RSSinclude - Feed

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Four Spaces of Belonging

We all have a need to belong. But we don’t all experience belonging in the same way.

I knew a woman who couldn’t understand why people didn’t stay for coffee hour after church. She felt that church wasn’t complete without the coffee and conversation that occurred after the service. “Don’t they know they would feel more a part of the church if they came for coffee?” she would ask.

I knew a man who couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in belonging to a small group. “Church,” he said, “should be a place where people can share their deepest selves with one another. Don’t they know what they are missing?”

Both Mrs. Coffee Hour and Mr. Small Group didn’t understand that people experience belonging in different ways.

Joseph Myers, in his book The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups, says that there are four different “spaces of belonging” – Public, Social,
Personal and Intimate.

Public Space is “where we connect through outside an influence,” for example, at a concert, sporting event or political rally. My wife and I went to see “The Blue Man Show” in Chicago a few years ago. Even though we didn’t know a single other person by name, we had an intense feeling of belonging to the group participating in that delightful event.

Social Space is where we share “snap-shots” of ourselves and form “first impressions” of one another. Social space is where “neighbour” relationships are formed.

Personal Space is where we experience belonging among “close friends” – people with whom we feel comfortable sharing personal things about ourselves – but not everything.

That level of belonging is reserved for Intimate Space. This space is best described by the expression “naked but unashamed.” It is the space where can share our deepest selves. Most people only ever have handful of truly intimate relationships.

Myers argues that we can experience genuine belonging in all four of these spaces. It’s a mistake to think that the goal of belonging is always intimacy, and that to social or public belonging is invalid. They are four different experiences.

The challenge for churches is not to limit genuine belonging to social events or small groups, but to provide opportunities to belong in all four spaces.

Public Belonging
The main public event in most churches is Sunday worship. People should feel connected –
both to God and to those around them – whether they know anyone else in the congregation or not. This means that worship should be planned and led with care and commitment. People aren’t looking for polished perfection, but they are looking for a message that speaks to them.

It’s essential that churches do the very best with what they have. This means not trying to be something other than what they are, by, for example, building worship around classical choral music when they no longer have the musicians to do it well.

It also means removing barriers to participation, including cryptic “insider” language, messages that reflect the minister’s latest hobby horse, confusing orders of service, or making people guess where the washrooms are.

Think: If I was visiting this church for the first time, what would it feel like?

Social Belonging
Social belonging is often dismissed as superficial. It may carry the negative connotation of “mere socializing.” But social space is perhaps the most critical space because it is there that people will decide whether they want to get to know you better.

Social space is where first impressions are formed. Visitors will often decide within minutes whether this is the church for them.

The message to be communicated in social space is “We really are glad you’re here.” It should come with no strings attached, so that people do not feel like you are only interested in what they might do for you.

Personal Belonging
The church should be a safe place where people can form close relationships. This requires both openness and receptivity, but also respect for healthy boundaries.

To experience personal belonging, people need to trust that they can ask questions without being dismissed, express opinions without being judged, contribute without being shut down, and risk opening themselves without being the subjects of gossip or backbiting.

Intimate Belonging 
I think intimacy in churches is somewhat overrated. It’s not reasonable to expect that most people will look for true intimacy in the church.

Intimacy comes with risks, and so it needs to be handled with care. People who seek intimacy in the church may be broken or vulnerable, or they may crave intimacy in unhealthy ways.

The church’s best role may be to support and care for people so they can sustain healthy intimacy in other areas of their lives -- their marriages, families and friendships.

All four kinds of belonging are authentic and valid. Churches should strive to provide opportunities to experience belonging in all four spaces. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nine Ways to Reimagine Your Church's Ministry

Many churches are finding it harder and harder to sustain full time paid ministry. The most common response is to reduce ministry hours, or look for a cheaper alternative – student supply, for example, or only calling ministers in salary Category A or B.

These responses often end up being short term gain for long term pain. They take the pressure off the budget now, but usually contribute to the long-term process of decline. Fewer hours means less ministry. And it becomes harder to attract ministers who need to make a living.

When we’re faced with an urgent situation, we look for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix. The warning signs of decline have been with us for thirty years. It didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be fixed overnight.

Preparing for the future is more about transforming deeply entrenched attitudes and habits than it is about finding some magic button we can press. That change in attitude can only happen with patience and persistence over time – which is hard to do when anxiety about the future is high. But it’s what is called for.

Here are nine ways that even the smallest congregation can reimagine and refocus its ministry.

