Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.


[Part II of, “The Case of the Misplaced Bridge”]

[Ed Note:  While the first article was based on limited note taking on an iPhone, the second portion of the presentation covered so many facts that it was not possible for one not schooled in today’s “high text” society to keep up.  Thus much of what follows in this Part II reflects more of your Reporter’s interpretation than Pastor Ross’ verbatim presentation.]

In the first half of this two-part series we had a careful look at the extraordinary forces of change that have occurred at an accelerating pace in the past several decades.  We live in extraordinary times that are fully testing both our traditional values and institutions.  The church is one of those institutions that has seen these changes, yet not fully responded to them.  Continuing on its current course risks the prospect of increasing irrelevance.  The purpose of this project is to gain a fresh perspective on the world around us as it is today; to evaluate the impacts of the massive changes that are re-defining our lives; and to fashion a strategy to re-position that bridge over the river whose course has so dramatically changed with the passage of time.

Traditional versus Contemporary Motivations

In his overview presentation Pastor Ross first described the nature and extent of the external forces (largely technology related) that now shape our lives, and then documented how these changes have impacted the value systems of today’s generation.  In a nutshell, what turns them on?  And what turns them off?  Are we able to both hear and understand the new tunes to which these persons are now dancing?  Clearly we need to give this a thoughtful attention if we want to fashion a new vision for realigning the church’s critical mission to attract those who can play key roles in carrying it out.

Fact:  80% of today’s generation describe themselves as spiritual; yet few identify with the notion of “religious”.  How did this come to pass?

Many of long-time church members are grounded in concepts of tradition, doctrine, family roots, and duty.  While these characteristics may still play some role, they are being overtaken by a new motivating forces. 

Tradition is carrying forward important pieces of the past.  But in today’s world there is a growing tendency to be more questioning; and as a consequence the notion of tradition tends to be supplanted by personal likes and dislikes.  Duty is another value that in the contemporary world has been displaced by a new characteristic -- passion. People are tending not to do things because they “should” do them.  Instead they are guided by those things that positively motivate them to action.  

Family roots have long been the mainstay of personal relationships.  Our communications and relationships were largely the result of our "at home" experiences.  But in today’s mobile society, with the wholesale adoption of social networking, personal affiliations are beginning to play a far greater role.  “Doctrine” used to be a significant motivator.  Today people are more inclined to respond to reason and what “feels right”.  When we were oh so very young, Mom used to say “Because I told you so...”.  Later, we likely found ourselves saying the same thing.  While it may have accomplished its intended purpose, that approach likely has little value in persuading today’s adult population. And they’re much less likely to come to our churches these days -- “just because...”.

In the past there may have been one or two alternative s to “traditional” choices; today there are an infinite number of alternatives to consider.  Things that in the past have been expectations for us, have been transformed into choices by us.  In the context of the church, in the old order it was understood that the church judges me.  That’s been turned on its head today, as the current norm is closer to I judge the church.

What this all seems to suggest is that we need to take a fresh look at what motivates the contemporary generation.  We should not assume that which has motivated us in the past will similarly motivate those influenced by the exceptional changes of recent decades.  The spiritual quest is still very much alive and well; but it may not resonate well with the term “religious”. In fact 80% of persons not presently associated with a church are not even looking for one. 
This suggests we need to repackage our statement of purpose in a manner that is more easily recognized as responsive to quest for spiritual growth.  And we should recognize that "they" are not looking for "us".  As a consequence we need to consider innovative ways to reach out to "them".  The opportunity to do this is likely found in activities and initiatives that tap into that need for spiritual growth and fulfillment. Said otherwise, we need to explore new paths to the same destination.

In Part I we discussed how technological changes have so dramatically impacted the world we live in.  These same events have altered as well how today’s generation thinks and responds.  A contemporary understanding of these phenomena is essential to fashioning a new vision for the church in today’s world.

Life Cycle of the Church

In one sense the church can be described as an “organization”.  But in broader perspective it has the characteristics of an organism.  As such, it has a unique  “life cycle” that can be identified by reference to four characteristics: Vision, Relationships, Program, and Structure.  They tend to occur in precisely that order.  And while each can play a constructive role in carrying out the church’s mission, the predominant role of the first two may tend to be diluted with the passage of time.

At the outset there is only the vision of what a new church can be and accomplish.  People come together (relationships) to bring about its creation and its growth into a healthy entity.  The new organization energetically pursues the vision upon which it was founded.  In time the church develops more well defined programs that are intended to carry out the specific activities the church has chosen to pursue.  And finally a structure is fashioned to manage the various programs that have been adopted.

In this scenario the church’s energy level is highest when guided by vision, and able to take advantage of the many positive relationships that carry out its functions.  As it moves into the “program” phase, it is most successful when program is most influenced by vision and relationships.  However too often it tends to move closer to a preoccupation with structure --  often characterized by a proliferation of committees, internal processes and procedures.  At this point the founding attributes of vision and relationships have become less important, and the church’s role as a structured institution becomes its dominant characteristic.  The life cycle of the organism has now approached the end of its optimally useful life.

Different churches will find themselves in different places along this life cycle continuum.  For many the characteristic of vision will carry forward as a dominant theme.  And key relationships will continue to steer a course that is responsive to the societal changes that take place.  By doing so these churches will continue to be seen as “relevant” by the contemporary generation, and enjoy participation at all age levels.  Where emphasis has shifted towards the “structure” end of the cycle, the reverse will be true.  The attributes of vision and relationships become less controlling.  For a church the action is found in ministry, not management.  Where the reverse is presently true, thoughtful and deliberate action will be needed to reverse course.

Known Characteristics of a Revitalized Church

Most churches will find themselves in need of having a critical look at precisely where they are along their life cycle.  A useful analysis is found in looking to common characteristics of churches that are vital and successful.  These would include:

1.  A positive worship experience:  those attending worship services typically report that they can “feel it”.
2.  Radical hospitality:  The entire congregation is engaged in the process of welcoming visitors, and in representing the church to the outside world.
3.  The individuals in the congregation are committed to taking care of each other, and are not content to believe some “program” will do that for them.
4.  There is an intentional “discipling process”, whereby individuals are encouraged progressively forward on a clearly defined growth trajectory in service related to the church’s overall mission.
5.  There is risk taking by the church in pursuit of its goals of ministry and service.
6.  The church is characterized by “extravagant generosity, with at least 30% of its annual budget committed to project outside the church.
7.  The objective is to send people out into the community -- not just dollars.

One suggested yardstick to measure the church’s effectiveness in the community is simply this:  What would be the impact on the community if the church were suddenly not there any longer?  

Over the next six weeks the process will go forward under the direction of Pastor Ross and his consulting team.  They will study reports on the Bend United Methodist Church as it is today, and conduct focus groups and individual interviews.  Based on this further input, a plan of action will be developed by the team.  This proposal will be subject to the congregations vote of approval.  If adopted, the team will stay involved to assist with the process on a consultive basis for the following 18 months.

[Ed Note:  Your Roving Reporters have characterized Pastor Ross’ presentation as accurately as possible.  Inevitably some of what’s reported above is based on a degree of editorial interpretation, and is not intended to be a verbatim recitation  of the presentation.  We see this as an innovative process to examine opportunities for revitalization of the church in a generic sense -- surely not just limited to the Bend United Methodist Church.  We will report further as to the outcome of this creative project, and we hope that these reports might prove to be of value to other churches -- Methodist or otherwise -- as they seek to redefine their mission in today’s world.]