often the folk in a declining church tend to look back at the glory days of when the sanctuary was at 80% seating capacity on Sunday morning, Sunday school classes were bustling, and children and youth were everywhere. When they walk into the church on Sunday morning they see what was, not what can be.
Two things are indispensable for the mission of the church-- vision and commitment. Jesus told a would-be follower, "Those who put their hands to the plow and look back are not fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). There is nothing wrong with looking back on the past; indeed, a reminder of where the church has been is critical as the church moves into the future. But when the past history of the church is viewed as the golden age of that congregation, and when the empty pews only remind people of what was and not what can be, there is no compelling vision that will move the people of God forward in fulfilling the Great Commission.
But having a vision for the future is not enough. A church must be committed to bringing that future to pass by its willingness to do whatever is necessary. The problem often is not that the faithful in the pews do not want new people, but they are not willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill that desire. The desire for comfort is stronger than the willingness to sacrifice.
But when a church truly catches a vision and sees what is possible with the help of God, and with the willingness to do what is necessary to bring that vision to pass, the possibilities can become a reality. The past then will not be something to be relived, but it will instead be the foundation on which the present and the future rest.