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People would tell me it was my best sermon. It was the sermon they remembered the most. Except I never preached it as a sermon. I only mentioned it in the introduction to an appeal for help with a church function.

Once a month or so, the church would place red folders (like the kind some churches use to record attendance and visitors) at the end of each pew. Inside each folder was a sheet of paper listing some “opportunities to serve.” People are encouraged to read through the list, see if something interested or excited them, and then sign with their name and telephone number.

The tasks that were listed were usually short-term and very concrete. For example, we asked for people who were willing to bake a cake for some event, to help out in vacation Bible school, to help drive a new refugee family around, to help plan Advent worship services. You could sign up, help out, and then be done with it.

One Sunday, I introduced the red folders by saying that I had heard recently about a minister who said to his congregation, “Sometimes when we are asked to do something, we say `Yes’ even though we want to say `No.’ We say `Yes’ because we’re afraid that, if we say ‘No’ we’ll feel guilty. Instead, we say `Yes’ and feel angry because we’re too busy, we’re not really interested in doing the task, we’re feeling pressed into doing it. If the choice you’re facing is between saying `yes’ and feeling angry or saying ‘no’ and feeling guilty, I want to encourage you to go with the guilt. Say ‘no.’ ”

After sharing this story, I encouraged our congregation to take this same attitude toward the appeals for help in the red folders. “You should not sign up unless it is something you want to do,” I said. “Go with the guilt!”

The phrase caught on. Many of our most dedicated, faithful and over-worked folk received it with a tremendous sense of freedom and relief. Some worried that the important but less glamorous work of the church wouldn’t get done. They were afraid that everybody would take it as permission to be lazy, to avoid their responsibilities.

There was a possibility that people might react that way. But two factors worked against it. Firstly, the hardest workers in any church don’t usually work out of duty or obligation. They love their Lord and they love God’s Church. They believe in what their church is trying to do. Out of love, they give their time and money and energy with great generosity. They might wish that others would contribute more of their fair share. They may use words like “responsibility” and “duty” to describe it; however, they would probably admit that the work they do for the church isn’t mostly a matter of duty or obligation. It’s a matter of love.

The challenge is not to get people to work harder out of a sense of obligation. The challenge is to get people to love God more and to believe more passionately in the mission the Church is accomplishing.

Secondly, the “go with the guilt” message was part of a bigger shift in our congregation’s way of being the Church together. It developed out of a belief that the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the Body of Christ. The Spirit gives gifts to the church’s members. These gifts fit together for the well-being of the Body. Not everybody will enjoy doing the same things. Some people love crunching numbers; some people love pushing brooms. Some people love the time they spend in the kitchen, some people love the time they spend serving at the local mission.

The challenge is to trust that God knows the work that needs to be done to keep His Body functioning well, and that God is supplying the gifts among Christ’s people to do it.

We must believe that the Spirit is at work in people’s lives pushing, prodding, and pulling them to serve their Lord. The challenge for us is to create an atmosphere where people feel free to respond to that pushing, prodding and pulling in creative and daring ways. Because we’re all learning and growing together, it is all right to try something, even if it doesn’t work out the way we had expected or hoped. It is more important to have tried it.

I love telling the story about Daniel Brown who was pastor of a very large and busy church in California. When people ask him how the church got to be so successful, he tells them that they just kept trying so many things that, by the law of averages, some of them had to work! We all need to work on that “law of averages,” trusting in the Holy Spirit’s presence throughout.

Sometimes God leads people in directions they’re uncertain that they want to go. When people say that they aren’t sure of themselves, we need to encourage them not to let that stop them from moving ahead. If they are venturing into new territory, they can expect to feel uncomfortable. They can take things slowly, one step at a time, as God gives them the courage to move ahead.

One of the advantages of the red folders idea is that they allow people to try out new tasks in small chunks. Newcomers don’t have to jump in by volunteering to be the Chair of a committee. They can help set up tables and still feel they are contributing.

People who are exploring new directions in their lives can sign up for short-term experiences. They can be part of the worship planning team for six weeks and then be done with it. Those who are busy elsewhere and who cannot commit a large chunk of time can help out in short-term activities and still know that they are contributing.

Believing that the Holy Spirit has placed more than enough gifts among us, the congregation was always looking for ways to allow people to contribute their gifts in ways that take account of the realities of their lives and that will help them grow. Our energy was spent less and less on trying to convince people to do the very important work we thought needed doing. Over time, the congregational focus changed from “getting the programs done” to “growing the people.’

