By Bill Wilson
Grady Nutt introduced us to this delightful word in his epic book Agaperos a generation ago. In each chapter he blended two ideas into one integrated and complete whole. In doing so, he taught us to play havoc with spellcheckers and discover a world that we too often overlook.
Thanksliving has become a bit of a mantra for me. Granted, some days it has been more a question than a statement, but gratitude has served me well as a guiding attitude. Cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude rather than simply observing a designated season of thanksgiving seems to align well with the words of Jesus and Paul: “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In our work with congregations seeking to strategically engage their future, we have found it helpful to use the underlying philosophy of a process known as Appreciative Inquiry. AI begins with the assumption that there is, at the core of a church, a positive set of experiences and capacities. Discovering those and cultivating an attitude of gratitude that pervades the entire process is key to imagining and participating in God’s positive dream for the future.
In order to call out those positive traits, we usually ask a series of questions:
What attracted you to your church?
Why do you stay at your church?
When did your church become the “body of Christ” for you?
Those simple questions, and the conversations they engender, inevitably lead to a deeper conversation focused upon gratitude that is filled with hope.
It’s interesting that there is nearly always a discernable and measurable shift between the responses to the question of “what attracted you?” and “why do you stay?” Many people originally came to their church in response to a ministry, program or personality. No surprise there, since most of our current members come during the programmatic era of congregational life.
Almost inevitably, however, what keeps people connected to their church is much less likely to be a program and much more likely to be a relationship. Generally, what keeps people connected and what enables a church to become “my church” almost always centers upon people. If a member of a church never develops deep and powerful personal relationships with others, then congregational involvement soon becomes just another organization competing for a slot on their already-full calendar.
Assimilating and retaining congregational members is a high priority issue for observant congregations. As one large-church pastor put it to me: “Nearly as many people are exiting our back door as are entering our front door.”
In the end, what people will remember most about a minister or a church is not likely to be the spectacles or high profile events that we are so enamored with. Instead, their gratitude will be directed toward those who called them by name, knew them deeply, and helped them discover their place in this world.
I recently was in a worship service in which a member of the vision planning team shared her testimony of the value of her church to her across her 22 years of life. It was a beautiful word of thanksliving as she recited the names of nearly a dozen men and women who had nurtured her through the ups and downs of her life. Choir leaders, bible school teachers, chaperones, and random church members made up her list. Interestingly, despite being in a gorgeous sanctuary that was part of a beautiful campus, she did not mention buildings. I was impressed that, while a minister or two made the list, the vast majority were fellow parishioners not on the payroll.
Thanksliving for a congregation means being cognizant and overtly grateful for the people around us. They may be flawed and imperfect, but in the end, they matter most.
Healthy churches will devote their current and future energies toward strategically building up a their capacity for transformative relationships. Whenever we are tempted to think programmatically, we should always ask: “How is this going to help us connect to people in Jesus’ name?”
Most churches would do well to focus for a season upon growing deeper rather than wider. I’m often tempted to declare to a church contemplating their future: “What if we agreed that for the next year, there would be no new programs, and that our entire focus would be upon going deeper?” I actually think such an approach would yield more long-term congregational growth than we can imagine.
Being thankful and appreciative for the multitude of ways your church has supported and sustained your spiritual formation is a start. Let that gratitude permeate every part of you, and experience “thanksliving.” Then, imagine and live into a future that is more focused upon people than things or events. God will be pleased, and lives will be transformed.