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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Picture This

I share with many the tragic fate of being a Toronto sports fan.

A couple of weeks ago, when it looked like the Maple Leafs were about to crash and burn (again), their coach said what they really need to do was to simplify their game.

During a recent basketball game, when the Raptors were leading but being hard-pressed by their opponent, the commentator said they needed to slow the game down.

Simplify. Slow down. Good advice for a sports team under pressure. And good advice for anxious churches as well.

Anxiety makes things seem more complicated than they need to be. Where do we even start? One problem spawns a dozen more problems and we become paralyzed into inaction.

And anxiety makes us rush. This sounds ironic, since the church seems to move at a glacier's pace. But when we are stressed and afraid, the temptation is to run around trying to deal with everything until our heads are spinning. As one of my university professors used to say: "When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." Slowing down, taking stock, praying, reflecting, are key disciplines in anxious times. Remember the old Mennonite proverb: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get."

One way to help your church simplify and slow down is to invite people to paint a picture. Not literally, but figuratively. Invite them to come up with one central word picture or metaphor that expresses who they are and where they are. Post modern people respond to images more readily than abstract concepts, we're told. Yet what tool do we most often use to try to describe ourselves? The  mission statement  wordy, heady, abstractMission statements act like definitions, which invites endless arguing over word choice -- "I think it should say 'A caring community of faith,'  not 'A community of caring faith.'"

A well chosen picture is an invitation. An invitation to enter into reality more deeply. An invitation to engage our imaginations. to be open to unsuspected dimensions of meaning. A good picture is "multi-valent" -- it works at different levels, allowing it to speak to multiple situations and experiences.

One of the earliest pictures for the Christian church was the sailing ship. This metaphor captured the early Christians' sense of being pilgrims on a journey. But it also immediately suggested risk -- sea travel was extremely dangerous -- and therefore the need for faith. The ship created immediate connections to biblical stories -- the ark, for example. But the ark, in turn, symbolized the saving presence of among the people of God, God's willingness to journey with us. It reminded them of Jesus calming the storms of chaos and commanding his fishermen disciples to push out into deeper water if in order to catch fish.

To those steeped in these stories, the ship invited them to go deeper in applying them to their own lives. To those new to faith, they were powerful teaching aids. "Why do you have a picture of a ship on the wall?" "Well, let me tell you."

Finding a good picture for your church and its mission is more the product of intuition than rationality. It's where the creative, right-brain folks in your church can really be helpful.

Here's a simple process that any church, no matter how small, can use to find its central picture.

1.   Gather together. Don't ask a committee to do it. People need to participate in the process so they own it. It can be a specially called meeting, or something that's already happening, like your AGM. Always best to have food. Invite people to talk about some simple questions:

"Who are we? (Identity) Who ought we to be? (Purpose) Think of some words that describe us."
"What biblical story pops into your mind as we discuss this?"
"Think of a picture image that captures the essence of our discussion so far."

2.  Don't rush! It might not happen in one sitting. Maybe you'll need to plan other opportunities to continue talking. Keep at it until something emerges that engages the hearts and imaginations of the people. You'll know when it does.

And don't move too quickly to the obvious, the over-used, the visual equivalent of the tired cliche. Rainbows, circles, trees can be powerful images, but not if they simply sit on the surface and don't take us deeper.

Don't be afraid to be playful or quirky. I heard about a church whose chosen picture was a flying chicken. They'd been reflecting on God's word in Isaiah 40 about "rising up on wings like eagles." They trusted that God could help them fly; but they knew they were clumsy and accident-prone, and not nearly as majestic as an eagle. So a flying chicken seemed to say it best!

3.  Keep it simple. Resist the urge to say everything up front. The beauty of a truly profound image is that its meaning will expand over time. It has the potential to tell us things about ourselves we never suspected. There's a version of the "boat in the storm" story in Matthew 14, where the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. (Matthew 14: 22-33) I once heard someone ask, "So, if the boat is the ancient symbol of the church, where is Jesus?" I remember it hitting me. Jesus is not in the boat, he's outside the boat, calling to Peter to take one enormous leap of faith by getting out of the boat himself. What a transformative insight from a well-worn story.

4.  Keep it biblical. For some reason, churches think they've outgrown Scripture, like they've heard it all before. Scripture is a bottomless well that will keep on nourishing us and refreshing us if we allow it to. Your picture should have the capacity to draw you into Scripture in fresh and surprising ways.

5.  Keep at it. The problem with fine sounding mission statements is that we write them and then forget about them. Even if they're posted on the wall, they have no power to shape our life.

