Based on what I am seeing, the issue for churches going forward will be who not what.
At a recent retreat, for example, three dozen church leaders did what church leaders have been doing for decades, probably centuries.
They sat in a circle. They talked about church life, finan- cial strains and the future they want for their congregation. Their ideas were familiar: church suppers and small groups to promote community, name tags to promote hospitality, fund-raisers, worship focused on people, more mission work, more relying on members and not on paid staff, aggressive growth.
It was the who that I found remarkable. This was a rainbow assembly: blacks, Hispanics and whites; gays and straights; all ages; only a handful of longtime members; only a few with wealth; former Jews, former Catholics, former “nones.”
All in one place, and all talking without drama about being a rainbow rainbow world.
When the rainbow strikes, things change. One imme- diate step: add a Spanish-language service. Another: respond to joblessness, and do so by taking ministry to where jobless people live. Another: take out the pews and put in chairs so they can be rearranged for a Saturday feeding ministry.
These ideas were driven by an awareness of who: who needed to be served, who would do the ministry, who they feel called to be as a congregation.
There was hardly any debate over what. Some ideas will fly, some will fall. But the who will remain in focus. If not a jobless ministry in East Harlem, then a jobless ministry in some other place or form.
A focus on who allows for much more flexibility. We don’t argue about plans or budgets. We consider who has need to receive and who has need to give. Plans still must be made, but I think they will prove less conflicted in the making, more effective in the doing, and less discouraging in the inevitable failing — all because their starting point is who.
In a sense, we have worked our way around to what Jesus did. What he said, taught and did wasn’t all that remarkable. But he set a radical new path by his who: women and men treated equally, foreigners and insiders, rich and poor, righteous and sinner, outcasts and establishment.
In this who era, church leaders don’t function as program planners, but as gatekeepers. They invite peo- ple to the table. What happens at that table is of far less concern. As it says in Network Theory, when people are left free and autonomous, they will find each other and form networks to serve others. The church leader serves as guarantor of that freedom and autonomy.
As our who gets more diverse through radical wel- come, the what will change. New programs and ministries will emerge. Older offerings will go away. New people have new ideas and needs. If the recent retreat is a guide, I think we can expect less arguing about action plans and more tuning our common life to the rainbow gathering and the even wilder rainbow outside the door.
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. He recently launched Fresh Day, a digital magazine presenting “fresh words about faith.” Go to freshday.org to learn more and to see a sample.