Changing Your Church (Maybe and Sometimes) – Part Two

In a recent post I reflected on the possibilities and challenges of effecting change in a church “from below”, from outside of a congregation’s leadership circle. I wrote about the potential of tactics and suggested that any one of us can do something towards prompting change that makes our faith communities more welcoming, supportive and inclusive for children, young people and families. In this post I want to share some more practical tips. I give credit to the amazing work of Dave Andrews for generating some of my thoughts.

  1. Ask for divine preparation of your heart and spirit: Begin on your knees. Take your concerns, hopes and dreams to the Lord. Ask him to give you the right motivation and attitude in working toward change, and to grant you wisdom and guidance.  Ask the Lord to first change and renew you.  Ask God to fill you with his love for his church (Ephesians 5:25).
  2. Begin from a position of goodwill: In working towards change, be conscious of not coming across as a critic but as a concerned supporter of good mission and ministry. Presume the best of others and their intentions. Don’t assume that because something is happening or being conducted in a certain way that those in leadership oppose change. There may be a variety of reasons why things are the way they are, some quite innocuous. Respectfully ask why.  Invite others to “wonder why” and to “wonder if”.  Seek to understand the current situation and to communicate at all times in all ways that you are a supporter of the ministry of your church and have its best interests at heart.
  3. Seek a sponsor: Identify someone in the leadership of your congregation who has a passion for ministry to children, youth and their families. This may be someone who is of “grandparent age” who has a heart for the younger generations coming to and growing in faith. Be intentional about developing a relationship with them (you may want to focus on this first before raising any issues). At an appropriate time, share your heart with them, your concerns, and your ideas for possible change.  Invite them to share theirs with you too. Seek their advice for bringing about change and ask them whether they would be willing to support you and mentor you from a leadership perspective.
  4. Find some supporters: Look for at least two other people who share your concerns and vision, and who are willing to invest time and effort to help you work towards change. Dave Andrews writes, “One person can make a point, two persons can draw a line. But it takes at least three persons to create a culture, which can demonstrate an alternative.”
  5. Develop tactics that will be both acceptable in the short-term and transformative in the long-term: Work together with your sponsor and supporters to clarify the “big picture” and the “end point” towards which you are working.  Accept that it is unlikely that you will see the change you desire in the short-term.  Consider innovations that are likely to be acceptable to your faith community in the short-term and discuss what steps can be taken to achieve them.  You may determine that your “big picture” vision is too overwhelming or threatening to share with others at this point and choose to keep it to yourselves, even as work on building the foundations for that preferred future.
  6. Develop a plan, then communicate and consult: Good ideas frequently fail to gain traction because those who champion fail to match them with planning and resources.  Don’t just “flag” an idea to your pastor or church leaders.  Put time and effort into the questions of “why”, “what”, “how”, “when”, “where” and “who”.  If you can demonstrate how sustainable change can be achieved without further burdening and stressing your church staff and leaders, it is likely to be much better received by them.
  7. Add lots of prayer to steps 2-6:  Remember Proverbs 19:21 – “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”  Seek God’s will and God’s purposes in all you do.  Remember that the church is finally his church, not yours or mine.  Trust in his goodness, his provision and his timing.

I hope that some of this may be helpful … if you have any comments or insights to share they are most welcome!

Youth and Faith: Starting Points, Contradictions and Sacred Wonderings

students_walking

Earlier this afternoon I happened to be walking behind two young people on their way home from a religious school. Close enough to hear their conversation, I heard them lamenting their involvement in “Christian studies” classes, a compulsory curriculum component. One complained that “all they talk about is God” and that “God” is the answer to every question posed. The other discounted the Bible and the Christian faith on the basis of apparent contradictions. He pointed out that God says not to kill, yet he permitted or even contrived the deaths of 42 youth in 2 Kings 2 when they mocked Elisha for his baldness (I was actually impressed that he knew that story!).

As I reflected on this conversation, I came to wonder about two issues of Christian “pedagogy” with young people. I wondered about whether the better starting point for engaging many of our young people with “God stuff” (and especially those with little faith background) is their own life issues, questions and struggles, not Christian doctrine and belief systems. Instead of “downloading Christian information” perhaps it would be better to first “place share” with them – to carefully and prayerfully listen to their experiences and issues, inviting them to consider how the resources of the Christian tradition and the narrative of the big God-story relates to them and the world around them. This involves trusting that the Holy Spirit is present in the space between they and us, and resisting the temptation to resort to cut-and-dried responses.