You can find a great image, but unless you let it work its way into your life, it will also be abstract and remote. You need to put that image at the centre of everything you do, not in a limiting and controlling way, but in an inviting and imaginative way. To paraphrase God's command in Deuteronomy: "Keep it in your heart. Recite it to your children and talk about it when you are home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind it as a sign on your forehead, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

In other words, take every opportunity -- in worship, in meetings, in small groups, at events -- to draw your congregation's attention to your defining picture, and encourage them to discover new levels of meaning in it that will shape your church's life.

This is a process that costs no money, that requires no complicated program, that can work in any church of any size -- in fact, it's probably easier to do in a smaller church.

Find your picture and let it guide you in your journey.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ten Things Churches Should Stop Saying

A couple of years ago, my wife decided what she would give up for Lent was complaining about being tired and overworked. Amazingly, she discovered that once she stopped telling herself how tired and overworked she was, she felt a lot less tired and overworked! Changing how she talked actually changed her reality.

We can say things often enough that they start to actually determine reality rather than just describe it. They might be factually true, but they are unhelpful because of what they reinforce.

Here are ten statements often heard in churches that can negatively shape the culture of a congregation. Even if they accurately describe your church, you should consider inviting people to stop repeating them.   

1.      “We are an aging congregation.”
Well, of course. Most mainline churches are aging. The problem with this statement is it is often used to justify inaction. It means, “Don’t ask us to do anything different, we’re too old and tired.” Repeated often enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Contrary to the popular adage, old dogs can learn lots of new tricks, but not if they keep telling themselves it’s impossible.

Positive response:  Begin to focus on the assets that wisdom and experience bring, not on the limitations of tired backs and short term memory loss.

2.      “Children are the future of our church.”
This statement is not necessarily unhelpful. It can remind churches that they need to pay attention to more than the older, long-term members. It can be unhelpful, though, if it makes people think that Christian education is only for kids. The odds that the children in your current Sunday School will grow up to be the core of your congregation are so long, they are barely measurable. Your children are not just the potential givers and volunteers of tomorrow, they are a vital part of your  church today.

Positive response:  Begin to develop a process for helping people of all ages become more faithful disciples of Jesus.

3.      “People come to our church because of the outstanding music.”
Music has power to touch our souls and inspire us to great things. But if a significant number of people say they attend your church mainly because of the music, prepare yourself for a major exodus if that ever changes. High quality  music programs usually depend on a handful of skilled individuals – an outstanding director, or a few strong singers. That can change in a heartbeat. If the only thing that is keeping many folks in your church is the current state of your music program, the departure of a couple of people could have a devastating effect on the congregation. This leads to a second and related problem statement ….

4.      “The best thing about our church is the choir. “
Choirs can be a centre of health and vitality in a church. But if people’s first allegiance is to the choir, rather than the larger mission of the church, they can become a quasi-independent power group with their own executives and money disconnected from the decision-making structure of the church. Also, choirs are often the only remaining group that meets weekly, making them fertile ground for gossip and dissent. Choirs can become the tail that wags the dog.

Positive response: Work with your choir to help them locate themselves within the overall ministry and mission of the church.

5.      “People are on fixed incomes.  They can’t give any more.”
Those who say this usually have little solid empirical evidence to back up their statement. Every church has some members who really can’t give anymore, and they should never feel put down because of it. But most United Churches are nowhere near to maximizing their stewardship potential. People don’t stop going to Tim Horton’s when the price of a large double-double goes up. Even those of limited means will increase their support
if they believe in what the church is doing.

Positive response: Intentionally build a culture of vision, enthusiasm and generosity. Create opportunities for people to celebrate what their church is doing, and invite them to be a part of it through the gifts with which God has blessed them. Don’t continually harp on financial deficits but accentuate the positives.

6.      “We need a minister who will attract younger families.”
Your minister may help to create a good first impression that will attract people initially. But it’s the culture of the congregation – hospitality, energy, involvement -- that determines whether they will become part of the family. A church that places the burden of growth solely on the minister’s shoulders is setting that minister up for painful failure.

Positive response:  Constantly remind people that ministry belongs to the whole church, not just to the person who gets the pay check. Encourage people to find ministries that match their gifts and give them joy.

7.      Why don’t our children/ grandchildren go to church?
I respond to that question with another question: Have you ever asked them? No one should be allowed to ask this question until they have had at least five extended conversations about faith and church with people their children’s or grandchildren’s age – conversations in which they do more listening than talking. (See my blog post “Why Don’t Our Kids Come to Church?”)

Positive response:  Create opportunities for significant conversations with youth and younger adults about why the church may not be significant for them. Such conversations require a level of trust in which people can feel safe to express themselves honestly. That trust might need to be built over a long time.

