Instead of providing a set of answers for participants, conference presenters Mark Branson of Fuller Seminary and Alan Roxburgh of Allelon Canada urged those present to focus on asking the right questions.
“The questions you ask develop the reality you live in,” said Branson. “If the questions being asked a church or its ministry are always about what is not working, then ‘what is not working’ will be the focus of your energy, thinking, and time. “If God’s grace is on the ground, initiating the Kingdom of God, and you are spending all of your time discussing problems, then what are you missing?” challenged Branson.
The answer, if there is one, according to both Roxburgh and Branson, is to develop the sight to see what God is up to in the world around us — including both the world inside the church but perhaps more importantly the world outside of the church.
During the two-day conference August 21-22 in San Diego, California, Branson lead participants in a series of lectio reflections. Participants were given a printed copy of Luke 10:1-12, the story of Jesus sending out the 72. The passage was read out loud, followed by a time of silent reflection for those hearing to ask themselves “what do I notice?” and “what would I ask about this passage?” After this time of silent reflection, they were asked to share their findings with another, and having done so, to share what they heard (not what they said) with the larger group.
This process of lectio, and of learning to listen to the text, is the way we develop the sight to see what God is up to in the world around us through those around us, specifically those in our everyday ordinary neighborhoods, insisted Branson. “Who you are spending time with does give you eyes to see things that you would not see otherwise.” So, part of expanding our vision is to expand our sense of what it means to encounter the world around us. The challenge, according to Branson and Roxburgh, is to allow ourselves to be in situations where we are not in control.
Roxburgh encouraged them to move beyond the lives they know how to plan and engineer.
“Something that Mark and I are up to is to say that this mission-shaped journey, the movement back to the neighborhood, invites us to become folk who don’t have control over outcomes, what it is all going to look like, and where it is all going to go,” he said, admitting the ‘disruptive’ nature of the challenge.
As Presbyterians, we have historically been very good at coming up with master plans, goals, and strategies, both speakers acknowledged. But both further insisted, that approach is no longer working in today’s rapidly-changing world. Branson and Roxburgh suggested that this very “decently and in order” type planning is part of what is keeping us from being able to see and encounter the God who is already at work in the world around us.
“As we risk moving into spaces where we have not been before, we don’t have control and we can’t pull the strategies out of our back pocket—but that is the space where we can hear and discover together the new things that God might be up to,” Roxburgh said.
He did concede that, for most of those gathered, this is a rather large shift, pointing to the difference between two terms that are becoming more and more discussed, technical change and adaptive change.
Technical change is about strategies, plans and outcomes — it is about learning a new skill in order to master a given situation. It builds upon what is already known. Technical change would be like attending a conference, learning three or four new principles and turning them into a program with a five-year strategic plan. The problem with staying confined to technical changes, according to Roxburgh, is that it fundamentally leaves us the same.
Adaptive change, in contrast, is completely disruptive and forces us to move out of our zones of safety and control, into places where we cannot anticipate what is going to happen. This adaptive change is often experienced as a threat. Roxburgh used the Luke 10 passage as an illustration of this type of disruptive, adaptive change. “Those that came back from being away when Jesus sent them out were never the same again,” he pointed out.
Roxburgh used as an illustration of this point the movie, “A Prairie Home Companion.” It is the story about the final night of the famed radio program, takes places on two levels — on stage, and off stage. While the dialogue between the characters is rich, engaged and heartfelt, as soon as they walk onto the stage it is as if a switch is flipped and they turn into performance mode of song or other prescribed roles.
“Here is what I want to propose to you: most of what we do in our church life is ‘on stage’ stuff,” said Roxburgh. We have been acculturated to believe that it is the on stage stuff that matters — getting Bible studies right, having the right programs for evangelism.
What we need to learn, he insisted, is to learn the off stage narratives of the people in the communities where we live. This learning is not a technical change — there are no easy three-point answers. It is a learning that will require an adaptive shift, a shift in the questions that we ask ourselves, and the disruptive risk of not always knowing where we are headed or how we will get there.
The key to being able to make this shift is not, insisted both Branson and Roxburgh, to throw out all existing structures or programs, but to begin with inviting people into simple, easy experiments. Experiments give permission for small numbers of people to start doing things differently without raising the anxiety level for change in a church as a whole. Experiments also can create space where others in the church can then look and say, “Oh that’s what they mean.” These experiments can be fostered by a few within the congregation, by a group of pastors, or by a cluster of congregations working together to create what Branson and Roxburgh referred to as ‘learning communities.’
By inviting these experiments, cultivating a willingness to enter our neighborhoods as learners and listeners, and developing sight for how the Spirit of God is already at work in the world, we will begin to experiment our way into new habits and new practices.