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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.

 

 

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the communal life of congregations as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

2) Koinonia (Community)

Christianity is a way of living out one’s spirituality that is inherently communal. It is a corporate way of living that is countercultural in a culture where spirituality is mostly privatized and individualized.

Churches are communities where people care for one another. Baptism incorporates each person into the Body of Christ, in which there is a sense of mutual responsibility of all Christians for one another. That means that pastoral care is the work of the whole people of God, not just ordered ministry personnel. Its focus is not just on the health and happiness of people but also on their souls. We care by pointing people toward the God who cares for them, in whose life is our light(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 4). Pastoral care for people includes paying attention to the intrusions of God in their lives; inviting them to let God move them more deeply into the new world of God’s grace; shaping their vision and their hopes by the presence of the resurrected Christ. Leaders will need skills and training and wisdom in navigating relationships where the Holy Spirit is at work, taking people in new and unexpected directions.

The organizational structures with which most congregations operate were created to serve congregations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. These congregations had enough people with the time and energy and motivation to sit on numerous committees. Those structures are under pressure as the number of people available and willing to fill positions and work on the committees decreases. In many situations, conventional committees are no longer considered the best way to get work done. These realities can be both a challenge and a blessing. They can push communities of faith to figure out how to be structured for relationships rather than around organizational needs. There is renewed attention to ‘spiritual gifts’ as a way of encouraging, equipping, and releasing people into ministries for which they feel called and excited.

Among other things, this means that participatory, collaborative styles of leadership need to be cultivated. Top-down leadership deprives the baptized of their true authority. However, leading in collaborative and non-hierarchical ways is not easy. Training for leadership will require attention to the ways in which relationships are best nurtured.

It will also require attention to the ways people use power in Christian communities. Power is “one of the gifts God gives for the formation of good communities and good people” (Stanley Hauerwas, “What only the whole church can do).

Churches tend to avoid addressing issues of power. Individuals are often reluctant to take on positions of power. More and more frequently it seems, they can be persuaded to do so only if the positions of power are shared. Part of this may stem from a reluctance to take on another commitment of time and energy in very busy lives; however, it may be that some of this is rooted in people being uneasy about exercising power in a community that is ambivalent about it. Leaders will need training in exercising creative authority, in persuasion and in encouraging new initiatives from the bottom up. (Andy Crouch‘s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power provides helpful insights into the faithful use of power.)

One of the great gifts of our culture is the diversity of cultures that are now part of our landscape. Indeed, there are many examples of mainline churches who were declining until a group of immigrants became part of the community and brought new life and joyfulness in the faith with them. As churches become less dominated by people who are white and middle-class, congregations are giving fresh attention to the radical hospitality that Jesus offers and what that means in their life together. Leaders are discovering new ways of helping the community of faith reach across cultural barriers.

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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

It is basic to the gospel that we are saved by the grace of God. God welcomes us into covenant relationship even when we have nothing to bring. It also true that the condition in which we enter into a life of faith is not the place where we are meant to end up. The scriptures assume that the local church is the primary learning environment for growing into maturity in Christ.  As each person is equipped and exercises his or her gifts and vocation, the whole community of faith is built up and comes alive. The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” ( Ephesians 4: 11-13, NRSV)

We are meant to grow into Christ, into deeper expressions of God’s grace, into mature expressions of faith. The Holy Spirit’s work is life-transforming as it disrupts the status quo and pushes the church out of its comfort zones. The work in the world that Christ entrusts to his people is tough, demanding work. It challenges each person to stretch beyond what she or he is at the present time. It challenges each person to mature in faith.

As the saying goes, “God loves us just as we are. God loves us too much to leave us that way.” Living into the grace of God, being a disciple of Jesus, joining God’s mission of compassion and reconciliation in the world — none of this comes naturally. The currency of Christian community is love in the midst of human brokenness. Maturing in faith is deeply relational. It involves learning to love, forgiving and being forgiven, and struggling to continue loving after being hurt. It requires honesty and vulnerability.
On several occasions, in Paul’s letters to young churches, he laments that the community of faith has stalled in its spiritual growth:

By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ.  (Hebrews 5:12-6:3, The Message)

There are many reasons why people fail to mature in faith. The governing structure of the church can hinder the spiritual growth of disciples.

