1. Our congregation shrank in numbers the past three years. How do we balance reimagining our model when building and grounds maintenance uses a lot of time, energy and money? How do we shift the culture within the church?
If you’re in a situation experiencing institutional decline, if you have an old building that needs a lot of attention, or you’re finding yourself with fewer people, fewer resources to sustain the old model of church that you’ve inherited, it can be really exhausting. This is not an easy situation to be in. One of the temptations is simply to work harder. And for you, particularly as a leader, or for your leadership team, to simply work harder, and expend more energy to try to reverse some of those declines, will not actually yield the desired results.
A provocative and helpful work in regards to a situation like this is Clay Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In it, he points out that when there are established organizations that came out of a different era, that have a structure and a system that worked well for a particular set of people. But when things change in the environment and other alternatives present themselves for people to meet the same needs, the temptation is to try to manage the existing thing better and better. Christensen argues that if you do that, if you focus simply on good management, it actually only guarantees that your organization will fail. What he means by that is that if you’re only focused on trying to sustain an old model without also beginning to experiment on the edges, if you’re only trying to manage the inherited structure, you won’t be able to move into a different future. This is what he calls the innovator’s dilemma. What can we at least work on in terms of managing what we have, while we also begin to create some practices, habits, and spaces where people can try on new ways of being church that deepen our discipleship?
2. I have found many parishioners uncomfortable talking about God or their faith. The challenge in my context is to get people to talk about their faith, or even ask people what they think about God. How do we get people to do that?
This is something we often hear from church leaders, particularly in communities where the expectation for years has been that the ministers, the professional people, do the God talk and the lay people are kind of off the hook. So to invite them into having conversations about God, or to name God in their lives, or some of those things will disrupt what they’re used to. Anytime we disrupt expectations, we can expect resistance. One attempt to address this is to start with very small, very concrete, actionable practices that you can find a group of people more or less willing to try and model for their peers. In a congregation like the one in question, there are likely some people who are more comfortable talking about God, and empowering them to do so can spread to their peers over time.
Reticence to talk about God is often a cultural issue. If a person grows up in a culture and in a family that talks about God all the time, talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit at home makes it a lot easier to talk about God outside the home. We need to break through some of the cultural barriers and help people see God’s activity in their lives, which often starts with our being comfortable talking about what God has done for us, about how God has brought us through; this is where we have to start.
3. Can you speak to the tension of leading between the Age of Association and the Age of Authenticity? I sense expected responsibilities from my congregation, and my denomination, to foster the church as we’ve known it. And yet that takes time and energy away from paying attention to the spirit, being innovative, et cetera.
We live in a time where young people in particular want authenticity. They want to go to a church where there’s truth AND love. How do we get the in-between right? Deep down, we all want people to tell us the truth AND to love us. Navigating this space is not always easy for leaders, and teaching others how to navigate spiritual conversations, and how to hear from the Spirit can be difficult, but it is of the utmost importance.
To expect leaders to meet all the expectations of the Age of Association and find ways to connect with people inside and outside the church is too much to put on one person. In the Age of Authenticity, where people want genuine conversations, and open spaces of inquiry to bring their questions, they don’t want a performative model of ministry where everything’s just being told to them. One of the tools we’ve developed is an expectations analysis tool where you, as a leader, can go through and answer things like, what does the congregation expect of you and what do you expect of yourself? And what does your denomination expect of you, or your regional church system expect of you or your higher ups in the system? Then to go back and reflect on which of these things would actually help this Christian community move into a faithful future? You can then underline or circle those things, and think about which things can you actually spend less time on? You cannot take a long list of everything people expect you to do and say, I’m not doing any of this, but through careful discernment, you might help the community renegotiate the shared expectations they have for you as a leader, and you have for them.
4. What do these pivots mean for worship? We spend a lot of time planning and holding worship. Should that be the focus of change and innovation?
