Transforming (Mainline) Congregations III
1. How do you take a church with an old, historical landmark building and a congregation of maybe 50 on a really good Sunday, average age about 60, and transform it into a living, growing faith community?
I have the luxury of being the final respondent to this set of questions, with my colleagues Bruce Epperly and Bob Larochelle having already given their answers. I’ve served as pastor of three congregations, two of which have a long legacy of service, and which have seen heights of influence and membership, while dipping down in more recent years. The church I currently serve was once the leading Disciple church in Michigan and had a prominent place on Detroit’s main thoroughfare, but which moved to the suburbs in the 1970s, taking up residence in a much smaller space, but also one it’s never been able to fill.
From experience the problem churches like these face is letting the legacy determine the focus of church life. We remember what was, and wish we could recreate it. Such a vision will in the end undermine any possible future ministry. When a church draws inward and tries to relive its past (and I write as a historian), it fails to see the possibilities that lie before it.
How do we break free of such barriers? It’s not easy, but it is possible. I have found inspiration in the missional church movement, which sees the church as not only doing mission, but seeing mission as its identity. Taking up a missional identity places the focus on what God is doing in the world and joining with God in that work.
- Rick Rouse and Craig Van Gelder, A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation: Embarking on a Journey of Transformation (Fortress Press, 2008).
- Gary Nelson, Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living (TCP Leadership Series) (Chalice Press, 2008).
- Alan Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making (Jossey Bass, 2009)
2. How can you engage someone brought up as a scientific rationalist in (say) the last 30 years in your church sufficiently long to enable them to have some kind of transformative experience, and how do you get them to stay?
It is my experience that many people who start from a scientific rationalist perspective are leery about the church, because too often they have faced folks who either deny the value of science or marginalize it. If you look at the world from a scientific perspective, you can’t be expected to lay aside that foundational element. Many such people then turn to people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who define religion in starkly narrow ways, which often match what these people have experienced. The result is that many have been inoculated against any openness to religion or spirituality.
Overcoming the barriers that a scientific rationalist puts up isn’t easy. The only real way to overcome reticence is to invite them into conversation, and perhaps into a worship experience. If they discover that in these experiences their commitment to the search for truth is honored, where they’re not being asked to set aside their intellectual pursuits they may be open to knowing more about one’s faith tradition.
One of the ways that I’ve found helpful is to participate in the annual Evolution Sunday/Evolution Weekend. I’ve preached on the value of science and welcomed the insights of Darwin. When a person doesn’t have to choose between Jesus and Charles Darwin, the opportunities for conversation become increasingly fruitful. In addition it’s helpful to be conversant about our persons who have engaged in this conversation – such as John Polkinghorne, who is both a physicist and a theologian or Kenneth Miller, a biologist who is also a committed Roman Catholic.
- Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. (Harper One, 2008).
- Daniel Harrell, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, (Abingdon, 2010).
- John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life, (WJK Press, 2010).
- Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, (Viking, 2008).
- John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, & Understanding. (Yale Univ. Press, 2000).
3. Can a charismatic, evangelical. mission‑based church find a home for a post‑modernist theologian/mystic?This is a somewhat difficult question to answer. I feel like I should reverse the question and ask whether a charismatic, evangelical, missional Christian can find a home in a post-modernist/mystical context? Either way you ask the question, the answer might be: It depends. In my own spiritual journey I’ve been part of and deeply influenced by charismatic, evangelical and mission-focused faith communities. I’ve also found the post-modern approach to theology to be of great help. What I will say is this – Mainline/Progressive faith communities can be a good home to people who come from a variety of perspectives. I think this is especially true for my own denomination, which is by definition a non-creedal community. For such a community to work, however, we must be respectful of each other. We must allow people to bring their traditions into the mix and allow them the freedom to explore the connections.
- Robert D. Cornwall, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, (Energion Publications, 2013).
- Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Zondervan Publishing, 2006)
- Phil Snider and Emily Bowen, Toward a Hopeful Future, (Pilgrim Press, 2010).
