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I have been re-reading two books recently written by Alan Roxburgh: Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church and Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in our Time. Both books provide some very helpful insights into the process of the ways churches respond to the changed context in which they find themselves.

Structured for Mission is heavier reading than the very practical Joining God. It provides a more theoretical approach to the ways in which change happens in organizations. Organizations in crisis tend to respond by trying to make changes in their structures. However, says Roxburgh, what they should attend to are the underlying stories which are embodied in the structures. These are what are really driving and shaping the structures and the organization.

He calls these underlying stories ‘legitimating narratives’ — “an overarching story that provides a group . . . with a way to express its underlying values, beliefs and commitments about who they are and how life is to be lived. It’s a story that tells a group who they are, what is acceptable and what is a proper way to live” (p. 32) Organizations and groups lose the capacity to hold the attention and loyalty of people when increasing numbers of people no longer find that the legitimating narrative  helps them make sense of their lives.

The churches that are part of what used to be called mainline denominations are operating with a legitimating narrative that values the capacity to control and manage their life. “Strategic planning [is] one of its primary tools. In this way of planning, experts gathered data, studied the various elements of a situation, and identified the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be at a point in the future. On this basis a plan was developed to get from one point to the next.” (p. 43) This narrative assumes that we are the most critical agents acting in the situation. The choices we make are the actions that determine the future.

Part of the problem that churches encounter is that the situations in which they find themselves no longer are ones that can be managed and controlled. Too much around them is changing too quickly and too drastically. The legitimating narrative no longer works:  we find ourselves in “a place where [our] explanations no longer explain and [our] actions no longer fix.” (p. 116) Churches are having to find new ways to navigate into the future.

Roxburgh directs us to our original stories to find a legitimating narrative that will help us develop the capacity to continue in our journey. In those stories — the stories of the Bible — the most critical agent in any situation is not us but God. We are certainly involved but it is God who is at the centre of what is happening. It is God’s actions that are decisive.

The first work of the churches in this place and time is to learn again how to pay attention to God: to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and in our neighbourhoods. We do that by learning to
1) engage the scriptures more deeply,
2) listen to each other more carefully especially our stories of where God is working in each other’s lives, and
3) re-engage the neighbourhoods and communities in which our church buildings are located.
One of the tools Roxburgh uses is “Dwelling in the Word”, a modified form of lectio divina that also involves careful listening to each other.

I find that it is hard to convince congregations to adopt Roxburgh’s approach. For one this, this is slow work. It will not give an immediate appearance that something is being done to fix the problems a congregation is facing. It is also soul work — something, ironically, many people in our churches are generally not too enthused about.

In a few months, I’ll be working with some congregations that are willing to try this out. We are embarking on a journey together where we do not know exactly where we are going but we are willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us. It will be an adventure — something much more interesting and compelling to me than the attempt to restructure the ‘courts of the church’ on which my denomination is currently expending great time and energy.

 

 

A prayer based on Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Great is your faithfulness, O Lord, our Saviour,
Faithful in loving us
Faithful in finding us when we lose our way
Faithful in forgiving us
and healing us
and bringing us home to you.

Great is your faithfulness, Lord,
and we are grateful.

There are times when each moment
shines with your grace and your goodness;
we know ourselves bathed in your holy care
and our hearts sing out your praise.

There are times when we struggle
to keep going
and you shepherd us,
holding us with a love
that does not let us go,
feeding our souls
with your presence,
speaking your truth
that gives us strength and courage
for one more step,
and we gasp out our
‘thank you’, ‘thank you’, ‘thank you’.

But there are also times when we
barge through our lives
oblivious to your presence,
your gifts,
your call;
unaware of all we have received
from your abundant love.

Speak to us today:
speak the words that
draw us back to you;
words that recall all you have done;
words that deepen and renew
our love for you.

We open our and our minds
to your Spirit’s work,
for you are the one
whose broken body
and poured out life
are the food and drink
we need.

Amen.

You have called us to follow you, Lord Jesus
as you bring your good news to the world,
and we have said we would
gladly
knowing you to be our heart’s true desire
the Saviour we need
the Truth that makes our lives true.

And yet,
there are times when you lead us
where we would rather not go.
Following you
into God’s new creation,
we have had to leave behind
a way of life that felt comfortable and secure.
following you,
we have found ourselves among
people we do not know,
some of whom we are sure we do not like;
some of whom are difficult to love.

And we know that,
if we keep following you,
you will lead us to the cross
for there are people who are afraid of the
new life you bring.

So, when you summon us
to live as such risk,
would you
summon also your love to overcome our fears;
summon your hope to give us courage to stay at it;
summon your faith to keep us close to you.
We cannot follow unless you
surround us with your steadfast love and faithfulness and grace.

We need your help for
in you we find our heart’s true desire,
the Saviour we need,
the Truth that makes our lives true
and holy
and good.

