People and organizations are living stories. Since live moves in days and season, it can feel like a movie or a play. Normally, the story naturally moves as we accomplishing things, try things, and learn and grow along the way. Sometimes, however, the story stops. As Graham Standish puts it, a church can get “something akin to writer’s block.”
Numerous obstacles can stop the story. Sometimes the church has conflict or crisis that consumes the story. Sometimes the church fails at writing the next chapter and loses their confidence to keep writing. Sometimes they are so focused on all their problems that they can’t see any way forward. Sometimes the church cannot agree on what the next chapter should be.
Often churches lose sight of what has been written in the previous chapters. They forget their history. It is problematic when a church is obsessed with and driven by the past, but it is equally damaging to lose sight of the previous chapters. It would be like trying to write chapter 12 in a book when you have completely forgotten the previous 11 chapters. You forget the themes, the lessons, and the conflict that has brought the story so far.
It is tempting, I will admit, to forget some of the conflict. Who wants to revisit and think about the bad times? I think this is why so many people have warped memories of the church. They only remember “the good old days,” and leave out the bad days. It is critical to review the previous chapters. Often the way past writers block is to reread the previous chapters. The way to the future is through the past.
I believe that churches have a spiritual DNA. Even people who come to your church who are not related to previous members will tend to be part of the same spiritual heritage. For so many churches, they need to discover what that DNA is.
I have found a lot of help in this area from the field of Appreciative Inquiry. AI is an organizational development theory that tries to focus on what is working rather than what it not working. Think about it this way: just because I know what is wrong with my car does not necessarily mean I can fix it. I have driven some pretty crappy cars, and I have had them break down almost every way possible. I am getting good at diagnosing what the problem is. I still stink at fixing the car. I can know that it is the power steering pump and still not know how to replace it. At the same time, I may not need to have an exact diagnosis to fix the problem. If I know that the water pump is not working properly, I can just replace the pump. I don’t need to dissect the water pump to find out exactly what is broken in order to fix the problem. This is why obsessing about problems does not usually fix them, but instead leads to stress and immobility.
Appreciative Inquiry asks organizations to tell stories and give examples of the best of the organization. Describe a time when you felt really good about what the church was doing. When did you feel that the church was fulfilling its purpose? Tell a story of a time when you were serving in the church and felt good about the contribution you were making. These kind of questions can help find the core values and key stories that exemplify what it means to be a part of this church.
I have found in using these kinds of questions in church that people often have trouble moving past a negative perspective. They want to complain about problems instead of search for solutions. I have found this response often works. Let’s say George is complaining about the worship service. I would say something like, “George, it seems like you have a good understanding of the worship service. Tell me, what would a great worship service look like? What would it look like it was working correctly?” I have found that reframing the conversation leads to much better ideas. Some people cannot make the switch and they can only complain. This question is also helpful for conversing with them because I realize that they will never be happy and will rarely be helpful.
Is your story stuck? Are you in writer’s block? Trying reading the previous chapters until the story gets going again.