8.      I don’t like ……..
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And not everyone’s the same. But if your church’s mission is driven by the tastes and preferences of your current members, it will decline and eventually die. Doing what is effective in reaching people for the Gospel is what matters, not the likes and dislikes of certain vocal, long-term members.

Positive response:  Constantly call the congregation to reflect on their mission, vision and values. Why are we here? Whom do we hope to reach? What do we need to do? Shift the focus from people’s likes and dislikes to what will help the church be true to its own calling. 

9.      We can’t do that. People might leave.  
Most of us don’t like change. Some people will try to influence decisions by  threatening to withdraw their money or their attendance. If your congregation is serious about renewal, inevitably some people will be unhappy and might well decide to go elsewhere. But this threat should not be allowed to control the agenda of the church. Related to this is the statement that “’Many people’ are not happy.” Boards, ministers and congregations should have an unwavering policy that no complaint will be heard that does not have a name attached to it.

Positive response:  Communicate, communicate, communicate. When something new is tried, make sure it is clear why it is being done. Provide opportunities for people’s concerns to be heard. Make adjustments when they are warranted. But stay the course. Don’t allow a few disgruntled voices to shut down new ideas before they take root.   

10.  “Numbers don’t matter.”
Two things. We aren’t likely to return to the 1950s when 6 out of every 10 Canadians were in church on Sunday morning. And numbers aren’t the only thing that matters. But when a church loses 5 to 7 per cent of its members every year and does not replace them; and when there is no one in the congregation under the age of 70, it’s time to pay attention to numbers! Christianity has always thrived where new people are being brought into the community of faith. We need to recover that sense of missional urgency – and fast!

Positive response:  Set realistic targets and develop a concrete plan for connecting with new people.
11.Can you think of anymore?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Let’s Face It – We’re a Minority

In her book A Church with the Soul of a Nation, Professor Phyllis Airhart suggests that the
Phyllis D. Airhart
United Church of Canada was founded on two principles. One was a vision of the Christian life which combines personal faith with social action.

“The United Church sought to balance care of souls with care of society. Its approach to lived religion tapped the root meaning of ‘pietas’: personal duty to God and to others that included right relationships.” (p. 104)

The other principle was the Christianizing of the Canadian social order. The architects of Church union were motivated by a vision of Canadian society permeated by the values of (Protestant) Christianity, where being a good Christian and being a good citizen were pretty much the same thing.

Both of these principles are at odds with the mainstream of Canadian culture. Both contribute to the minority status of the church. But while one of the second has long since lost its relevance, the first is still a vision worth preserving and strengthening.  

Phyllis Airhart suggests that the goal of Christianizing Canadian society was already obsolete in the 1920s when an increasingly secular and individualistic culture began to diverge sharply from the idea that a common religious faith can contribute to social cohesion.

But that foundational impulse is still deeply embedded in the consciousness of many congregations. Many churches still want the boundary between church and community to be as permeable as possible and the commitment bar to be set as low as possible. This is a vestige of that original desire to be a church that includes everyone. A lot of really nice, committed United Church folk are deeply perplexed that it doesn’t seem to be working. They can’t understand how they came to be so marginalized. Still in their DNA is the expectation that their brand of Christian faith will be widely acceptable to society at large. They simply can’t comprehend why their neighbors, friends and family members aren’t attracted to their church, when what they say and do is so innocuous and non-threatening.

The decline in the United Church is partly rooted in an outdated vision of the connection between church and society, and a failure to understand cultural change. Phyllis Airhart: “Though often described as a modern church, [the United Church] was not well suited to cope with some key cultural dynamics that ran counter to its founding vision.” (p. 259)   

On the other hand, a model of Christian life that joins personal faith and social witness is a valuable inheritance that needs to be embraced wholeheartedly. It is the special gift of mainline Christianity, and our culture will be greatly impoverished if it fails to survive. However, commitment to such a life also sets us at odds with the pervasive individualism and consumerism of our culture.

So, one way or another, the United Church will never achieve that original goal of representing the mainstream of Canadian society.  

We need to make sure, however, that anxiety about loss of status doesn’t divert attention and energy from cultivating robust expressions of that public-private faith that is the genius of mainline Protestant Christianity.

Ironically, our desire to be mainstream and inoffensive has obscured the very thing that could make our churches more compelling  – transforming faith that touches the heart, combined with a credible commitment to meaningful action in the world.

On the other hand, the church would have a far greater impact on society through a critical mass of people discipled in the way of Jesus and deeply committed to living a vision of the Kingdom of justice and peace than through a mass of people for whom church attendance is simply one more expression of cultural conformity.  
If we’re going to be a minority, we need to make sure it’s for the right reasons.