By Eddie Pipkin

In last week’s blog entry, “Don’t Fence Me In,” I pointed out the ways in which we constrict individualized spiritual growth with our fixed structures of programs and events.  While structure is necessary, it boxes in our thinking on spiritual growth and throttles creativity in many avenues of ministry.  Those of us who have been in ministry for decades have imprinted that ministry = specific programming (Sunday School, VBS, men’s group, women’s group, mission trips, Sunday morning worship, fall festivals, clothing drives, food pantries, etc.).  We look for successful versions of those things to identify a healthy congregation.  But when we are evaluating the health of a congregation, what if our more open-ended question was, “How are you experiencing spiritual growth?” with an eye to creative variations, reinventions, and whole new approaches to how that spiritual growth happens?

To shift our thinking is a doable goal, but it requires work and a readjustment to our priorities as leaders.  Last week, I listed 7 ways we would need to shift gears, and this week, we’ll explore three of those ideas more fully, saving the last four for next week’s blog:

Knocking down fences means we move from a “them-to-us” model to an “us-to-them” model of conversation and engagement.

This is important – it’s subtle, but potentially game-changing.

Although we do not think of it in this way – nor would we describe it in this way if asked – most of us are working under a model in which we are asking people to respond to OUR needs as leaders and institutions.  We need them to support OUR programs, donate to OUR priorities, and conform to OUR routines.

Yes, we want to bring them closer to God; yes, we want them to grow in discipleship; yes, we want to meet their needs.  But most of the time, we give them a limited number of options for how they can do that.  The real choice for people, in terms of figuring out exactly how they will connect with a spiritual identity, is not in finding their path within a specific congregation but in sorting out competing congregations and picking the one that they sense is closest to their individual needs.  This is never almost never a perfect fit, and many people spend their spiritual lives compromising some aspect of their unique spiritual calling.

Imagine if we are able to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” model in our discipleship offerings, service opportunities, and worship options.

Variety is the key here.  But even in thinking about variety, we are too often lacking in imagination.  We imagine that to offer variety and flexibility, we must establish a classic megachurch model, a full portfolio of classes for every scenario.  But there are different ways to offer variety:

  • Leveraging technology.

In all areas of ministry, the revolution in technology is making it possible to engage as never before.  We need to embrace these innovations.  There are new ways to serve, new ways to give, new ways to grow spiritually, and new ways to build community.  We should embrace these, rather than feel threatened or throw our hands up in frustration that they create a new learning curve for us.  Our leadership structure should include people who are enthusiastic about new technology (and we should encourage these people to hold us accountable to making these innovations part of the ongoing leadership conversation).

Additionally, technology gives small congregations unprecedented leverage.  We can help people customize their spiritual growth by accessing technological tools.  Even as they are part of our small, foundational, face-to-face community, the world’s wisdom is there for access.

  • Thinking expansively, not possessively.

We must move away from the mindset that the people in our congregation are only committed to our work and community if they are loyal exclusively to our homegrown programs and events.  As noted in the paragraph on technology and the leverage it offers, we should celebrate the idea that people can be committed members of our community, while supplementing their spiritual nourishment through other sources – things that our congregation doesn’t specifically provide them.  In fact, we should be the ones expertly offering them options!

This concept extends beyond technology.  It has real world implications.  We should not be offended if people engage in small groups, worship events, or service opportunities that are not “home grown” by our congregation.  In fact, we should encourage such “cross-training” if we know people have needs that could be met in these ways.  We should, theoretically, be encouraging ecumenical connections.  And we definitely should be supporting community-based social justice and service initiatives.  This is one of the cornerstones of community involvement: moving beyond the idea that we must sponsor all service opportunities to supporting existing efforts within the greater community.

  • Training leaders to be flexible within traditional contexts.

Fewer “teachers” and more “facilitators.”  We should develop small group and ministry leaders who allow for a greater variety of viewpoints within group settings.  Instead of a one-way transfer of doctrine and biblical insights, we should encourage questions, discussion, and sharing.

  • Responding organically and contextually.

