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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Lessons from the Hair Salon

Lately I’ve been thinking about similarities between churches and hair salons.

A woman in one of my former congregations was a hairdresser. She had co-op students from the local high school help her by washing customers’ hair. “It’s amazing,” she said. “If the girl is friendly and talks to the customers, they are always happier with their hair style. If the girl is unfriendly, they’re less satisfied”

I had a student minister at one of my churches. She said that when her internship was done, she was going to take a nail course. She had noticed that many older women lived alone, and often went days or weeks without anyone touching them. She thought it would enhance her ministry if she could do their nails.

Recently I went to get my hair cut. When I arrived, the young woman who cuts my hair said, “Sorry, I’m running a little behind.” As I waited, I listened to her talk patiently and kindly to the previous customer.

When I got in the chair, Phyllis said, “That is one really unhappy woman. She tries to find some meaning in her life by constantly changing her hair style. Because she’s so unhappy, she can be quite demanding. I see my role as more than coloring and styling her hair. I try to listen to her, to pay attention to her, and to gently talk her out of things that really aren’t going to look good.”

“Gee, Phyllis,” I said, “your job is like mine!”

Most churches say they need to reach out to new people. But they are genuinely puzzled by how to do that. “How do we find out what people out there in the community are thinking? What their needs are? What their lives are like?”

Which is ironic, because it involves doing things that most of us do every day. Talking. Asking questions. Listening. Making time for people. Find ways to touch them, either literally or metaphorically.

So why is it that something that happens so naturally at the hair salon – or the coffee shop, or across the back fence -- is so difficult for churches? 

Why is it that churches say they no idea who even lives in the neighborhood around our church, much less knowing what are their needs and wants, their hopes and fears?

I think it has something to do with the underlying motive we start with. When a church says, “We need to get to know people in the community,” the unspoken conclusion to that sentence is, “so we can get them to come to church.”

Let’s be clear. Getting people to come to our churches is not a bad thing. Church is where we find belonging and friendship, joy and fulfillment. We want others to share that experience.

But nine out of ten people say that what brought them to a new church was that a) somebody asked them, and b) when they arrived they felt welcomed and cared for.
Conversely, people say they stopped going to church because they felt like nobody was really interested in them – or only interested in them for their time or their money.
It’s all about relationships. Before we can think about enticing people to come to church, we have to let them know that our first concern is them, not ourselves. We have to find ways to starting and sustaining relationships that aren’t simply a gimmick to get people to join in our activities and programs.

So, what if, instead of first thinking, “We have to get more people to come to our church,” we simply visualized Jesus sending us out to talk, to listen, to pay attention, to love?

What if we got to know our community by simply doing the kinds of things that our
hairdresser does? What if we learned to value people for who they are, not for what they can give us? What if we paid attention to how we welcome people when they do come, so they don’t feel like they’ve wandered into someone’s closed family reunion?

If we are good at doing that, word will get around that our church is a place where people really care about you. We will create the conditions under which people might actually want to come and join us.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Beautiful Questions

If your church compiled a list of FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions – what would be on it?

I don’t mean the official list posted on your website, with information about how to become a member or your wedding policy.

I mean the questions that are really on people’s minds.Like…

Why don’t we sing more old hymns?

When did we start dunking the bread in the juice at communion?

How come the choir doesn’t wear gowns anymore?

Why don’t we learn more new hymns?

Here’s one question that would be on every church’s FAQs list: “Why don’t more young people come to church?” I have heard this question in one form or another in virtually every church I have worked with.

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t pretend to have an answer. But lately I’ve been wondering if the problem is not the lack of answers, but the question itself.

In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger argues that questions, not answers, are the key to change. We don’t need more experts with answers, we need more “expert questioners.” In our rapidly changing world, finding the right question can be more critical than finding the right answer.

Berger says we should search for “beautiful questions.” A “beautiful question,” he writes, “is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

“Beautiful questions” are ambitious. They push the limits. But they are actionable. You can do something about them.

“Beautiful questions” change the way we perceive. They help us to see things differently. But they can also change the way we act.

Let’s go back to our frequently asked question, “Why aren’t there more young people in church?’ It is not a beautiful question – at least, not the way it’s normally asked. Usually it doesn’t go anywhere. It seems like a dead-end – a problem without a solution, a question without an answer. Rarely is it asked in such a way that it leads to a change in perception or action.  

Berger says that beautiful questions start with “Why?” But it’s not enough to ask “Why?”
once. He says that, with any problem, we need “Why?” at least five times before we can get far enough below the surface that we get to the root of the issue.

So, let’s try it.

“Why aren’t young people in church?”
            “Why does it matter if young people are in church?”

“Because we’re all getting old and tired.”
            “Why does it matter if you’re getting old and tired?”

“Because soon there won’t be enough of us to do the work.”
            “Why does the work need to be done?”

“Because the church we know and love will have to close down.”
Why does that matter? What would happen if it didn’t survive? Who would miss it?

“We would miss it. It’s been an important part of our lives.”

Ah. It turns out that the question is not so much about the needs and concerns of the young people who aren’t in church, but the needs and concerns of us older folks who are in church. In other words, we want young people to help sustain something that is important to us, not so much to them.

Which raises another question: “Why should they?”

So often when we ask, “Why aren’t young people in church?” we imply that the problem is with them. “We raised our children to go to church. What happened?” We come up with answers like, they’re not committed, they don’t care, young people are self-centred, they’re too busy with sports or work or their cell phones. There is a note of judgment in the very asking of the question.
If we’re really serious about wanting to know why young people don’t come to church, we will turn our attention away from what we want and need and focus on what they want and need. We’ll ask, “What actually matters to young people? How can we find out what matters to them? How can we learn to listen to them, understand, respect their lives, their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries?”
We will stop trying to make them responsible for the decline of our churches and use that question to search our own hearts. When that happens, our dead-end question can be turned into a beautiful question because it will open our hearts to the lives and longings of those people who are not in church. It will be about them and about what God is asking of us.
The next stage in creating a beautiful question is to ask, “What if?”

“What if” creates the freedom to imagine alternatives without having to prove upfront that they will work. What if we did this, rather than doing that? That’s how innovations are born.

But we need to break some old habits. Churches are experts at shutting down “What if?” questions before they even have a chance to take root. We immediately list all the reasons why that will never work. We need to create spaces of openness and curiosity where we can ask “What if?” and not know the answer.

The final stage of a beautiful question is to ask “How?”
“How?” grounds possibilities in the reality of available resources and practical results. But we need to ask “How?” in such a way that we are not defeated before we begin. “How?” is an invitation to experiment, to try things out, to approach things from a different angle, to tinker, and above all, to fail. Failure is an indispensable element on the road to success. Berger’s book is packed with examples of people who tried and failed repeatedly and persistently before they finally got it. So many potentially good ideas die on the vine in churches because we don’t stick with them. 

Asking these questions won’t magically fill your church with young people. But it will lead you on a journey of discovery that may take you to some surprising places with unexpected results. You won’t know until you try. 

We’ve used “Why don’t more young people come to church?” as a test case, but we could apply the same steps to other frequently asked questions. Some examples might be, “What should be do with our aging building?” or “Can we afford a full-time minister?” These questions often feel like dead-ends. But they can be turned into beautiful questions if we approach them in a curious, imaginative, adventurous and faithful spirit.