As a child my maternal grandmother would join us for Sunday lunch and tea. I always looked forward to these times because she was my ‘Nana’ but also because she would bring a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream to share and a puzzle comic for me to do.
I particularly liked doing the dot-to-dot puzzles, where, if you connected them in the right order, the seemingly random dots on the page would reveal a picture of a car or ship or something.
In many ways the life and mission of the church is like a dot-to-dot puzzle. These ‘dots’ are the unchanging aspects of a churches life and work, like personal invitations to gatherings, breaking bread with a neighbour, singing praise to God, reading his word, offering the life of the world in prayer and offering a captivating message. For many years we have joined this dots together in a particular way to reveal a picture we call Church.
But what if you could join the dots of the puzzle together in a different way to reveal a different picture? If we connect these dots in the “right” order, we just might have an exciting, life-giving movement on our hands.
Many churches are now quite familiar with a both/and reality, especially with worship. Churches stream worship online while also having people in the pews. On any given Sunday you will find an offering plate but many church members now give online. (Some churches even have contactless card readers to accept donations!) The both/and world is becoming quite familiar, but often overlooked is the responsibility to recognise that both/and is not just about church logistics. Living into this tension elicits a pastoral response. Many are feeling left behind with the quickly changing technological landscape, and with this dramatic change there is grief, those who were on the ‘offertory rota’ no longer have a role to fulfil.
We must hold in tension both the grief and excitement of this new augmented landscape. Many for the first time feel like the church is listening to them. Creating discord servers, developing space in the metaverse, and investing in digital currencies as a means through which the church is serving a new generation, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those currently in our communities. It’s not about the technology, but it is about the connection (or lack thereof) technologies affords. As of yet there isn’t an app on the market that can heal a hurting soul who feels forgotten. We must connect the dots between what technology can do and how technology makes us feel.
In the church there is often a resistance to change and those who resist change will speak about ‘change for changes sake’. I must admit I agree that change for changes sake is not always the best way forward. If change comes it must be adaptive change, joining the dots in a different way to produce a better not just a new picture.
Twenty or so years ago there was a church that had experienced their “golden” years: substantial growth, effective mission, expansion, and influential community leadership. The minister who led during this time of abundance eventually came to the end of their time in the circuit and was stationed elsewhere, and with his successor came great strife. The following years offered division, antagonism, and depending on who you ask, great trauma. Since this shake-up, the congregation seemed to find some reason or another to ask the minister to start packing every four to five years. Why? With each new appointment the next minister was being asked, explicitly or quietly in the hallways in between meetings, to recapture the past. The incoming minister’s vision was never enough. It never could be because repeating the past is impossible. It is not an altogether bad thing to desire the best practices of a fruitful time. Connect-the-dots puzzles are a tried and true children’s exercise, but if you’re hoping to find a connect-the-dots book within walking distance from your home at a corner news shop your walk will probably end in disappointment.
Congregations tempted to reclaim past mission and vision are in a particularly difficult context today. As I mentioned in my previous article, we are all running the third great Covid marathon; “Nostalgic Scarcity,” the desire to reclaim the past through already limited resources. Nostalgic Scarcity might be an unfamiliar phrase, but “let’s get ‘back to,’” and “This is how we used to do it,” I’m sure will resonate in many churches with a slight traumatic tremor.
Churches who want to ‘get back to’ are stifling this new environment to explore the realities of mission and church today, both physically and digitally. Some members will even go to the extent of removing the dots to prevent a new pattern being formed, the “if you do this I will resign from the church” brigade. Enshrining the past is not a bad thing, but it is the job of museums, not the calling of churches.
Adaptive change will be waiting for us at the Covid marathon finish line, and with adaptive change there is always a cost. The cost is often loss. Several church members of that church left when the new ministers failed to invest in creating a “get back to” environment; however it seems that the congregation has never been healthier. The worshiping congregation is certainly slimmer, but also more nimble, more missionally engaged, and frankly happy. We must connect the dots between what will bring us into a more fruitful future with the recognition that not everything/one will join us on that journey.
The good news is that the church is not being called to be innovative, witty or clever. We simply need to be where the people are. We need to connect the dots between the excitement of innovation with the sorrow of grief. We need to connect the dots between the fruitfulness of moving into the future with the loss from adaptive change. We need to connect the dots between innovative technology and the people the technology should serve. When we reconnect the dots of our churches life we will see the shape of a cross. It may have been hard to see at first in the midst of exhaustion and rapid change, but it is our faith that it is there. So, how are you being called to reconnect the dots of your churches life?
Grace and peace to you, Alan.