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Friday, October 24, 2014

Identity, Purpose, Context

Each congregation has its own DNA -- its unique history, habits, hopes. But in the short time I have been Presbytery Support Minister, something I've always suspected has been confirmed -- that our churches are all pretty much alike. They are all struggling with the same challenges.

We know the United Church has been in pretty steady decline for 40 year now. But there are a couple of new realities.

One is that the anxiety level is sky high. Clergy and lay leaders are overwhelmed with the demands of ministering to aging, shrinking congregations whose future is extremely tenuous.

The other is the sense that they are running out of time to turn things around. The window of opportunity is closing. Decisive action is required at the very time when the energy required for such action is severely depleted.

There's a widespread sense that there's no time to talk. We need to do something, and do something fast or it will be too late. Extended conversation was possible in more stable times, but today it's luxury we can no longer afford. For too long, the church has been all talk and no action.

I want to suggest, though, that exactly the opposite is true. We need to talk more, not less. This seems counterintuitive, but one of the problems our churches have is that they have not developed good habits of discerning reflection and conversation. They have gone about their busy round of activity, but have not invested the time talking about the things that matter.

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, in their book Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, identify three questions that undergird any attempt to plan for the future.

Who are we?  This is the question of identity.

What is God calling us to do? This is the question of purpose.

Who is our neighbour?  This is the question of context.

Without engaging in deep reflection on these questions, congregations will not be able to effectively undertake planning -- determining how tomorrow will be different from today.

I had an experience of this meeting with a congregation recently that is eager to find some way to renew their flagging energy. I raised these questions, but they found them extraordinarily difficult not only to answer but to understand. They wondered out loud if they even have an identity. They were able to name things that are important to them like belonging, faith and tradition, but they struggled to articulate why they are important. What is it about belonging to this community or maintaining certain traditions that is worth getting out of bed for? What could the things that are important to this
collection of God's people possibly mean to a changed community?

You can't answer those questions in five minutes. It takes time -- the very thing that our churches don't think they have much of. But, I believe, there's no alternative.

This isn't to be critical. I think there has been a failure of leadership in not creating time and space for these questions to settle into our churches' souls. They can come up with a list of things they like to do -- worship services and church suppers and rummage sales -- but they have no framework for assessing why these things matter. No wonder they feel lost in a rapidly changing wilderness.

For churches that can do nothing but frantically bale a sinking ship, it might well be too late. But churches that can find enough space to think at a deep level about who they are, what God is calling them to do, and what context they find themselves in, might discover surprising new forms of vitality.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Happiness Trap

I found this article by former Alban Institute consultant Gil Rendle about the dangers of trying to "fix" the church by keeping everybody happy. It's a must-read for ministers and key lay-leaders that helps us understand why always responding to complaints is counter-productive.

Here's the link:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Struggling with Differences in the Name of a Shared Purpose

Dan Hotchkiss, a long-time church consultant, tells of gathering with a group of rabbis to for a workshop. This group was "the most diverse and ecumenical" group he had ever worked with -- everything from ultra-orthodox to ultra-liberal. He prepared three days worth of material on growth and decline, strategic planning and accountability.

Suddenly, all his plans went out the window. One rabbi requested that a minyan (a quorum of 10) be formed to say kaddish (prayers for the dead) on the anniversary of his brother's death. A simple request, but in that group, one that put the cats among the pigeons. The orthodox rabbis wouldn't pray with the female members of the group, who in turn angrily refused to be excluded.

Dan tells how his role changed from facilitator to spectator as he watched in wonder as this impossibly diverse group worked through their differences.

(Here's the link to his blog if you want to read it for yourself.  )

We pay a lot of lip service to diversity and inclusivity. But the truth is, our tolerance for difference -- real difference -- is declining. The United Church is a much less diverse denomination than it was when I was ordained 33 years ago. Then, you could find everything from charismatic to post-Christian congregations. Not so much anymore.  

Someone I know who holds opinions outside the mainstream of the United Church was browsing on the Wondercafe, the United Church's chat room. She was surprised to find a discussion thread about her, where people said things like, "I can't believe there are people like this in the United Church!" or, "Don't you think everyone in the United Church should have the same theology?"

