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Thursday, September 29, 2016

What to Do When Everything is Unraveling

On September 17, 25 people from four congregations and one ecumenical ministry met at Wesley United Church in Cambridge to begin a journey called “Into the Promise.”

Into the Promise is a collaborative learning project initiated by Rev. Christine Jerrett, a
Christine Jerrett
United Church minister from Sarnia. It is based on the work of author and consultant Alan Roxburgh, using his recent book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World.

Alan argues that churches in North America are in the midst of a “great unraveling.” The church that many of us were raised in seems to be coming apart. We have spent almost fifty years trying to “fix the church” – trying to find solutions that will stop people, especially young people, from leaving. But none of those efforts have worked. The church can’t be “fixed” – not in the sense of recreating the church we once knew.

Alan Roxburgh
Alan argues that this unraveling is actually the work of the Spirit. God is active in the world. And God still needs the church. 

But the basic questions have changed – from “church questions” (“How can we bring people back? How can we “fix” the church?”) to “God questions”  (“What is God doing in our neighborhoods and communities, and how can we join God?”)

This is a fundamental shift in vision and orientation, and it demands that we develop a new set of practices. Alan outlines five of these practices:
·         Listening. Learning to listen deeply to one another, to Scripture, to our neighborhoods and communities.
·         Discerning. Learning to see what God is up to in the lives of people.
·         Experimenting. Learning to develop simple, practical, “lightweight” ways of joining with God.
·         Evaluating. Asking, “What did we do? What are we learning? Where did we see God at work?” (And, not being afraid to fail!)
·         Deciding. Creating new, sustainable ways to be the church.

These deceptively simple practices involve learning a new set of skills. That’s what the
congregations involved in Into the Promise will be doing over the next 18 months. Small teams from each congregation will meet regularly. They will come together every other month to share their experiences and to receive coaching from Christine.  We will all learn as we go, realizing that we’re in uncharted territory.

Into the Promise is not a typical study program with a beginning and an end. Its purpose is to begin to shift the culture of our congregations. It involves learning to see things in a different way and to undertake new practices.

Into the Promise is also designed to be collaborative. Congregations will share with one another what they are doing and what they are learning. And the hope is that others will benefit from that learning in the future.

The “great unraveling” that Alan Roxburgh describes is disruptive and stressful. But it is also a time a hope and excitement because the Spirit is at work creating a new future.

Who’s involved in Into the Promise? Wesley United, Cambridge; St. Luke’s United, Cambridge; St. John’s-on-the-Hill, Cambridge; Rockwood-Stone Pastoral Charge; Knox United, Ayr.

Want to know more about Alan Roxburgh’s work? Visit

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Binding and Bridging

I think one of the most influential books of the last 20 years is Bowling Alone: The Collapse
and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. Putnam, a sociologist at Harvard University, describes how traditional forms of community have been on the decline in American – and I think we can say, Canadian – society since World War Two. He shows how people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and democratic structures. The title of his book comes from the fact that while more people are going bowling, membership in bowling leagues has plummeted. People are literally “bowling alone.”

Bowling Alone helps to explain what is happening to our churches. Churches are one of those forms of social participation that is in serious decline. The drop in attendance, disappearance of Sunday School, and aging congregations can be seen as part of a massive social change in which an increasing individualism is undermining the groups and organizations that our parents and grandparents relied on to give structure and meaning to their lives.

One of Putnam’s key ideas is what he calls “social capital.” We all know about physical capital – money, property, the goods and assets that can be used to create wealth, and that is the basis of our economy. Putnam argues that there is also social capital – the connections between people on which communities are built.

Think of all the communities that you are a part of – your neighborhood, school, social clubs, service organizations, church, coffee group at Tim’s. Think of how thick and rich the webs of relationships are that both strengthen community life and are strengthened by it. Think of how you are sustained by those connections, and how much poorer and thinner your life would be without them. Imagine that on a society wide level, and you’re thinking about social capital.  

Putnam goes on to argue, though, that there are two kinds of social capital. There is “binding” social capital which he says functions as a kind of social “superglue,” creating group identity and cohesion and giving people a powerful sense of belonging.

Then there is “bridging” social capital which acts like social “WD-40,” building bridges between different kinds of communities.

Churches are rich in social capital. That’s what people mean when they talk about their church as a “family,” a place where they know they belong. Even a small congregation has a complex web of connections.

We need this binding social capital, but it can be too much of a good thing. While it fosters close-knit relationships and loyalties, it can also lead to closed circles that are suspicious or hostile towards those who aren’t part of their group. Nobody has stronger social capital, Putnam argues, than the Mafia or the Hell’s Angels.

