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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Five Things Churches Should Say More

Back in October, 2014, I wrote a post entitled "Ten Things Churches Should Stop Saying." I've had more response to that piece than anything else I have written. 

Lately I've been thinking about a different question:  What should churches should say more often

Here are five of them. 

1.  "Why Are We Here?"
Many of us grew up in a world where nobody had to ask why the church existed. It existed because there were so many people who wanted to attend church! Respectable people attended church. Church was the glue that held the community together. It's where our spiritual needs were met. It was an extension of the family. It's where people found belonging. It's where children learned right from wrong.  

No more. Most people don't believe there is any connection between belonging to a church and being a good person. And spirituality has become more of an individual rather than a communal pursuit. 

People are no longer willing to belong to something simply because it's what they've always done. It's not enough to just show up. They need to see it as worthwhile. They want to know it's making a difference. 

For these reasons, churches absolutely need to ask "Why are we here? What difference does it make that we are here? What difference would it make if we weren't here?" We can no longer say "Everybody knows what a church is for." 

Churches need to be intentional about asking "Why are we here?"

2.  "Let's try that." 
Have you ever made a suggestion at a meeting, and someone says "Oh, we tried that in 1974 and it didn't work." And that's the end of it? 

Churches are famously risk averse. The fact is, though, that failure is an essential ingredient in growth. Children would never learn to walk or talk if they weren't willing to fail, over and over again. I recently heard that "FAIL" means "First Attempt In Learning." 

There are two reasons we might avoid experimenting. It will cost money. And people will be upset. 

Experiments don't have to cost a lot. It costs nothing to experiment with a new way of welcoming people. Or to discover what's going on in your neighborhood. Or to tell the story of your church. 

And, if you connect your experiments to your mission and purpose, people might still be upset, but you'll be able to justify your experiment. 

Experiments don't need to be permanent. Even if they fail, you'll have learned something and the church will be better for it.

Churches need to cultivate an experimental mindset -- to try things, evaluate them, learn from them, and if they don't work, try something else. 

3.  "I don't believe I know you." 
A friend of mine told me that, a few years ago, she felt a need to return to church after many years away. One Sunday she went to the local United Church. "The service was nice," she said, "but nobody talked to me." She went back several more Sundays. Nobody talked to her. Her mother-in-law came to visit at Easter time and they went to church together. Nobody talked to them. "So I just never went back." 

Sometimes church people say, "I don't want to introduce myself to someone and have them say 'I've been coming to this church for five years.' I'd be embarrassed." 

We need to get over this fear. It takes a lot of courage for someone to step into a new church where most people know one another. It's better to make a mistake than to have someone come to our church and be ignored. 

Next time you see someone you don't recognize, take the risk of introducing yourself. As Martin Luther famously said, "Sin boldly!"

4.  "Thank You" 
People like to be appreciated. When they do give something, they want to someone to notice. 

It's simple and basic. But many churches are not very good at thanking people. The most they do is send out a generic "Thank you for your contribution" note with the annual income tax receipt. 

Sometimes we avoid saying thank you in case we miss someone. We need to get over that fear. We should spread gratitude as widely as we can, not by avoiding it in case we leave someone out. 

It's not just about acknowledging individuals, though, it's also about creating a culture of gratitude in which we value people for who they are as well as what they do. It's about communicating on an ongoing basis that we are thankful that people are part of the community. 

We should cultivate gratitude as an antidote to the carping, criticizing mindset that can easily take hold. 

Being a Christian means being thankful. We need to say "Thank you" as often and in as many ways as possible. 

5.  "Let's pray about that." 
The church is more than a human organization. It's the Body of Christ. Churches exist because God has called them into existence and sustains them with the Holy Spirit. We are branches connected to the vine. Prayer binds us together, opens us to the Spirit, keeps us connected to the source of our life. 

Churches should not only be communities of planning and action, but communities of prayer. 

And that means more than asking the minister to lead a short devotional at the beginning of the Board meeting. One of the most disempowering things we have done is to remove prayer from the people and hand it over to the "professionals." 