It's a lot easier these days to simply bail than to stay and put up with people with whom we disagree
profoundly. What Dan Hotchkiss observed among that group of rabbis -- a common purpose that in the end was able to transcend difference -- seems to be in short supply. And maybe that's why so we seem so lost at times, so unable to deal with the realities that face us. We're not sure what that common purpose is that lies beneath our differences. So, all we can see are the differences.

Former pastor and motivational speaker John C. Maxwell says that the test of an authentic relationship is not so much compatibility as the "ability to deal with incompatibility."  Long-term marriages aren't usually based so much on the similarity of the partners as on their willingess to deal with their differences. We grow, not from being with people who are like us, but from learning to live with people are different from us.

The Christian church was founded on that principle of discovering the shared purpose that is able to overcome differences. People who would never have dreamt of sitting down at the same table -- Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, clean and unclean, slave and free, male and female -- found a meeting place at the table of the Lord, the One who gave his life for them. The power of the early church's witness was the power of Christ to break down the "dividing wall of hostility," to forge communion in spite of human all-too-human differences. Am I being pessimistic in thinking that we have lost sight of that power?

And yet that impetus is still in our DNA and we need to rediscover it. After a church meeting where it seems impossible to reach agreement on the simplest of problems, I marvel at the working of the Spirit that forged unity between three denominations.

Today, there seems to be a new kind of puritanism in the air, in which people are unwilling to confront those who are profoundly different from them lest they be contaminated. And then we wonder why we are so powerless to speak to the pain and brokenness of our world.

In these challenging and stressful times, we need more than ever to recover that ability to deal with our differences -- our real, profound, deep differences of opinion, conviction, culture, and lifestyle -- in the interests of a shared purpose that is bigger than any of us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why Don't Our Kids Come to Church?

Sorry, I don't have the answer to that. At least not the answer, because there isn't one single, neat-and-tidy explanation.

I do know that it's a question usually asked by folks who are my age (60) and older. And I started to reply, "Why don't you ask them?"

Douglas Coupland
I'm not one who believes that there is a high and unbridgeable divide between generations. In fact, I don't think we human beings have changed all that much from biblical times. We still face the same delights and dilemmas as we always have. That's why Shakespeare still speaks to us.

But one of the reasons why our churches are so unappealing to young people is that the people who run those churches are so disinterested in what young people care about.

On The Current on CBC radio the other day, I listened to an interview with the novelist and artist
Douglas Coupland. (Here's the link: )

Coupland was talking about "the internet brain" -- how the internet has started to rewire the way we think. If you're over 40, you can remember what it was like before the internet. If you're under 30, you've never known anything different. And the internet, according to Coupland, is profoundly reshaping the way we think and relate to one another.

He described being in a hotel lobby where all these 20-somethings were sitting with their laptops on their laps and their earbuds in their ears, doing their own thing -- but with a sense of doing it together. "Maybe this is a new kind of socialization," Coupland said, "where you're in your own bubble, but it's
important to be with other people who are in their own bubbles."

The internet is "fantastically solitary," but it has an amazing capacity to create groups. We're in a time when it's unclear whether which of these will win out -- the individualism or the group-creating capacity of the internet -- but it is certainly changing us.

One of the most fascinating parts of the interview was when Anna Maria Tremonti asked Coupland what worried him most. He talked about how the future of the internet will be "machines talking to machines." The history of telecommunications so far has been people talking to machines, but more and more it will be machines talking to machines -- about us -- what we buy, where we go, what we do.

And this "calls into question the nature of why we are even here in the first place. Why do we even exist?"

We can't ask "Why don't our kids and grandkids come to church?" without understanding that this is the world they live in. It may be a world that is so foreign that we can't even imagine ourselves into it, but we have to try. Because the main reason, as far as I can tell, that younger people are indifferent to the church -- and I think that's key, they're not hostile, they just don't care -- is that their parents and grandparents churches just have nothing to say to them.

