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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Purpose and Problem-Solving

All the churches I know have to wrestle with practical problems, like: How can we balance the budget? How can we maintain our aging building? How can we reach out to new people, especially younger people? What programs and services should we offer?

“How can we keep going?” would be a good summary of these questions.

But churches are also recognizing the need to talk about their identity and mission. “Who are we? Why are we here? What is God calling us to do and to be?”

We might call these “What is our purpose?” conversations.

Both conversations – “What is our purpose?” and “How can we keep going?” -- are important. And many congregations are talking about them. The problem is that these two conversations are taking place in isolation from one another. “How do we keep going?” and “What is our mission and purpose?” are often parallel, non-intersecting topics. They are discussed at different times, in different settings, and often by different people.

Mission and purpose do not drive practical decision-making -- buildings, budgets and staff. And practical decision-making is not always an expression of mission and purpose.
The result is that we go around in circles, and nothing changes.

I am starting to believe that integrating these two conversations is essential if we are to move forward.

In another part of my life, I am the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity Niagara. Habitat is an organization that is crystal clear about its purpose, and that purpose drives its day-to-day decisions.

Contrary to popular belief, Habitat does not exist to build houses. Houses are just a means to an end. The purpose of Habitat is to transform families. Home ownership is the tool we use to effect that transformation.

The motto of Habitat for Humanity Canada is “Always thinking families first.” The affiliate I am involved with takes that motto very seriously. Every decision is subjected to the same test: Will it help us to serve more families?

“Should we increase our debt to buy that piece of land?” Will it help us serve more families?
Should we hire new staff?” Will it help us serve more families?

“Should we open another ReStore?” Will it help us serve more families?

If the answer is “Yes,” we do it. If the answer is “No,” we don’t do it.  

At the same time, every great idea is subjected to the same test: “Do we have the resources to do this? And if not, how can we get them?”

Mission and day-to-day decision-making aren’t separate conversations. They’re the same conversation.

I covet this clarity for the church. I wish our churches could be as focused on their purpose and mission as Habitat. Maybe that’s not possible because churches don’t have a single focus. But if our congregations could be clearer about why they exist, they would be more effective.

But, in order to achieve that clarity, mission and action need to be brought together. We can’t have the “hard,” practical problem-solving conversation about resources taking place in one room, and the “soft” conversation about mission and purpose taking place in another room. They have to be brought together.

Every time you meet to solve a practical problem – how to increase givings, how to increase attendance, whether to change the worship service, whether to renovate the church hall, or to amalgamate with a neighboring church – every time you meet to discuss these matters, you should also spend at least 15 or 20 minutes talking about who you are and why you’re here.

It’s not sufficient to confine the mission and purpose conversation to an annual retreat – or to hand it off to the minister or a separate committee. That is a good way to ensure that mission and purpose will only be the concern of a few people, rather than the whole congregation.

At the same time, it’s not sufficient to talk about mission and purpose as if practical issues don’t matter. That’s a good way to ensure that mission and purpose will seem like wishful thinking.

Conversation about mission needs to happen regularly, frequently, consistently enough to have an impact. It’s important that the mission conversation occur alongside your conversations about money and buildings, that it be a component of all your gatherings and deliberations.

How do you do that?

You do it by creating a safe space in which everyone is able to participate without fear of being judged, ridiculed or dismissed.

You do it by formulating simple questions, using easily-understood, non-specialist language, that invite people to share what’s on their hearts.

You do it by giving people clear instructions.

You do it by keeping notes of your conversations, so you can check back, follow up and, 
over time, deepen your level of understanding.

Safe space. Simple questions. Clear instructions. Keep notes.

In my next post, I will expand on each of these points and offer practical steps you can take to incorporate them into your gatherings and discussions.

For now, though, you can start making “How do we keep going?” and “What is God’s purpose for us?” one conversation, not two. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

When New Birth Feels Like Death

My friend, Rev. Christine Jerrett says, “When you’re giving birth, there comes a moment when you think you’re going to die.”

I must confess, I have no personal experience of this, but it rings true. The birth pains of something new can feel like death.

This has been born out many times in the history of God’s people. When God begins to do something new, at first it feels like the end. And it is – the end of the old, the arrival of the new. A few examples:

587 B.C.
The Crisis: The Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem, carries the leaders into exile, and reduces the temple on Mount Zion to rubble.  
Destruction of Temple 587 BC
The Reaction: People asked: “Where is God? Why did God not protect us? How can we possibly survive without the temple where we can make our sacrifices? We’re finished.”
The New Birth: The exiles turn to the sacred story and begin to create what we know as Scripture which, unlike a temple, is portable. Jewish communities centred on Scripture and religious practices spring up and flourish from Persia to Spain.  

A.D. 40 
The Crisis: Some Jews believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Gentiles – non-Jews – are beginning to come to faith in Jesus and experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  
The Reaction: People asked, “How can Gentiles be included in the church if they do not keep the laws of given by God to Moses? Without traditions like circumcision and abstaining from unclean food, we can’t survive.”
The New Birth: Inspired leaders like Peter and Paul realize that salvation is a free gift. Grace and faith, not adherence to religious regulations, bring us into a relationship with God. As a result, Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.

The Crisis: An Augustinian monk and professor named Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther challenges the authority of the papacy and attacks the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Martin Luther
The Reaction: People ask, “How can the church survive if we don’t have a central teaching authority to tell us what’s right? If ordinary people start to read the Bible for themselves, it will be chaos!
The New Birth: With newly printed Bibles in their hands and passionate preachers in their pulpits, people discover that each individual can have a saving relationship with God by faith alone. Protestant churches flourish – and, the Roman Catholic Church also experiences reformation and a spiritual renaissance.

The Crisis:  Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, outlining the theory of evolution. Darwin’s work directly challenges the biblical account of creation.
The Reaction: People are horrified. They ask, “How can Christianity survive if the truth of the Bible is questioned? If the Bible is ‘wrong’ about the age of the earth, how can we trust it on other matters? The whole edifice of Christian belief will collapse.”
The New Birth: Christians begin to re-examine their faith in the light of new scientific knowledge. They discover fresh ways of reading the Bible and understanding the Gospel. They realize that Scripture and science are not necessarily in conflict.

The Crisis: The law banning businesses from opening on Sundays in Ontario is struck down. Sunday morning is transformed from a quiet day of rest and worship to prime time for shopping and sports. Almost overnight, young families start to disappear from churches.
Reaction:  People are perplexed. They ask, “How can our churches survive if we have to compete with the shopping mall and the arena? How can we possibly attract enough people to pay for our big buildings and full-time ministers and programs and activities?”
The New Birth: Churches experience a wake-up call. They begin to realize they need to do more than open the doors on Sunday morning if they want to attract people. They start to ask what their mission is in a culture where church is no longer at the centre.

The Crisis:  Sunday participation has continued to decline. Most churches are older and smaller.
Reaction:  Some churches are wondering if the end is near. They are asking if they can survive without their buildings, paid ministers and a new generation of younger people.
The New Birth:  To be determined….

We are in a place that God’s people have been many times before. Feeling like the end is near. Wondering how we can hold on to what we once had. Fearful of the future.

The lesson of the past, though, is that new birth feels like death. Where is that new birth in the midst of upheaval and decline today? Whether we can discern the new thing God is doing and reimagine what it means to be the church will be critical in shaping out future.