Churches face enormous and, in some cases, agonizing challenges. We do not have the resources to sustain ourselves. We need to rely on prayer -- prayer practiced by as many people, on as many occasions, and in as many different ways as we can imagine. 

Those are five things I can think of that churches should say more often. Can you think of others? 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Outlier Churches

One mark of the times in which we live is that everybody is in a hurry. Nobody likes to wait. We want things NOW. We get frustrated if we have to wait two weeks to see the doctor – or 10 seconds to download a computer file.

This has had a huge impact on churches. For one thing, people aren’t as committed financially. I was reading about the fundraising challenges of Not-for-Profit organizations, including churches. People today will open their wallets, but they want to see “immediate social impact.” If they don’t see results, they’ll take their money elsewhere. There are fewer and fewer people prepared to build an ongoing financial relationship with an organization and stick with it over years.

People also want immediate experience. It’s not enough just to show up. They expect something to happen when they come. I’ve heard that first time visitors to your church will decide within seconds whether it’s the place for them, based on how it makes them feel. If the church isn’t “doing anything” for them, they’ll be gone.

Studies and polls suggest that this attitude will only become more prevalent. It’s a big challenge, because the Christian life is not only an experience, it’s a way of being meant to be cultivated over a lifetime. It’s about relationships that take time to mature. Church doesn’t lend itself to an adrenaline rush.

Here’s the thing, though, about basing our decisions on statistics of what is true for most people. While it may be true of most people, it’s not true of all people. There are still many people who continue to yearn for what Eugene Peterson (quoting of all people Friedrich Nietzsche) called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

The question is, will we focus mainly on the rule? Or on the exceptions?

Should we emphasize broad experience in order to appeal to as many as possible? Or deep commitment knowing that only a few will respond? The problem with a lot of our churches is that they don’t do either very well. They may tweak things on the surface, but the basic experience stays the same. And they don’t create a lot of long term growth in faith.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but most United Churches simply can’t compete in the marketplace of experience. We don’t have the resources to be that “happening church” that will draw in large crowds of seekers. It’s not in our DNA.

What many of our churches do have is the capacity to develop spiritually mature disciples of Jesus. For my money, we’d be better to focus on what we can do, rather than what we wish we could do.

Let me play with an idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success.
Gladwell looks at really successful people, the ones who rise to the top, who stand out above the crowd. He calls them “outliers.”

Two things are true of most outliers. First, they were born with natural advantages. Most NHL hockey players have birthdays in January, February and March. Why? Well, Gladwell says, from the time they first lace up their skates, they are playing against kids that may be almost a full year younger than they are – a huge advantage for a seven-year-old. They are bigger, stronger, faster. They get picked for the best teams with the best coaches. The gap between them and the kids born in October, November and December grows wider.

Second, they practice more. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something. All the violinists at the Juilliard School of Music are really talented. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. What separates the very best from the very good is that they practice two hours a day longer than most of their peers. Why were The Beatles better than everybody else? Gladwell argues it was because when they were toiling in the brothels of Hamburg, they were forced to play from early afternoon to late at night every day. Practice really does make perfect.

So let’s draw an analogy to churches. Is it possible that at least some of our churches could become outliers?
Most congregations have built-in advantages. Even the smallest church has at least a core of people who have been deeply formed in Christian faith, who know Jesus, practice prayer, and live out the Gospel in their everyday lives. This wealth of spiritual maturity is a tremendous hidden asset.

The problem is, they’re often out of practice. They haven’t been challenged or given an opportunity to grow into mature leaders who can really shape the character of the church.

So what if at least some of our congregations really focused on building on the assets of faith present among them, and calling forth a commitment to grow and mature over the long haul?

The truth is that there will be fewer of us in the future – fewer congregations and fewer people in those that remain. And maybe not 1 in 100 are prepared to make the kind of commitment that would be required to produce an “Outlier” church.

But Jesus’ parable of the sower reminds us that impact is not always measured by numbers. If we could shift our focus to growing Outlier churches, it could make a difference out of all proportion to our size.