Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Do You Care Enough to Do the Adaptive Work?

Do you care enough to do the adaptive work of renewal?

Without any question, many (if not most) denominational churches across North America are in decline. Some congregations are not even aware of their decline. Enough of the historic "strength" of the congregation remains to satisfy the needs of the members. Other congregations are aware of their decline. Members, however, have decided (perhaps through a silent conspiracy) to do nothing. They only hope the church is still there to host their individual funerals. Other congregations recognize the decline, are concerned, and want to do something to turn their church around.

What, however, drives the desire for the turn around? A "caring" for the institution or a "caring" for people whose lives have not been touched by the life giving gospel message? A caring for the institution can provide the urgency to get people moving and acting. The urgency, however, will dissipate as soon as the future of the institution (at least for now) seems secure. With an institutional urgency, people tend to search for solutions that will bring the least disruption to their long established attitudes and patterns of thinking and acting. Only an urgent caring for the spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of individuals outside the walls of the institution draws members into essential shifts in attitudes, thinking and acting. And, nothing in the institution will shift without members shifting.

Do you care enough to do the adaptive work? Do you care enough to shift your attitudes and your patterns of thinking and acting? Or, do you simply want the decline to be fixed, reestablishing the strength and vitality of the church as you knew it in the past?

Robert Schnase (United Methodist Bishop in Missouri) provides congregations with a description of the five practices that are found in fruitful congregations. Clearly, a congregation engaging faithfully in the five practices will experience health, vitality, and growth. The congregation will have an "attracting" power. The congregation will be effectively connecting with people outside the walls of the church and connecting those people with the life giving gospel. That church will be a place that offers life.

Bishop Schnase also names the crucial essential factor for a congregation. Without addressing that factor, leaders who attempt to put in place the best programs for growth and attempting to put in place the best practices will not succeed. Bishop Schnase names the crucial factor this way: "(Congregations') ability to become vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations is directly related to their willingness to perform the five practices in a consistently exemplary way." (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, page 130)

Willingness! We call this "the inner work of renewal." "This inner work is the real work of renewal, and it is a work of the people. Pastors and outside consultants have much to offer, but they can't do the work for the people. Think of renewal as physical therapy for the body of Christ. The body is renewed as the people engage in practices that develop and strengthen the muscles of Christian discipleship and community." (Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations, page 28, 29. Smith and Sellon)

Do you care enough to do this inner work, this adaptive work? This inner work of developing a deep and passionate caring for God's people comes first. With the deep and passionate caring for people in place, with Christ-like attitudes in place, patterns of thinking and acting do shift and anything is possible. Without this adaptive inner work, a lot of activity may take place but nothing changes - at least for long. The declining institution remains a declining institution.

- Dan Smith