3 essentials for healthy church

The cartoon I posted this morning, “Exit Interview”, provoked quite a bit of discussion here and on Facebook.

Some took the side of the one leaving and even identified with him. So many people have had such negative experiences in choosing to leave a church. Some others took the side of the pastor who experiences hurt and disappointment and sometimes even anger when people leave his or her church. I’ve been on both sides and know the feelings of both.

I’ve thought a great deal about this kind of thing because it relates directly with how we do church and our attitudes toward it. I’ve spent a lot of time cartooning, writing and blogging about church, pastoring, and how to be a healthy community. In fact, I’ve written a book on it called “Without a Vision My People Prosper” (also available on Kindle).

I have 3 ideas that would help religious communities be healthier in today’s environment:

  1. fluidity: the religious community needs to be understood as fluid. Whoever wants to come can come and whoever wants to go can go. There are no expectations on level of commitment or even theological alignment. Like Jesus, his teaching style was very spontaneous, impromptu and voluntary. Even though some of the gospel stories reveal that that he experienced the pain of losing people, it didn’t cost his organization anything. It was free of an organization’s needs of security and longevity. Even when some declare deeper levels of commitment, they aren’t bound to it. Jesus was a pasture where people could go in and out and find pasture. Or not.
  2. unestablished: the religious community needs to discover new ways of existing without anchoring itself to institutional constructs. Even though Jesus had supporters (mostly women, by the way), and a treasurer, the fellowship could be dissolved at any moment. In fact, the walls that defined this fellowship were at times very porous, so that other individuals or groups somewhat theologically related or unrelated were not seen as opponents but as valid on their own merit. Not even Jesus wished to abolish the Sanhedrin but to call it to truth, or to eliminate Rome but to summon it to justice. His idea of the world was completely without walls.
  3. visionless: it is my claim that this is the most attractive but most insidious yeast undermining religious communities. Vision has a devious way of focusing our attention outside of ourselves to some lofty external goal, rather than keeping ourselves committed to love and service in the community, then as a result beyond the immediate community by the outpouring of the overflow. Jesus’ vision, if it could be said he had any vision at all, was to die… to hand himself over to the authorities, etc. Any other vision than the vision to be willing to die is one that decides who can play and who cannot for the longevity of the vision and it’s crafters. It defines the shape and nature of the community and the people within it, often with violence against the natural goodness and innate spirituality of its people. It is vision that eventually and inevitably changes an institution into stone.

For any existing community to adopt these three essentials is very unsettling and even destabilizing. Believe me, I know! But for any people desiring to start, these three would be good to keep in mind for starters.

Again, my book, “Without a Vision My People Prosper” (also available on Kindle), talks about this at length, with cartoons!

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  • Wisdom.

  • Much food for thought here, David. You really challenge the status quo with love and understanding.

  • Robin

    Our church is YET AGAIN for the umpteenth time holding “small group gatherings” to YET AGAIN define “our vision”. I refuse to participate as all we do is talk, talk, talk, talk, and nothing ever changes. I have decided I am a “get off my knees and DO SOMETHING Christian.” No more talk of “vision” for me – ever.

  • Mar

    I am struck by the concept of a pastor who feels pain in people who leave “his or her” church … Perhaps that is part of the problem ,,l it isn’t his/hers. The church is His alone.

    I observe in the gospels that Jesus always communicated to people they were free to go. One that comes to mind is his question “do you want to leave also?” to his disciples. Following Christ is only joyful if it’s completely voluntary.

    Love your three points. I’m not convinced anything like it truly exists institutionally … Or if it does, I have yet to see it.

  • Mar: I don’t know if it exits either. But these are essentials I believe are necessary. It is like perfection. What else should we aim for? And the reason pastors feel pain when people leave is often simply because they’ve grown attached to them… by something as wonderful as love or by something less wonderful like financial need. Either way it is a legitimate feeling in that context. I’m asking that we learn new ways of doing it. Not so that it hurts less when we part but so that there is no bitterness over it in the long run.

  • marcie

    These two are both feeding but one engages the ego. Is it fare to conclude that this is the reason the pastor may get hurt feelings?

    A man approaches a beautiful lake, carrying a large sack of fish food. He gently sets it near the waters edge and opens the bag. He reaches in and grabs all his hand will hold, turns towards the water and with all his strength throws his arm and releases the food feathering the still surface of the lake. He then turns, picks up the bag and walks away. Those that are hungry come, eat, are nourished and are free to swim away, but are forever changed by the mans unconditional act of kindness.

    On the other side of the lake standing silently is another man. He too has come to feed the fish. With all his might he cast his pole throwing out a clear line that can not be seen and on the end dangles a plump worm concealing the sharp hook. The hungry come are hooked in the jaw and now under the control of the hunter.

    Unconditional kindness like that of the first man has no agenda. He has no interested in building his ego, a kingdom, or any organization. He came to give from what he had reaching all those in his sphere of influence and the left it up to God to do the rest

  • Mar

    David … I think each of us feels pain when relationships end … But I’m left wondering why a person leaving “a church” brings an end to the love or relationship? That would indicate the love was based on something other than family, permanent love ….

  • Oh dear… Your 3 points are our church’s vision. Should I worry?

  • Helen

    Mar, I totally relate to your comments. As an aside, someone once explained to me their theory that we can drop our natural boundaries and be too intimate and trusting too soon with those we fellowship with – all because we have the label “Christian”. And we can encroach too readily on others by being over-familiar, etc. I think the pain of leaving (on both sides) can reveal the faulty assumptions in Christian relationships that were in operation – that the friendship/relationship wouldn’t have existed in the first place outside of church.

  • marcie

    Bam Helen. Hit that nail on the head.

  • Emily

    I’ve been working on a bell choir arrangement of Be Thou My Vision, and of course, the word “vision” in there got me thinking about your perspective on the idea of a church’s vision, which got me thinking again about the hymn–one of my favorites.

    And I still like it even though I understand and agree with your dislike of church “vision,” because this hymn isn’t about a vision for the future of an organization, or a vision for any kind of institutionalized growth, but a vision of the constant presence of God in our lives, and in our very being, denying our need for material wealth and human approbation for the true spiritual fulfillment that comes from God.

  • Christine

    @Helen: I agree as well.

    I think both David’s post and the dissolving of church relationships upon “leaving”, speak to our expectations.

    Churches (pastors and sometimes other congregants) often expect innately, unspoken, a certain (high) degree of fidelity and loyalty to a church solely and only because they are, or are assumed to be, “members”. That loyalty or fidelity has not necessarily been requested or earned. Even when it is, it can be unearned – the trust or support that underwrite might be compromised – but expectations not adjusted accordingly.

    Similarly, congregants expect certain things of each other – such as not disagreeing on anything, or not strongly, or not bluntly, or not emphatically – simply because they attend the same church. Maybe it is an assumption that they do not participate in certain types of activities, or hold certain views that have never actually been expressed. And maybe we let things go we wouldn’t otherwise for the sake of the congregation all getting along.

    But not just acting like we are normal people in society – adding these extra special expectations – is what makes it all eventually fall apart. The expectations are not sustainable. They will be betrayed.

  • david

    it is funny to me that sooooo many people in the club use the scripture where Jesus tells Peter that on this rock i will build my church, and alot of them could not tell u what the conversation was leading up to that response. In my OWN opinion they should study what was said before that and let that resinate for a while.