A new church? Embracing diversity

After my article on “The Future of Victorian Worship,” I decided to go into more depth regarding the three underlying values (conformity, compliance and standardisation), but this time looking at them from the point of view of new ways of being church, rather than just new ways of doing worship. This is first of three articles to come on this subject. The next two will be tackling the issue of stimulating the imagination, and then encouraging creativity.

1. What we take for granted

If you grew up in the church – depending on the variety of contexts you were exposed to – you will probably have a set of ideas about church that you take for granted. For instance, you may take for granted that a church needs to have a building, a membership roll, a board of elders, a pastor, and of course a Sunday morning service where we sing songs, say prayers, and listen to a sermon. These are only some of the things we take for granted. All these things are important to keep in mind when we set out to imagine new forms of church. Continue reading

The future of Victorian worship

For a time I was fascinated by traditional Presbyterian worship. There was just something majestic, dignified and deliciously predictable about it. That fascination slowly wore off, and for a time I could not tell why that was, and I found that troubling. I’m referring to the kind of Reformed Presbyterian worship on a typical Sunday morning in a 19th century traditional stone building, with uncomfortable pews, strange smell, pipe organs, massive communion table, elevated pulpit and sometimes a choir.

Coming from an Eastern European context where order is an exotic word, this type of worship was like a magnet to me. It is beautiful and dignified. It has a lot going for it. If I were to build a new form of worship, that’s where I would probably start. But it is not where I would end up. Not anymore.

It took me awhile to figure out why it just failed to satisfy. It just wasn’t buzzing for me anymore. What I initially regarded as different and refreshing soon became restrictive and oppressive. Trying to tinker with it as a minister lead to backlashes that shocked and disturbed me. That also contributed to my disenchantment. Continue reading

A short (fictitious) conversation with an 80 year old

“I’m worried…” John said to me, his eyes fixed on the carpet after we talked about the weather.

“What are you worried about?” I asked, shifting in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position on his sofa, moving cushions and tucking them behind me.

“All my grandchildren were born in the church… went to Sunday School… and now they left the church. It’s just us old folk!” he replied, his face darkening.

I nodded silently, trying to be respectful to his grief even if I had 100 explanations in my mind as to why that is happening everywhere in the church. For an instant, I felt the clerical collar choking me. I know why they aren’t coming. Let me tell you!! I thought.

“Have you ever asked them why they don’t come?” I asked him breaking the silence.

“It’s not just my grandchildren… We don’t have any young people in the church!” he added.

“Yes, that’s true… to a certain extent… we do have some…” I attempted to correct him. “But have you asked them why they don’t come?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t remember exactly what they said… Oh, yes, they said it’s boring!” he recalled scoffing.

“Boring… yes. My children get easily bored too… The bored generation…” I said, enjoying a wee laugh with John.

“When I was their age I was in Sunday School, and then Youth Group and Boys Brigade, I was in church every Sunday, and I never stopped…” he told me emphatically.

“Were YOU ever bored in church?” I asked him looking for his gaze.

“What?” he asked, taken aback by my question, as if saying ‘What’s the point of that question?

“Were YOU ever bored in church growing up?” I repeated, looking straight at him.

“I… I think so… I mean… There was a lot that went over my head… I didn’t understand everything… But I still went. I didn’t give up!” he said.

“I was the same, John. I don’t remember ever not going to church. But here’s a question for you: Were you ever given the option to not go?” I asked him tilting my head.

“Huh? No… no…” he shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to say. You’re saying I didn’t have a choice!” he said with a grin.

“Did you?” I insisted.

“Of course I did!” he said with a higher pitched voice. “All my friends were there!” he justified.

“Mhm. Yes… it really does help to have your friends there, doesn’t it? I was the same. All my friends were church friends!”

“Exactly!” he said with some relief in his smile.

“Do you remember your parents ever asking you if you WANTED to go, or if you liked it?” I asked, taking him back to the initial rub.

He thought in silence, trying to jog his own memory, scratching his head. He shook his head.

“I can’t remember…” he said softly and sighed.

I nodded silently.

(Re)Thinking about leadership

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about leadership. From the launch of iTunes U I’ve been watching lectures from several universities on the issue of organisational change and leadership. There seems to be a very strong wind of change blowing in the management world. The recent credit crunch and recession may have something to do with that rethinking. The paradigm seems to be shifting dramatically, at least in academic circles. Corporations and governments better change, or the economy will hit a brick wall within our life times. This seems to be generally accepted in economic circles. But it applies to all areas in my view…

When we think about what makes a leader, generally we think about a person who has a vision and is able to both communicate it clearly and get people to buy into it and implement it. Sounds familiar? That’s what I used to think about leadership. In many ways I still do at the instinct level; but now I think I am wrong. The emphasis is on vision building and planning. If you have a good plan, if you implement it well and stick to it, you will have success.

There’s a new thinking in management beginning to emerge. It has to do with how we imagine organisations in the first place. The ‘visionary leader’ makes sense only if we imagine organisations as wholes, as unitary entities. But they are only wholes in our imagination. All organisations, commercial or charitable, are made of people, and people are complicated. Rather than think about the whole and how we can get it to move in a certain direction, we need to take its complexity seriously. I wish I had known this when I started ministry.

Complexity is important because THAT is what we experience in organisations, and not the other (unitary) bit. What we experience in reality is the local interaction of people (or agents, as they’re called in the complexity sciences) and the ideas that emerge from these interactions.

For instance, think of the 10 billion (or so) neurons in the brain: There is no single neuron commanding all of them. Rather every single neuron interacts with 15,000 to 30,000 other neurons who do the same. Every single neuron thus interacts with only a fraction of the whole. What emerges out of all the local interactions is a ‘population wide pattern’. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll just leave it at that and look at the local interaction for now, which has been neglected to our peril.

If we apply this to organisations, the leader is the person who can best identify and articulate what is just emerging from that local interaction, and keep the conversation going.  He/she may have a vision, but that only serves as a conversation starter, and not as a governing principle or the end of conversation. A good leader will not kill the conversation by negotiating some kind of ‘shared values or vision’. This stifles growth and movement, ultimately leading to death. A good leader will keep the conversation going at all times, aware that nobody can anticipate with any certainty what the outcome of our actions will be. It assumes a complex world, it involves risk taking and ongoing conversation.

Does this make sense as we think of our leadership role in the church? (I’m not only referring to ministers. Leaders emerge in local interactions all the time, even if we don’t call them that. The implications for pastoral care and local ministries blow my mind!)

Sermon – Speak their language!

Acts 2:1-21

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church of Scotland in Renfrewshire on 12th May 2011, Pentecost Sunday.

The main idea of this sermon is that the Holy Spirit did not enable the foreigners in Jerusalem to speak the disciples’ language, but rather the other way around. Why is it then that we constantly expect the ‘world’ to learn our religious lingo before we can communicate the Jesus experience?