In times of change, churches, like many organizations, engage familiar paradigms and old ways of coping, much to the frustration of those involved. Here are some helpful principles as you consider moving from crisis to new life.
ONE: Practice judo, not karate: Both are martial arts. However, one is aggressive while the other uses the momentum of the attacker to cause disequilibrium and render the attacker vulnerable. Every crisis that the church faces has the potential to become an innovative and creative growth opportunity. A church building that burns, the death of the pastor, a noisy community centre next door, the decline of members and reduced financial giving are all opportunities. How we use these can make the difference between life and death, literally. The ways we respond can indicate how tuned in we are to God, ready to accept the excitement that awaits us around the corner. To learn, we need to change our posture: from talking to listening, from arrogance to humility, from resisting pain to engaging it and letting it drive change.
TWO: People first, not institutions, buildings, or programs: The greatest and most precious asset of the church is not property but people! Yet we seem to pay scarce attention to that asset. Lately the church has largely been a place where individuals gather to worship and where specialized people in specialized roles deliver an experience that is consumed by those who attend. That is not the church … it is a gathering of the church! The church is the body of Christ, called to live its faith in public, wherever God places us. Unfortunately many in that body don’t know how to do this or feel inadequate as God’s representatives in the world.
The most effective strategy for the church to flourish in this time of uncertainty and anxiety is to equip, empower and mobilize the laity. It has to be done with intentionality and urgency. We don’t build better buildings or more programs to bring outsiders into the church; rather we build insiders (the church) to go out and live among outsiders, as the church. Growing a missional church involves growing missional members!
THREE: Think Realm of God, not empire; whole not part: There is a reason that the metaphor of the “human body” is used to describe the church in the New Testament. Even though every part is of equal importance and value, and has a different function, it has one singular purpose: to ensure the health of the whole body! Understanding and living this is key to a healthy church and to the will of God for the whole Church. Quite contrarily, we seem to have taken the opposite route, in our desire to specialize, by separating and isolating the different functions of church life and expression. So we have mission committees, service teams, social justice advocacy groups, and so on, each of which fulfills their particular mandate. Sadly, they often work in isolation, unable to tie in to the overall purpose of the church in terms of God’s Realm. From local congregations that find it difficult to collaborate for the greater good to church agencies that operate in silos, we seem to have lost the ability to engage a holistic approach to mission. Fortunately there are signs of change as we are pushed into crises and tight corners.
FOUR: First a compass, then the clock: Churches get mired in the details of strategic planning. The usefulness of planning, however, is limited to environments that are relatively predictable and stable. Such is not the landscape today. Often the goals are unclear and the pathways are like shifting sands. Today, following the Spirit and using the Spirit’s compass that sets direction and priorities is the most effective way to approach the mission of the church. Setting our compass means that we develop sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, find out where God is at work, and discern our path forward. Often however, in our haste to “do something,” churches get trapped in planning and implementation without a clear sense of purpose and direction. In a context of dwindling resources, this is disaster in the making!
FIVE: Marathon, not a sprint: We want change yesterday! We expect that the culture of church will be reshaped and reformed in a year, maybe two. Annual budgets are made with the hope of short turn-arounds; people are assigned impossible tasks; and worse still, committees get busy applying the usual technical fixes to challenges that require new learning.
Building communities of faith is a long-term project that may look (and feel) hugely different from church models of the past. New versions will emerge, but not at our “fast-food-take-out” pace. They will grow in unlikely places and in unconventional ways as outposts of God’s Reign and centres of new life, grace, and gospel for their communities. Partnering with the Holy Spirit in listening actively to the community, developing trusting relationships, and engaging in loving service all require patience. We need to see this as a long distance race, and prepare for it.
A final word: Knowing these ideas is a good start; applying them is what’s important. This takes leadership, sound strategies, and supportive structures, all of which will look different in each local context.
Chris Pullenayegem is Animator for New Ministry Development in The United Church of Canada, providing leadership in the development of new ministry, evangelism, and discipleship.