In the Margins or at the Center?
We discovered something profound by accident. In our quest to understand how to build better church chairs we asked, “Why do you like your church?” What we ended up with was what Francis Chan calls bragging about God. In a society in which so many voices clamor to be heard it is easy to feel like local congregations have little impact in the cacophony of white noise – they loose sight of what it means to brag about God. Where does Jesus fit into it all? Clearly Jesus did not say that he would build a church that was ineffectual or marginal. Yet to hear some people the Church and its local expressions seem relegated to the backwaters of society as though the Church was nothing more than a cowering group of prudes afraid of their own shadows.
The reality is more often a tension of opposing forces that set the stage for unique and powerful encounters with God. On the one hand local congregations experience marginalization through encounters with biased media, poorly framed discussions or simple human frailty. Any of these can leave people filled with unanswered questions and disillusionment. On the other hand there are those situations and events that affirm Jesus’ words, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:17-19, NIV) When faith triumphs over fear, loss or doubt the result is more than the affirmation of a myth. The result is a transformed life that contributes to social change in dynamic and healing ways.
Many times the difference between despair or disillusionment or hope and activism in faith is not circumstance but perspective. One of my favorite illustrations of this is an encounter with the prophet’s perspective in 2 Kings 6:16-18. After being surrounded by an enemy army the servant of Elisha panicked. Elisha simply prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” The result of the prayer is that the servant looked and saw the army of God surrounding the army of the Arameans – a shift in perspective did not change the situation but it did dramatically alter the reaction of the servant. We see the same need today for some leaders who are burdened and weary…LORD open our eyes so that we may see.
A Surprising Discovery
What hit me as I read through the responses we collected is that they mirror statements made about the early church. I catalogued the comments we received around six descriptions of the early church found in Acts 2:42-47. There is nothing scientific in my method. It is simply an interesting and eye opening exercise. At the time of this writing we have had 117 responses to our question. If you want to see more go to http://www.facebook.com/bertolinichairs. The churches represented range from less than 100 to over 1,000 in size. The churches represented cross denominational lines and include Protestant and Catholic congregations so far.
1 – Devotion to Teaching and Fellowship
We found phrases like “full of knowledge and resource;” and “edify and equip;” in many of the entries. Others wrote about the experience of care and comfort in associating with other Christians. What seems clear is that the message of the scripture is not disconnected in these congregations it is at the center of how they live. What is particularly interesting is that all types of worship expressions are included in the responses we received. Consider this description from one of the respondents; “We take communion every Sunday as our disciple creed states. He reminds us of the sacrifice that Jesus did for us, and for that reason I love my church.”
2 – A Sense of Awe
The awe experienced in the Acts of the Apostles communicated a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread and wonder. The same sense of awe is repeatedly expressed in the responses to our question; “I have found an intense connection with God. I have never felt God’s presence the way that I feel him when I am at my church.” Awe is not just the experience of large congregations. One person wrote; “Our church is not that big, in fact it is a small church. We have move from location to location, and sometimes short on funds, but we do not let that hinder our praise and fellowship.”
The book of Acts features miraculous events and experiences. Are these still parts of the experience of the local congregation? Several reported similar experiences; “…power of the holy ghost moves in every service and souls are being saved for the glory of god.” Another wrote; “…it is a church that walks in the supernatural with creative miracles and demonstration of the Holy Spirit.” Still another wrote; “I’ve experienced physical healings, God’s power, true love, and so much more while attending this church. I’ve gone on missions trips to San Francisco, to help feed the hungry. I’ve witnessed the real world without and with God, but without my church I wouldn’t know God as I do today.”
3 – A Common Concern for Each Other
A prominent feature of the early church was its growing cross-cultural and multi-ethnic awareness and involvement. From the day of Pentecost a new kind of social experience emerged in the early church that broke down ethnic and cultural walls. What about today? Here is what people wrote; “I have never been excluded or discouraged in any way; it is a very caring, and praying church.” One pastor wrote: “My church is small…I won’t deny that. This is my first ministry job out of Bible College and it has had its ups and downs, but it also is the reason I love my church. The congregation here is so loving, so giving, so selfless, that it’s hard to not see Jesus every time we get together!” Another individual wrote: “I just feel like when I walk through those doors I have come home again and there are so many people who love me here. We are all in it together!”