All praise to you, Lord Almighty.
At the beginning of time,
you hovered over the chaos
and gave every living thing the breath of life.

Through your holy prophets,
you enflame your people
with a passion for your truth.
You call us to the ways of justice and compassion.

By the Spirit of your Son Jesus
you pour upon us
gifts of faith and goodness and love.

O Spirit of the living God,
with the whole church
we wait for you.
Come to us,
come among us:
come as the wind
and blow far from us
all dark despair,
all groundless fears,
all false values.

Come as the fire
and burn away
all selfish desires,
all false pride,
all readiness to play the victim.

Come as the dew
and revive your people.
Grant us the forgiveness
that sets us free,
the passion of Christ
that draws us into the world you love,
the faith and courage
that speaks your redeeming truth.

Breathe on us, Breath of God.
Transform us into your faithful people.

A prayer based on John 17: 17-26

What a great gift you give us, Lord:
you pray for us;
you pray that we may be united
more and more deeply with you;
you pray that your love will flow into us
and through us into all the world;
you pray that others will see your glory in us
and be drawn into your circle of love.

What a great gift that you pray for us,
and in us
and through us,
for we could not be what you have called us to be
without your prayers
your presence
your strength
your grace.

We open our hearts and our spirits
to the powerful work of your prayers:
Let your Spirit flow into the wounds that have damaged our souls.
Let your Spirit bring healing into the broken places.
Let your Spirit renew and restore us in your image.
Then, grant us grace and courage
to do the holy work
you have given us to do,
risking great things for your glory.

Amen.

A prayer based on Luke 7: 1-10

Lord Jesus Christ,
you are the Bread of Life.
You are the one true Vine.
You promise that you are
the end of our hunger,
the end of our thirsting.

Yet, other promises have been made to us:
promises that,
if we work hard enough,
we shall get the life we want;
if we buy the right things,
we shall find love and acceptance;
if we are good enough,
we shall find the power and admiration
that our souls crave.

We know it isn’t true,
but we are seduced anyway.

We wander far from your grace
that welcomes us,
that heals our brokenness,
that gives us hope.

Speak your Word, Jesus,
and we shall be healed.
Speak the Word that
brings life where we see only death;
speak the Word that gathers up the pieces
and makes us your new creation;
speak the Word that sets us firmly in the grip of
your steadfast love and faithfulness.

Then, send us out in your holy name.
Give us to the world you love
that our whole lives might be
an offering to you.

Amen.

I’ve been  doing some research on congregational amalgamations. One thing is very apparent: amalgamations have a greater chance of being ‘successful’ if they are driven by a conviction that the participating congregations are able to serve God’s mission better together than separately.

What is also apparent is that most congregations enter into the conversation about amalgamation when they are desperate: the leadership of the congregation are tired of working very hard to keep things going; the building is in need of major repairs; the finances are unable to sustain the ongoing costs.

Often, then, people enter into the conversation hoping that an amalgamation will solve those problems. Past experience indicates that that will probably not be the case. If nothing is done to address the dynamics that caused the decline and the crises in the first place, within a few short years, the new congregation will be facing the same problems again.

Addressing those dynamics is hard work. Once a congregation enters into the process of amalgamating with another congregation, its people can be easily distracted from that hard work by the technical details of making an amalgamation happen. However, figuring out why God has called them to be the church in a particular place and time is critical to their becoming a flourishing congregation. That work needs to be done before, during and after the amalgamation process.

In the recent past, many congregations tried to do that work by developing mission or vision statements and by listing their values. I am not convinced that that has been helpful or fruitful. Many congregational mission statements are merely generic descriptions of what the people think a church should be. They are seldom very compelling. They are usually focused primarily on the church rather than on the mission.

So, what does a congregation do in order to get a clear sense of what God is calling them to be and to do in their particular place and time? I suspect that the answer to that question lies in story-telling. The Church is a story-formed community. The Bible doesn’t list a set of values. It tells stories about the Triune God and about the people who have lived in response to and in obedience to that God.

What would it look like to reclaim that way of being the Church? People would need to know the Story well. It would need to dwell deeply in their hearts and their lives. The sad thing is that so many Christians have given up on our Story. They are not convinced that the stories in the Bible have much to say to the way they live their lives. It is a great challenge for their leaders to wrestle with the scriptures so deeply that the Story catches fire in their own lives. Then they will have something to offer their people.

The people will need to know the Story well enough that they are able to work with it creatively. Then, there will need to be a culture in the congregation that nurtures in them that creativity and celebrates it.

I am wondering if a way to start would be to give story-telling a more prominent place in the life of the community of faith. Have people tell the stories of what God is doing in their lives. Discover what biblical stories are living at the heart of the community. Learn those stories. Wrestle with them. Tell them to each other. Let those stories shape the decisions that are made. Let them be the lens through which the congregation sees what God is calling them to be and to do.

Does anyone know a congregation where that is happening? I would love to hear about it.

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