If I could plant a church

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I’m a small church pastor. In a lot of ways I like being a small church pastor. After all, the smaller environment allows me a lot more freedom to experiment and see what catches on. Larger congregations tend to be more corporate minded. I don’t do well in an environment which brings cubicles to mind.

Still, small churches carry their own down-side. Their size makes any shift in attendance alarming, so one or two families can hold a small church hostage if the congregation isn’t careful. Many small churches also used to be large, and find themselves paralyzed by their nostalgic recollections of the past. I used to say that Central was haunted by a lot of ghosts – people who were no longer there, but who nevertheless forced us to keep going on a certain path because leaving it would upset them. A lot of these ghosts have been exorcised at Central, but there’s still an underlying sense that, should we move too far from the established path, they could come back and make us miserable. Longing for, and fear of, the past can be as powerful a motivator as hope. Sometimes, much to my chagrin, it seems to be more powerful.

Central is moving forward in a transitioning process, and we’ll probably stir up some of these “ghosts” (if only in our heads), so I though it might be a good time to sit down and take stock of what I tend to look for in a congregation. If I were given the opportunity to just start over and plant a church, what would I want it to look like? Here’s some thoughts.

Hospitality would be in-grained

Established churches tend to see hospitality as the realm that a few people deal with (usually the ushers). Sadly, these people often express hospitality poorly because they never had a culture of hospitality breathed into them. We recently came across an usher’s training book from a bygone era at Central. Ushers actually used to “ush” people to their seats: asking for seating preference, inquiring about special needs, and offering to answer any questions a visitor might have. This is a far cry from showing up and finding your name on a schedule and handing out bulletins (often while talking to friends).

I realize the world of the “church usher” no longer exists, and the idea that they were the people who showed hospitality while other folks just got on with their business may make sense in a church of 250, but in a congregation of 60. Every regular attender should have breathed into them the opportunity of hospitality. They should know how to introduce themselves well, how to make sure people are feeling “at peace” in the building, and make sure engage people in conversation. This might make people feel like they are out of their “comfort level.” To that I say two things. The first is, “Good, get used to it.” The second is, “Join the club, you think I naturally want to talk to folks I don’t know?”

Collaboration would be required

I make no secret that I cannot stand the “monthly meeting” model for church ministry. It makes no sense! Half the actionable items brought up in a meeting require time to process (and are usually forgotten when not in a meeting). New items tend to overwhelm people to the point of tuning out. When an project is started, few people are aware of it and so the person(s) doing the task often feel like no one cares. This makes no sense.

If I were to plant a church collaboration would be mandated for all leadership, and such collaboration would not be broken up by board assignment. Rather the leadership would share folders in GoogleDocs, and share proposals, updates, and reports with each other – soliciting comments. Should several leaders find themselves read a document at the same time, they can take a few minutes to discuss it right then – having their conversations automatically saved for others to read. The month, then, becomes a meeting – and the in-person meeting becomes a way to hash out rough edges rather than a way to bring others “up to speed” on an idea (which is too often shelved for “next meeting”).

Yes, this requires some discipline, it would also be a lot less stressful than the way many churches currently do things. If a person was unwilling or unable to work collaboratively, then they could make their gifts available in other ways. The leadership, however, should be working together.

Church membership and discipleship would go hand in hand

What do we do after conversion and/or baptism to help people continue in their journey of discipleship? For most churches the answer is, “Not much.” I find this in tolerable, and I commit this error over and over and over again! A lot of Churches fall into this trap for any number of reasons, but most often because they are afraid of offending people by pushing to hard and chasing them away. Empathy isn’t a bad impulse, but it also needs to be a directed impulse.

If I were to start a church I think I might ask people to do a self-evaluation every year during the Easter Season. They could spell out their thoughts on what they’ve done to grow in Christ the previous year, how they’ve used their spiritual gifts (or, how they discovered a spiritual gift), and what discipleship opportunities they embraced at the church that year. The best part is, as long as there’s an answer (“I didn’t'” isn’t an answer is expressed passivity) there is no wrong answer. Maybe this would help people discover something about themselves they hadn’t before seen, and perhaps the congregation as a whole would learn something about itself as well. Responses could be video, written, cartoon, interpretive dance… whatever… just as long as people did this review. Anyone who failed to do so within a time-frame, would be automatically released from the rolls. This would simultaneously allow people to be who they are, while also allowing the church to be populated (and led) by people who have a passion for it’s mission. They don’t have to be spiritually well-formed to be a member, they just have to be able to express that they are on the journey. I don’t think that’s much to ask.

tradition would meet Tradition, and get the snot beat out of it

I love Tradition. I love the living, breathing, story of all those who have come before me in the faith and gathering around the throne with them in worship. I love searching Tradition and meeting people and places I’d never before seen, and yet feel a kinship with nonetheless. Tradition is the vision of the Holy Spirit working through the story of the Church and drawing us to Christ.

tradition, on the other hand, is more concerned with what “Brother Oswald” used to do, what we like, and what we’re comfortable with. tradition punishes passion and a sense of Godly adventure, Tradition kindles it’s embers into fire (darn you Amazon, for co-opting that metaphor!). Admittedly, the two are often hard to distinguish – and Tradition can morph into tradition all to easily (whenever it becomes a bludgeon used to keep people in line). Yet, Tradition is still important enough brave the waters and embrace it anyway. If I were to plant a Church, the story of the Holy Spirit working through history would be gone through again and again and again. How a denomination was founded, stories of people who lived for the Gospel throughout history, the study of how the Bible came to be formed, and the embrace of the mystical transport of worship as expressed in the Creeds. Through embracing Tradition we could know who we had been, and thus catch a better glimpse of who we might become.

Creativity would be encouraged

People can be amazing, and God has given us amazing gifts by which we can serve Him. Yet, churches too often fear people who are creative, and instinctively try to beat them into line (sadly, in the past I’ve lived this). Creative people need to be encouraged to ask questions, float ideas, and share their exuberance with others. The church is lesser being when they are stymied. These creative passions, however, are to be harnessed for all to enjoy rather than to seize power and rule. In the Church, creativity is always tied into the call of discipleship, this is something a yearly meditation can help to encourage.

So, there are some thoughts – while I’m not starting a new church they will probably impact the way I shepherd Central through it’s transitioning process. You may not like what I’ve written, or some of the ideas I’ve laid out. That’s fine. Just remember two things:

  • These are my thoughts, I didn’t claim to be writing your thoughts
  • Write out your own thoughts and show me a more compelling vision. Just don’t say what can’t be done, demonstrate what can be done better