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Change is…What You Need to Ride a Scottish Bus

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. This reflection is reposted with permission from Robert’s own blog, Lighthouse/Searchlight Church

By Robert Austell

 

The danger and lure of change is that it become the thing in itself.

My previous two posts – “Change is Death” and “Change is Life” take a look at some of the dynamics of change. Hopefully, it became clear that my titles were meant to point to a range of meaning from: “change feels like death” to “change involves some things ‘dying'” to “change can lead to new life” to “change feels like life” and more in-between.

There is much written about change, from “managing change” to “surviving change” to differentiating types of change (technical, adaptive, etc…). And all of that language can be helpful! But it can also imply that change is our savior. Rather, I have found that even the best teaching about change is better understood as descriptive (here’s how one person/group/institution navigated change) than as prescriptive: “Here’s what you must do.”

Said another way, it is vital to distinguish between authentic change (what is needed) and imitative change (what worked for someone else).

Scottish Buses scottish bus

On my recent trip, my host, Michael Mair, arranged most of my transportation, but on one occasion it looked like I would need to take public transportation (a bus) to get back to his house. Not only did he tell me which bus line, route number, and stop I needed to take, he also mentioned that I needed exact change (or at least that the bus driver would not make change). And indeed, there were a few occasions where we both were waiting on a bus and he stopped into a small store to buy gum and break a larger bill in order to have exact change. Good to know!

Change is…

To be sure, people and institutions facing change (precipitated, voluntary, unexpected, or other) are well-advised to know enough about change to board the bus in the first place. But to over-focus on the change process MAY leave some folks an expert on how to ride the bus, yet no clear indication of where they are headed or if they are even on the right bus.

I’ve heard it said that “leaders lead” – in other words, they know where they are headed, whether by bus, car, foot, or windswept night. All things being equal, they will do well to have “exact change,” but that ends up not being the most important thing.

I keep coming back to the conviction that there are deeper and more important questions at stake, questions that do not dismiss the change process or diminish their value, but questions which ultimately tell us more about where we are and where we are heading. Again, from the “Change is Death” post:

As those created, loved, redeemed, called, and sent by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit…

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What are we doing and why?
  4. To whom is our allegiance?

To that I would also add my best question from the past 5-8 years of ministry: What is God doing in and around us and how can we be a part of that?

Change is important, to be sure. Some days it can feel like death and other days it can feel like life. But at the end of the day, change is just what you need to ride a Scottish bus.  🙂

Addendum:

The metaphor has been rolling around in my head all night since I wrote the post yesterday and it also strikes me, in the language of the metaphor, that change is what it takes to get where we are going… no more and no less.  That’s another way of saying what I’m trying to say: it’s important, but it’s not the thing itself.


Robert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

Change is Death

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. This reflection is reposted with permission from Robert’s own blog, Lighthouse/Searchlight Church

 

By Robert Austell

For three days in lovely Kirkcaldy, Scotland, 12 PCUSA pastors and 12 Church of Scotland pastors met with authors and practical theologians, Diana Butler Bass and Douglas Gay, to talk, think, and share about changes in church and culture. Three days is a lot of content, especially with two theologians and 24 pastors, but here is my biggest takeaway…

Change is Death

We talked about whether what we are seeing in Scotland and U.S. culture is “secularization” or “transformation,” but I think we agreed it was change. We talked about the process of groups undergoing change and I recognized much of the stages of grief, not unlike what one might experience as one approaches death, not least of which is the realization that “this is the end of _____ as we’ve known it” (or more short-sighted, just “this is the end of ____.”)

St. Andrew's Cathedral

The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, one of the key sites where John Knox preached to incite the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Thanks to a friend for sharing this unique photo vantage point with me – it is taken from the 3rd floor men’s room of the St. Andrews Ph.D. building overlooking the cathedral ruins.

We also talked about what was on the other side of institutional/structural death, including whether to call that “new life, revival, awakening, or transformation.” And we recognized that, like it or not, we and our churches and our neighbors and communities are facing the change.

We talked about institutional failure and innovation out of community; we talked about letting go, carrying (some things) with, and letting come… all parts of the journey, not TO death, but THROUGH death. We also touched on the extreme resistance to that reality of death (of something).

Today I’d like to highlight one observation I had in response to this thought-provoking content. Tomorrow I will share three examples from life in the Presbyterian Church (USA) that illustrate three different approaches to the reality that change is death.

