As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?" But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village.
Luke 9:51-56, Common English Bible
This week we’ve changed some of our readings around. We’ve kept most of the ones that are in the cycle of readings shared by many churches, but I changed the reading from Luke’s Gospel so I can tell you about an experience I had this summer. We were in Chautauqua, New York, where I was selected to be a fellow in the New Clergy Program for ministers who have been ordained for seven years or fewer. Chautauqua is a summer community for the arts, religion, and knowledge, and there are 10,000 people there every day listening to lectures and the symphony orchestra and watching the dance company. One of the days our group was divided into two. Spouses went to a special lunch hosted by the wife of the Jewish rabbi in residence, and they got to go to this huge hotel on Lake Chautauqua, the largest wooden hotel in the United States. I don’t know what they talked about, as apparently what happened at the spouses’ lunch stays at the spouses’ lunch. But I imagine they discussed some of the challenges in being married to a minister.
The clergy had lunch at the Methodist church in Chautauqua and then we met with Peter Steinke, who is a Lutheran minister and expert on change in churches. And he talked about this story we just heard from Luke, as Jesus and his disciples are traveling and he sends messengers on ahead to find food and a place to stay for their group. They are going through Samaria, and we know from other stories that Samaritans and Jews were not friends. They were pretty hostile. And a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus. James and John, friends of Jesus, ask him, “Do you want us to call down a bolt of lightning from heaven and incinerate them?” Jesus speaks sternly to them, probably something like, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and they continue on their way.
Peter told us that this story shows us the two approaches to change in churches. One is technical. A technical solution is like changing a tire. The other is adaptive, and it’s about changing people and systems. In this story of Jesus and his friends passing through Samaria, James and John have a technical solution to the problem of the Samaritan village refusing hospitality: Destroy them. Jesus, on the other hand, knows that an adaptive solution is needed.
And in churches we come up against problems of declining attendance and influence and finances and we usually propose technical solutions, just like James and John. We say, well, if we just redesigned the worship space, or we substituted contemporary songs for hymns, or the minister didn’t wear a robe, or we just got a new minister, then we would be full on Sunday. But these are technical answers to issues in the church that require adaptive solutions. Adaptive work isn’t as simple, as Jesus knows. In the story, it’s a lot harder to change the Samaritans’ hearts and lives than it is to wipe them out. Adaptive solutions take time, they involve dealing with the unknown, there is no certainty, they are unpredictable, and conflict will arise.
You may have heard that the United Church of Canada is engaged in a comprehensive review of all of our structures and processes. We don’t know yet, because we haven’t seen any recommendations, whether this will produce adaptive or technical change. And congregations across our area have been doing the same thing. So it would be helpful for us to know what adaptive change would look like, here at the local level, where we are. So here’s what Peter Steinke talked about.
I’ve mentioned this myself in speaking about discipleship, but we in the church today need to understand that we are not here to be members. We are here to be part of God’s mission. We have to shift from a membership model to a missional model. The church needs to leave our building to serve the needs of the world. And that affects the minister’s role too, with less emphasis on being a chaplain to members and more on being a witness for Jesus in the wider community.
As our denominations and our congregations have less influence in society, we have to replace our current approach. Right now it’s as if we have individual silos. There’s a United Church silo and an Anglican silo and a Presbyterian silo. So we need to break out of our silos and collaborate and share resources. We can’t continue to have completely separate franchises. There are hints of this shift coming; for instance, the United Church now shares publishing and distributing books and materials with the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Here we are clustering our congregations together to share ministry, and there have been conversations in at least one place about a community church shared by several denominations. I started a partnership with the United Church of Christ across the river in New York State, as we are physically closer to our sisters and brothers there than we are to United Churches in, say, Ottawa or Montreal.
I know if I want to get people all riled up, I can just use the words "church bureaucracy." Now, I have been in the United Church national and Conference offices quite a few times, but these don’t seem to be staffed with the out-of-touch, time-wasting, slacker, overpaid career technocrats that we might imagine. It’s hard to run an organization our size with no one managing it. We have about as many congregations in Canada as Tim Hortons has restaurants, but I’m sure the Tims head office has more staff. However, adaptive change means that we have to rethink our church structures. When the United Church was formed in 1925, it made sense to have Presbyteries, Conferences, and General Council, but all of these levels of governance may no longer serve the same purpose, or be affordable, today. So bureaucracy needs to be more flexible and slimmed down even more.
As I said, adaptive changes like these will produce conflict. We naturally resist disruptions to our established ways of doing things. When most people have only experienced church as members, and are faced with church as mission and discipleship, some will drop out. There will be resistance as long-time patterns and habits are challenged. And we also have the idea that conflict is somehow sinful, and we try to avoid it and postpone adaptive change if there are disputes. But disagreements are normal in transformations that affect things that are near and dear to people, like their church.
If adaptive change is to be successful, it has to be connected to mission. We have to ask ourselves hard questions about the mission God has given us here in Long Sault and Ingleside. How do people in our community know that we care about them? How we will help each other, here in our congregation, to know that we can make a difference in people’s lives? How do we balance looking after each other in the church with doing good to all, in the community and across Canada and the world? And these are not questions the minister can answer for everyone here. Adaptive change is a long-term process, usually lasting longer than one minister’s service to a congregation, and it has to involve all of us - the entire community of faith - and consultation with our neighbours.
These days it is not just the church facing adaptive change. Education, business, law, charities, all kinds of public and private institutions, are struggling with transforming themselves. So we are not alone in this, although it still seems daunting. Change isn’t easy. It can be scary. Yet Peter Steinke’s research shows that challenged churches are actually healthy churches.
You know, back in the sixteenth century or so there were a lot of geographers and mapmakers in Europe. They didn’t travel, but made maps and globes of what they thought the rest of the world looked like, places they had never seen. Up until now the church has had a lot of geographers, who stay inside our walls. But what the church needs – what God needs - is explorers, who go outside, into the world. And exploring isn’t as comfortable and safe as mapmaking. Yet, when we explore, when we go out on God’s mission, Jesus is with us. And perhaps some of the ways we are church have to die and rise again, transformed, just as Jesus was.