I’ve spent 35 years as parish pastor and seminary professor looking for the secret to congregational vitality. I’ve tinkered with various in-vogue tools for enlivening worship, attracting youth, engaging the community, caring for each other, and so on. And most have had some benefit. But for me, real congregational change has usually happened after a mind-altering experience.
One of these took place at a parish I served in Calgary. My colleague brought in a group of lay people who, over a weekend of food and fun, shared stories of what God was up to in their lives. Then they asked us to break into groups and do the same. Now we were a pretty staid German bunch so most were a bit shocked. But hesitantly one after another began to say things like “well, I was able to make contact with our estranged daughter this week—I think that was God’s doing.” Or “I felt God’s presence in our garden.”
As we heard others saying they saw God in the ordinary stuff of their lives we began to wonder if perhaps the Creator of the Universe was active in our own humdrum lives. It was exciting, mind-altering! Over the next few weeks we had dozens of folks who asked if they could join (or start) a discipleship group.
When Jesus started his ministry, Mark says he went around shouting “Change your minds! See--God’s reign is right here, close at hand!” Jesus helped people to see the world differently, to see it saturated by the gracious presence of an everywhere God.
There are a couple of approaches to ministry that I like to use to lead congregations into a mind-altering experience (“metanoia” for biblical scholars). The first changes the way we tell stories. The second shifts how we do accounting.
First the story-telling: All congregations tell Bible stories. Those stories give us a sense of God’s “life-style,” God’s priorities and purposes. But we sometimes forget to ask “now where do you think you might have seen an expression of that Divine lifestyle, those priorities and purposes in your own life this week? Or in your congregation, or community?”
Noticing and naming God’s current activity is surely one of the Church’s key responsibilities. Yet our coffee conversation often seems focused (with painful precision) on the ways in which sin and chaos are ravaging our world. Certainly there is evil and suffering around us—and our media are only too happy to lay all the world’s pain (far more than we can handle) at our doorstep.
However the energy to invest in others’ suffering, and the hope that we can make a difference, comes from seeing what God is doing around us to foster love, to build webs of shared lives, to sustain the struggling. It’s “awe-some” to discover that God is doing far more than we realized. It’s a joyful surprise to see that those things of which we despair (including ourselves) are actually the arena of God’s life-giving work. And seeing what God is up to gives us hope-filled direction for ministry.
Then the accounting.
Most congregations have been trained to track resources for ministry primarily in terms of money, buildings and clergy. But churches all over the world flourish without paid pastors and holy bricks. So sometimes it’s best to mentally block out the “big three.”
Out of their shadow the ministry world looks very different. We discover our congregation and community are a treasure trove of practical skills, personality gifts, wisdom gained from scars, natural resources, things folks would lend or give, creative interests and abilities. In fact, every congregation is rich, beyond measure. If they had eyes to see it none would close for lack of resources. It is mind-altering to discover the scope of the wealth God has given them, and exciting to creatively connect those resources for ministry.
My mind was altered when I came across these approaches in community development seminars. It’s called “appreciative inquiry” when we focus our communal story-telling not on our problems but on what is working (theologically, on what God is up to). It’s called “asset-mapping” when we track and mobilize the full resources of a community (God’s gracious gifts). Never thought I’d find core tools for vital ministry outside the church. But apparently God is at work there too! What other mind-blowing discoveries might the Church make if it looked a bit farther afield?