Friday, August 22, 2008

Shifting to Stay in Balance

Transforming Congregational Culture
by Anthony B. Robinson

Our session is headed out for our annual retreat tomorrow morning, and I am excited about sharing some of the insights from this book with them. Seems like every time you turn around there is a new book out that promises some kind of fix for what ails the mainline church, what we can do to "save" ourselves. All the prescriptions make me weary. I want to be as faithful as possible to the task of pastoring an apologetically Christian congregation in the midst of the postmodern, post-Christian world that we live in, but sometimes feel that we are too stuck in the rut of our own rut, too preoccupied with what is not going right rather than confident that God is at work in the church, in spite of us. I want to be intentional and forward thinking without feeling all the time like we are in survival mode. I feel sure the church will survive - perhaps not in a form that is recognizable to what we have had for so long, but survive nonetheless. Our most colossal screw-ups cannot kill what belongs to God in the first place.

Robinson's observations feel different from much of the other "development" and "growth" literature that I have read (or picked up in bookstores and chosen NOT to read). Robinson is a pastor in Seattle, and has lived the dilemmas that so many of us cope with on a daily basis - the fact that we cannot assume anymore that everyone is "some kind of" Christian, the truth that people no longer feel obligated to attend church or participate in a faith community, the fact that people walk through the doors of our churches regularly who have no previous exposure to the faith, who do not even know the basics. Instead of the usual doom saying, though, Robinson sees this as a time of great hope and opportunity for the church. He believes that the people who do come to church now do so because they genuinely want to be there, they are seeking real change in their lives and want to have a spiritual life. In other words, there may be fewer bodies in the pews but those who are there are hungry for engagement, relationship, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Robinson makes a great case for a congregation being the place where people develop a sense of identity as God's children and Christ's disciples, rather than the church as a whole taking on the roles of ethical police and dispensers of charity for society. It's not that Robinson thinks the church should not be helping people construct a moral life, just that that formation must be rooted in a sense of who we are and who we belong to. Likewise, he would not say that we should not be caring for those in need in the community. But rather than the church people ("us") helping those poor souls who do not have it all together ("them"), we need to recognize that we are all fallen and broken people in need of grace and redemption. When we grasp this truth we are then equipped to reach out to others and advocate for a just world as "receivers who give" rather than just "givers." This is one of my favorite of the "shifts" that Robinson encourages congregations to move toward.

There are a number of these shifts that Robinson sees as necessary, and in my opinion they make a lot of sense. One of the strengths of his analysis is that he does not spend a whole lot of time talking about specific programs that may or may not be relevant to the life of a particular congregation. I can't stand it when people talk about a program - any program - like it is some kind of magic bullet. His transformations are primarily about how we think, how we understand our identity, and how we relate to one another and the wider world. Once we make these spiritual and cultural shifts, he believes we will have the tools to discern what God is asking from us in terms of programs, community involvement, and social witness. Once we know how to "be" who we are, he seems to be saying, it will be much easier to know what we should "do."

Lots of food for thought. Definitely worth reading.

Reverent Reader


At 8/28/08, 2:38 PM , Blogger Deb said...

Hello -
I'm a local seminarian (at Regent, but don't let that scare you!) and am looking to increase my scope of women pastors. I'm at a contemporary church right now as I finish seminary in 2010, working part-time. I'm not looking for a job or to pad your schedule book. Just introducing myself. :)

I'm also in an on-line blogging community of women in ministry... if you'd care to connect that way.

Mostly, I just want you to know that when I needed encouragement, that it IS worth it to pursue my pastoral calling, that I stumbled across your blog.

So grace, thanks! :) and peace-

At 8/30/08, 9:54 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Deb - I went to your blog to try to respond to you, but could not find a place to leave comments - I'm still sort of a blogging novice. Thanks for writing - believe me it IS worth the time, effort, energy, and everything else to pursue a pastoral calling. Good luck with school, and if you read this let me know how to get in touch with you since I could not figure out how to do it on your blog. I am familiar with the revgals - am going to have to link up with them too.

Bye for now.


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