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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

From Judgment to Curiosity

This is my granddaughter Nina. Nina is two-and-half. 

The very best thing about being a grandparent is that you get to relive the amazing journey through childhood, without being distracted by exhaustion or overburdened with responsibility.

And what fascinating creatures two-year-olds are!

How does she do that without throwing her back out?”

“How does she fall down like that and not break something?”

“How does she SLEEP like that!?”

What has really captured me about all my grandchildren, though, is their limitless curiosity.

What’s THAT SOUND?” “That’s the furnace coming on, Nina.”

“What’s THAT THING?” “That’s a dust bunny, Nina.”

"What's Grandma DOING?"  "She's going to the washroom, Nina." 

Everything, from a candle snuffer to a cracker crumb creates a moment of joyous discovery.
That capacity for curiosity seems to diminish, though, with age. It’s easy, over time, to acquire a “Been there done that” attitude. We live near Niagara Falls. I’m always taken aback at how awestruck visitors are when they see the Falls for the first time. I shouldn’t be. The Falls are amazing. But for locals, it’s kind of ho hum.

Betty Pries is a well-known mediator and conflict management specialist who is known to many churches in Waterloo Presbytery. I heard Betty say something at a workshop that really stuck with me.

She said that, in high stress or conflicted situations, we should strive to “move from judgment to curiosity.”

Moving from judgment to curiosity. 

Judgment is essential. It’s one of the key components of a moral life. Every time we choose right over wrong, or better over worse, we exercise judgment.

But judgment can harden into a shell that locks us and others into one place, ridgid and immovable. Judgment can make us lazy. Rather than making the effort to truly know and understand someone, we make a snap judgment. “Oh, she’s (fill in the blanks.) What do you expect?” We make snap judgments that close down our sense of curiosity about the other, and the potential for creating a relationship.

Curiosity comes naturally to Nina. I need to work at it. We need to work to maintain that sense of curiosity about one another:

“I wonder what he meant by that?”

“I wonder what made her react in that way?”

“I wonder what’s going on in his life right now?”

“I wonder what it would be like to be in her place?”

Curiosity can move us past the fixed certainties of judgment to a place of openness and wonder.

Christians have spent two thousand years pondering the meaning of Jesus’ cryptic saying that his followers must “become like little children.” Jesus’ words could mean many things, but one thing I believe they mean is that we need to continue cultivating a sense of curiosity about the world around us, and the people who cross our paths. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Are Not Alone

Recently, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, said that the greatest public health crisis in America is not cancer or heart disease. It’s social isolation. Loneliness.

The British journalist George Monbiot has written that we live in an “Age of Loneliness.” Loneliness has reached “epidemic” proportions, particularly among the elderly and increasingly among the young.

Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
If this is true – and I believe it is – then it presents churches with a massive untapped opportunity. After all, After all, churches exist to sustain relationships. We worship a relational God. On Sundays we affirm that “We are not alone; we live in God’s world.” And many churches do an amazing job of breaking down the walls of loneliness and providing community for many people.

I’ve been pondering what it would look like for a church to make overcoming loneliness and isolation a priority.  I don’t have any definitive answers, but I do have a few intuitions.
Beyond Friendliness
A church that was serious about dealing with loneliness would have to strive for more than superficial friendliness. Most people would describe their churches as “friendly.” And for those who are part of the family circle, they are. What we need to realize, though, is that the same friendliness that makes insiders feel connected can be a barrier to someone who is socially isolated.

Isolated people are often hard to see. The very factors that make them isolated mean that they aren’t likely to turn up at church or at a potluck supper. Because they are isolated, they don’t have the supportive networks of relationships, or the ability to develop them on their own.
Reaching out to those who are socially isolated will require intentionally seeing with different eyes and learning different skills.

Persons, not Programs
A common default in churches is to look for a need and then plan a program to meet that
need. It’s easier to organize a project or event than it is to develop long-term relationships.
But that is precisely what socially isolated people are lacking. If we want to be serious about addressing loneliness, we need to invest in the capacity of our people to form and sustain relationships outside their current circle of comfort. We need to learn how to meet people where they are, in their place of safety. And, we need to measure results and success in different ways.

