Current Events XVIII
Christian Sec. Fraud
Bridge School I
Bridge School II
Dr. Ralph Stanley I
Dr. Ralph Stanley II
Successful Aging I
Successful Aging II
Clear Thinking I
Clear Thinking II
Death Penalty 2010
Death Penalty II
Knowledge Create I
Kn. Creation II
Kn. Creation III
Doctor and Diva I
Doctor and Diva II
Doctor and Diva III
Doctor and Diva IV
Colton H. Bryant I
Colton Bryant II
'61 Rose Bowl Hoax
The King's Speech
Lk 17:11-19 (2011)
Caravaggio in 2011
A Trip to Maui
Advice to Young Folk
Thoughts on a Healthy Church
Bill Long 11/16/10
Dysfunction and difficulty are no strangers to church life. The long existence of many congregations, the granting of extensive powers to few people, the ability of leaders to justify things by invoking authorities (e.g., God) that aren't easily questioned, the largely voluntary nature of the church, the ability of leaders to draw upon teachings from the Bible that inculcate submission to them, and the relative lack of legal accountability make it rather surprising, sometimes, when you actually run into a healthy church. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on a few things that contribute to a healthy church community.
The genesis of this article comes from a series of conversations with a friend of mine, Dan, with whom I meet every other Tuesday morning for wide-ranging talk and reflection. Dan brings vitality, insight, passion and commitment to many things in his community, but especially his congregation. Mitch Albom may have had his Tuesdays with Morrie; I have felt privileged to have my "Tuesdays with Dan" for the last several months.
1. The Sources of Identity
There are few things more key to a healthy church than a clear sense of its identity. This identity may, to some certain extent, be provided by the tradition of the church or its denomination, but what I am thinking about here has to do with establishing a sacred text, root metaphor or image of what this particular congregation especially cherishes. Identities give rise to shared understandings, and shared understandings become foundational for mission, service and community life. My point here is that each congregation needs to think clearly and diligently about its basic identity.
Identity-shaping words are strongest if they are drawn from the classic texts of the church's tradition. But because the Bible, for example, has thousands of verses and hundreds of thousands of words, care needs to be taken to identity words that are particularly applicable or fitting for the church's current needs and desires. For instance, Dan's church (which I also attend) has been studying the Book of Ephesians in the past few months. In that book are loads of powerful images of church life, but a few particularly vital verses stick out to us on reflection. One is from 4:3, where the author urges the readers, to "make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." If a church wanted to make this verse its anchor, for example, its task is just beginning. Individuals and groups would frequently have to ask what it means to "make every effort" to do something. What is the "unity of the Spirit?" How does one do things in the "bond of peace?" How might this be compatible with "speaking the truth in love," which is another important thought articulated just a few verses later (4:15)?
Congregations, like companies and other entities, need root identities that are general enough to allow for discussion and adaptation to time's passing realities, but that are specific enough so that they provide concrete guidance on how the church is to proceed. But if this verse, for example, were to be foundational, it would mean that the peace and unity of the church, or what one might refer to as the covenantal nature of the community, is paramount. I would quickly add that this isn't the only way a church could define its identity. It might, for example, be so concerned with maintaining doctrinal "purity" or a certain kind of theological tradition that it is willing to sacrifice a few of its people along the way if they don't make the "purity" grade.
My contention is that each congregation will be operating either by an explicit or implicit identity-shaping verse or metaphor. Why not make the process of adopting one an intentional one, with all the promise of discovery that such an adoption would encourage?
2. Identifying the "Streams" that "Flow" into the Church
If the first task of the healthy congregation facing its future is to look "upward" or "vertically" to the sacred sources of its identity, a closely-related task is to look "horizontally" or "across" at the nature of the people that make up the congregation. Although several people are in each congregation for reasons that even they would find difficult to articulate, most people are not there simply because they are solitary individuals who have decided to identity with this congregation. They are influenced by either the tradition of the congregation, the values of the neighborhood or city in which it is located, other Christian ministries, such as Young Life, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Bible Study Fellowship or a host of Christian or secular "causes" that might be dear to the heart of many. For example, many a congregation in a university town takes on a flavor of the college itself, with programs geared to the rhythms of the school year and frequent shared references to happenings on campus, on the gridiron, etc.
It is important patiently to identify the leading "streams" that flow together to make up the congregation, since the streams are the things that give life to the river into which they flow. Each of these streams has distinctive approaches to faith and life, and these approaches will be reflected in the people who largely are influenced by that stream. It is also important to know these streams so that one might know some of the "pressure points" of large numbers of people. For example, if many people are in weekly Bible study programs outside the church that emphasize memorization and recitation of Bible verses, it would not just be insensitive, but actually counterproductive for the pastor to put down "rote memory" in his/her sermons.
The result of this process is twofold. First it will give the congregation and its leaders a map, so to speak, of many of the influences shaping faith in the congregation. Second, it will provide the basis for discussing whether and to what extent other streams can be added to the mix, and to what extent the church can understand where its "future" lies. For example, if one of the congregational emphases might be to attract younger people to the church, thought must be given to whether these younger people would belong to either or any of the streams already identified. They need not, of course, but an awareness of the streams would make it starkly clear the kinds of changes that might be in the offing if the church attracts new people.
3. The Nature of Public Discussion
Though many churches have traditions of authoritarian control or minimal discussion in adopting policies or direction for the congregation, my approach is that a healthy church talks to one another. But how to set up and conduct those discussions ought to be a matter of serious reflection. Gatherings of people ought to be treated almost as if they are sacred opportunities; thus, care should be taken to focus attention and maximize discusion on useful questions. Transitions in pastoral leadership are often the best time to conduct these discussions, even though any time can be a good time to talk. People have to be given freedom to say what they want, but that freedom needs to be channeled into productive conversations. Thus, one "rule" of conversation ought to be that no one is either demeaned by name or by implication. Another rule ought to be that even though the past has shaped and even hurt us, the focus ought to be on what we can learn from the past for the present and future. There are and should be opportunities for people to share their private hurts, but when it has to do with the direction the congregation should head, those concerns should be subordinated to what the past teaches us for the future.
4. The Importance of Bi-and Tri-Cultural Leaders
Church leaders are often conscious of the fact of which stream of the church's identity gave them birth. My friend Dan, for example, has so many pastors and educators in his family tree that the denominational tradition of the congregation is, as it were, stitched to his soul. But in order for a church to be really healthy, it needs to have leaders that are "bi" or "tri" cultural. What I mean by that is that they need to articulate and sympathize with the other streams that make up the congregation, as well as be aware of the culture of potential growth streams that might add to the congregation. Just as it is difficult to be bi-lingual, so it is hard truly to be comfortable with people who don't come out of "your culture." But that is the need for the church--for people who can as easily identify with and understand the various dominant streams of the church's culture as a translator at the United Nations speaks his/her native tongue and the tongue of a speaker.
Though this essay seeks to answer many questions, it really leaves many others open, and it encourages the asking of more. How does one become, or recruit, "bi-cultural" leaders? What is the process one goes through to identify the "sacred text" or image that should provide the congregation's identity? How does one keep that identity alive or see it grow? How do you decide on topics for and parameters of community discussions? All of these would require more thought. But if you make some headway on these four topics I think you will find that you are making great progress towards becoming a healthy, vibrant and attractive church in your community.