Sometimes it is appropriate to begin where Peter begins in Acts 2, with the Bible and its teachings. But sometimes it is better to follow the way of Paul in Acts 17 … to walk around and observe carefully the life experiences and situations of young people, to draw attention to the unknown, to wonder with them what God’s revelation of himself in Jesus might mean for them and the world at large.

I also wondered about what it might mean to openly name the apparent contradictions within the Scriptures and to help our young people wrestle with them, instead of pretending these don’t exist, or seeking to “harmonise” at every point.  In his chapter in Faith Forward – Volume 2, Brian McLaren writes about “conversational storytelling” – putting two seemingly contrasting Bible stories alongside each other and inviting young people into a process of sacred wondering about the nature, purposes and workings of God. The God of 2 Kings 2 is also the God of Exodus 14, preserving the Israelites from Pharoah’s army. The God in whose name David goes out to slay Goliath is the same God who refuses to allow David to build the temple because he is a man of bloodshed.  The same God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac embraces the pain and suffering of the cross for the sake of the world.  “Conversational storytelling” invites young people to think and reflect theologically … to authentically struggle with the tensions of faith and doubt in a caring environment … to encounter God as both divine mystery beyond us and the One who comes close to us in the messiness and ambiguities of human experience.

I will pray for those two young people.  I will pray that they hear “God” not simply as a textbook answer but as a fellow-traveller on their personal “roads to Emmaus”.  I will pray that they will see and experience God as true beyond their doubts and gracious beyond their imaginings.

 

Changing your Church (Maybe and Sometimes) – Part One

No church is perfect of course, but there are some churches that take ministering to children, young people and their families very seriously. These churches work hard to support and resource families to live out and share faith together in their homes. These churches strive to create contexts for worship which are welcoming of children and young people and engaging for them and their families. These churches promote intergenerational connections so that children and young people have multiple mentors of faith. These churches provide age-specific faith formation activities for children and young people that are well planned and well resourced. And then there are other churches which do not. So, what can a parent do if they are in the second type of church, and feel strongly that the spiritual needs of their children are not being valued and addressed? There are, it seems, three basic options: (1) grin and bear it; (2) look for a different church to attend; (3) work towards change.  Of these three options, the third option seems particularly challenging for the average church attender. In many churches, patterns and practices seem to be deeply entrenched, perhaps even beyond question. The average attender may feel that the “power” to effect change is well beyond their reach. My purpose in writing this post is to provide some hope and encouragement to parents and families in “type two” churches.  I do believe that it is, in many circumstances, possible to work towards change “from below”.  I say “many” rather than “all” out of realism – if change is opposed on theological grounds or if church leaders simply won’t listen to any alternative ideas, then it is nigh impossible to alter much.  But many churches and church leaders are not opposed to change in principle.  It is often the case that they have become “comfortable” in doing things a certain way, and have either not thought beyond that or have not been motivated to do something differently.  Like other institutions, churches default towards “homeostasis” – without an ongoing impulse towards change and revitalisation they act in ways that promote internal stability and sub-consciously resist whatever might “rock the boat”.  They may not even realise this to be the case, and the extent to which this default impulse is undermining their spiritual vitality and mission in Christ. So, what can one do to make a difference in a potentially-changeable, homestatic “type two” church, at least maybe and sometimes?  In her brilliant book Welcoming Children, Joyce Mercer, drawing on work of Michel de Certeau, writes of strategies and tactics. In brief, strategies are longer-term plans, made by those who have the luxury of time for analysis and contemplation of the “big picture”. Strategies are used by those who are relatively-well positioned in a conflict or struggle, who have the time to reflect and make the connections between the situation as it stands and the changes and outcomes desired. Tactics, on the other hand, are the activities of people from the underside of a struggle.  They have neither the luxury of time nor perhaps the benefit of a thoroughgoing look at the situation as a whole. Nevertheless, they must choose some course of action and attempt to affect the situation, often on the turf and in the “discourse” of the other rather than on their own terms. Tactics are necessarily shorter-term actions, but they can have considerable impact, Mercer then goes on to relate the use of tactics to ministry to children.  She writes, “sometimes tactical maneuvers are necessary to garner momentum or “problematize” the conditions under which children’s education in faith takes place in congregations, particularly when those in positions to effect strategy do not grasp the meaning of education or the importance of welcoming and nurturing children.”  I find the notion of tactics very helpful.  It suggests that most of us can do something to prompt or stimulate change, or cultivate a climate for change, even if we have little actual control over the “big picture” strategic level decisions and choices.  Say, for example, a family is worshiping in a church that gives little focus to children.  A very simple “tactic” might involve a family or families with children choosing to sit at the very front of the worship space each weekend, to make children more visible to the pastor and other worship leaders.  Parents with children could intentionally include them in the conduct of various worship roles e.g. ushering or welcoming or reading lessons, so as to highlight their presence and capacities to contribute.  Tactics such as this can be usually be utilised without “permission” and have the effect of prompting wider thought and discussion. And the more such thinking and discussion takes place, the greater the impulse towards recalibration of an overall system of congregational life and practice. Congregational communities are, after all, living systems.  As much as they involve structures and hierarchies and policies and procedures, they are organic.  They are made up of interlinking and interdependent relationships between individuals, groups and households. The nature of a system is that if one part is altered in some way, that alteration affects other parts, prompting them to either accommodate, revise or stymie the alteration.  And the more “micro” changes there are in one or more parts of the system, the greater the cumulative impact on the whole system. Imagine that you are faced with the task of shifting a huge boulder in your front garden without access to heavy machinery. Your aim is to create a flat, level space. There are two ways to achieve your goal.  You can try to move the boulder by pushing and shoving … good luck with that!  Or you can dig out the earth around the boulder so that over time a big enough hole is created into which the boulder can gradually slip. What I am trying to say is this: (a) everyone can do something towards change; (b) the best place to start is by working on and through those things you can directly influence, knowing that they have the potential to indirectly influence other things; and (c) the more little changes or innovations you can make in your area of influence, the greater the likelihood that there will be a wider reaction or adjustment. More on this in a future post

