I've received a lot of positive response from my recent post about pastors standing in the surf of change. NEXT Church reblogged it the following week, and a number of pastor friends have told me they're sharing it with their sessions. So I've decided to do more of these posts over the next few months. If future-of-the-church musings are not your thing, I'm sure I'll slide in a music critique or cute family anecdote post. But this is what's front and center in my mind and in my life right now, and I'd love it if you'd engage it with me.
Oh, and we'll call this little series Standing In The Surf, in deference to the initial post and because I really dig the beach.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. - Romans 12:2
It's a Thursday afternoon and I'm leading music for the Montreat Middle School Conference at Maryville College (which, if you didn't already know, is a pretty amazing little Presbyterian school you should check out). As part of leading music, I'm also heading up the voluntary conference choir, preparing a few tunes for Sunday worship. I confess to being a bit uncertain about the latter. Songleading is right up my alley, but conducting a choir is not. It feels like something that requires formal music training, of which I have frighteningly little. Alas, the cliff was there, and I chose to jump. And gravity is irreversible.
So here we are at our first rehearsal and I'm both thrilled and overwhelmed at what I find: a cacophony of mature and pre-pubescent voices that don't fit neatly in soprano/alto/tenor/bass categories. I take a different approach. I have them sing the parts of the song one-by-one; and then invite them to group themselves according to which part they feel fits them best. One part is slightly off the beat; the other is more set in the rhythm, and the last is an all-out arena rock "whoaa!" Thankfully, this plan seems to work, and everyone is singing their parts just fine, and it's sounding pretty good…..
And then I hear something else - something different, something that doesn't fit the plan. I motion the choir to keep singing while I listen harder. It is someone in the "whoa" group. I keep listening....and then I figure it out: it's this little girl on the first row, right in front of me. Blue eyes, pony tail. Sixth grade, tops. She is singing the "whoa" just fine, but in a new harmony; a third up from the one I taught. I hadn't instructed her to sing this. She's doing it on her own, and it sounds incredible.
I look down at her; and as soon as she sees me doing this, she clams up and immediately goes back to singing the part as prescribed. Interesting, how her instinct was to interpret my glance as disapproval. When we finish a few bars later, I lean down and ask her if she was the one singing the different part. Reluctantly, she says yes. And I tell her to keep singing it because it is awesome; because it is her shining through, because she took something I had given her and made it even better. Those blue eyes beam. We sing it an extra time just to re-experience the beauty of it.
I had actually forgotten about the whole thing until something in Derrick's sermon that evening triggered it and got me thinking about the ongoing challenge of change and growth in today's church. We all have a place and a purpose in the body of Christ - kind of like a choir, really. Like Paul's great words in the 12th chapter of First Corinthians, we have gifts and skills; we have mouths and eyes and ears and limbs and the like.
But it's curious how the church has addressed this over the years. I think of the typical "time and talent" sheet churches hand out. Ear? Sure, I can be an ear. The church needs a nose? I'll sign on for that. And so on. It's nice, but it's also mighty confining. I mean, think about it: Here's a list of things we've done before, things we've always done; and we need you to do them again. Because that's what we do in the church: we do what's always been done. So sign up for something that's on this list. You get to choose which part you want to sing, but we get to make the parts up.
But what about the blue-eyed, pony-tailed sixth grader who has a part to sing that nobody's heard before? What about the church member who has a gift to share that's nowhere to be found on the time and talent sheet?
What about them? The truth is that most of the time they won't do a thing - they'll just conform. And that's a problem. A big one. We're big on conforming in the church, even if we claim not to be. Without realizing it, we send out a vibe that says, "We love the idea of growth and change, but we're not so hot on actually growing and changing." We toss around new ideas that never find their way out of a session meeting or committee; we claim to want to move into the future but can't get over the grief involved in letting go of the past; we say we want the church to attract new people but are content with telling them to come to us, rather than going out and meeting them where they are.
I'm so thankful that girl didn't conform to my choir. I'm glad she sang her own harmony and made the song much more beautiful than I ever could. And you know why it worked? It worked because she wasn't just singing something crazy and contradictory. She was paying attention to and listening to the voices around her, adding hew new voice in the mix in a way that complemented theirs. This wasn't an individual excursion, it was a communal affair. As it should be with the church.
Sounds funny to say, but we all need to be blue-eyed, pony-tailed sixth graders. Finding our voice in the church and letting it shine. Taking that "time and talent" sheet and writing a space at the bottom that says, "OTHER." Sensing the opportunity to take something that's good and make it even better. And then just doing it. Doing it whether we're given permission to our not. Doing it even when other voices within (and even out) are telling us to clam up; don't do anything crazy; just play the game, just sing the part, just conform.
The question for leaders in the church, then, is this: how do we equip our membership to not only think outside of the box but act out of it as well? How do we help people find their own unique voice in the mission of kingdom-building and sing their own part loud and proud? How do we give permission for people to dream up what is next for the church?
I think the key lies in preaching, teaching, and cultivating conversations about precisely the need for people to dream up what hasn't been created yet. I think it lies in giving them permission, as many times as needed, to not only latch onto the "new thing" God is doing in their midst (thank you, Isaiah), but to help them be aware that there is a new thing. And I think when they actually do sing something new, we need to resist the instinct to bring them back into compliance. Instead, we ought to recognize how beautiful it really is, and celebrate that with them; and then equip and encourage them to keep doing it.
The church of today and tomorrow will grow only if we choose to sing a part that hasn't been created yet.
That's what a blue-eyed, pony-tailed sixth grader taught me today. I wonder what she can teach you.