Let’s say you are having this sinking feeling in church on Sundays that something is wrong. Nothing dramatic has changed, but little by little, the energy has been seeping out of your congregation’s fellowship and worship. Maybe people are bickering, or maybe they’re just anxious. Maybe it’s just your imagination. Maybe it’s not.
That question, “Is it just me, or is something wrong at church?” can make a person feel isolated–especially if no one else is talking openly about the problem. I have felt this way as a pastor and didn’t know how to start a healthy conversation about what I was sensing. Even as the leader, I didn’t want to be the one to “stir the pot”. If this has been difficult for me as a pastor, I imagine it is even more difficult for lay leaders to be the first to ask, “What’s wrong?”
I have learned from some great leaders that there are ways to start a serious conversation about the state of the church, and I believe there is more than one way, because it depends on your leadership style, and the type of church you are in.
One pastor who is experienced in small church ministry told me he starts conversations like this in informal ways. After worship, he hangs around and talks to people individually: How do you feel things are going here at First Church? How is it different than it used to be? What kinds of things have you been doing to respond to those changes? How is that going for you? Have you ever considered…?
These types of questions allow his members to express themselves without judgment or being told “You should do this…” His questions are a gentle invitation for his congregation to evaluate their ministry and challenge themselves to consider new options. Some people will just vent and complain. If so, he listens and moves on. But others will show some curiosity. “I wonder what that would be like…” With these people, my colleague pursues conversation. They are the kind of people who might dare to think and act creatively.
This kind of gentle questioning takes time and is not very systematic. It may work best in small, family style churches where decisions are made more informally.
Any leader, clergy or lay, can ask questions that lead people to express and challenge themselves. Most people appreciate being asked their opinions and feelings, especially if they are greeted with an open heart and listening ear. (Are you judicatory leaders listening right now?) From there, they may ask you, or another member, their feelings, and an informal conversation has begun.
I’ve gotten some other ideas about starting healthy conversation and I will put those into a future blog or two. Meanwhile, what ways have you found to start conversations about discernment and change? What setbacks have you encountered?