We often talk about young people being the “future of the church,” and yet we shut them off from the life of the church. As a child, growing up in the Episcopal Church, I started out as an acolyte and then by high school I was serving as a lay reader. As a pastor I’ve tried to include youth and children in worship – not as token spotlight during a children’s moment – but in actually leading worship. The church benefits from not only seeing youth and children, but hearing from them as well. And that’s the key – too often we take that “to be seen and not heard” view into our relationships with youth and children; indeed, even young adults. We don’t deem their voice worthy to be heard, and as a result we miss out on much wisdom.
5. What role would theological or doctrinal distinctives play in such a church? Is the particular theological flavor of the church important?
My denominational tradition, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is non-creedal. We don’t have an official statement of faith. That being said, there are spiritual practices, including believer’s baptism and weekly communion that help define who we are. Even our non-creedalism has a purpose – it emerged out of our commitment to Christian unity, as well as our reliance on the New Testament as guide. But, even if we are non-creedal, how we view God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, or the church does influence the direction of the church. If our vision of God is one that is distant and foreboding, then I believe that our life together, especially our vision of the other, will reflect that understanding. If we believe that God is closer at hand, and defined by love, grace, and mercy, then the way we live out our faith should reflect that vision.
- Ronald J. Allen, A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Believe, (WJK Press, 2010)
- Philip Clayton with Tripp Fuller, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, (Fortress Press, 2010).
- Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, (T&T Clark2011)
6. What role does liturgy play in church renewal? Is it important whether the church is formal or informal, “high church” or “low church,” or what style of music is used?
As a Disciple I believe that the Lord’s Table is central. It is a place where we gather to remember Jesus, his life, his death, his burial, and his resurrection. The Lord’s Supper includes a variety of images and meanings that reflect the fullness of the Gospel. It points us back to Jesus’ last supper, and beyond that to his own table fellowship, where he ate with sinners and tax collectors, but it also goes back further, connecting with the Passover meal. But going forward it has an eschatological dimension, pointing us toward the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, as pictured in Revelation. By gathering weekly at the Table we are able to connect with these images, and incorporate them into our own experience of God’s presence. The style can be formal – as in the Catholic or Episcopal Church, or relatively informal as in the Disciples.
Where many in the Mainline Churches run afoul is that we forget Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Too often renewal is undermined by our rigid embrace of traditionalism – “the dead faith of the living.” The other issue is strangeness. For many, especially those who are younger, the liturgy and the hymnody of many of our churches is strange and unwelcoming. The response needn’t be throwing out the old, but finding ways of making this understandable and welcoming. Just because we know how things work, doesn’t mean others do.
- Patrick Kiefert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism. (Augsburg Fortress, 1992).
- Keith Watkins, The Great Thanksgiving: The Eucharistic Norm of Christian Worship, (Chalice Press, 1995)
7. Can a pastor in a church that is part of a denomination lead that church in renewal? Do denominational politics prevent the kinds of creative actions that are necessary for church renewal?
I can only speak from my experience as a Disciples of Christ pastor, where we have great latitude at the congregational level. Since I’m not appointed by nor can I be moved by a higher authority – beyond the congregation, I believe that I have the freedom to lead toward renewal. That said, the issue isn’t so much denominational politics, but congregational appetite for renewal. My sense, however, is that for most of my Mainline/Progressive colleagues, even if they are more beholden to the denomination, there is still great freedom.
I think where denominational politics gets in the way is where there is a lot of conflict over social/political issues. People get discouraged and can decide to leave the church, if they don’t agree with the statements from the denomination or they just get tired of conflict in general.
8. How can a pastor assigned to a new church discern the needs of that church and find the path to renewal for that specific congregation?
