Questions and Answer…and the church

Way back when, when I was just a poor undergraduate student at Western Kentucky University (go Hilltoppers!!) I had the honor of studying under the guidance of William Lane. Bill Lane is known by many as the mentor to Christian artist Michael Card (yep, he was around WKU when I was) and was one of the great evangelical scholars whose voice has been missed since his death several years ago. Bill was a renowned scholar who could have been focusing on writing and teaching upper level graduate classes, but instead he taught Intro to New Testament in a state college, believing it as an opportunity for ministry. I was blessed to have Bill for New Testament and a class on the life of Paul.

Bill taught me many valuable things, but the thing that has stayed with me to this day has nothing to do with Paul or the gospels. Instead Bill taught be a way of life that I carry with me, no matter the topic.

“The most important thing you can learn in my class,” Bill would say, “is not the right answers in the bible, but rather the right questions to ask.” He would remind us that asking the right questions is key to having the full picture of what’s before you, leading to better answers or solutions in the end. Bill would never sit by and idly assume that all the questions had been asked. In writing his opus – a two volume commentary on the book of Hebrews – Bill would spend years asking questions and reading what everyone else had written about those questions. If it meant learning new languages so as to read scholars in other countries, so be it. But when Bill sat down at the computer to write, you could bet that he was familiar with almost everything that had ever been said about the topic.

I’ve been a broken record in my concerns about the United Methodist Call to Action report and process. Understand that I believe absolutely in the need for vital churches. I’m a pastor, serving United Methodist churches and very frankly serving non-vital churches is simply not much fun. I believe that we need to everything that we can move congregations, our annual conferences, and the general church toward vitality. And the Call to Action/Vital Congregations efforts certainly can point us in one direction in moving toward the forward leaning state of engagement that allows folks to connect to God, one another, and the world in profound ways (which is vitality).

The CTA  process started with a valid question: What are the common practices that are found in vital congregations. The team hired consultants to examine and evaluate vital churches and these consultants reported back on 6 commonalities shared among them – the so-called drivers of vitality which are now forming the basis of evaluation for the entire church.  It’s not a bad question, in fact it is a natural starting place. Unfortunately it’s not the only question, and for the adaptive change needed to bring our communion to vitality, more needed to be asked.

What would some of the other questions be? I know of at least two that I think are missing which would better help us position ourselves for needed adaptation.

While CTA examined practices, they missed a great opportunity during that study to ask if there were common values underlying those practices. Most leadership experts, from Heifetz to Bandy, would suggest that the underlying values of a system (such as a congregation) are the driver of vitality, not the practices. It is the values, and the subsequent mission arising out of those values which gives the practices meaning and leads them to support vitality. I think this lack of examination about the values of vital churches is part of what many critics have instinctively been missing in their concerns that the CTA process seems to minimize the importance of theological concerns. I really don’t know why values weren’t considered, but I have this sneaky suspicion that part of the problem may be that values are unique to a specific community, and as such it was difficult to quantify values. Practices represent a technical response to values which are much more easily quantified, but only make sense in support of an underlying value base.

A second question I would have liked to have seen asked is why congregation are not vital? We are blessed to have a set of data points that help us to understand commonalities in successful, life filled churches, but it we are honest about the United Methodist Church, those congregations represent a minority of the churches in the communion. What would be helpful would be to identify commonalities between non-vital churches to determine if there are values and/or practices that hinder vitality and which need to be addressed. This would be helpful for I have known pastors in congregations who attempted to bring forth the drivers of vitality in to their congregations only to be shot down, with the church continuing in decline. Base in the examples of the vital churches, this would suggest that the pastor’s leadership was lacking, but maybe there are other factors at play which would keep the most dynamic leader from moving a church toward vitality. We simply don’t know what those factors are because we have never asked the question nor done the research necessary to help formulate an answer.

I really don’t know why these questions weren’t asked, but I imagine it came down to time and money. To do the type of research truly needed to bring about the change we are seeking takes resources that we were likely either not willing not able to give. In not asking the questions, we fail to have the data needed to make intelligent decisions about directions for our church.

The good news is that in spite of a flawed process, we have many talented and passionate leaders who instinctively know that CTA is a starting place for much hard work and conversation ahead.

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