If we have limited resources – and who has unlimited resources? – when we are deciding about varied approaches to worship, discipleship training, and service opportunities, we should be attuned to our unique local context.  Not every church needs a “bluegrass worship,” but yours might find it to be a perfect fit.  When we get out of the template of trying to conform to the next trendy idea, we can focus more beneficially on what fits our personality.  Identifying the passions and unique talents of the people at hand and letting them be lived out in ways to serve, give, grow, and worship is effective and fun.

Knocking down fences means we ask better questions and we listen more sincerely to the answers.

Leaders get nervous about questions, feel threatened by questions, avoid questions, discourage questions.  This is not a biblical model.  The Bible is chock-full of questions.  We should encourage them.  And we should be the ones asking them!  Of those we lead and of those we serve.  We should provide forums asking questions and being asked questions.  Then, we should listen attentively to the insights to be gained from what people are asking us things.  And we should invest time in answering the things we have been asked.

This means building a culture in which asking questions is encouraged.  And answering questions with sincerity and integrity is a core value.

A “culture of inquiry and investigation” is not necessarily natural in a religious community.  Moving from a model of “received wisdom” to a model of “exploration” does not happen by accident.  It does, however, allow for people to comfortably explore their own issues, incorporate their own history and experiences, and pursue their own unique curiosities.  It makes them feel less freaky if what they are feeling is different from what most people in the room are feeling.  It makes them feel valued, even as they are gaining a foundation in the spiritual fundamentals.

Knocking down fences means we tweak the ways we evaluate success.

We can’t be comfortable changing our thinking and approach to leadership and programming if all of our tools for evaluating effectiveness are wed to the same old metrics.  Most churches are still putting the majority of their eggs in the statistical basket of Sunday morning worship attendance.  Obviously, this is an important metric, but is it the ONLY metric?  (Some ministry thinkers have argued that it should no longer be the most influential metric.)  Even when we acknowledge the reality that spiritual growth and engagement for new generations may not be best represented by a Sunday-morning-centric focus, for most congregations this is still the area of ministry that sucks up the greatest slice of resources and staff focus.

If we are to turn the ship of programming, we will need a new destination.  What are other ways to measure spiritual growth and engagement?

  • Hours served in the community?
  • Clicks to a site?
  • Independently engaged acts of kindness and mercy?
  • Participation in studies and discussions not directly affiliated with our congregation?

One of the challenges of developing new metrics is how to measure them.  If we develop and encourage ways for people to share their independent/individual spiritual endeavors, we do several wonderful things at once.  We encourage them to find their unique calling; we create a greater surge of ripples in the community beyond our walls; we provide a forum for people to “share their witness,” encouraging fellow disciples and potentially attracting seekers; we build enthusiasm and energy as people move naturally from the inspiration of the sermon and Bible studies to living out their faith in practical ways.

There are many ways that re-thinking success metrics can pay dividends.  Rather than beginning with the premise that we need to create a prayer workshop (for which the success metric is then how many people signed up for the workshop), what if we instead began with the premise that we’d like to see more people actively praying (for which the success metric would be the number of people who shared stories about how and when they are praying – stories featuring a diversity of prayer approaches and real-world examples of the way that prayer changes people).

Redefining the definition of success can open up all sorts of possibilities and free us from our predetermined biases of habit.

I have a good friend who is a Director of Children’s Ministry at a local church.  She has a great heart for finding ways to accommodate the needs of families and children who don’t quite fit into the established structure of the way things are traditionally done.  She understands the importance of rules and procedures for keeping things organized and keeping kids safe, but she is never bound by “the way we’ve always done it” thinking.  She likes to say, “I don’t believe in fences.”  I love that.  Sometimes putting a gate in the fence or, on occasion, just cutting a hole right through it, can teach us amazing things about our priorities and possibilities.  We find out new things about ourselves and others.  We discover new ways to experience grace and mercy.

How have you knocked down the fences in your ministry?  The ones that were keeping people and their spiritual aspirations hemmed in?  Have you come up with creative ways to break down barriers and expand your borders?  Could you use a little help breaking out of old modes of thinking?  Share your suggestions, stories, and questions in the comments section.  And next week, we’ll conclude with Part 3 of this discussion.