Note -- the solution to this is not to simply update the content -- to tell them the Bible is a myth you don't really need to believe -- or the style -- bring guitars and drums into worship. The task we're faced with is deeper than that. It's finding a way to listen, really listen, to what life is like for teens and young adults with tut-tutting, what makes them tick; to appreciate the different ways they form communities and how they process the Big Questions. I happen to think their Big Questions aren't really that different from their elders'. It's all about how to find beauty and meaning in a world that might seem cruel and indifferent, where they have come from and where they're going. They just deal with these in a different way than Grandma and Grandpa.  

If we would realize it, the church just might have more to offer than it realizes. Douglas Coupland said that by far the most prevalent question younger people ask him is, "How do I inoculate myself against change? How do I protect myself from the internet?" He didn't use the words, but I think he was saying, "In a world where machines talk to machines, how do I maintain my soul?"

His reply is, "What do you love to do?" Do you love to cook, or make something? Find what that is, and do it. That is what will connect you with your basic humanity that will endure regardless of what technology may bring.

This may seem trivial or unsatisfying to those of us who believe that there is a God unimaginably more complex and mysterious than any of us will ever understand, who is the beginning and end of all things. But a basic theological truth is that we can only connect with that God as human beings. We do not have direct knowledge of the divine, but only knowledge mediated by the limits and possibilities of what is human. Doing things that keep us grounded in our essential humanity, and connect us to others, is a prerequisite for the knowledge of God. And it's something that our churches, for all their faults, do intuitively. We need to be more reflective, more intentional about that.

Long ago, St. Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is man [sic] fully alive." If we want our young people to care about the church, the church needs to stop caring so much about things young people couldn't care less about; to make the effort to understand what being fully alive means for them, and find non-manipulative, non-self-serving ways to help them understand it too.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Too Afraid to Fail?

I'm on the Board of Directors of the Niagara branch of Habitat for Humanity. Last week we had Col. Chris Hadfield as the keynote speaker at a gala fundraiser.

Col. Chris Hadfield
Something Col. Hadfield said really struck me. He said, "Visualizing failure is a way of life for astronauts." At every step of the way, they have to anticipate failure and how they will respond.

Most churches are risk averse. They are afraid to try new things in case they fail. Or, past failures are used to stop change. "Oh, we tried that 10 years ago, and it didn't work!"

But failure is crucial to growth and change. I have a brand new granddaughter. If she developed the same attitude to failure that characterizes many churches, she would never learn to walk or talk. Trying and failing, over and over again, is the only way we acquire the skills we need to make it through life.

So why are our churches so risk averse? What is this fear of trying new things in case they fail?

The stakes are high. Or at least they seem high in our imaginations. What if people get mad and leave? We can't afford to lose anybody. What if we spend the money and it doesn't work? We're running a deficit as it is. The possibility of failure makes us anxious, and most congregations are already pretty high anxiety places.

But I have a different theory. I think our willingness to take risks is directly proportional to our commitment to a compelling vision. Chris Hadfield believes passionately in the space program and the International Space Station. He believes it is a force for world-building and peace. And so he's willing to take big risks in the interests of that vision.

I wonder if our problem is that we have lost the sense that there is anything worth taking risks for? Earlier generations of Christians believed that there was something life and death about sharing the gospel and doing Christ's work in the world. I wonder if we haven't lost that sense. The most compelling reason a lot of congregations have for their own existence is that they like being together and their parents went to that church. That's not much of a motivation to put it all on the line.

When I was a kid I could never understand why Jesus was so hard on the poor guy who took his one talent and hid it in the ground. Wasn't he being prudent? I wondered. After all, at least he didn't lose it.

But his timidity and risk aversion pointed to his lack of passion in the mission he was given by his master. He wasn't being prudent. He was being non-committal. And he was severely judged for it.

We are in a time when only those churches that are willing to move outside their traditional comfort zones and reinvent themselves will have a long-term future. And yet congregations can't muster enough will to move their worship time by half an hour, let alone commit to new forms of ministry.

We could learn something from Chris Hadfield. Without taking risks, nothing happens. But unless you have a compelling vision, there is no motivation to risk anything.