One of the things I love about our Center for Adaptive and Innovative Ministry programming is that we do regular reflective exercises in almost every different part of our work. When we meet for monthly lunches, start classes, gather cohorts, and even join together lately on Zoom, we generally start with some kind of wide open question—“Where have you felt closest to God’s call in your life?” “Where have you encountered or been welcomed by a person of peace this week?” or “Where did your attention rest when we read this text?”
We do this because it helps us pay attention to these sorts of things—where is God moving in our lives, in the lives of others, in the Scriptures that have been passed down—and that paying attention grows our imagination. Could the bartender around the corner be a person of peace? Or the neighbor who is out weeding the garden? Could it have been God calling us, when we found ourselves in a creative flow in that meeting or through that partnership with another organization? Could the Scripture have something to say that isn’t some big universal truth, but rather a small “t” truth for me, for today? Something I should actually do something about?
Running from the Real Questions
Some people find these questions a little woo-woo, and I take their point. Open questions leave room for all kinds of responses. But I think what is more dangerous to faithful work than being woo-woo is being closed off. One of my fears for church is that we are regularly making our questions smaller so that instead of learning, we can already know the answer, or already have a ready patch for the problems as they bubble up. But often, having a ready patch keeps you from the bigger question of why the problem happened in the first place. And making the question smaller means we never get to the heart of the issue—we never hear each other clearly or take time to deal with the real complications and miscommunications in our common life.
For instance, I’ve so often heard the question, “Who and how might we be called to live as a community?” be downsized into, “How do we find young families to join us so we have enough people to keep doing what we are doing?” The first is open to possibility and God’s movement; the second assumes all kinds of things as given and reduces the needed change from something harder to grasp, more exciting, honest, and life-giving, to something that is simpler, less inspiring, and clearer as a goal.
It closes off possibility for the sake of clarity and ease. Making our questions smaller puts God in a box to make God safer for us.
The Consequences of Running
Running away from real, big questions also gives people a clear picture about the depth of honesty and openness to complication there is in our community. In fact, people sniff out very quickly that their own messiness will not be welcome in a church that cannot ask a big messy question. They learn right away that their own confusion, openness, and brokenness will not find a home amidst a people who are looking to patch quickly, reduce complexity, and move on to the order of the day. They will notice that there are some conversations that cannot be had here.
For some, that will mean that they leave as quickly as they come—seeking a place where they can delve into the hard stuff more fully. Worse than that, though, I often think that we insiders, the churchiest of the churchy, stay around, having ever smaller conversations. We intuit that we can’t bring our big questions and our messy lives here, so we slowly begin to pretend together that there are no questions and there is no mess. We share the delusion in our midst and reinforce it for each other. Those who would speak of the questions and the mess aren’t welcomed in, and they leave—so we are left in a space that has become too closed to name or speak of the God we have supposedly come to worship.
In church spaces like this, God is spoken about at the front and by the few, in words we do not use or in frames that are foreign to us. Jesus is not mentioned at coffee hour, and a sense of the Holy Spirit does not follow us throughout our week. We find ourselves more afraid to name our God than those who do not practice any faith, those who do not participate in such a community—because they have nothing to lose.
So we are hoping to ask the questions again. We are hoping to grow our questions back up. What is the Holy Spirit up to? What might faithfulness to that look like? Who are we called to be? What does it mean to be the church even now? As strange as it is, there is a process for this. We can learn to ask and listen, to pay attention and to name the truth. We can build up our courage and face the things we have been hiding from. Indeed, starting with that work is the beginning of adaptation and the only hope for innovation in our shared life together.
The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the PTS Center for Adaptive and Innovative Ministry. Before joining the AIM team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of AIM, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.