Are local congregations without blemish? No, like the church in Acts growth pangs seem evident in the responses to our question; “As we like to say- we’re not perfect…just remarkable.”
4 – Glad and Sincere Hearts
Sometimes Christians are portrayed as joyless frumps. However, the responses to our question paint a very different picture. The church is vibrant. “I like my church because it has given me the freedom to express my love and gratitude towards God.” Another person wrote; “Their motto is come as you are and they really mean it. No matter how messed up you are the members and staff always look at you through the eyes of Christ. FCC does church the way it is supposed to be accepting of all Gods children.”
The things we read in the responses are not Pollyannaish – the economic downturn is evident. But consider this example of how congregations are facing these struggles; “Attendance has suffered and money is tight, yet some how (Glory to God), they always come out ahead. Its times like these we stand together and unite. We are not going to let this stop us and we will grow our church, build our children’s center and find a wonderful, full-time, perm pastor to make us better than ever! That is the spirit I leave with each weekend, of hope and encouragement through faith and that uplifting spirit of love.”
5 – Enjoying Favor of all the People
One story in particular caught our attention; “Our church building was destroyed by the EF4 Tornado that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. In the aftermath, even thought our building lay in ruins, the church was alive and well. We feed hot meals to victims and rescue workers, and as the days turned into weeks and then into months we fed over 42,700 hot meals right there in our parking lot. We also started a work camp for youth groups to come and help remove debris from yards and home sites. We had over 600 young people come serve in Tuscaloosa, and cleaned approx. 300 different sites. It was an amazing experience; we now worship in a Fire Truck Bay, and are unveiling our new building plans this Sunday! I love my church family because we’ve made it through so much together and are still growing stronger in the love of Christ!! There’s nothing we can’t do through the love of Christ!”
This is not simply disassociated triumphalism. Congregations face real struggles and present real answers. Another wrote; “Opportunities to the community through the Food pantry, Blessings Bistro, short term mission trips, gym nights, coffee house, choir and holyday programs, music that rocks!”
6 – The Lord Added New People
The congregations represented in those who responded to our question also describe what missiologists term conversion growth. One respondent gave this testimony; “This church has challenged my beliefs and my complacency in my life; my faith has grown immensely since we starting attending; the church is a praying, giving, going, and sending church family.” Another person wrote; “There is a passion for serving our community, one another and reaching the world for Jesus Christ.”
What can be Learned?
As noted above this is not a validated scientific study of social trends. I perused and edited responses. That said, what did I learn?
First, there are people who have great things to say about their experience in the church. They may not often be given a platform to express what is right with the church. This reminds me of the principle of appreciative inquiry used by many consultants to involve people in questions that strengthen an organization’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate and leverage its potential. Too often planning or problem solving starts (and stops) with what is wrong with an organization and thus fails to tap into the real potential of the organization to morph into something new. Appreciative inquiry is designed to tap into the untapped energy of the organization. Said another way, using the process of appreciative inquiry can help people retouch the image of God within their own experience and the history of their congregation in a way that gives hope and a new future.
Second, people did not generally shy away from the reality that they face challenges and disappointment. These things came out…and they are not the end of the world. Instead they are the context in which people see the work of God. Some leaders seem to believe that any honest assessment automatically turns negative and destructive. Perhaps it is the way we framed the question (starting with the positive) that the negative did not take center stage. Perhaps people simply want an honest acknowledgment that there are problems that can and should be addressed and they are ready to help in that process.
Third, questions are profound tools. A mentor of mine once noted that highly effective leaders exhibited speech patterns that had a much higher ratio of questions to statements. It is not that they fail to provide direction or directives. It is that in the big picture they spend far more time focusing the experience and challenging the assumptions of their direct reports and their own perspective by asking powerful and probing questions. We stumbled into the power of questions in a marketing project. The results are a reminder of the power of asking questions – every leader should take time to help others brag about God.
Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.