Children Grow Where I Send Thee
A church is a surprisingly difficult thing to just pick up and move. I’m not just talking about the physical building. If you’ve ever tried to get a entire group of people to move (be it spiritually, ideologically, or theologically), you wold probably agree that, at times, it might just be easier to move the physical church – but we can’t.
Churches must grow where they are planted. Digging them up with all of the roots that have been established and moving them to a new location is amazingly difficult and in the rare cases that attempt it, frequently they are not ever able to fully take root, so they eventually wither away. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare.
Growing a church organically, takes very seriously the idea that God has planted a church where it is. It takes very seriously the idea that God has carefully placed the church where it can not only be watered but can provide sustenance.
Considering the realities about the Church that were mentioned in the first three parts of this series, that would seem to be a little bit of a problem. As society has changed the Church hasn’t. We have decentralized ourselves from the lives of a great deal of our communities. Ultimately, we have turned inward for stability and comfort. The more we cling to our past and ourselves, the more the communities in which we are planted have found us to be irrelevant for their lives.
In that situation, the Church is neither likely to be watered by or provide spiritual sustenance for the community. We have to begin reengaging our communities and the first step, quite naturally is to stop clinging to our past and ourselves and, instead, engage in our present and our communities.
Let me warn you. It is a painful process. You are not likely to arrive on the other side of this with all the branches with which you began. But, in time you will experience new growth and with it new vitality and a new spirit as you begin to experience the life that the community from which you have sheltered yourselves for so long will bring to the church. You will begin being watered by them and in turn will have more life, vitality and Spirit with which to provide sustenance to those in need (be it spiritually, psychologically and/or physically).
But this is a re-birthing process. It is painful. The re-birthing pangs will include infighting, letting go of things that have always been understood as central to defining the church (including people, rules, structures, types of worship, etc.), power games as those who resist try to destroy the new life, an uptick in the rumor mill, and many, many more less than enjoyable environments and conditions. What this means is the church’s leadership (minister, governing board, and those helping spearhead the re-birthing) need to develop some very thick skin, need to covenant to support each other throughout the process, and need to be as open and realistic as possible about the process before them.
There are many ways to reengage with community in which the church resides, but one of the first battles you will face is getting them to believe you actually want anything to do with them. After all, they have years of experience telling them that you are really only interested in yourself. This needs to be a very organic change. So, I cannot give you a 1,2,3 of what has to be done. You need to get out there in your community. You may find that there are all kind of opportunities to help provide for the needs of the community that both engage biblical mandates and open up doors into the community (things like food pantries, community centers, Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers and Sisters, volunteering as a church at a local school, etc.).
At the church where I serve, we found that a combination of the things listed above as well as events on the church grounds that were primarily for the community and not necessarily the church (like National Night Out, Trunk or Treat) were effective in making essential connections with the community where we are planted and in letting them know that not only were they welcome at our church, but they are already an important part of it.
Another method to begin your inquiry into re-engaging the community is to understand what that community really is. We develop preconceived notions of what our communities have become, but the truth about who they are will often point out how our biases have shaped our perceived reality. A surprisingly helpful way to bracket out our preconceived notion is to do a demographic study. Some denominations already have these studies available.
Once you know who makes up your community, you have a better chance of figuring out what it will take to have the opportunity to talk to them about God and then grow with them in your relationship with God. You don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel either. Use your denominational and networking connections to locate churches that are already doing a good job reaching out to communities like yours. As you are researching, don’t forget modern networking connections like Facebook and Twitter. A properly developed Twitter friend list can produce results in a tenth of the time as other forms of research on this topic and will likely be much further reaching.
Once you have the list of churches who are already being successful, talk to them. Speaking to them in person will give you the best feedback, particularly if you can meet them at their church and see what they are doing up close, but don’t hesitate to use email, Facebook, Twitter, online chat, Skype – whatever it takes, to engage them.
It is helpful to sit down with those in your church who are the most supportive of this process and develop a single list of questions to follow with each group with which you speak. It should help you stay consistent in your focus from church to church, not get too distracted in any particular area and prevent the need to recontact the church because you forgot to ask a particular question. After all, if they are successfully engaging their community, they probably already have very busy schedules. It is gracious of them to take time out of their schedule to help you, so respect their time by being prepared.
An important element in this process is to be committed. You need to help the leadership in the church recognize that the one thing that is important in all of this is getting the opportunity to speak with others about God and grow in spirit and ministry with them. The only thing that can be sacred is God. We have to take on the attitude of William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army, who said, “If I thought I could win one more soul to the Lord by walking on my head and playing the tambourine with my toes, I’d learn how!” Or as I told the Session at the church where I serve, “If what we find out is that the people in this community believe that pink is the most godly color and that “The Splendiferous Chapel of a Goodly God,” is the perfect name for a church, then we paint the church pink and change our name.”
As I said, the process of being organic, of re-growth, re-birth, is painful – and in many cases necessary.
For a church, being organic also means recognizing that to a certain degree we are responsive to our environment. This doesn’t mean the central message of God ever changes. The precepts of the teachings of Jesus must always remain central to the identity of the church. But everything else has to be constantly up for grabs. Which means we must let nothing become sacred, yet ensure God always remains sacred.
This makes something with which most churches are very uncomfortable, very important. The willingness to fail. Moving forward, the Church must become more responsive to the need of the community. Our response times need to be quicker than those of committees. Which means yet another thing with which most churches are very uncomfortable, very important. Giving permission.
Most churches are permission granting rather than permission giving. If you want to do something in the church, it has to run through a series of formal (and frequently informal) committees of permission granters, who each will want to put their own twist or constraint on the the idea. By the time it makes it out of committee, it is frequently both a shadow of the original idea and an idea whose time has practically passed. As many church signs have said, “God so loved the world, he didn’t send a committee.”
We must give permission for members of the church to not only try something that seems to be responding to a need in the community and church, but also make it acceptable to fail. If there is any hope to grow organically in an ever changing environment, this type of outlook from within the church is essential.
The world is changing at an ever increasing speed. We, the Church, can continue to pretend that we can sustain ourselves outside of society (an idea that looks nothing like the life and ministry of Jesus) or we can recognize that God has planted us where we are for a purpose and set about engaging in that purpose and in our community in a most open, honest, loving and grace-filled way.
I, for one, believe the future of the Church is in learning to be more organic and growing where God has planted us.