Start with Why
“Why are we here? What is our purpose?” These are the basic questions every church should ask.
These are deep questions of identity and mission. They can’t be answered with nice-sounding generalities (“We seek to be an inclusive community, welcoming to all”) but with clear specifics. What exactly are we here for? What difference does it make that we are here?
Management guru Peter Drucker says that the purpose of a church is to produce “transformed individuals.” Whose lives will be changed and in what way because of the church? That’s what churches need to wrestle with honestly, imaginatively, courageously and prayerfully.

God gives the church its purpose -- to carry on Christ’s work through the power of the Spirit. But each community needs to work out for itself what it means in practical terms to be faithful to that purpose. We need to create as many opportunities as we can think of to talk about this question. It’s number one because it’s the most important.  

Look at Assets First

Assets are all the things we have that make ministry possible. They include buildings and money, but they also include less tangible things like the abilities of our members, accumulated wisdom and experience, connections to the community, the faith we have inherited and the presence of the Spirit.

Even the smallest community has a wealth of assets, many of which they may not recognize. When we are struggling, it’s easy to see only deficits – what we don’t have rather than what we do have. The church begins to regard itself a problem to be solved. And because it sees only what is lacking, it looks outside for an “expert” solution, which makes it feel even more inadequate.

Focusing on assets can open our eyes to the potential of the community to creatively address its challenges.  While outside knowledge and experience is valuable, the answer is found first of all “in here” – in the assets and capacities already present in the community.

Be realistic about your deficits. But start with your assets.

Gather in order to Scatter

We’re conditioned to think that “church” happens when people come into the building, for worship, meetings or activities. Therefore, we see our main job as bringing more people in. It’s important to bring people in, but in our time, the impact of the church will felt be less through the programs and activities within the church, and more when people are equipped to live out their faith in their daily lives – in their families, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. We need to see the church as the place where we gather in order to be equipped to scatter into God’s world.

Distinguish Means from Ends

A church’s “end” is its mission or purpose (not to be confused with a “mission statement.”) One way to discern our ends is to answer three questions suggested by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann:

Who are we?
What is God calling us to do?
Who is our neighbor?

The church’s means are all the ways it puts the answers to these questions into practice, which includes money, buildings and staff.

It’s common in churches to talk about a means – a balanced budget, a beloved building, a longstanding program – as if it were an end in itself. We need to be sure we are putting our means at the service of our ends – and be willing to find other means if the ones we have aren’t doing the job.  

Rethink Why you need a Minister
Churches often think of ministry as a list of tasks -- preaching, visiting, going to meetings.
Many churches with part time ministers expect the minister to show up for worship every Sunday. Since most people’s primary experience of church is Sunday morning, this shields the congregation from the full consequences of part time ministry because there is no time left for mission or outreach.  

Maybe having your part time minister spend most of his or her time preparing for a one hour Sunday service is not the best use of their time. Maybe there are other, more important things your minister should be doing. Start with your “Why?” and ask how the paid staff you have can best serve that end.

(An interesting example is Cariboo Presbyterian Church in British Columbia. This church is a network of house churches in small, scattered communities. The paid ministry staff train and equip local people to lead worship, prayer and pastoral care in each house church. See )

Commit to Collaborate Upfront

Cooperating with other churches sounds like a good idea. But if you wait till you’re looking for a new minister, it’s too late. Your immediate needs of the moment may not line up with those of neighboring churches.  

The commitment to a cooperative vision should be made now so that you can respond to future ministry needs out of that commitment rather than trying to patch together an arrangement on short notice.

And – your potential cooperative partners may not be United Churches!

Think Bi-Vocational

Part-time ministry may save the congregation money, but it doesn’t provide the minister with a living income. Congregations need to be proactive and innovative in thinking about what other sources of income could be available to potential candidates. This might mean seeking a minister who has marketable skills in an area where there is need within the community and making that part of the search process. We can no longer assume that full time ministry is the norm, but it should not be entirely up to ministers to bear the burden of that reality.

Your Church is not Your Building

The largest churches in the New Testament had around fifty people. That’s how many would fit in someone’s house. And the vast majority of churches in the world today have fewer than fifty members. The problem is not that our congregations are too small to be effective. It’s that many of them are struggling to maintain aging and costly buildings.

Ask what the life and ministry of your church could look like apart from the building in which it is currently housed. This is hard, because we’re so used to thinking of the church as a building. Closing the building usually means closing the church.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine how your church could still be a vibrant Christian community if you didn’t have your building.

Adapting to change is a spiritual, not just an organizational challenge. Change is a journey of the heart. Find ways to invite as many people in your church as possible into that journey. Discover ways for them to participate in the long-term spiritual discerning of your congregation. And trust that God is not finished with the church.

Rev. Paul Miller