Fostering Faith – Part 5

This is the fifth part of a series of reflections inspired by Charles R. Foster’s book From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith (2012, Cascade Books).

View other parts of this blog series:   Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four


Echoes

Some of my teenage and young adult memories are of hiking in Australian National Parks with groups of friends.  With people walking at different speeds we would become separated from one another on the walking tracks.  A way of connecting with each other would be to yell out “Cooooeeee”.   The sound of our voices would echo across the countryside, bouncing off nearby mountains and other terrain.  Shortly afterwards a responding “Cooooeeee” could be heard, once again in a series of echos.

Charles Foster relates the passing on of faith from generation to generation to reverberations of an echo.  The Gospel is proclaimed from one generation to the next with family and congregational practices of faith functioning as an “echo chamber” to repeat and reinforce what it means to know and follow Christ as Lord.  These practices are like walls or mountain faces which repeatedly “bounce back” to children and young people the “sounds and shapes, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours” that are part of life in Christ.  Foster highlights hospitality, celebration and conversation as being of particular significance for the “echoing” of faith.  He writes that the “lively interdependence” of these three congregational practices establishes “important contextual conditions in the catechetical culture of congregations in forming the knowledge and conduct of faith of their members across the generations.”

  • Through the practice of hospitality, children and young people are included into a congregation’s life and mission and blessed with relationships and encounters across generational boundaries.
  • Through the practice of celebration, children and young people become part of the shared and common life of the congregation patterned around the life and mission of Christ.  Foster proposes that a congregation’s “celebrative events” can serve as the essential “curricular structure” for the formation of faith across ages.
  • Through the practice of conversation the “relationships that constitute our communities  … are nurtured and sustained.”

Foster gives particular focus to discussing the practice of conversation in congregational life.  Conversation, he writes, “involves more than the exchange of words. … Conversation draws us into the company of others. … It establishes patterns of reciprocity that draws us into the possibilities of intimacy.” Through conversational exchanges “we participate in the mutuality of influencing and being influenced, of shaping and being shaped, of forming and being formed.”  Through the “relational interactivity of conversation we may become something other than what we once were.”  Conversation is, of course, relational and largely informal.  It is not the “bread and butter” of traditional, didactic approaches to Christian education.  And yet Foster contends that a “congregation’s conversation is a basic feature in its curricular “infrastructure”.”  It is the “interactive communication patterns in families, groups, and organizations that form and sustain its deepest values, perspectives, and practices. … We are who we are because we communicate.

