We Will Not Think the New Church Into Existence

We will not think the new church into existence.

Not that I have anything against thinking. In reality, we now need great clarity and disciplined reflection about theological and ethical matters. But the church, as an organization, is not set up to do intentional Research and Development. Most often, we can incorporate some modifications; massive re-thinking is not part of the organizational culture. We are built to preserve.

That said, the history of the church does contain examples of innovative movements so it is not unreasonable to speculate that such might happen again.

So where will the innovations arise?

One clearly visible location is the franchise that, for one reason or the other, seems ripe for closure. In recent years, many a fresh development has sprouted among the remnants of congregations who say, “Well, what have we got to lose? We might as well go for it!”

The kindling that fuels new fire is not usually a new theory of church but deep feelings of frustration or curiosity that the Christian faith needs to be more intimately connected to the people that actually form the neighbourhood.

The other setting for innovation is the church version of the guy who develops an automatic transmission in the basement or a software program in a college dorm. In a growing number of places people are experimenting with spiritual life and the kinds of communities that support what, they would call, a more authentic Christianity. And, occasionally, other people wonder and begin to peer over their shoulder.

In both scenarios thought is not absent. Innovation produces a constant stream of technical and conceptual questions. What do we do about this? What will it mean if we do - or do not do - a particular action? But the thought is in response to action, engaging the important, often life-determining questions at hand.

Wandering in the woods, questions constantly appear: do we head towards the sound of water or follow this game trail; do we go down into the gully trusting a way up the other side exists or do we stick to the high ground; what resources do we have that will sustain us, what do we need to carry forward for the sake of survival and what can be emptied from the pack to lighten the load and increase our nimbleness and stamina?

The future church will not come through deduction but through attention to the needs, frustrations, and opportunities of the present.

The future church will not come through deduction but through attention to the needs, frustrations, and opportunities of the present.

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  1. Keith, you are on to something. I am working with two smaller, rural congregations who have chosen to amalgamate. When I told them that they could design a new governance structure not based on what the church said but beginning with what they needed to make things work for them, you should have seen their eyes light up. When I said they might start with looking at their mission through what they do now and what they wanted to do, they got excited. No magic bullets or techno-junkie solutions. No detail questions. Just people living out their faith and trying to live it in rural Ontario.

  2. I’ve always liked the idea of the skunkworks. It’s been around since WWII but is has been enlivened in new technology companies.

    For the uninitiated: A skunkworks project is a project developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.

    Everett Rogers defined skunkworks as an “enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures.”

    I like the second definition better. “Enriched” has usually meant you have smart people who are allowed money and space to do their work in the corporate basement, unmolested by conventional accountability or executive harassment. What that “work” actually is we don’t really know.

    Suddenly I’m just reminded of Lily Tomlin’s character, Trudy the Bag Lady, standing on the corner of WALK and DON’T WALK, waiting for her alien friends to arrive so they can continue their search for intelligent life in the Universe. Unfettered by conventions, social graces, and sanity, she proceeds on an ongoing exploration of the universe as viewed from the street. She remarks, “Not anybody can be crazy. Some people couldn’t cope!”

    This is a kind of solitary skunkworks, unless you count the aliens (which is damned hard to do! Some have two or more heads.) It’s an investigation without a premise and certainly without a specified product/goal, which can be defined by gigabytes, preserved whales, or bums in seats on Sunday. It’s more like, “We’ll know it when we see it.”

    Malcolm Boyd, an Anglican priest who worked in the streets and wrote a book called, “ARE YOU RUNNING WITH ME, JESUS?” was a guy who fascinated me back when I was in university. He used to tell the story of when he first was ordained, decked out in black suit and collar, and walking down the streets of the city. A woman ran up to him, knelt down, kissed his hand, and asked him to bless her. He continued on down the street feeling quite wonderful. After walking a long further, a man ran up and spit into his face.

    At that moment he realized: I am the church in the world.

    If you want to engage the world outside the sanctuary at a personal level this makes a good point. It won’t be easy. It may be messy. And very unsettling.

    The trouble with the church is that we are busy keeping our shit together, which may boil down to trying to be the way we were in the good old days and not offending anyone. Or not being offended.

    Lately people have been having heart attacks at our church. Very unsettling to the minister, especially when it happens during her service. But it’s like Boyd experience. The world comes into the sanctuary or your personal space, like it or not.

    So the ideal skunkworks in a church might take some unique turns. The Theater of the Oppressed work gets people into role plays where they become the characters in community problems. Or any kind of thing where people adopt different voices and perspectives. Where we get into our bodies and not just our heads.

    As a final note I have been invited to sit in on a church committee dealing with personnel issues. After due reflection (Hah!) I realized I have no big ideas. Except for my one idea which this: to pose the question of what is it we are trying to accomplish which might lead the church into a process of transformation? If transformation means
    tinkering with our church to help it grow here and there or have younger members with kids or have a balanced budget, then we won’t have much happen.

    But if like Trudy, we’re asking for help from the aliens, we might get somewhere…

    1. Thanks Jim. Love the question – what is it we are trying to accomplish which might lead the church into a process of transformation?

      1. I prefer a shortened question. “What is it that we are trying to accomplish?” This presumes the conversation will lead to transformation. Or not. And brings is back to the question of what is our mission.

        The issue I have with what our denomination is doing in it’s feeble attempt to transform itself through remits is we have not even vaguely tried to answer the question, “What is it that we are trying to accomplish?” much less “What is our mission?” The result will be, I fear, frustration, confusion and disaster.

        1. David, The deeper worry I have is whether our structure can actually yield a workable, strategic answer to your question.

          1. I share your worry, Keith. We are not known for our strong strategic thinking as a denomination.

  3. I used to “facilitate” corporate strategic thinking in various companies. It rarely resulted in anything creative. Basically repackaging, or if not interesting enough, setting big goals. Sometimes it’s a good idea to work on goals but only after everyone’s hair has been set on fire by a vision.

    1. I do agree with your observations about most strategy meetings – in fact I should write something about that – AND that we need some fire. I’m not sure where but the hair might be a good place to start ?

    2. Further Jim,can the fire come from those charged with overseeing the organization? This is not a criticism of those gifted, well-intentioned folk rather an observation, akin to your skunkworks comment, that fire often sparks outside the walls.

      If so, then what is the role of those guarding the hearth?

      1. Guarding the hearth… Maybe the role is spread the fire not guard the hearth…

        I am reminded of some past learning about the tendency of the organization to stay in a stable state. We only need the old definition of oversight if that is our intention.

        Also wonder about putting too much definition into changing the church conversations… by too much, meaning that more words often add constraints, intended or not.

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