Constraining Church Assumptions

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA

It’s strange in a way. It’s strange how we grow to embrace erroneous beliefs in church over time. We’re not talking theology here (though we could), but rather beliefs which guide how we go about being church. No one knows exactly how these beliefs form, yet over time they shape our norms, patterns, and decisions regarding our collective church life. Eventually they become assumptions; widely accepted understandings believed to be true. Typically, these assumptions fly under the radar, lurking in the background of our collective unconscious. When pastors, church staff, and leadership teams are making decisions about next steps, these assumptions step into the light of day, instructing us to do this or that.

When immersed in the church system, it’s very difficult to make unconscious assumptions conscious. As we walk alongside churches, joining with them temporarily, we can often hear the assumptions whispering in the background. Sometimes we can tease the assumptions, drawing them into the overt dialogue. Then churches can consciously consider the validity of this whispered guidance.

In this article and next week’s, we are introducing assumptions discovered in the field. Some or all may resonate with you and your church’s experience. If so, these articles can serve as an invitation to identity your church’s operating assumptions, positioning you to identify them as helpful or constraining.

Worship is our first place of engagement with newcomers; literally and metaphorically our front door. Do you remember when this WAS true? Those of us of a “certain age” who grew up in church remember back in the day when Christianity and American culture were so intertwined that everyone knew about church. If one did not attend, that one carried a slight guilt about not doing so. Christianity was the water in which we swam. So of course, everyone knew that attending worship was the primary way to sample a new church. What then makes this assumption currently constraining? First, there are far fewer people in our current culture looking for a church. Christianity is no longer the water in which the vast majority of people in this country swim. Second, when they become interested in a church, they don’t know visiting worship is the first step. How would they know this? Third, they are far more likely to be introduced to your church through your missional engagement in your community. So many people are hungry for a better world, eager to give time and energy to helpful transformative activity. “Prospective disciples” may first discover your church at the Habitat For Humanity work site, at the tutoring center, at the justice march, or in the art exhibit in your fellowship hall. Attending worship may be the last activity they “sample” on their way to church participation. So it’s time to get on with it; it’s time to be church in the world, focusing our activity where God is working toward bringing the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

We can organize and plan our way into being a spiritually enlivened church

If this assumption were true, churches would be thriving across this USA! Observing our day to day operations, one quickly recognizes we believe this assumption. Churches are highly skilled at scheduling meetings, creating agendas, following procedures, and generally doing things decently and in order. Even more, we sometimes create special seasons wherein we step aside for strategic planning or visioning. The results bring lengthy documents of well-formed plans (which are nearly irrelevant before the ink dries due to the fast pace of change). So, if organizing and planning were the tools needed to turn us into enlivened spiritual faith communities, we would be powerful forces who could not be stopped! Instead, coming alive in the adventure of Jesus requires something else…personally engaging the person, ways, and teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s that simple…and challenging.

Next Wednesday we will identify more constraining church assumptions influencing our day to day lives as churches. In the meantime, take a step back, perhaps doing some “balcony” time. What do you see, hear, and observe when it comes to the influences directing your collective church experience? As human beings we all carry assumptions (healthy and normal). As Christ-followers, our faith empowers us to lay aside any fear or hesitation, moving ahead to examine our assumptions for accuracy and helpfulness. May God strengthen our resolve to be the church in this day and time; for the sake of God’s good kingdom.

Helen Renew