I take some heat for not having a set list of protocols or training seminars or strategic plans to address challenges like hospitality, team work or recruitment. I have honestly tried these, early in my Ministry career I read everything I could get my hands on from the Alban Institute, went to all of the Conference and Presbytery workshops, read longer texts that provided the theological framework for transformation. There was marginal effect, a few churches adopted new protocols, and an uptick in attendance was noticed. But most of this progress faded with time. I became increasingly cynical about these plans.
What I saw working was this, when I used all of the background materials cited above, absorbed these theories and techniques, and then lived them out in the faith community, I saw results. Instead of people asking me to come down from the mountain and give them “the plan” like some consultant (we mainline church folks are hooked on our professional middle class habits) people saw me in flesh and blood trying, often failing, to live out a kind of discipleship that I was preaching each Sunday morning. The words came on Sunday, the actions Monday to Saturday. If people thought there was a connection they would ask me how I did this. I confessed immediately that I failed most of the time. Frankly I have far fewer gifts than them but that the witness technique is paying off more for me than any strategic plan ever has.
The Apostle Paul in his many letters to a diverse group of churches with very different needs understood the power of witness. His letters are humble, he tells them how much he failed, but they also point to what faith can do in human form. Paul’s life is a sermon, a sermon he refers to on an ongoing basis. The one thing I don’t like about these letters is something I sometimes experience from evangelicals who have come out the other side from a crisis and give God the credit for the change. I love the humility, the transformation and the honestly of such a confession. But there is too much Hollywood there for my understanding of lasting change. Making lasting change takes time and when we change we get better at some things and get worse at others. I have never known anyone to make improvements in their life without also chipping away at some other part of our lives that long-time friends used to appreciate.
I tell people that I am a happier person today than I was 20 years ago, that I am more humble and aware of my many failings, but on the other end I am less patient with others and myself, I am more blunt. Some people appreciate the newer me, some do not. That is how changes occur. The same is true for churches. Churches can get fed up with a lack of discipleship and move to address it with more intentional ministries but the result is a loss of another identity, perhaps an intimate community. Obviously the goal is to get it all right, fulfil one’s calling as best you can. The reality is churches can only do so much and a shift toward something positive can sometimes result in a loss of something also positive.
Again what rubs off is the example, how women and men of faith live out their beliefs in community, with those they know and those they don’t yet know. Preaching, leading a study group, offering a seminar, in the theories of transformation is always a good thing. But the real effect of this change is only felt when the leaders who have studied the changes live them out. A leader who wants the church to adopt a new mindset of hospitality but who only speaks to those s/he knows, does not welcome newcomers and makes no effort to recruit new blood to the governance of the church is not an agent of transformation. I guarantee you that when a newcomer comments positively on their experience of a church what they will name are specific actions taken by specific church members. Mission statements come and go, the witness of believers last forever.