A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about organizational and congregational health that struck a nerve with a few folks, namely because it insinuated that at some point — after an organization, institution or congregation has been properly empathized with as a way of unlocking more creative and generative solutions to longstanding problems — those of us with power, privilege and platforms must eventually hand our lapel mics over to marginalized folks who’ve been patiently waiting to unearth a fresh word for our limping and fragmented faith communities.
We do so not from a place of guilt-assuaging-tokenism, but somewhere far more elemental — desperation — as well-educated, white-male-theology has faithfully dragged American Christianity to the top of Mount Moriah, but instead of noticing the ram caught in the thicket nearby, went ahead and sacrificed all of us on the altar of White House access and Supreme Court nominees.
One particularly helpful response I received to my piece implored me to be “specific” about how exactly those of us who are interested in listening to the oppressed in our midst can bring about change in actual congregations. Instantly, I was reminded of Marie Kondo’s 2014 New York Times bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and it’s pithy, Zen-like approach to decluttering, as it implores readers to interrogate every sweater and double-breasted suit-coat for answers to life’s deepest question:
“Can you bring me joy!?”
Kondo goes on to remind all of us who are bidding farewell to a seemingly bottomless pile of board shorts:
“All the things you own want to be of use to you.”
“Tidying ought to be the act of restoring balance between people, their possessions and the house they live in.”
“We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.”
“The place we live should be for the person we are becoming now — not for the person we have been in the past.”
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”
“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
Aside from my wife’s ardent belief that the sweater vest I persist in wearing almost weekly does not bring her joy, I have a certain wistful affinity for the way in which Kondo is infusing deep, philosophical meaning into how we make decisions about what does and does not go into our coat closet.
Which got me thinking: What if our decisions about how we organize, program and spend ourselves as congregations asked as much as Kondo does of our summer-weight chinos?
What if we sought to take an exhaustive accounting of everything we do as a faith community: from worship to potlucks to Sunday school socials, and asked, not “Does this bring ME joy?,” but something a bit more meaningful, even Christian:
“Does this bring concrete redemption to my neighborhood, my city, and my world?”
Or even if our programs or mission endeavors or worship services aren’t able to answer this question concretely (a red flag), what if we asked of every move we make as a community of witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus:
“How can this be more redemptive for people who aren’t and won’t ever come here?”
And instead of being ruthless about the “definitely misguided” pet projects of other people in our congregations (especially their music preferences in worship, I MEAN COME ON, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU LIKE _________), what if we were doggedly invested in helping all people in our midst to find ways of unleashing the redemptive potential in their quilting circles, fellowship hall bingo nights, sleepy Sunday school classes, khaki-shorted youth choirs singing in front of wave pools each summer, and (gasp) de-humanizing aid distribution to poor people we don’t want coming to worship on Sundays?
I dare say, the answers might surprise us.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the best way to bring about meaningful institutional change isn’t by castigating the earnest efforts of people doing the best they can with what they know (Spoilers: I’ve tried that for a while now and it DOES NOT result in a lot of fan mail). Instead, asking congregations to name what people in their communities concretely need (without confining the answers to things your church already offers), and what resources concretely exist within the faith community itself (without confining the answers to things your church already offers), ends up breaking all sorts of new ground for haggard congregations, weary of expensive consultants and new vision plans.
Only after establishing answers to these first two questions can we then move to a faithful combination of needs and resources (typically called “programming”), allowing what comes next to be limited only by these first two questions, instead of anxious phrases like “where does my sermon go?” or “we’ve never done that before” or “that’s not in the budget” or “how does this help us bring in new families?” or “do we know anyone who can play the bass?”
Things get really interesting when people start non-anxiously asking minority neighbors, school counselors, social workers, janitors, adolescents, single moms, loan officers, city council members, people of other (or no) faiths what they need, without interrupting them to inform them of the wonderful plan Jesus has for their life at First Baptist’s contemporary service at 9:00 a.m. in the gym on Sundays.
So, to answer my new friend’s question, “What do we do?” Well, you and your friends listen to people who aren’t like you (even if it hurts to hear their answers), and you take stock of your resources, and you exhaust them in service to your community’s needs and not the needs of your aging building, or swelling budget, or dated programs, or pastoral egos, or even your very earnest beliefs about things none of us know for sure.
I’m not saying any of this will “save” your church, but it sure won’t be boring.
Which, if we’re being honest, is what the problem is now, right?