We don’t want to experiment or innovate too much in the heart of the community’s life, where the stakes are the highest, because if our experiments fail, we’ll lose a lot of goodwill and the changes will have been needlessly disruptive. It’s best to focus experimentation, innovation, and all of that on the edges of the community’s life. However, with worship being so central, it is a place we need to think about. How is this worship experience forming disciples? How are people experiencing the power and presence of God? Are we speaking language people can make sense of, or that our neighbors, if they were to show up, could make sense of? Is this worship contextualized or incarnate for the moment that we’re in, in the neighborhood we’re in, and for the people that God has called us to? Answering these questions may require some experimentation, some adaptation, but it’s a lot easier to do that in small baby steps and on the side than to do it by kind of blowing up what you traditionally do in worship.
5. People in my ministry context seem tired and worn out or over-scheduled already. They don’t seem to have much energy for trying new things. What do I do about that?
We talk a lot about avoiding insularity. With that in mind, are there people outside of your ministry context willing to help you who believe in your vision and your mission? People who could be invigorating? Could there be “non-traditional” people who would love to help you in your ministry, maybe even people in your town? Always be open to unexpected people who want to be involved with what you’re doing.
However, the church should not try to rush too quickly past the tiredness of many people in ministry. We need to contemplate and discern, what is it in our society that makes us so over-scheduled and tired? What is going on spiritually? Our Luther Seminary colleague, Andy Root, has written a lot on the idea that the church has embraced elements of contemporary Western society, late modern society, that only seek to accelerate the pace of everything. That the church often also gets stuck on that hamster wheel. What if we got curious and asked, God, what are you saying to us through our tiredness? What do we need to simplify? What do we need to stop doing? What are the ministries or the activities that have no spirit led energy in them anymore, that we can let die? Think about John 15 where Jesus talks about the vine and the branches and the pruning. He says every branch that bears fruit is pruned, not just those that are not bearing fruit. Let’s listen spiritually and attentively to people about that. Then think about where life-giving energy is showing up in people’s lives. And if they don’t have an answer to that, if they just feel like they’re running from thing to thing and they’re stressed all the time, then the last thing you want as a church is to say our primary ask of you is to make you busier, to make you more tired trying to serve this voluntary association organization because it needs, your energy to keep it going. And the shift really is how do we actually join in where the life-giving energy is in people’s daily lives and in the neighborhood, and actually figure out how to help them be faithful ambassadors of Jesus in those spaces.
6. I’m having a really hard time finding volunteers to support the church’s existing ministries. Why is it so hard to recruit and retain volunteers?
It’s harder and harder for people to find meaning in volunteering and to give themselves to it in ways that others might have 20, 30, 40 or 100 years ago. This is an opportunity for us to listen to what is going on in people’s lives which makes them uninterested, and ask them where they find meaning? And which existing ministries might we need to put on sabbatical? Maybe stop doing for a while, pause, pare, prune whatever we might want to talk about around that, and then really help discern: God, what are you calling us to shape our life around? Because there are a lot of committees and churches that were carryovers from that voluntary association world where belonging and joining a committee and maybe even being chair of a committee was a really meaningful and honoring thing. Younger generations in particular have less energy for that, less interest in that, don’t find the same meaning in it. So rather than saying, how do we just prop up what we’ve inherited, we should ask God, what are you calling us to do in this moment as we are trying to cultivate disciples, not just voluntary association members?
7. Why won’t the members or congregants invite others to church?
Why would we invite someone to the church that we don’t feel comfortable going to ourselves or don’t feel like we’ve gotten anything out of? Why would we invite people if we’re not happy with what’s going on in the church? Maybe the problem is that people are not delighted with the church, and that’s why they don’t invite others.
If inviting others to church isn’t inviting them into a life transforming encounter with God, if it is primarily a social cultural organization for people, there’s less at stake, and people might not even think to invite others. If church is only “we’re a bunch of nice people and we get to know each other,” you likely have other avenues where you can find that. It comes back to: are we about discipleship as our primary purpose and our identity, or are we about voluntary association membership? The latter is no longer enough, it’s got to be about actually living more deeply into the life of God. When people experience that, they will want others to have a taste of it.