Tonight churches will ring out with candle-lit renditions of “Silent Night” and recitations of good news of great joy for all people announced to shepherds. There will be pageants: young Marys and Josephs staring awkwardly at a doll baby Jesus as magi and angels tussle for position. Still, in bitter cold; still, with Covid cases ticking back up; still, the war on Christmas winning; still, tonight churches host a story everyone still needs to hear–about a baby laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn, because God wants that badly to be God with us.
We know who God is because of what God has done. The story narrates action and it communicates essence and identity. That God is loving and gracious and merciful–we know these attributes through actions, not simply as philosophical propositions. God is as God does, thanks be to God.
We are as we do as well. The good news is that meaningful engagement with the world, as individuals and as churches, need not wait until we have discovered our identity. The engagement makes the identity. The waiting, too, makes an identity, a different identity from the one that acts. “Be not afraid.” “Go.” This is what the story would have us do, and in so doing these are the people we become.
Some challenges a church will face demand a comprehensive plan assembled by carefully chosen and representative teams of leaders with distinct and credible points of view who deliberate for an appreciable amount of time before making recommendations for action. Pastor Nominating Committees work like this. So do long range planning teams and task forces. As church leaders, we need to know how to support and lead these kinds of processes.
But not every challenge the church faces requires such a step-by-step approach. Some kinds of challenges are looking for targeted interventions by leaders who are acting on hunches and paying careful attention to what happens. I know a church musician who has transitioned her church’s hymnody and choral music so that roughly half of the selections are from contemporary global composers and authors; she addressed the challenge of the disconnect between the church’s predominantly white European and American musical heritage and the multicultural, multiracial community the church longs to become by picking a meaningful spot for an intervention.
She could have assembled a committee to review every musical selection over the past 12 months and conduct surveys with congregation members to learn their musical preferences. She could have hired a consultant. Those steps may well have been beneficial. But the benefit of the targeted, almost stealthy, intervention she made instead has been undeniable.
I sense that church leaders need to be growing in our capacity to lead both of these approaches, which requires that we develop our instincts for discerning which challenges require a committee and which don’t.
The next three days of ministry:
Conduct a one-to-one meeting with a congregant (for my doctoral project)
Record videos for a YouTube series.
Preside over a memorial service.
Officiate a wedding.
Lead a youth group.
Host a live recording of a podcast.
Half of these things would not have been on a list like this three years ago, because decisions and circumstances have led to some new things, and the community I’m in ministry with supports all of them.
What a gift.
If I write it in an email and then describe it in the calendar invitation, put it on the website and also announce it at the meeting, and people still don’t get it, I haven’t done my work.
We haven’t communicated when we have fed the input into the machine. We’ve communicated when we’ve been heard and understood. Ignored maybe, but heard.
It’s tempting to blame the receivers for not paying close enough attention or for being distracted. But we knew that about them before we sent the message.
What if the crisis of the moment is an invitation to patient, focused thought, for, like, an hour, rather than a prompt to act RIGHT NOW?
What are we more afraid of? Not doing enough or overreaching?
Both are real risks, and the past two years have freighted routine decisions with them, on top of requiring decisions about things we didn’t even know needed deciding before (how to ensure distancing? Require masks or merely welcome them?).
Two months ago I was more afraid of not doing enough than of overreaching. Today I’m more afraid of overreaching than of not doing enough.
I wonder about tomorrow.
Things seem to be getting worse, and you’re not making that up.
But yesterday I left my bike unlocked for ten hours downtown–just locked the lock to the bike rack and missed the bike completely–and came back in the early evening lucky enough to discover only my mistake and not anybody’s theft.
So maybe not everything is getting worse, or at least not every day.
Somebody tried to walk out of the church with a portrait of a former pastor, and when stopped at the door they offered, “You can keep the picture. I just want the frame.”
I need volunteers for something, and yesterday I was in an in-person staff meeting for the first time in two years, so I took the opportunity to make my pitch. Two people have reached out to express interest already, and one of them wasn’t even in the meeting but outside doing something else and overheard the announcement.
This is twice the response in a fraction of the time as I’ve received from all of the text announcements I’ve been making for weeks for the same thing, even from the video I recorded about it.
The learning: in-person invitations are better than remote ones.
Welcome requires preparation and decision making if it is to be “radical” and if we are to be truly inclusive. Opening the doors to everyone for everything is not hospitality but fear, perhaps even laziness.
Maybe a good rule is that welcome need not be earned but may be forfeited.
Acting abusively forfeits welcome, and that is for the sake of all the other participants as well as for the abusive actor, who is not helped by a community that enables, though enabling is the path of least resistance for the community and its leaders.
Also, declining an invitation today might forfeit a welcome in the future, though not permanently. All are welcome to join the Confirmation class, though only those who participated in the class are welcome to stand before the church on Confirmation Sunday to be celebrated. Welcoming one who did not participate into that moment would diminish the intentional work of those who did, and, again, would not serve the one welcomed, though there is less resistance there too. You’re welcome next year, though. And even the year after that. Also, youth group is in an hour; please come to that.
Radical hospitality and perpetual unconditional welcome are not the same thing.
In a world of alternatives, be a supplement.
An alternative needs to force a consumer-style choice of this over that: iPhone over Android, traditional over contemporary, vegan over vegetarian. “Alternative” rock fans of the 90’s didn’t just love Nirvana, they loathed Def Leppard; the former required the latter.
An alternative is built on a wholesale bottom-up rejection of current options, even as it borrows heavily from those options without attribution.
A supplement doesn’t need all that. A supplement only wants to provide what’s missing. Another option to incorporate into what’s already good and useful. A supplement is more generous and self-confident.
This and that.