OBSERVATION(s)

Even as we think in the mist of crisis about institutions failing, new visions being envisioned and lived out in fresh expressions of community, and a transformation on the other side of the change-which-is-death, I believe there are underlying questions we must ask ourselves. And perhaps these are the “bits of tradition we carry with us” that Diana Butler Bass mentioned, though I don’t think “bits of tradition” quite gets at the root importance of these questions. 

As those created, loved, redeemed, called, and sent by God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit…

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What are we doing and why?
  4. To whom is our allegiance?

I am drawn to questions like those because institutions are just place-holders, structures that have for a time sustained us in asking and answering questions like those.

New visions, if they are anything more than clever human novelties, are fresh understandings of old, old questions.

And communal innovation and transformation (whether of church or culture) is new life at work answering those kinds of questions, eventually in search of new place-holders and structures to sustain the asking, answering, and living out of questions like those.

Or so it seems to me. Our stimulating discussion of the transformation process and even historic realities like the Great Awakenings leaned toward the WHAT, WHEN and the HOW… good points, important points. But we must also take notice of the WHY (and the One the biblical witness recognizes as the WHO behind the WHY).

Said another way

Of course change is death. Everything we make and touch is dying, encased in the only structures and shells we humans know to construct to house what is from God. But we should also not be surprised to find God at work, bringing life from death and hope from ashes. That’s the good and hopeful Word to which we cling in faith.


Robert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

When the Floor is a Ceiling to Ministry

By Robert Austell

Here is one example of a church far exceeding the “minimal hospitality threshold” in its ministry. I was deeply encouraged and challenged to hear the story of St. Bryce Church in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

St. Bryce Sanctuary, where floor was raised to the level of the balcony.

St. Bryce Sanctuary, where floor was raised to the level of the balcony.

The Rev. Ken Froude is the minister of St Bryce Kirk. With no precipitating crisis other than a 1200-seat sanctuary “that was always too big and only used once or twice a week,” he had the vision more than 25 years ago to redevelop the building. Under his leadership a floor was put in the old three-story sanctuary was at the level of the gallery (balcony), creating a large auditorium upstairs (still seats 400) used for worship, conferences and concerts. The downstairs, where the old sanctuary floor once stood, was converted into office space, group meeting rooms, and a lounge and a coffee bar for the community.

 

 
That main floor community center – the St Bryce Kirk Centre – is open Monday to Friday for people of all ages (toddlers to senior citizens), organizations of all kinds, charities, public services, activities and help-groups. The building is totally handicapped-accessible and equipped with up-to-date technology for conferences and concerts, with full in-house catering options (which our pastors’ conference enjoyed throughout the week!).

I have two further observations on which I will elaborate in other posts:

  1. This kind of transformation of an institution and community does not come easily or quickly. In fact, one of our two lecturers (Diana Butler Bass) spoke to this very process that Ken and some others of us have lived through (more on that coming). Ken led the congregation (and community) through very intentional transformation, facing resistance and pushback. And the new life flowing in and out of St. Bryce is unmistakeable and inspiring. I applaud this pastor’s courageous leadership and faithful pursuit of where the Holy Spirit led him.
  2. Related to #1, the purpose of our pastors’ conference was to get together a group of U.S. and Scottish pastors and share stories and ideas with the assumption that Scotland (as much of Europe) may be some 20-25 years ahead of the United States in terms of Christianity moving out of the center of cultural and community life. Many of the churches in the Church of Scotland are aging and dwindling (as are many in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.); but we were privileged to meet a number of pastors and congregations that are nonetheless thriving in 2014 (whether you want to call it post-Christendom, post-Christian, secularized, etc…). One of the key features I noticed of the thriving churches were the move from being a church for those inside the walls (sometimes even for the sake of the walls!) to being a church for the community. Rev. Froude and St. Bryce made this shift early on and the difference it has made is palpable. (I shared some of this story and reflection in the sermon [audio link] on the Sunday after I returned from Scotland as a closing illustration of the text of Jeremiah 29:1-11, about God’s people finding faithfulness in exile through praying for and seeking the shalom of the city.)

At my own church, we’ve had a similar transformation of perspective to open our facilities fully to our neighborhood. We have invited and welcomed any community group from our “parish” (ok, we don’t have parishes, but we called the 1-mile radius around our church that) and have seen the facilities used by multiple girl scout groups, a 12-step group, several neighborhood associations, the Hospice/Palliative care organization, a Foundation related to the nearby elementary school, and several others. We also welcomed some neighborhood sports teams (little league baseball and rugby) to use our sizable ball field which had sat unused for a number of years.