So what many church members identify as the most important quality of their congregation – that it is a “close knit family” – can also make it a closed circle. Churches that have strong binding capital can send a very subtle, but clear message to outsiders and new comers that there is no place here for you. This can happen in spite of the sign on the lawn that says “All Welcome.”

Binding social capital needs to be balanced by bridging social capital. As well as creating a strong sense of family, belonging and loyalty, churches need to intentionally forge connections beyond their members – with those outside the church, with new comers, and, with future generations.

Binding used to be enough when churches were replenished from within, when children grew up to be the next generation, or when new waves of immigrants were continually arriving. But that’s not so anymore, as once solidly ethnic denominations like the Christian Reformed Church are beginning to discover.

As the kind of social change that Putnam describes becomes more dominant, it’s natural for communities like churches to instinctively turn inward, seeking the comfort and reassurance that the ties that bind them to their friends provides. Ironically, though, as they become older and smaller, churches may actually become more resistant to new people who could revitalize them.

In other words, while our impulse might be to rely even more on the comfort and security of binding social capital, we need to find ways to strengthen the bridging social capital of our congregations if they are going to remain vital and alive in a rapidly changing world.

Rev. Paul Miller,

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Do We Really Need A Mission Statement?

I used to think that every church should have a mission statement – a short and snappy couple of phrases that everyone can remember and follow. It should be visible everywhere, on walls, on the website, on the Sunday bulletin. It should be rehearsed at every board meeting and known by heart.

I’m not so sure any more. The truth is, most mission statements are not worth the time we devote to them. Not that there’s anything wrong with mission statements per se. Some are really effective. The best church mission statement I ever heard was five words:  “More people, more like Christ.” You know immediately what that church is about. It’s about growing in numbers, and helping people live more Christ-like lives.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. A lot of church mission statements are a string of
platitudes that nobody remembers and is rarely, if ever, referred to.  

What should you do if your mission statement is not working for you? One thing you should not do – launch into another time consuming missions statement writing process!  Because chances are, what you come up with won’t be any more effective than what you had.  
Unless your mission statement is seriously at odds with your church’s values, the best thing to do is to leave it be.

But make your current mission statement more useful.

Here are a few ways to do that.

A Mission Statement is not a box to be checked. The reason many churches spend hours writing mission statements is they’ve been told they should have one. At a recent meeting I attended, someone said, “All the experts say we need a mission statement, so we’d better write one.” But a Mission Statement is only useful if you follow it. Karl Vaters, who writes a great small church blog, says this:  “Great mission statements don’t make great churches – or fix broken ones. We have to do the mission first. We shouldn’t put anything into words until we’re already putting it into action.”

More important than simply writing a mission statement is honestly and regularly evaluating your church’s mission.  

Focus on the key words. Even if you’re happy with your mission statement, you should identify the words that really matter. I call them the “weight bearing words,” the two or three or four essential words that support the whole statement. Pay particular attention to words that have the potential to challenge and stretch you, that would change you if followed them. For example, if your statement contains a word like “hospitality,” have the courage to dig into that word and ask, “What would it mean for us to be a community that practiced radical hospitality?” We waste lots of time on trivial word smithing. We should spend more time talking about the weight-bearing words, the words that really matter.

Does everyone know what it means? Many church mission statements use words like “community,” “family,” or “inclusive.” But  ask people what those words mean, and they don’t really know, or they have very different understandings. Noted consultant and author Kennon Callahan used to say, “All churches are friendly churches – to the people who attend them.” Likewise, all churches are “inclusive” – for those who feel included. If you define your church as “inclusive,” ask, “What do we mean by that word? How do we live it out? What differences of age, income, education, gender, orientation, race, ethnicity are reflected in our congregation? What are the limits of our inclusivity? If we welcome and include everyone, why does everybody look so much alike?”

If you want to make your mission statement more effective, create as many opportunities as possible for people to talk honestly and openly about what it means.

Is the word “mission” part of the problem? Mission is central to the church’s existence. It comes from the Latin missio, which means “to send.” Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20: 21) Our mission is what we are sent by Jesus to do and to be.

But over the centuries, the word has picked up a lot of negative baggage. It conjures up pictures of colonial missionaries imposing over other cultures. It suggests imposing our beliefs on others. And, for 1500 years, the church’s mission has been offloaded to professionals and experts so most ordinary people don’t think it has anything to do with them.

Without getting rid of the word “mission,” then, can we find other words that work better – purpose, goal, the difference we’re called to make? Your mission statement should simply express the purpose for which your congregation exists. If the word “mission” is getting in the way, find other words to express it.   

Remember: writing a mission statement is not the completion of a task, it’s only the beginning. It’s not having a mission statement but living your mission that matters.