Maturity includes the capacity to make decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Unfortunately, the church is often structured in such a way that only a few people participate in ministry and mission decisions of a congregation. For instance, the most common governing structure for congregations in the United Church of Canada is hierarchical. Only a small percentage of the congregation is needed to run the church. When most of the authority in a congregation rests in a few people, and when the decision-making for the most important issues is done by the few on behalf of everyone else, most people in a congregation are thereby reduced to being ‘volunteers’ or onlookers. They do not sense much responsibility for the decisions made by others. “Their faith, having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant” ( Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), chapter 8).  The baptized often feel little need to move more deeply into faith and hope.

In the long-term, this leaves many people of the congregation feeling inadequate in their faith. They do not feel confident in their ability to live the Christian life, either within the church structures or in their life in the world. They doubt their competence to share their faith with others. The hierarchical governance structures can mean they are not placed in situations where they get to face these feelings of inadequacy.

In addition, the decision-making process in many United Church of Canada congregations is extremely cumbersome. Permission-giving requires several layers of approval and long delays. The cumbersome decision-making processes aim at ensuring that the activities of the church are done successfully. Fearing failure and disorder, the system puts measures into place to protect itself against a loss of control. The congregation is not encouraged or permitted to risk bold ventures in faith. As a result, it becomes difficult for a congregation to remain flexible enough to respond to fresh leading from the Spirit. The system becomes tame and timid. Its decisions become passive and reactive rather than creative and innovative.

It is as people are pushed beyond what they are already capable of doing  that they are forced to learn to depend more deeply upon God’s grace. As they find themselves in situations where their own strength is not enough, they are driven to praying deeper prayers. A community that expects to experience and acknowledge failure also finds that it needs to cultivate the challenging Christian practices of being forgiven and forgiving and beginning again.

Sadly, when people who are looking for fullness of life and daring adventure don’t find it in the church, they go elsewhere. The church then not only misses out on the energy and new life that comes through those who are willing to take bold risks. The church also is deprived of those persons who would encourage the whole congregation to be more bold and courageous in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

Some structures encourage a culture of passivity. In most United Church of Canada congregations, the current model of church is structured in ways which give the message that the ‘real minister’ is the appointed or settled ordered ministry personnel. For example:
* Meetings of the congregation’s Board or Council cannot be held without the ordered minister present;

* Until recent changes allowing ‘sacraments elders’ and diaconal ministers to administer the sacraments, only ordained ministers could do so.
* According to the Manual, the Session is responsible for the conduct of worship in a congregation. However, many Session members are unaware that they have this responsibility and authority. In practice, it is often the ordered minister who makes the decisions about what will and will not take place. This may also be the case for other committees and functions in the congregation, especially where the ordered minister is the chair of the committee.
* Worship spaces are often set up to facilitate the leadership or performance of the few, especially of the presiding minister and preacher. Typically, one third of the space is reserved for the presider/minister, the choir and the music director. The lighting, sound system and acoustics primarily accommodate the needs of the few who lead worship from the front of the sanctuary.
* Congregations are required to provide money and time for continuing education for their ordered ministry personnel; training for ministry leadership and/or faith formation of all the people is often not included in congregational budgets. When churches cut their budgets, programming areas are often the first to be cut back.

* In most congregations, pastoral care is considered to be primarily the work of ministry staff, rather than the work of the whole Body of Christ for one another. Often people don’t consider that they have been visited by ‘the church’ unless an ordered minister has made the visit.

*Until the 2012 General Council, it was the ordered ministry personnel in a congregation who were considered responsible for keeping the ‘peace and good order’ of a congregation and could be sanctioned for disruptions.
These kinds of structures have cultivated a mindset that fuels dependency on ordered ministry personnel. They leave many congregations with over-functioning clergy and many under-functioning members.

The Holy Spirit calls and gifts all the baptized so that the Church can participate in God’s reconciling mission in the world. That mission is large and life-transforming: it heals and makes new; it sets people free and gives them hope and courage and strength; it challenges people to live at their best and to become more than they were before; it shapes communities where authentic life flourishes. As people participate actively in God’s mission, they experience the thrill of doing something significant with their lives.

When the structures of a congregation give real power and authority mostly to ordered ministry personnel, there are few opportunities and little encouragement for the rest of the baptized community to exercise their Spirit-given gifts and callings. Most of the people become passive consumers of the goods and services of the church rather than active participants in God’s mission. People who want to make a difference with their lives look elsewhere to offer their gifts and time and energy. The congregation loses the full expression of its ministry and mission.

