Changing your Church (Maybe and Sometimes) – Part One

No church is perfect of course, but there are some churches that take ministering to children, young people and their families very seriously. These churches work hard to support and resource families to liqve out and share faith together in their homes. These churches strive to create contexts for worship which are welcoming of children and young people and engaging for them and their families. These churches promote intergenerational connections so that children and young people have multiple mentors of faith. These churches provide age-specific faith formation activities for children and young people that are well planned and well resourced. And then there are other churches which do not. So, what can a parent do if they are in the second type of church, and feel strongly that the spiritual needs of their children are not being valued and addressed? There are, it seems, three basic options: (1) grin and bear it; (2) look for a different church to attend; (3) work towards change.  Of these three options, the third option seems particularly challenging for the average church attender. In many churches, patterns and practices seem to be deeply entrenched, perhaps even beyond question. The average attender may feel that the “power” to effect change is well beyond their reach. My purpose in writing this post is to provide some hope and encouragement to parents and families in “type two” churches.  I do believe that it is, in many circumstances, possible to work towards change “from below”.  I say “many” rather than “all” out of realism – if change is opposed on theological grounds or if church leaders simply won’t listen to any alternative ideas, then it is nigh impossible to alter much.  But many churches and church leaders are not opposed to change in principle.  It is often the case that they have become “comfortable” in doing things a certain way, and have either not thought beyond that or have not been motivated to do something differently.  Like other institutions, churches default towards “homeostasis” – without an ongoing impulse towards change and revitalisation they act in ways that promote internal stability and sub-consciously resist whatever might “rock the boat”.  They may not even realise this to be the case, and the extent to which this default impulse is undermining their spiritual vitality and mission in Christ. So, what can one do to make a difference in a potentially-changeable, homestatic “type two” church, at least maybe and sometimes?  In her brilliant book Welcoming Children, Joyce Mercer, drawing on work of Michel de Certeau, writes of strategies and tactics. In brief, strategies are longer-term plans, made by those who have the luxury of time for analysis and contemplation of the “big picture”. Strategies are used by those who are relatively-well positioned in a conflict or struggle, who have the time to reflect and make the connections between the situation as it stands and the changes and outcomes desired. Tactics, on the other hand, are the activities of people from the underside of a struggle.  They have neither the luxury of time nor perhaps the benefit of a thoroughgoing look at the situation as a whole. Nevertheless, they must choose some course of action and attempt to affect the situation, often on the turf and in the “discourse” of the other rather than on their own terms. Tactics are necessarily shorter-term actions, but they can have considerable impact, Mercer then goes on to relate the use of tactics to ministry to children.  She writes, “sometimes tactical maneuvers are necessary to garner momentum or “problematize” the conditions under which children’s education in faith takes place in congregations, particularly when those in positions to effect strategy do not grasp the meaning of education or the importance of welcoming and nurturing children.”  I find the notion of tactics very helpful.  It suggests that most of us can do something to prompt or stimulate change, or cultivate a climate for change, even if we have little actual control over the “big picture” strategic level decisions and choices.  Say, for example, a family is worshiping in a church that gives little focus to children.  A very simple “tactic” might involve a family or families with children choosing to sit at the very front of the worship space each weekend, to make children more visible to the pastor and other worship leaders.  Parents with children could intentionally include them in the conduct of various worship roles e.g. ushering or welcoming or reading lessons, so as to highlight their presence and capacities to contribute.  Tactics such as this can be usually be utilised without “permission” and have the effect of prompting wider thought and discussion. And the more such thinking and discussion takes place, the greater the impulse towards recalibration of an overall system of congregational life and practice. Congregational communities are, after all, living systems.  As much as they involve structures and hierarchies and policies and procedures, they are organic.  They are made up of interlinking and interdependent relationships between individuals, groups and households. The nature of a system is that if one part is altered in some way, that alteration affects other parts, prompting them to either accommodate, revise or stymie the alteration.  And the more “micro” changes there are in one or more parts of the system, the greater the cumulative impact on the whole system. Imagine that you are faced with the task of shifting a huge boulder in your front garden without access to heavy machinery. Your aim is to create a flat, level space. There are two ways to achieve your goal.  You can try to move the boulder by pushing and shoving … good luck with that!  Or you can dig out the earth around the boulder so that over time a big enough hole is created into which the boulder can gradually slip. What I am trying to say is this: (a) everyone can do something towards change; (b) the best place to start is by working on and through those things you can directly influence, knowing that they have the potential to indirectly influence other things; and (c) the more little changes or innovations you can make in your area of influence, the greater the likelihood that there will be a wider reaction or adjustment. More on this in a future post

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