Developing a “community of practice” was the focal point of seven churches from one denomination a few years ago.
Before starting, my organization, Pinnacle Resource Associates, wrestled around with the purpose of this work.
What’s the goal we are pursuing? Are we promising numerical growth? Are we encouraging spiritual vitality? Is the goal missional movement? Just what are we about and how will we know when we get there?
Transformation was (and is) our answer, moving from church-as-we-have-known-it toward church-as-it-is-becoming and becoming adaptive communities of faith who are caught up in God’s movement in this world.
Our hope is that churches move toward becoming the best version of themselves, so far.
So what’s it take to get there? That’s no small question, requiring books rather than articles to answer. Even so, there are four key turns churches make during their transformation work, described below.
1. Eliminate church envy by claiming your identity and drilling down into who you are.
Many churches are excellent at encouraging this for individuals. We regularly teach and preach that each person has dignity and worth just as he or she is because we are all created in the image of God.
We go with the idea that we will make better contributions to this world by leaning into our own identities rather than trying to be who we are not.
Yet, when it comes to being church, we look down the street at that church, engaging in comparison thinking.
If we could just be like them, we would be a great church, so we think. Our church envy is pervasive at this point.
In order to become our best selves, we must eliminate church envy, embracing our identities as churches.
Our DNA, core values, character, gifts and graces – these are who we are. These are not up for grabs or the focus of change. Instead, we want to embrace these even more, strengthening our sense of self as churches.
Many shapes, sizes and approaches exist to being church in this wide world, and thanks be to God for that diversity.
So, let’s embrace who we are, drilling down into our identities more fully. When we do, our church envy fades away, going the way of all things, while we become stronger, more invigorated churches.
2. Stop pretending you will appeal to everyone in your community.
This is where the payoff from embracing your identity as a church shows up. Typically, we are working with the idea that most everyone in our community will love our church if they can just experience it like we do.
This belief then influences us to become generalists who try appealing to everyone in our community, becoming “generic church.” We minimize our uniqueness, what makes us special or distinct as a church.
When we try to be all things to all people, we become very bland expressions of church.
When we embrace our identities instead, we easily accept that not everybody in our community will resonate with our expression of church.
Even so, there are somebodies in our community for whom our expression of church will help open the doors to God. These are the people in our community who need this church.
By being ourselves, we are far more likely to connect with the people who will resonate with our way of being church.
No, we are not the church for everyone in the world. We are the church for those someones in our communities for whom our expression of church will help open the doors to God.
3. Banish blaming, complaining and nostalgia.
These three unproductive activities often form a triad, creating a toxic church culture nearly guaranteed to run off any newcomers.
Blaming happens when some Christians still think U.S. culture should appreciate the Christian movement to the same degree it did during the age of Christendom (pre-2000 CE).
Inevitably then, they blame culture for their church’s lack of vitality and progress.
Complaining arises when the Christians just described get together at church, then spend inordinate time complaining about the world around them, as if this is somehow a constructive activity. Maybe it makes them feel better about their predicament?
Nostalgia takes place because we all enjoy a good story, looking back at the good ole days. Yet, living in the past prevents forward movement. Churches with eyes fixed on the rearview mirror are rarely happy in the present.
This triad of unproductive ingredients make for a toxic brew, which nobody outside of these churches wants to drink.
Pinnacle has found that when churches embrace their identities, laying aside church envy, then their addiction to this unhealthy drink is broken, preferring the life-giving waters of the gospel.
4. Embrace the adventure.
A beautiful thing happens when we shed the unhelpful layers of Christendom that trap us in the past: We rediscover our faith in new ways.
I really like how Brian McLaren describes what happens; we come “Alive in the adventure of Jesus.”
When we move beyond the cultural dethronement of Christianity, we discover the Christian movement – a life-giving, invigorating way to live in this world. We are caught up in the adventure of following Jesus.
These churches are liberated from church envy into a space where they can learn from other churches without believing they must be like other churches in order to succeed.
These churches don’t waste their time in unproductive, backward-looking activities but are free to pursue the flow of God in the present.
These churches believe God is moving, actively transforming their part of planet earth into the kingdom of God. These churches don’t want to miss out on their part of God’s renewal of their communities.
No, they won’t appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t matter. They are working to connect with those persons in their communities for whom this expression of church helps open the doors to the experience of God through Jesus Christ.
When we are caught up in this, we discover the adventure of a lifetime called Jesus-following. Then we are willing to step outside our comfort zones, engaging holy experiments for the sake of the gospel.
Our collective aspiration is to become the best expression of ourselves as a church so far.
So, let’s drop our baggage, setting our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Then, we will find ourselves alive in the adventure of Jesus. Could anything be any better?
Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.