On the other hand, when people feel that they have ownership of the work of the congregation, they are motivated to grow in faith and in the exercise of their gifts. Many new and renewing congregations are creating structures that give power and authority to as many people as possible. Some use spiritual gifts inventories to help people discern their gifts and vocations. The primary focus of the structures is on helping people live into their gifts and callings, not on keeping the organization going.

For example, Eagle Ridge United Church in Coquitlam, British Columbia states in its Philosophy of Ministry: “Leaders of healthy churches understand that one of their primary roles is to equip, support, motivate and mentor individuals to become all that God wants them to be . . . Ministry of all Christians is best performed when in line with a person’s life gifts, spiritual gifts, personality type, values and passions. The role of church leadership is to help its members identify their gifts and integrate them with ministries that match their gifts.”  Convinced that every member is called into and gifted for ministry, the congregation invites everyone to take an inventory, LifeKeys. Through an intensive set of exercises that discern a person’s “spirit-given gifts”, personality, values, and passions, LifeKeys helps people discern what the Spirit has called them to do in service to Christ’s mission. The process can be done in a workshop that takes a day and a half, or in an eight to twelve week seminar series. After taking LifeKeys and having its results interpreted, members are encouraged to join Life Groups, small groups of no more than twelve people who gather regularly around a common interest for spiritual growth and nurture.

Its structures include a Ministry Development Team whose purpose is “to facilitate every member of Eagle Ridge United Church to do ministry . . . [by] regularly providing opportunities for members to discover the direction of their ministry through LifeKeys and following up with each LifeKeys graduate to help them either find a ministry of which they can be a part, or assist them in creating a new ministry. This ministry also oversees and supports the LIFE Group ministry”. People are encouraged to join congregational teams based upon their spiritual gifts.
The whole congregation is also encouraged to develop six spiritual practices as a way of journeying deeper into discipleship. Regular opportunities for deepening spiritual practices are offered.

The congregation recognizes that not everyone will sign up for long-term groups. They will, however, sign up for several short-term group experiences over a long period of time. The pastor, Dave Anderson, draws on Kennon Callahan’s distinction between people who are ‘marathoners’ and those who are ‘sprinters’. Most people these days are sprinters, willing to make only short-term commitments. However, sprinters can be encouraged to become ‘serial sprinters’. They will make a number of short-term commitments over extended periods of time. The leadership of the congregation develops its opportunities for spiritual development with that in mind. They have also discovered that people have a hard time committing to weekly gatherings; they are more open to groups that meet every two weeks. The small group ministry is responsive to those realities.

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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations who are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems. It is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

The models of church and ministry with which most of the congregations in my denomination operate cultivate an environment that weakens God’s mission through the church, often inadvertently. Those models deprive most of the ministers in the congregation of their ministry.
Across the country, more and more congregations are depending upon the leadership of lay leaders. The Holy Spirit is raising up leadership who cannot or will not take the traditional route that the United Church of Canada has for training congregational leadership. However, UCC polity restricts the recognized ministry that can be offered by non-credentialed leaders. Not only does this policy restrict the ministry of key lay leaders, it threatens the existence of some congregations. Congregations that are unable to afford recognized  ordered ministry personnel or that cannot find ordered ministry personnel who want to serve them, are left without officially sanctioned ministry leadership. Often, they and the presbytery, consider that the only option left is to close or to amalgamate with a larger pastoral charge.

In some cities, it may seem that closing congregations does not have a big impact. There are, after all, other congregations which people can join — congregations which are eager for more participants to help with the work and financial obligations. However, we have an incarnational faith: faith is lived out in a local context. When a congregation closes and its people disperse to other congregations, the neighbourhood in which the church was located loses an outpost of the reign of God from its midst.

Closing small congregations in more isolated areas has left large areas of the country without the presence of a church at all. This is happening at a time when the gospel which the Church offers is desperately needed. People are facing massive challenges. As theologian Douglas John Hall said thirty-five years ago, “We are in a time when our souls are being required of us; yet, we lack the very quality of soul that we need to face a very dark time.” People need communities of faith that provide support, comfort, and a reason to hope.

Such closures could be avoided if, among other things, the church’s polity made it easier for congregations to develop and engage their own people as worship leaders. The polity hurdles that people face when offering their gifts for leadership consumes energy and time and passion that would be more productively spent on becoming better leaders.