I find Foster’s emphasis on conversation to be very insightful and challenging.  My experience is that in many faith communities the voices of the “professional few” – pastors and other ministry staff – still dominate the “airwaves”.  Relatively few adults, let alone children and young people, are encouraged and enabled to converse around matters of faith, and to voice to and with one another the questions, doubts and learnings associated with their spiritual journeys.  If Foster is correct – and I suspect he is – perhaps one of the most significant steps we can take to reinvigorate our congregations and promote the transmission of faith across generations is to get Christians of different ages talking to one another about matters of faith in their homes, small groups and gathered congregational settings.  In my own congregation we have promoted the FAITH5 as a model for bringing faith conversation to life in our households, small groups and ministry gatherings.  It has been a blessing to see congregational attenders of all ages growing together through conversing, listening and sharing.  The locus of theology – “talk about God’ – has begun to shift from the pulpit and the classroom podium to the mealtable, the fellowship hall and the living room.

To “open up the airwaves” for faith conversation it is necessary for pastors and ministry staff to say less and trust the Holy Spirit to come alive in the hearts, minds and voices of our people.  It is also important to shift the emphasis from “sage on the stage” approaches to Christian education towards contexts which invite and promote sharing of thoughts, questions and experiences.  As Foster expresses, “there is little or no conversation when the words we speak are simply directed at another person or group.” Moreover, it is vital that we work proactively to ensure that the younger ones in our midst are given spaces and places at the heart of congregational life to speak and to be heard.  They are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in whom God’s Spirit is as much present as in older folks! The practice of conversation calls for persons of all ages and generations to give voice and ear to one another, so that Christ the Word who indwells each of us may become the Word between us and beyond us, echoing from generation to generation.

Kids: Not MINE but GOD’S and OURS

A ministry colleague recently made me aware of how some child and youth ministry leaders and teachers refer to the children/youth in their care as “my” kids or “my” students. Since then, I have come across a number of examples of this sort of language in postings on various blogsites. So, you might ask, what is the problem?  On the surface of things, there might seem to be none at all.  When Christian child/youth leaders and teachers speak or write this way I believe they do so out of a sense of genuine affection and care for the children and young people they serve.  But words matter!  They often carry implicit assumptions and can convey messages and signals that are not altogether helpful or healthy.

The word “my” suggests ownership or possession. Strictly speaking, no human can speak of another person as “mine” – we all ultimately belong to God and are his gifts to one another.  Even as a parent, my children are only secondarily “mine”. They are given to me to care for and tend on God’s behalf and in God’s name. My role ultimately is not to draw attention to myself but to point them to God as their heavenly parent. I wonder if the use of “my” by child/youth leaders and teachers sometimes indicates an overextended relationship dynamic. Child/youth leaders and teachers can fall into the trap of focusing more on developing relationships with the children and youth in their groups or classes than helping them know and receive Jesus as their divine friend (John 15:15) and Savior. Our role is to nurture them as children of God, not to gather them around ourselves as our own “disciples”. In the words of John the Baptist, “it is necessary for him to increase and for me to decrease.

I also wonder if an unthinking use of the word “my” dilutes and diminishes the role and importance of parents and the wider faith community in nurturing children and youth as followers of Jesus.  In the household of God the little ones are OUR children to tend together. The most effective faith formation takes place where child and youth ministry leaders, parents and other adults of faith have a shared sense of partnership in passing on the faith.  If, as a ministry leader or teacher, I am speaking of a child or young person as “mine”, I am probably not actively working to enable others to come alongside me in the name of Jesus.  The best child/youth ministry leaders and teachers are those who are mature and secure enough in their identity as children of God to get out of the road themselves and facilitate a web of intergenerational relationships in the lives of the children/youth of their congregations.

What do you think?

Get in Close!