While this didn’t create an immediate influx of new members, that wasn’t the point. We determined to be “good neighbors” and what we have seen is a tangible increase in awareness that our church sits at the heart of the surrounding neighborhoods, cares about the people and children of our neighborhood, and over time, we have met and even welcomed into worship some folks that probably would never have darkened our doors before. We’ve had neighbors who don’t go to our church (or any church) recommend us to other neighbors.

All this is to say that I think one very important move the Church needs to make as Christianity moves away from the center of American culture is to rediscover (because it is an OLD value – think not only Jesus, but the Abrahamic covenant!) this: the church does not exist for its members, but for it’s Savior, whose very mission was to come and make a home out in the world.

robertRobert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

Being the Church in the World

By Robert Austell

I have heard a long list of ideas, critiques, strategies, models, and more about problems and solutions for the ailing Church. I’m all for strategic thinking, clever communication, and the next great thing, but in God’s grace, here’s something God stirred up with us not too long ago:

Let’s do what we’ve been doing faithfully for so long and let’s do it out there where our neighbors live.

We stopped and took a good, hard look at what being the church had been for us. We sent money and teams out for missions and service (and still do); but that was far away, even in the city where we live. Who was being the Church – being the body of Christ – to OUR neighbors… the literal ones?

There are three main neighborhoods on the street where our church is located. One large, winding neighborhood has about 1000 homes. Two other neighborhoods have about 500 each. That’s all off of our one-mile stretch of secondary road.  That’s about 10,000 people. There is one elementary school, one housing project, one apartment complex, two men’s group homes, four churches, a bus park ‘n’ ride (in OUR parking lot), and a shopping center. And 10,000 people!… sending kids to school there, shopping there, walking their dog there, driving by our church at least twice a day coming and going, making their home right there.

For a generation, we had been a Bible-studying, worship-loving, mission-sending, service-supporting, FRIENDLY congregation that gathered once or twice a week inside our building to draw near to God.

Anybody see the problem? Anybody see the OPPORTUNITY? We finally did.

The Wednesday Night Experiment

I told them we’d just give it a try. For goodness sake, we had dedicated every Wednesday night in January for the last 8 years STUDYING evangelism. And I wasn’t even asking for that. I just asked the sermon study group to have their same meeting down the street at the bookstore in the shopping center. I asked the group that was sharing prayer requests to go spend the first 30 min. of their time sharing requests while walking around the neighborhood. Another group went to the coffee shop down the street. “No assignment,” I said. “Just go do what you would have done here and do it there, and see if anything different happens.”

“Do we have to identify ourselves as being from the church?” they asked.

“No; just go do this there and see if anything different happens.” (I did add that for purposes of the experiment we would not take Bibles or circle up for prayer in the middle of the store or coffeeshop… didn’t want to just move “the walls” there.) I told them we’d just try it for 3-4 weeks and then come back to talk about it.

From the very first week and every week afterward, SOMETHING has happened. A server shared about a sick sister and asked for prayer. The coffee shop manager asked if we had any musicians who could do live, folky music (yes!). The book club decided to put a notice on the Internet about their neighborhood meeting and doubled interest and participation within a week. And I could go on and on!

What’s the point? Well several…

  1. NONE of those encounters – which turned into relationships – would have happened if we had continued having the sermon discussion, the prayer group, and the book club in the classrooms of the church. The groups would have studied and talked just as hard, but done so isolated from the neighbors – Church OUT OF the world. (Jesus prayed against this in John 17!)
  2. While the specifics are particular to us, the principle is not; we took what we were already good at and passionate about, and we took it outside the walls of the church – Church IN the world. (Jesus prayed about this, too!)
  3. It has dramatically changed how we understand “Church” and continues to unfold in ways we could not have imagined.

We’ve continued to ask the questions – now expanded far beyond Wednesday nights to everything we do: What does it mean for us to be the Church in the World?


Robert Austell has served as pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, since 2002. He is active in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is an active blogger at http://robertaustell.blogspot.com, where he writes about being the church in the world. He is also an accomplished musician and technophile, and loves integrating those two interests with ministry.

Photo credit: shutterstock/djem