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I have been reading Alan Roxburgh‘s new book, “Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church“. He asks some tough questions in it. One question he says that every level of the church needs to ask is, “What are the challenges we currently for for which we presently have no answer but must address if we’re to live into God’s future for us?” When churches are anxious about the future, they have a tendency to rush to find a solution and slap a ‘fix’ on the problem. It’s a way of maintaining the illusion of control. It’s a way of sidelining God. We find a way forward as we wrestle together with the question deeply enough that we are confronted with what only God can and is doing for us and among us.

Another question he asks is, “What is the originating story around which your denomination/church was built?” I think that he means for us to get past the official party lines. What is the real story, among the local congregations or communities of faith? I was reminded of a talk Douglas John Hall gave over thirty years ago at the Annual Meeting of London Conference (1983). He encouraged us to remember the originating story, or dream, which motivated our ancestors. What kept them going? In Canada, they were largely history’s victims, poor oppressed people who were driven here by persecution in Europe. They came here looking for new possibilities because they faced impossibilities in the Old World. They were victims of famine, persecution, social and political and economic revolutions. Because they were displaced persons, their dreams were modest and humble, born of necessity. They were the dreams of the wretched of the earth and so were firmly rooted in reality.

They didn’t see themselves as masters. They saw themselves as recipients of unwarranted grace and favour. They were not in charge of the process but they also had a sense of great responsibility — as stewards of this land, not as owners, masters or possessors.

He said, “Where have we come from? Poor and unremembered people who were nevertheless the bearers of a beautiful and very human vision. We shall have to recover it if we are not be victims of the greed and destruction of this age. Those who are in charge of things are prisoners of a success story in which simplicity, contentment no longer has a place.”

I wonder if a similar story could be told about the people and congregations who made up the United Church of Canada in its beginnings? What were their dreams and hopes? Not the dreams and hopes of the political types who led the governance structures into union, but of the ordinary, local people who kept the congregations going week after week. They believed in the union enough to find a way through the upheaval and disruption that it caused in their communities and families. What motivated them? What sustained them? What was their faith in God that shaped them? What was the life formed by that story?

It would be good to know. Then, we could wrestle with the question, “What would it look like to improvise that story into our own time?”

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As I have been exploring the changing landscape of church, ministry and leadership in the United Church of Canada and beyond, my perspective has been informed by missional church conversation. The missional church conversation is rooted in the conviction that “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God” (David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 389-390).  The Holy Spirit is active in the world, transforming and redeeming its brokenness. The church is sent by God into the world to be a sign, witness, servant and foretaste of the new creation that God is making in the midst of our ordinary, everyday lives (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, 177).  A popular way of describing the nature of the church then is: “It is not that the church has a mission but that God’s mission has a church”.

For most churches, this is a dramatic shift in focus. It signals a change of identity. Instead of concentrating mostly on ‘in house’ concerns (how do we make our church work? how do we meet the needs of our members?), they focus on God (what is God doing in the world?). Missional churches develop practices that form them into communities that are paying attention to what Holy Spirit already doing in the contexts in which God has placed them. They make space in their life together to receive the gift of God’s life-transforming presence and redeeming work. They follow the Spirit into the world God loves and participate in the new creation God is forming there.

What became apparent early in the research I have been doing is that training leaders for the new forms of church is a complex, multi-layered challenge that requires a multi-layered response. Programmes to train lay leaders need to be delivered in different formats that take into account a variety of learning styles and the diverse life circumstances of the participants. They also need to have different foci than has been the case in most Christendom churches. Most programming has focused on training leaders for in-house leadership rather than for being disciples in their everyday lives. Additionally, governance polity and structures at denominational, regional and local levels need to catch up with new realities. Ordered ministry personnel are finding themselves in new roles in their congregations which require different skills and competencies and new understandings of their identity. Congregations as a whole need to be equipped so that they place a priority on identifying, cherishing and nurturing the variety of gifts for ministry that the Holy Spirit has placed among the people. Addressing those multiple challenges will lead to a re-examination of the core stories that drive and shape the churches.

Pope Pius XI is said to have observed, “We should thank God he has placed us in the middle of so many problems it is no longer permitted us to be mediocre”(quoted by Marty Martin in At the Edge of Hope: Christian Laity in Paradox, ed. Butt/Wright, 180.) Whatever the future directions for lay leadership training, mediocrity will obviously not be adequate.

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