For the past couple of weeks my colleagues Adam Borneman and Mark Ramsey have been posting our reflections, observations and findings from a recent gathering we held on the economics of ministry. The fact that we are still mining nuggets of wisdom is proof of the gatherings efficacy and impact. In addition to raising bigger and better quality questions per Adam and a willingness to resist the urge of renovating a vision of the church past per Mark, I was struck by the diversity of conversation partners in the room and the rich dialogue and exchange that ensued. Rather than spending a day rehashing the same old conversations on church growth or lack thereof, we spent a day being energized, inspired and motivated.
In addition to our staff, we gathered pastors from across the country serving in big steeple denominational stalwarts, mid-size main line churches, edifice-less church plants and everything in between. We gathered people representing think tanks, corporations, non-profit organizations and financial institutions. There were those with churches in declining neighborhoods, gentrifying neighbors, rural, urban and suburban areas alike. Some represented churches with too much property, space or resources and those with not nearly enough. We even managed to include those for whom regular church attendance is the norm and for whom church attendance is rare.
While this diversity may seem unwieldy or even somewhat haphazard, the mix resulted in dynamic engagement yielding fresh perspectives and new relationships. My take away was that diversity of thought, perspective, expertise and location within the “community” matter. Often in churches, we assemble and reassemble the same group of leaders, around the same tables, asking the same questions often resulting in the same disappointing outcomes. However, I believe that introducing even one new conversation partner can greatly change the outcomes of the group. Imagine the outcomes of inviting key neighbors to a gathering on outreach and community engagement without trying to evangelize them. Imagine including the grown children of your leaders in a conversation about why they don’t attend church without being defensive.
Based on our gathering I believe you would find willing participants who are authentic, relaxed and open to the conversation. The reality is that despite the decline in church attendance over the last few years, the interest in spiritual matters remains consistently high. People want to be engaged spiritually, most even want to be a part of some type of community; what they don’t want is feel like they “owe” the church something just by walking in the door. Trust is formed when we keep our doors, arms, eyes, ears and minds open to the input of others. I realize that many times those in our churches are focused on reclaiming the traditions, ideas and programs that worked in the past, but as leaders our job is to help them reconcile what was, with what is and move in the direction of the future. Sometimes the best way to do that is to allow new voices to be heard. Keep in mind that these new partners don’t always have to come from the outside. Often there are those already among us with valuable, insight, wisdom and experience to offer, if only we stopped relying on the same people, with the same insight. After all, you know what they call doing the same thing over and over while expecting different outcomes…insanity.