What I’ve been learning…
I’ve been on leave from call (That means I’m not pastoring a church right now) since November. And during this time I’ve made it a point of visiting several different congregations and have been supplying (filling in for pastors and leading worship and preaching). These have been wonderful experiences. I have been able to go to many different churches over these months, talk with people, observe what is going on, and learn. Sometimes I’ve been specifically invited to congregations to observe specific things they are doing.
Here’s a couple of observations.
1. There’s some amazing things going on in the synod. Some really great, healthy things. I wish more people knew about these things. This is the benefit of traveling around – you learn. You observe. You start to question why? I don’t want to get caught up on the techniques, or the specific programs or anything like that, because honestly, I think those are just outcomes of something much deeper – the culture, attitudes, beliefs about the church, the past, the present, and the future, interactions, and more. These are core and foundational. If you have these in place and they are healthy, then I’m convinced the outcome will be programs and techniques and more that are working well. It’s not the programs or techniques that are the key – it’s the people, the leadership, the culture, and more. All the abstract things that are really hard to measure and reproduce. There isn’t a nice easy 10 step checklist that a congregation can pick up and copy because every congregation is unique. That’s because each congregation has a unique set of people, experiences, a unique culture and context, and more. It’s not about copying what’s working somewhere else. It’s grasping that the reason why something is working is because the people has embraced what God is already doing with them and because of that, there is transformation, openness, listening, and a desire to be in community together in a way that works for their context. Each congregation needs to discern what that looks like for them.
2. As I have been going around to the many congregations and talking with lay people – not the leadership, but the average person in the pew, here’s what I hear. I hear two messages consistently. A lament for what was but is no longer. And a hope for the future. Often these are generational messages. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard an older lay person talk with me sincerely at a variety of congregations during this time and offer lament over how the church and society has changed. I can hear the sorrow of the loss. I can hear a longing for things that were really important and are gone. I can the struggle with trying to make sense of it all. Here’s what I come away with – I think we need to help people with mourning. As a society we are terrible at this. And even in the church we’re not that great. We have funerals, which I think are vital, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. After the funeral there’s an expectation that someone who has lost something or someone dear to them will get back to “normal” really quickly. That’s not realistic. Or healthy. People need help to mourn what was in the present and is now in the past. There are stages of grief and the church has a unique opportunity to walk with people through those stages. Because if we don’t mourn, we can’t move on. We can’t accept the new normal of what is. As a church, we have an opportunity to mourn with people. But not to stay there.
Which leads to the other message – a hope for the future. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future and plenty of people express this. But they have a desire for hope for the future. Again, the church has a unique opportunity in this. It has a message of hope already – we don’t have to create a new one. The faith that we have been given is a faith grounded in hope and with a belief that the best days for the church are yet to come. But I wonder if we as the church are not fully believing that. We look at what was and we think that it was the best because there were lots of people in the pews and lots of money in the bank. Is that the definition of success for the church though? Just having lots of people and money? What do people do? How is that money used? See, it’s like what I said earlier – you have to look beyond what is right in front of you to a deeper level – of culture, context, attitudes, beliefs and more. Jesus didn’t have much more or people by the time he was crucified. By the world’s standards, he was a failure. Yet we know this is not the case. The church exploded soon after. Not because of measurements that the world cared about. But because Jesus sent the church and faithful on a mission of great importance. A mission oriented towards hope. A mission that drew people in because it mattered and it filled a void in people’s lives that they could not get anywhere else. If you want to know what hope looks like, look at movements. They start out really small with hardly anyone or hardly any resources. But they offer something intangible to people. Something that crowds and money can’t buy. Meaning. Purpose. Identity. Community and relationships. Trust. Hope. That’s what we have. It’s all there. Just waiting for us to use these things again. That’s not to say that the institutional church will look like it did in the past. That’s just a rewind. That’s not hopeful. Instead, take these things that we have been given and go forward in the context and culture that exists and allow them to shape what a community of faith looks like. In some cases it will look very familiar – like congregations of the past. And in other cases, it will take on a new form – something we aren’t familiar with. Neither is bad or good. That’s not what it’s about. Instead, it’s faithful living into the hope filled mission of Jesus.