Commitment over time
One common statement I hear is that people today are not willing to make long-term commitments. “Give me a job to do and clear timeline and I’ll do it,” they say.
But loneliness is not a time-limited condition. A church that was serious about responding to loneliness would have to motivate people to invest long-term in the well-being of another person.

As our financial and volunteer resources shrink, churches still have a wealth of untapped relational potential that could make a difference in the lives of people who are lonely and isolated.
I may sound like I know what I’m talking about here. I don’t, really. My guess, though, is that there are all kinds of people in all kinds of churches who are really skilled at connecting with people in a way that breaks down the barriers of isolation and loneliness.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts and experiences about how churches might live faithfully in the Age of Loneliness.

Please post a comment, or contact me

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Church is Like an Airport

Buildings are so integral to the church that it’s hard for us to think of the church apart from them. As much as we like to say that “the church is people,” we’re still pretty tied to our
buildings. When someone says “That’s my church,” they don’t usually mean a group of people, they usually mean “The churchy looking structure on the corner.” And sadly, the closure of a church building usually means the end of the congregation that meets in it.

Our attitude to our buildings influences our understanding of the church, and vice versa. For the first centuries of Christianity, there were no church buildings. Churches met in the homes of wealthy members, and the main image of the church was the household, the oikos, or extended family.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church adopted the basilica, or imperial court house, as the model for its buildings. These buildings conveyed the pomp and circumstance of the newly powerful church.

In the Middle Ages, soaring Gothic cathedrals expressed the soul’s heavenward ascent to God.

In the Protestant Reformation, churches were constructed like lecture halls, with the pulpit acting as the teaching podium from which the educated pastor instructed the congregation in scriptural doctrine. 

After World War II, the nuclear family was seen as the foundation not only of society but of the church, and church buildings were constructed to be like homes, with big kitchens, parlours and gathering rooms for all ages.

So buildings aren’t just functional. They also make a deeply theological statement about how we see the church, and perhaps even God.

For much of the 20th century, the church building was seen as a destination. It was the place to which people were attracted by the quality of preaching, music and programs. The life of the church was contained in the building, and people were expected to come in if they wanted to be part of that life. This is still an extraordinarily powerful impulse, especially among those of us who remember that church. It’s very hard to let go of the idea that our main task is to attract people into the building. It’s also an increasingly painful impulse as we find it harder and harder to convince people that the church is an attractive destination.

More recently, we have seen a reaction against buildings: “Let’s get out of our buildings and into the world!” Some advocate selling all of our buildings and giving the money away because all those bricks and mortar are just a millstone around our neck. Our buildings keep us from faithfully following Jesus, they say.

But there is another way to look at buildings. I got this idea from Reggie McNeal in his book Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard of the Church.  McNeal says that the church ought to be like an airport. Its purpose is not to be the end of people’s journey, but to
help them get somewhere else. The church, he says, is a connector, not a destination.

If we thought of our buildings in those terms, then we would not see the church as being confined to the building. People would come to the building in order to be connected to God and to one another, to be inspired, encouraged, healed, formed, not so they can settle down and stay, but so they can continue their journey.  Most of the church’s life would be lived outside the building, where people live out their faith in their families, their places of work, their neighbourhoods and communities.

If we were to see the church in this way, we would continue to recognize the importance of buildings as gathering places, but we would be under no illusion that the point of being a church was to keep this building open. Or, that our main mission was to get people into the building.  We would be more readily able to let go of them when they become too much to manage and more creative in finding other accommodation. Perhaps it would be a building we share with another congregation, or a rented space, or someone’s home. We would still recognize the need for that meeting place, but we would see whatever building we had as simply a connector to help us get to someplace else.

A building is no more the point of the church than an airport is the point of a trip. But, like airports, buildings can play an essential role in helping us continue our journey of faith.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Happiness Trap

I once heard a story about a young minister who served a small, mostly older congregation. Church members complained regularly about the absence of young families. So, the minister contacted young couples who had a connection with the church, sat down with them and asked what would make it easier for them to attend. With their input, he made a number of changes to the service, including setting up a play area in the sanctuary with rocking chairs where parents could sit with their young kids during worship.

