|A church can change|
|Written by GUS NELSON|
Gus, we read your book and would like to try what it says in our church in Atlantic..” The personnel committee had read “Service is the Point” and wanted to try it out.
In a series of 12 chapters, “Service is the Point” outlines what a new model would look like for children and youth, working adults and retired members, and how a session would be organized and how the pastor would schedule a week.
Would the church in Atlantic, Iowa, be willing to try out what is implied in the book and be willing to change? As far as I know, the Atlantic Church would be the first to do so.
In his book, “Strategies for Change,” Lyle Schaller asks:
“What is the number-one issue facing Christian organizations on the North American continent today? … Dwindling numbers? Money? Social justice? Competent leaders? The growing dysfunctional nature of ecclesiastical structures? … After more than three decades spent working with thousands of congregational, seminary, and parachurch leaders from more than five dozen traditions, this observer places a one sentence issue at the top of the list: The need to initiate planned change from within an organization.
Mike’s call surprised me. “Service is the Point” had been out for 10 years and as far as I knew it had been read but not tried. To be approached by a congregation that saw it needed to change, and saw the book I had written as an instrument to help it happen, was challenging. It would mean a congregation would be asked to change in several basic ways.
I soon learned that not everybody on the session saw change as necessary.
» Because members of the session told me in my initial meeting with them that they were tired and burned out, I suggested that the church have a sabbatical for several months and have no activities other than worship. The session turned this proposal down. (One group said the session can tell us not to meet, but we will meet anyway.)
» Because the sanctuary was built for a congregation of 525 members and now had 125 active members, I suggested that they take out half the pews. Once again the session said, “No.” They needed all the pews for weddings and funerals.
With two turn-downs in the first two months, I was ready to quit. My wife and a few friends suggested I give them a third chance, which turned out to be wise counsel.
From a missional church to missional members
The session endorsed my calling on members at home and at work. The six-month contract that I signed only saw my calling on members in the hospital or in emergency situations.
Each Sunday night I made appointments for the coming week. The congregation was mainly made up of retired people, which meant fewer visits at work. My last report to the session included a tally of visits: 85 home visits and 18 workplace visits.
One session family said that a pastor had not called on them since 1974; another longtime member said they had never been called on by a pastor.
Seeing members’ primary mission as what they do at work and at home changes the orientation of a church from seeing itself as missional to seeing the members as missional … It means not asking members to support and take part in church programs, but having the church support members in what they are doing in the world at work and at home as the church’s primary mission.
Martin Luther said that a scullery maid washing dishes is as holy as a pastor serving communion, and we might say a father changing a diaper is as holy as a pastor baptizing a child. There are no longer certain practices like reading the Bible or praying that should be set apart during the week as practices of faith. Any task that a church member does as part of a workday is “practicing the faith.”
Talk backs during worship
I met with the worship committee and proposed that there would be a “talk back” each Sunday during worship. I had been an interim pastor in Dallas Center that had a talk back with a small group each Sunday after church. Having it during worship was something new.
The worship committee decided to try having a talk back during worship for a seven-week trial period. A poll was taken the sixth and seventh week. The committee was surprised with the results. One-third wanted a talk back every week, one-third every other week and one-third did not want it all. They agreed to have it every Sunday except when they had Holy Communion. It meant that I could preach on controversial issues. Near the end of my interim, I had two short homilies: one on the General Assembly action approving the ordination of homosexuals; the other on Time magazine’s front-page article on a loving God not sending anyone to hell (and I added uncertainty about the heaven.) During talk back the congregation only talked about hell, and they were not happy with double predestination. Ordaining gays and lesbians was a non-issue.
Talk backs allowing church members to challenge the views of the pastor during worship meant that they could disagree with the pastor openly. The congregation was no longer the audience but became part of the action. It was a new day for the congregation.
I soon learned that the Atlantic Church was comfortable with a pastor who sometimes expressed doubts and uncertainties from the pulpit. During my six months at Atlantic and the various changes, not one member left the church. Much credit can be given to their having a talk back to vent their feelings. If this had been a vehicle for response in the ‘60s when we took a stand on civil rights, we would not have lost nearly as many members.
Whereas at that first luncheon I was surprised to hear session members say, “We are tired and burned out,” I was equally surprised to hear at a last luncheon, “We are energized.” Visiting members at home and at work and what it implied in the definition of the church’s mission, and including talk back as a way for the congregation to become actors, were two major ways for the Atlantic Church to change…to be renewed and transformed. If members had agreed to having a sabbatical and to taking out half the pews and replacing them with round tables, I believe additional change might have taken place. A church can change. What I learned from my six-month stay in Atlantic is that any church can change.
GUS NELSON is former executive presbyter of the Des Moines Presbytery.