Yesterday afternoon I attended my daughter’s weekly outdoor netball game. When the game began the weather conditions were favourable, but in the second quarter of the game the wind began to blow strongly. Her team, which had started very well, began to flounder. Their usual game style began to break down in the face of a strong wind which made throwing and catching the ball that much harder. At half-time the coach urged them to adjust their style to come in closer to one another and throw shorter, lower passes. Higher, longer passes were drifting away or holding up in the wind, making it much easier for their opponents to intercept. When they did adjust their style to “getting in close” and “playing shorter” they began to take control of the game again and ran out winners.

As I reflected on the game, it struck me that in the arena of faith formation the “winds have changed” for those ministering to children, youth and their families. In western societies like Australia, the UK and the USA the sweep of popular culture is increasingly against Christian faith and values. There is no longer a shared consensus around faith and values in the way there was (at least to some extent) in past centuries. The church no longer has the status and voice in our communities that it once had. That means that we cannot rely on the wider culture to impart faith and values to our children and youth by default, or to even reinforce our faith and values. The messages that come to us through the media and the views and perspectives of the secular culture around us are often in stark contradiction to a Biblical perspective and worldview. And the “game style” that used to dominate church practice, and still persists in many congregations is no longer working! Ministry that relies on gathering young people together in large groups and in Sunday age-based classroom settings is no longer hitting the mark. Children and young people are not attending these groups and classes in the numbers they once were, and many that do drift away from the life of the church in their late teen and young adult years. The “ball” of discipleship is being swept off course, away from the hearts and minds of our children and young people.

How should we respond? Like my daughter’s netball team, we need to adjust our “game style”! Instead of focusing on big program delivery and age-specific group settings we need to “get in close” to our children, young people and their families. We need to build relationships with them – not just child and youth ministry leaders but adults of ALL ages in our communities of faith. We need to know them by name and include them in person. We need to take an interest in their lives, in their joys and hurts and hopes and struggles. Our children and young people need faith mentors more than they need ministry curriculum. We also need to “get in close” to their families. We need to be intentional and purposeful about providing households with ideas, resources and skills for practicing faith at home in ways that sustainable and manageable for them. We need to welcome and include and whole families in our patterns of church life, instead of segregating them through our ministries.

Here some practical directions to pursue:

  • Work to provide children and young people in your congregation with older mentors or “buddies”, and put in place a support and encouragement system for these mentors.
  • Focus on making your church life more intentionally intergenerational, and on introducing intergenerational elements into existing age-specific programs.
  • Put time, effort and energy into nurturing and support parents and caregivers, and into providing them with help and resources for living out faith at home with their children and youth.
  • Seek to give every child and young people in your faith community a concrete ministry role, reflecting their individual gifts and talents.

One feature of my daughter’s netball game is that it was low scoring. The wind conditions made it much harder to set up and shoot goals. “Getting in close” to children, young people and their families is more resource and people-intensive than “big group” ministry approaches. We should also expect that some families will simply not want to “play ball” with us, preferring the old model of “handing their kids off” to the church for the “faith stuff”. But the measure of effective faith formation is not how many children and youth are involved now – it is how many will be involved through young adulthood and beyond. “Getting in close” may mean lower numbers in the present and immediate future, but I am convinced it will also mean more disciples over the longer term.

What do you think?

“That Home” (Newsboys)

There was a home in town
Where broken kids, the lost & found
Would come from miles around
Just to see, what love was all about
‘Cause Momma had a way of makin’ things okay

She’d cook us our favorite meal
Sit and listen to how we feel
Oh, how the pain was real
How many families what the devil steal?
Momma had a way of makin’ things okay

In that home
We knew we were safe
To be young enough to dream
Find the faith to believe
And in that home
Love, it had no end
It’s where we learned to forgive
In that home

Momma always had the music on
Sometimes loud, sometimes soft
When I asked her ’bout her favorite song
She opened the bible to the book of Psalms
She always found a way to talk about grace

In that home
We knew we were safe
To be young enough to dream
Find the faith to believe
And in that home
Love, it had no end
That’s where we learned to forgive
In that home

And on that day I got the news
That Momma’s stay here was almost through
I stayed all night by her side
Held her hand, looked in her eyes
And said, Momma

When you’re home
I know you’ll be safe
Strong enough to see
The faith that you believed
And in that home
Life will have no end
I know I’ll see you again

In that home

–  NEWSBOYS (2013)