New questions became important: How can we help people discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? How can we help them become conscious of the gifts they have and don’t have? How can we help them take down the blockages that keep them from responding to the Spirit’s work? How can we help them overcome their fears? How can we provide new opportunities for them to experience the wonder and privilege of being used by God in His work of healing the world?

The church can still get caught in worrying where it will find the people to meet the agenda which is already planned. But the direction it is moving in, is one where growing joyful servants of Jesus Christ is the focus.

0f course, there are some risks in moving in this new direction. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring forward anyone to run a program that the leaders consider vitally important for the Church? What if nobody wants to teach Sunday school? What if nobody wants to be in charge of keeping the building in shape? The self-images of the minister and of the congregation are at stake. As clergy, we’re very used to trying to meet the expectations of the congregation. As congregations, we strive to offer the kinds of programmes that we think people want. What if the Holy Spirit doesn’t come through for us?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing our church is learning to trust God instead of ourselves. If the Holy Spirit has not provided persons or gifts to run a particular programme, perhaps that programme doesn’t need to be run—at least not by us. If we don’t run it and people miss it enough, somebody will consider it important enough to commit time and energy to it—eventually. If we don’t run it and nobody misses it, then it wasn’t needed after all. Sometimes we can forget that we are not the only congregation that God is working in. Some work God will give to us to do. Some work God will give to another congregation to do. We don’t have to “do it all.” God asks us to be faithful to the call God places among us. That will keep us more than busy!

All of this means that we must, first and foremost, be a people of prayer. We have to stay close to God to hear what God is saying to us. If there is nobody to do something that we think needs doing, is it a sign that we aren’t hearing God’s call to us? Or are we trying to do it the wrong way? Or is there somebody who needs some growth and encouragement before being ready to take up the work? Or is this work given to another congregation to do? Prayer will help us find the answers. And even when we are sure that it is something we are called to do, we will still have to stay close to God. God is the One who will give us the courage and energy and joy to do what God asks us to do.

“Go with the guilt.” I didn’t know it when I said it, but it was a first step towards growing and serving our Lord with delight and joy.

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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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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.

Most Christendom congregations are structured around maintaining the organization rather than towards mission. As they face threats to their own survival, the tendency is to turn inwards even more. They become pre-occupied with church-focused questions: How can we balance the budget? What can we do to attract more people to our worship services and programmes? Weary, over-worked leaders ask, “How can we get more people to serve on our committees?” The pre-occupation of those committees is largely on keeping the organization functioning.

Sadly, in the many congregations who are in survival mode, the major expenditure of energy is now given not to programming or outreach projects but to fundraisers. At one point, fundraisers were often a method of supporting outreach projects. More and more frequently, however, those fundraisers are used to support the operating budgets of congregations.

This is a drastically reduced expression of what the church is meant to be. University Hill United Church in Vancouver, British Columbia describes the mission of the church with five Greek words: diakonia (serving Jesus), koinonia (Christian community), liturgia (worshipping God), didache  (training in the Way of Christ) and kerygma (proclaiming the Good News). In the book of Acts, these five characteristics are distinguishing marks of the Christian community as a whole.

Churches tend to be better at training people for the church in its “gathered” (ekklesia) phase: koinonia (Christian community), liturgy  (worship), and didache  (training in the Way of Christ) than in its “sent” (diaspora) phase: diakonia (serving Jesus) and in kerygma (proclaiming the Good News). The fullness of the church requires not only “come and join us” structures but also structures that send people out into the world — “go” structures.

As congregations make their way into the new future that is emerging, structures need to be developed that nurture the gifts and calling that the Holy Spirit has given to the people. Those Spirit-given gifts and callings will mostly be a matter of the baptized living their faith in the world (in work, play, home, neighbourhoods in which they live) rather than a matter of engaging in religious activities in the church (teaching Sunday School, leading a study group, conducting a financial campaign). The realities that Christian disciples face in their everyday lives can be very different from their experiences inside the church. They need skills and capacities for navigating complex and challenging ethical dilemmas.

More than that, they need to nurture the capacity to discern the signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the everyday. This means being deeply grounded in the scriptures so that they develop a robust theological imagination for the Spirit’s presence and movement. It means cultivating a posture of wonder among all of God’s people for God’s presence and works within and around us, especially in the lives of one’s neighbours. It means cultivating language that feels authentic for witnessing to God’s presence and for articulating why they act the way they act

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