Project Space: Who holds the keys?

Where is the oddest place you have found lost keys? We once found the church key (not a small item!) in a pile of branches in our garden months after it had gone missing!

In his book Renewal, John James writes about his experience of leading a struggling church through a process of REVITALISATION. Joining an existing church as its leader, bringing a team of people to be involved in partnership with those already there. He looks at the joys and advantages of this process, the role he recommends it needs to play in sharing the gospel here in the UK and also shares with honesty the difficulties that come as a new culture is grown in old soil. As he looks at the process of REVITALISATION he draws helpful comparisons between it and the process of CHURCH PLANTING – setting up a church from scratch. His aim isn’t to praise one over the other – but to identify the different aspects of these two processes. In doing so he helpfully puts the idea of a blank sheet closely under the microscope. How blank can a ‘sheet of paper’ really be?  The people involved will certainly not be blank sheets! A whole variety of baggage arrives with them and quickly gets unpacked. Traditions form before you know it and the need to evaluate and assess comes up just as speedily and brings the same sorts of conflict it does everywhere else.

John James acknowledges, however, that the process of culture setting in an entirely new entity will be a simpler and less painful process.

Culture – that intangible, yet ever-present and influential matter of ‘HOW WE DO THINGS HERE’.

In a new church the heartbeat of that culture – the ‘WHY WE DO THINGS HERE AND UNDER WHOSE DIRECTION’ tends to be closely linked to the expression of that culture as the ‘HOW WE DO THINGS HERE’ gets established. Often there will have been a lot of preparation and prayer as a team has come together and developed a united vision and a common excitement. The challenge here is to create a non-concrete culture – one that is flexible enough to question and develop and adapt and to always submit to Christ as the head. And what a challenge – culture is a quick-setting material!

In a church with an already existing culture the challenges are very different. They already have a strong sense of ‘HOW WE DO THINGS HERE’, but the heartbeat of that culture will often be hard to detect. Imagine a room that has been often, but not thoroughly, redecorated over the course of many years. Without a lot of painstaking paper peeling, paint stripping, chipping out old tiles etc. it is hard to see the original design of the room and how what you have now relates to that. Now imagine that this room is now, and has been a shared space. A shared space that has gone from generation to generation. Everyone involved will have their own (often very passionate) opinions on the various styles the space has gone through and will try to influence the current culture – the ‘HOW WE DO THINGS HERE’ to express their preferences. Some of those involved will be more influential than others. Their main goal can become to protect their cherished culture – and so the culture becomes its own heartbeat. The current culture of the room becomes its defining point and what the room was intended to be, who owns the room and who it is for quickly become irrelevant. More of an appendix than a heartbeat.

Who holds the keys to the culture of a church is of vital importance. This is pointed out in stark terms by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne in a chapter on culture change in their book entitled: The Vine Project.

They imagine a scenario where a minister is appointed to lead a church with an existing culture that is extremely distant from and often in conflict with the minister’s deeply held convictions about the gospel, about the word of God, about the purpose of the church and his role as a minister.

They ask: ” Do you think the culture would change? Perhaps over some considerable time there would be some movement. The prayerful preaching of the word would have its effect. But we might also safely predict that if the activities, structures and traditions of the congregation never changed  – if there was, in other words, no corporate repentance – then the effect of biblical sermons would be much the same as the effect of the biblical words of the Book of Common Prayer. They would be heard and acknowledged, but absorbed, assimilated and contradicted by the countervailing weight of the existing culture – of what you actually did, day by day and week by week. Or to out it another way: we need to be doers of the word and not just hearers only. Where there is no repentance there is no change. (The Vine Project, page 28, 2016 edition)

In a church REVITALISATION there needs to be more than change in the teaching programme, more than a change in the evangelism strategy or the children’s work, more than a change in how the minister divides up his time – there needs to be a change in housekeeping. A releasing of that big bunch of culture-keys that so often jangle and clink at the side of an individual or two. The bunch of keys that render certain areas off-limits, that render other areas as fixtures that can’t be questioned, obligations that must be met, certain relationships more important than others..The keys that seem quite innocuous – after all there is always the teaching programme, the evangelism strategy, the children’s work… are they really under lock and key too?

Yes – if the heartbeat of the church is its culture than they are fettered. Limited in the time and resources they are given, left to a few people who don’t fall into line, who are tethered at the margins where they can’t do too much damage and where they are unlikely to attract attention or gain influence.

This realisation has come to me as a bit if a slap in the face. Not nice, but good to know. I would rather be awake to the issue than drowsing in false confidence. We are certainly tortoises and not hares in our situation – as John James expresses it – plodding on.

So what do we do? Wrestle the keys off the housekeepers – forcefully remove them and strap them firmly to our own belts? Lull the housekeepers to sleep and ease the keys off? (I’m thinking Disney’s Robin Hood at this point). Bide our time?    

Well, if there is an answer to that question it is for another post. One thing I am convinced of is that however the keys come to be released they should not just end up in the hands of another set of housekeepers. They should hang on a nail – the nails in a wooden cross. They should hang on a hook – a hook firmly embedded in God’s word.

Of course many would ask – why try to effect a change? You’re an interloper – either join the culture or go elsewhere. What right have you got? And anyway – given how difficult it all is – why bother? As has been explored in a previous post – if it isn’t a good fit go find another foot!

This brings me to another book I am reading – The Autopsy of a Deceased Church – Thom S Rainer. If it could be shown that the church was dying – does that change things? Well it is certainly worth a pause for thought.



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