In the 90’s I worked with two counterpart churches in the UK. (Names changed for this article.) Over a decade St Jude’s struggled, withered and was shut down, being first annexed to a neighboring church. The Church of Good Hope, by contrast, thrived and multiplied ultimately by around 6,000% What was the difference between them?
St Jude’s comprised around sixty mainly septuagenarians when I took on the pastorate. The Church of Good Hope, when I joined as a pastor, comprised around twelve septuagenarians and octagenarians – and one nonagenarian!
On the face of it The Church of Good Hope looked weaker. Both were running programs that evidently held no interest to the wider community. Neither church knew how to fix the problem. So what was the difference that allowed one to thrive while the other one withered? In part the key lay in the questions each community asked. In its critical season St Jude’s asked itself the wrong questions!
In 2012 one of the world’s most iconic brands filed for bankruptcy. Kodak had led the world in film for decades. The tagline about capturing a “Kodak moment” had become a household phrase. So what went wrong? Was it the arrival of digital cameras – as everybody believes? Not really. Kodak could have led the world with digital photography just as it had done with film. It was, after all, Kodak whose R&D had produced the world’s first filmless camera years before. The wrong turn was taken the moment Kodak recognised this seismic shift in photo technology. They understood that filmless cameras could cannibalise their exisiting products.
They could have asked a core question viz: “How can we lead the way in helping people capture their Kodak moments?”
Instead they asked a fear-based question: “In the light of digital photography how can we keep people buying our film?”
The answer to the fear-based question was to bury the new technology and gag the R&D department. This was the decision that took them up a dead end alley and ultimately bankrupted them. If only Kodak had remembered that their core purpose was to enable people to capture life’s “Kodak moments” they would have realised that the new technology could be their vehicle to success rather than to oblivion.
Capturing a “Kodak moment” with an iPhone
Many churches today find themselves in a similarly critical season. They can feel that the wind of the Spirit is blowing away from their current structures and programs. In the West increasing numbers of people who are still in love with Jesus Christ, still passionate for the Gospel, still hungry for the Kingdom of God, find that they “Just don’t want to do church that way anymore.” They simply find no relevance in what the churches are currently doing.
Faced with this seismic kind of shift, what questions will those churches ask? Will they ask the cores question: “How do we lead the way in helping new generations find and connect with God?” Or will they ask the fear-based question viz: “How can we keep people coming to what we’re already doing?”
For St Jude’s it was the fear-based question that took priority. Consequently, any activity or program that did not deliver people into what they were already doing was unwelcome and not tolerated – even if the program itself was attracting new people. Any such program was regarded as a threat to what the church was already doing precisely because it was not what they were already doing.
This self-sabotaging mentality did not arise because the stakeholders were bad people. They were just terrified that their familiar expression of church might not survive.
On reflection, my shortcoming in that parish was that I failed to build the kind of morale in the people for them to have the confidence to ask better, bolder questions. It was that background anxiety that pushed the people’s attention onto the self-sabotaging, Kodak-style question. Tragically focusing on the fear-based question achieved for that church the exact same result it did for Kodak. The church struggled. Shortly after my unsuccessful tenure it was annexed, and eventually it was shut down.
Asking Kodak’s self-sabotaging question achieved for that church
was annexed and later shut down.
A few blocks away in the very same city the hardy remnant of The Church of Good Hope were also at their wits’ end. However the faithful and patient work of an Intentional Interim Minister had built their morale and confidence. For 2 years he diligently ministered to the church’s emotional life, filling their minds with stories of reinvention, re-launching and community resurrection. Coaxingly and skilfully he prepared and primed the people to ask themselves a different question. A core question. “What is GOD doing in our community and how can we be a part of that” It was a better question. A question of life and not of fear.
As it happened God was stirring in the hearts of bored and disengaged children in the projects (government housing) in the area. They were hungry for community, fun and responsible adult attention. In response The Church of Good Hope conceived of a Kid’s Club – a turbo-charged, Bible-based Sunday school held in a community hall on a Saturday morning. When the elderly twelve saw that this was what God was doing they generously threw themselves behind it. They moved their meeting place, reinvested their real estate equity and transformed their whole schedule of meetings to orientate – geographically, economically and thematically – around this new kids work. And the church took off! They not only survived. They thrived. Today the Church of Good Hope has dramatically outgrown its former premises and now meets in the previously disused building of St Jude’s. If this seems too neat and poetic a narrative, let me assure you only the names have been changed in this story.
That tale of two churches illustrates the point for a lot of churches today. Churches in the West can feel the wind blowing people away from what they’re already doing. But where’s it blowing the people to? What ARE the people doing? Where ARE they going? What ARE they looking for?
Kodak’s true core purpose was to help people capture their lives’ Kodak moments. What then is our core purpose? If we can answer that question clearly and cohesively then we have the strong centre as communities to embrace the adhocracy and experiment that essential to finding out what God is up to in our communities so that we can join in.
Which question is shaping your decision-making and patterns of recruiting;
The Kodak question, or the Church of Good Hope question?
Which question will you choose?