This Sunday, we will have our second annual meeting of the year. The focus of this meeting is the leadership of the church. While the church will be introduced to the budget, the focus is on electing our leaders and confirming the pastor’s call. It is one of those important Sundays that really puts a mark on the life of the church and how we move forward. For us, we have met the difficult days in our past head on, and are beginning to progress to a new reality. However, even with our growth and stability, we are still impacted by the reality of the world that we are in and the trends that affect all congregations.
One of the most difficult trends of the church over the past 20 years is the fact that church has become a passive experience. With the rise of what I used to call Walmart churches—big churches with lots of activities and little commitment—many congregations rely on a small, select group leading, and the rest passively absorbing. This is disconnected from what the church is supposed to be like. The church is not about what one receives; rather, it is about how we grow together in relationship with God.
When I have worked with other congregations, and even with some individuals, often I find that this disconnect is at the root of many problems the church faces. The easiest example is to think of many financial debates that happen in churches. Thankfully, we have overcome this trend, for the most part. However, when the discussion arises, issues of faith in budget are more often than not reduced to quantifiable numbers like attendance, budget, etc.
While numbers can be helpful tools, the numbers can, and often do, become the driving force of the church, instead of the mission of God. This means that when the numbers become the basis of a church’s life, it loses itself and its identity to the whims of a society that ultimately values itself more than God. The dialogues that are part of these decisions are often far more about function and corporate issues, rather than grounded theology and propagation of the mission of God.
Here lies the great problem of the church, faith, and all of Christianity. The loss of a connected story, and subsequently, theological reasoning, devalues the message of the church and relegates it to merely a social institution. Some even equate the church with a museum of an arcane and dead religion, not something that is active and alive.
Whether spoken or not, many wonder if the church can ever even see growth. To this end, I like to say a big No and Yes, but it has to start with a serious reordering of values and discussion. In other words, I believe that the church must regain the art of telling stories and listening. The story is the most powerful way that one can embrace and grow in both faith and life. In this section, I will explore the social and biblical foundations of narrative, and the need for story and narrative for a grounded faith within the life of the church (local and global). The power of story is something that people often underestimate.
As a respected writer and psychologist, Mary Pipher demonstrates a persuasive understanding of narrative and the great meaning and power of the words we use. She states, “With both written and spoken words, people remember stories. Savvy speakers tell and retell narratives that quiet a room and elicit laughter or tears.” (Pipher, 190) Words have power, and a good storyteller can make a huge difference in people’s lives.
When discussing Martin Luther King Jr., historians often will cite the many people involved with the Civil Rights Movement, but it was his eloquence and ease of speech that brought his message out and thus impacted the lives of so many. The witness that King brought connected with people because he often retold the stories of the struggles of himself and others. He also allowed the story to be owned not only by him, but by those who were gathered. MLK knew that the only way to create change was to speak in powerful ways that connected people not to power, but to God, and that with that connection to God, they could take down any oppressive power that came in their way. He did this through story and a narrative that spoke a truth that was not passive or comfortable, but one that was life-changing.
As we gather next Sunday to elect our leaders, we will be charging them to lead this congregation with imagination and energy, looking to ways in which we can really make a difference in our community and connect people with God in a much deeper way.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen