Friday, June 06, 2008

Converting the Church for the 21st Century- Part 2

What does a flourishing congregation look like?

What are the marks of a congregation that is thriving and alive?

A good friend shared a profile of what a lively community of faith looks like from her work with a Lilly Endowment research project. The results come from a event sponsored by the Indianapolis Center for Congregations with the focus theme- "Flourishing Congregations: Moving from Dreams to Reality."

I've been serving as interim senior pastor of a congregation that has faced a good many struggles and challenges over the last several years, and I've discovered a hunger to know what a "flourishing congregation" looks like beyond the 3 Bs of "budget, building, and butts in the pews".

Here's the list of 16 attributes that mark a flourishing congregation drawn from the aforementioned Lilly Endowment consultation:

  1. Welcoming and deliberate about forming relationships
  2. Open to new ideas, change, etc.
  3. Risk-taking, focused on the positive
  4. Intentional about building bridges between people, between the church and its immediate community, between people who have faith and those searching for faith...
  5. Always finding commonalities- asking what are those things that unite us, rather than asking what are those things that divide us
  6. Coming together as children of God- acknowledging our mutual need of God's love in visible ways
  7. Places where each member is honored
  8. Safe places to do dangerous things
  9. Nurturing- where leaders and members are built up, instead of used up
  10. Active- reaching out- both locally and beyond
  11. Passionate
  12. Generous
  13. Spirit led
  14. Inter-generational
  15. Places to dream
  16. Energetic- where spiritual energy is always being renewed and people come away not feeling depleted, but enlivened by faith

Flourishing congregations are about new ways of helping people talk and think about what it means to be the "church at its best".

Someone asked me recently about the church I currently serve. Is there hope? My response, "of course there is hope." Where there is God, there is hope! And God never abandons us!

This challenges the business as usual side of church life, according to the consultation on "Flourishing Congregations". Too often, church life is the opposite of hope. Instead, we're entangled in such things as long meetings to balance budgets, resolve staff conflicts, restore aging facilities, or to plan the next strategic plan. Everything becomes a downward spiral of negative energy. We can't allow such things to diminish the energy, passion, and imagination of church leaders and members.

Here are a few questions that I have been asking church members and leaders in the last year quite regularly.

"What gives life in your congregation when it functions at its best?

"What drew you to this community of faith?"

"Where in worship and fellowship and service do you experience God and the love of God's people?"

Spend some time in conversations about questions like these, and spend some time focusing on the 16 attributes of flourishing congregations. You just might begin to discover renewed spiritual energy, which is a gift of God and a call to nurture.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Un-Christian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity

Christianity has an image problem.

That's the main thesis of a new book published by the Barna Group, a major research organization that performs original demographic studies much like the Gallup Poll, only the Barna Group specializes in research on churches and trends in spirituality.

Here's a further conclusion by David Kinnamon, primary author of the book "Un-Christian":
"Our research shows that many of those outside of Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith, and esteem for the lifestyle of Christ followers is quickly fading among outsiders. They admit their emotional and intellectual barriers go up when they are around Christians, and they reject Jesus because they feel rejected by Christians."

Consider the more detailed impressions held by younger adults about Christianity, and it's cause for alarm. According to Kinnaman, outsiders to the church hold these views of Christians and Christian faith:

1. Christianity is antihomosexual- a view held by 91% of those outside the church
2. Christianity is judgmental- a view held by 87% of those outside the church
3. Christianity is hypocritical- a view held by 85% of those outside the church.
4. Christianity is too involved in politics- a view held by 75% of those outside the church
5. Christianity is out of touch with reality- a view held by 72%
6. Christianity is old-fashioned- a view held by 78% of those outside the church

Now you may feel yourself getting a little defensive about all of the above attitudes held by young adults ages 16-29, but Kinnaman then adds this summary perspective.
On a profile of 12 traits that describe Christianity and the church, young adult outsiders hold negative views on 9 of the 12 traits. There is no organization I know of personally, that can thrive and grow if negative attitudes of this breadth and depth characterize the life and purpose of the organization. And that's true, whether we believe those negative attitudes are fair or not.

One of the real questions for church insiders to ask is this. Do we care about the reputation of the church and Christianity? Are we willing to consider the reasons that younger adults hold such negative attitudes? Or do we just want to pretend that these attitudes don't exist. In fact, reports Kinnaman, if we raise the age level of those with negative attitudes to include all ages of adults, some 50 million adult Americans report negative or hurtful experiences with the church.

Kinnaman frames the issue at stake in these words: "If you are interested in communicating and expressing Christ to new generations, you must understand the intensity with which they hold these views. As Christians, we cannot just throw up our hands in disgust or defensiveness. We have a responsbility to our friends and neighbors to have a sober, reasonable understanding of their perspectives."

There are 3 options.
1. We can say we don't care what attitudes that outsiders hold about the church and Christianity.
And this response often holds true of those who do not know any outsiders to the church faith.
2. We can care what outsiders think and wish we knew what to do. But this response won't prove effective if we don't get to know outsiders and why they think what they think.
3. We can both care what outsiders think and we can learn why, and we can engage them in relationships and conversations that build trust and a right to a hearing.

UnChristian is a book well worth reading and pondering and discussing by church leaders, pastors, and anyone who wants to make a case for a different practice and understanding of what it means to be a Christian in today's world. I strongly recommend it.