What I Learned about Renewing a Congregation: Old First E-pistle 07.12.13.

Recently, a member fretted, “Are we losing our revitalization edge, pushing the envelope to reach more people?”

I do get nervous sometimes: how we are going to get done all we have to do. But I’m confident we’ve made some conceptual shifts that will continue to push us outward for some time. New ways of thinking about how we are the church and what we do in mission that will keep us reaching for some time beyond our four walls, even, I hope, reaching beyond “churchy-types” to help new and different people into relationship with God (and faith and church).

But this member’s question caused me stop and think about what we learned in revitalization. Maybe we need to consider it together:

A community or institution, to survive, is always on a slow-steady pace towards re-inventing itself. Even the most dynamic and vibrant communities or institutions calcify as they mature. Why? Because successes are better than failures, and past successes are dear to the folks who engineered or experienced them.
The realization that time moves on and therefore we have to always be reinventing ourselves is exhausting. “Can’t we just hold on to what worked in the past, particularly if we had a hand in it, have gotten recognition for it, are still proud of it?” Perhaps curating a museum is less work than being a church, but, I suspect, even museums also have to reinvent themselves!)

The answer to this inevitable trend towards slowing down, then ending up turned around and looking backwards is personal renewal. Only when individuals themselves are experiencing renewal– seeing new possibilities, actively looking for what’s next… how they can continue to develop and grow — will the communities or institutions that they make up stay fresh and forward-looking.

For church, this should be easiest (but sadly it’s not!)– as our ethos is about our relationship with God making us new every day. Are we a community of individuals that are experiencing enough positive transformation that we can countenance the same for the whole community?

Life can only be lived in the here and now and what is yet to come, never in that which has already happened. This is the reason that getting caught in the past is so dangerous, even deadly.

As a church, we have to be present to the current moment and facing the days ahead, rather than enshrining or idolizing some glorified past (whether 2,000, 200, 20 or 2 years ago). That’s like looking for Jesus in the tomb. Only to learn that he’s not there! Even God can’t meet us yesterday. Only today and tomorrow…

Yes, our forebears have done great things with God in the past. And God has performed miracles. We are to give thanks for those accomplishments. We build on them, rather than enshrine them, build monuments for them! Our orientation has to be to the present and future. Church has to help us remember, point us to, make us feel hopeful about the work that God is doing with us now and waiting on us to do.

That means we have to be open and sensitive to new contexts for ministry, new ways of relating, new kinds of information, different perspectives. Our religious life, if we are in any sense alive, can only be lived untrapped by old categories.

In this sense, it’s not only ok to admit we don’t know the answers and can’t see the complete road ahead. In fact, that humility and mystery — conditionality, if you will — is the conceptual framework we need to recognize God’s new and different possibilities. Scripturally, one might say, we can search and search and we’ll never find life in the letter of the law. But moving ahead into the uncertainties of allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit (and the inevitable mistakes we make when we fail at that).

Perhaps it sounds surprising, but church is more about “the new thing” God is doing than anything — even the best thing — God has done in the past. Rather than guarding sacred memories, the church is primarily about “what’s next?” (to quote Geoffrey from my installation).

Of course, we are the shepherds to the great story of Jesus and his ministry on this earth. And of those faithful three days, his death and resurrection. And all the amazing, miraculous things that have happened with his followers and the church since.

But if people aren’t still being touched and turned, if we can’t speak about changes in our life and the difference God is making in the world today, the church is just a history museum.

Closely related, then, is our understanding that our job is more permission-giving than gate-keeping. Both are necessary for continuity in human communities. And in different measures at different times.

But in a setting where the world around us is changing so fast and the church is suffering because it’s fallen out of touch, we need to be more about taking away obstacles than trying to hold the reins tightly. (This is the thinking behind Old First’s current decentralized goverance structure!).

Therefore, we’re leaning into a more collaborative, entreprenurial and spontaneous approach to being and doing church that involves:
~ borrowing ideas and trying new things,
~ work on our flexibility,
~ efficiencies and with tight resources,
~ listening carefully to, but is not surprised or stopped by dissent and disagreement (in fact we may be the dissenters!),
~ an openness us to strangers and strange ideas.

All this in the hopes that by this approach, we are investing in becoming something different in the future.

Serendipity is absolutely crucial — in fact, it’s where God comes in the mix– and yet, ironically, we can prepare a place for serendipity to happen. Two things that covenant ministry taught me were that 1) there is a great deal of “luck” in many of the “eureka” discoveries that are helping us to enliven and expand our ministries, and 2) nonetheless the groundwork for experiencing serendipity is often carefully laid and prepared for.

We often think of certain times and places in history or the life of an institution as the locus itself of a particular burst of energy. But effective, reinvigorating innovation usually isn’t innocently stumbled upon. Instead, the search is much more deliberate, or at least there’s an openness and a desire to be surprised, even when (or maybe because!) the exact goal and strategy for getting there may not be so clear.
How can we be put ourselves in a position to be open to the new?

First of all, we have to pay attention to what’s going on around us. Church life, with all it’s defensive claims that God and the really important things are the same yesterday, today and always, can put us in a bad frame of mind for recognizing the changes that are happening around us all the time. Those changes could be of God. Or at the least, many of them may offer the church great opportunities for mission and ministry. Are we ready to be surprised?

Are we aware of and able to talk knowledgeably at church about change? Or do we take a common stance for folks in their churchy incarnations: hiding our heads in the sand and hoping that the latest changes are passing fads.

Do we discuss openly how people’s attitudes and lives are changing?

Do we ever think, since it’s getting so much easier not to believe in God, maybe that actually makes it harder for people to believe. And adding doubts for us who are faithful carry alongside of our belief.

Do we even know about the changes going on in the wider church all around us? (Most churches’ experiences aren’t like Old First’s!). Many of the realities we have come to think of as part of church life seem to be disappearing. Can we look beyond our sense of loss towards opportunities these changes might afford for our work and ministry?
What’s it mean for Old First that the demographics, economics, politics and culture of the city of Philadelphia is in flux?

The one thing I learned most clearly in Covenant Ministry was the importance the “unexpected successes,” because they can help us uncover the discrepancies between reality as you have thought it to be and reality as it now in fact is. Those unexpected successes are just unforeseen good news; they are flags God’s waving to reveal new possibilities.

In a meeting of the Search Committee for our new Conference Minister the other night, my friend and colleague Ryan reminded me of what another colleague has suggested. “It’s time to stop trying so hard to be a welcoming church. Instead, we’re have to become an inviting church.”

See you there,
Michael