This isn’t easy as congregations in the call process may not be as forthcoming about their hopes and dreams and expectations. They may say they seek renewal, but not really be ready for it. My current congregation was talking missional, which appealed to me, but once I got here I realized that they didn’t all really know what that meant. So, it’s been a process of working together to better understand what this means. The problem so many congregations and their pastors have, is that the time frame is often short. We’re told, as clergy, to go slow in the beginning and then over time bring into play renewal. The problem is, that by the time you’ve gotten to know the people, your opportunity to bring in renewal has passed. At the same time, churches often are desiring quick fixes and when the turn around doesn’t happen overnight, they move on to the next person. I’m now nearing the end of my fifth year of ministry in my present congregation, and am just now beginning to see the work we’ve been doing bear fruit. My expectation is that true renewal will take place over the next five years of ministry.
So, how does a pastor discern the needs and find that path to renewal? I don’t know that there is a clear-cut answer. I’m not sure that the advice to go slow is the best. It would help if judicatories better understood congregations so they could better match pastors with congregations. They could also help mediate the transition, so that the pastor might better understand the congregation, and the congregation the pastor. Ultimately, I do think that if possible, a lengthy pastorate (closer to 10 years than the typical 4-5) offers the best hope of instituting the changes that lead to renewal.
9. What is the role of the pastor’s personal prayer and devotional life (or that of the lay leadership)?
I must confess that I struggle with prayer, especially contemplative prayer. I read voraciously, seek to worship fully, and keep focused, but sitting and praying is difficult and challenging. I’m reminded, however, of a passage in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, where Bonhoeffer advises his students to not worry about the distracting thoughts, but rather to incorporate them into one’s prayer. My mind tends to wander in prayer, so this is helpful advice. But, if we’re not engaged prayerfully with God, if we’re discerning the Spirit’s presence in our lives, it is very difficult to lead – whether we’re lay or clergy. Without that connectedness, church simply becomes a club or social action network, and not a community in relationship with God.
- Bruce and Kate Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Presence of God in Ministry, (Alban, 2009)
- Kent Ira Groff, Clergy Table Talk: Eavesdropping on Ministry Issues in the 21st Century. Academy of Parish Clergy Conversations in Ministry. ( Energion, 2012).
10. What is the role of the pastor’s academic and professional development in church renewal?
I am by training and preparation very much the academic type. I earned a Ph.D. in historical theology for the purpose of teaching, but ended up in parish ministry instead. So, has that background helped me? Interestingly enough, I can say it has, but it took time for me to let go of my yearning to be in the academic arena. Having said this, academic/professional training or development is most helpful in that it can or should encourage us to be continually learning. I often hear clergy talk about seminary failing them, because they didn’t learn this or that tool for ministry. What they forget is that seminary gave the tools to learn and adapt to new ideas and opportunities. What seminary does best is provide the foundational skills and knowledge, especially in terms of biblical, theological, and historical knowledge. Unfortunately, a “business school” model has taken hold, so that many clergy think that education in these foundational subjects is irrelevant. But then we wonder why biblical and religious illiteracy is rampant in our churches. If pastors are ill-equipped to handle the Bible, then why they should expect their people to be able to do so?
So what is the role of academic/ professional development in church renewal? If we take seriously the idea of life-long learning, then we will continually be retooling so that we can be ready for the changes that continually face the church. My hope is that seminary is more than the terminal point for education in and for ministry, but just the beginning. In fact, this is the purpose behind the Academy of Parish Clergy, for whom I serve as editor of their journal – Sharing the Practice. Being part of a group that encourages and supports continued development is key.
11. What spiritual practices can transform congregational life?
There are several ways in which spiritual practices can enhance and transform congregational life. I’ll start with two practices – corporate prayer and bible study. I’ve noticed that many Mainline church members, especially older ones, are very uncomfortable praying out loud in a group. This is very different from my Pentecostal days, but there is a sense of inadequacy. But when we begin to share these prayers, confidence is gained and people get the sense of participation. The other piece is deep bible study – not just using the bible as a jumping off point for all manner of discussion, but diving deep into the text, arguing with it if necessary, but seeking to know and understand this record of divine/human encounter. You don’t have to accord it an inerrant status to expect from it a word from God – but you have to attend to it. By gathering corporately, we hear each other and discern together what God might be saying or not saying.