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.