Here’s my process for the guaranteed renewal of your church in just two steps.
Step One: Just fucking do something.
What does I mean? In order to explain, I first need to take you to a typical New England church supper to raise money for the light bill. (I’ve been to more than one of these.) People may fight in the kitchen, the meal itself might feel suspiciously like a ripoff to those who come and it generally makes less money than a lemonade stand in January.
Of course, this is celebrated by the pastor during the Sunday morning service as the second coming of the kingdom of God, running maybe a close second to that amazing committee meeting that also happened this week, where the minutes were read with great intention and decisions were not made with equally great intention.
Of course, all of this is a lie. Jesus wanted nothing to do with that stupid light-bill supper; and truth be told, neither did most of the congregation; but the lie (which is generally one with a long generational history) is what keeps the community equilibrium, so people go along with it.
This sort of routine spiritual malpractice, (or non-practice) of Christianity takes all these Biblical words that shook empires, incited crowds to riot, burnt well-constructed lives to the ground in holy fire, turns them upside down and shakes them really hard, until they agree to say whatever you want them to.
There is a downside to this serial theological manipulation, which is that when our words no longer have any experiential reality to meaningfully describe, they hollow out, like a barrel with a leak at the bottom, until they become functionally content-less. The actual Christian experience becomes so foreign that when Jesus speaks about feeding the hungry, befriending the poor, or going to prison, this is so far from the lived community experience that he might as well be talking about taking a day trip to Narnia.
Furthermore, our communities have functioned in this era of intense linguistic meaninglessness for so long that we now sincerely that shaping our words to name a reality that does not exist is what the Christian life is about. (Besides, of course, committee meeting, fundraisers, and funerals.) And so, even when possessing the very best intentions, our initial response to a call from God is to form a committee or study group to talk about it; until the energy is safely drained from the idea and we can go back to living our securely unchanged lives.
Which is why I’d say to any church (or really any faith community) that if you want to experience spiritual transformation, the VERY last thing you should do is hold a meeting, read a book, or form a planning group. Instead, go out and just start doing what Jesus did. Feed some hungry people. Visit some sick people. Make friends with God’s poor. Extend radical generosity to some unlikely targets. All of these things can be done with 20 minutes of planning, a couple hours of time, and less than a hundred dollars, EASY.
After you do this, not just once (once, after all, is just the spiritual equivalent of that annual January 2nd trip to the gym), but several times; then you may proceed to step two of my program:
Step Two: Gather and reflect on what happened.
Open your scriptures, or gather for worship, and say, “What can this tell us about how God was working through us?” and watch how all those pleasantly inoffensive, utterly nonthreatening words spring to life with startling urgency; how your dusty theology starts to suddenly grow new green sprouts and begins to change in disconcerting ways, and how the Spirit will start speaking to you in all the inconvenient, closed off places of your life.
Kenda Creasy-Dean talks about about leading youth in reflection after a service project. (Hear her whole conversation with me here.) She says,
“When the youth showed up, they knew they were going to do something good and important for this family…but what the mom said to the teenagers was ‘You are an answer to prayer. We have been praying since February that we could hang on until you could show up.’ It ratcheted what they were doing up a notch…they didn’t see this just as a good thing..but that somehow, God was in the midst of this and that they’d been part of a story of redemption, not just a story of doing good things…turning good action into holy action.”
When that reflection starts (and your leader’s prized theological education starts coming in handy), I guarantee that all the transformation that everyone wants for their churches, will just HAPPEN, no consultants, planning committees, or book studies required, because the Spirit flows with remarkable alacrity through cooperative channels.
Congratulations, I just saved you thousands of dollars on a consultant and hundreds of hours of meetings.
All you have to do is:
1) Just fucking do something.
2) Gather and reflect on what happened.
Wash, rinse, repeat; and you’ll be surprised how transformational this Jesus life actually is.