It worked. Five or six families began to come to church regularly. But then abruptly, they all stopped. The minister called to them to find out if something was wrong. It turned out that one of the elders had phoned each of the families and told them that, while it was nice to see them, people were finding the children disruptive during the service. The church, he said, would be happy to pay for babysitting if they would agree to leave their kids at home.
Despite the minister’s best efforts at damage control, none of those families ever returned.

This story is a classic illustration of what church consultants Gil Rendle and Alice Mann call
“The Happiness Trap.” Churches get caught in the happiness trap when they expect their ministers to create change, but at the same time to keep everybody happy.

Change and contentment are often incompatible goals. As Rendle and Mann put it, “Satisfied people, by definition, do not seek change.”

Most clergy know about the happiness trap. People say they want things to change – fuller pews, more children and youth, increased givings, innovative programming – but then stoutly resist the changes that would allow those things, which they say they want, to happen.

It’s not that people are bad or malevolent. That man who phoned all those young families was probably a well-intentioned and caring person.  Long-time members were upset and he wanted to keep them happy.

But it’s human nature to both wish things were different, but also want them to be the way we like. Change is disruptive. And when we are disrupted, we get anxious, and when we are anxious, we react negatively. The result of this emotional process in churches can be conflict, often very painful conflict.

Add to that the fact that most clergy and church leaders are conflict-averse and, like Sally Field, really want people to like them. (Full disclosure: I am the chief of sinners in this
regard.) We feel it’s our job to make sure that everybody is playing nicely together.

What we don’t often do is to count the cost of this belief that a good church and a contented church are necessarily the same thing. Change grows out of discontentment with the way things are. The people who are happy are the ones who like it the way it is. The unhappy people aren’t there. So the price of valuing happiness above all else is that the church will continue to cater to the wants and needs of the present congregation, fail to reach out to new people and probably get older and smaller with each passing year.

It’s a lot easier to describe the Happiness Trap than it is to escape it. But here are some thoughts about what we can do.

Don’t Play the Blame Game
It’s natural when we want things to change to point fingers when change is resisted. “If  those people weren’t so stubborn, we could get somewhere around here!” The fact is, though, that we all collude together in perpetuating the happiness trap, and we need to work together to escape it. Accusations and put downs will simply entrench hurt feelings.

Be clear about what needs to change and why.
Churches often have a vague sense that not everything is the way it should be, but don’t have a very coherent idea of what, specifically, they are prepared to do about it.

Why do you want young families? Is it only because you’re getting old and tired and need someone to share the workload? Not good enough. And not enough motivation to change the things that may be keeping younger people away. It has to be about them, not just you. You have to honestly assess both the likelihood of being able to attract young families, and your tolerance level for the changes they would create.

Communicate, communicate – then communicate some more.
A mistake I made over and over again in ministry was to assume that just because I had said something, people had heard it and understood it – and ought to agree with it. The fact is that change is difficult and frightening. It requires patience and persistence over time. You need to keep on telling people why it is that these changes need to happen, and deal carefully and compassionately with the emotions they stir up.

At the same time, gently but firmly emphasize that not every squeaky wheel is going to get greased, and that you are going ahead.

Leaders need to stick together.
The secretary at my former church used to say, “Never stand in the firing line alone.” Those were wise words. Often, the minister or key lay leaders are left out on a limb to bear the brunt of people’s displeasure on their own. Leaders need to support , encourage, care for and stand with one another during the process of change.

Take an “experimental” approach.
People’s fear of change is often a fear of the unknown, and of losing control. They may have a genuine fear that something precious will be lost forever. Most people also have difficulty imagining how tomorrow could be different from today. They instinctively oppose what they do not understand.

Anxiety drops, though, if the approach is one of “Let’s try this for a while to see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we’ll do something different.”

However, it’s critical to not abandon the vision for change at the first sign of failure or resistance. You need to gird up your loins and try something else, not simply revert to the status quo.

The Happiness Trap can give people a false sense of calm and security, which is one of the main contributors to church decline. Leadership means giving people the tools to break free.

(Gil Rendle and Alice Mann describe the Happiness Trap in their book Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations.)