Why Ask Different Questions?
When I first started thinking about writing a book my initial wonderings where around the question, "what have I learned in all my years of church work?" I have been a consultant to faith based communities for over 16 years and served as a pastor for nearly 15 years before that. My entire professional life has been serving the church. So, naturally I wondered if I have learned anything that would be book worthy and provide a voice, or perspective, to church leaders today.
As I dove deeper into these wonderings what started to emerge was the fact that most of my learnings have been around what hasn't seemed to work vs. what has worked. I don't say this thinking that what I have seen, heard or done has been a total failure. I say this because it is a frustration that I have had to deal with over these years.
My ministry started in the early 1980's. It was a time where the church was still in a strong place, but the "S Curve" was definitely starting to happen. The challenges of being relevant, dwindling numbers, both in membership and financial resources, and slipping to the edges of cultural influence were all starting to take hold. Right out of the shoot, these realities were a part of the vernacular affecting ministry decisions and leadership anxiety. What are we going to do to grow our youth group? Our worship attendance is shrinking! How are we going to pay for the programs we are trying to provide? These were becoming the new normal in leadership conversations and what welcomed me into ministry.
The impact was enormous. As a child I experienced a church that enjoyed unprecedented growth. Now, as an adult serving that church, I faced unprecedented fear and worry about sustainability and growth potential. How would we address these challenges? Honestly, it was a rude awakening as a young pastor not realizing this is what I was signing up for. The seminary definitely did not prepare me for these types of questions.
This is where the issue of asking the right questions comes into play. Because of the reactionary response to this downward trend, most of the questions that emerged were survival based. We wondered how we could change worship to become more attractive to younger generations. We wondered about denominational identities being a roadblock to brining new folks into our doors. We wondered about how we could educate children, youth and adults that was more entertaining. We wondered if asking people to become "members" was the big turnoff.
As I have looked back on these days and the learnings I have gained from them, what I am left with is this; we simply were asking the wrong questions! It wasn't that our worship needed a complete makeover. It wasn't that our denominational identity created a roadblock. It wasn't because our educational efforts weren't entertaining enough. If this were the case, and these were the right questions, the church would not be facing the continued decline that it is still facing.
Most of these questions focused on the cosmetic side of being church. They were areas of addressing performance and perception. What they weren't doing is getting after the more substantive questions that drilled down to the very core of our existence. What is our purpose? What is our missional role in the world? How have we contributed to the decline that is happening? For me, these are the questions that weren't being asked in the 80's, 90's and the early 21st Century. As a result, the changes that we were looking for never unfolded.
This is why I believe it is time to start asking different questions. Questions that might be painful and difficult to hear the answers. However, if we don't change the nature of our questions the trajectory of faith communities will continue to be in a downward pattern. It doesn't have to be that way. Not if we start asking different questions.
The book I have written, "Imagining a New Church: What if We're Asking the Wrong Questions?" tries to identify what some of those more substantive questions might be. In addition, it tries to move away from feeling like we are being victimized by the changing world around us and turns the attention back on us. How have we behaved, talked and practiced that might be contributing to the decline we are experiencing?
These questions aren't meant to shame or blame. Instead, they are intended to provoke and invite dialogue that might just produce some productive and helpful answers for how to move forward. I am excited to have written this book and I am just as excited to begin this blog site. It will be a great forum to continue to ask questions and wonder how we can become a new church yet to be imagined. I hope you enjoy the journey with me.