Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Missional Transformation

Do you remember those pictures that used to be the thing in the mall? You would look at them for a long time, kind of cross-eyed and suddenly a whole new image would emerge. All at once, the picture would just come bursting off of the page. I assume that the picture was not transubstantiated, that the details in the picture remained the same. But with a different focus you couldn't make out the old picture any more, only the new one.

Missional transformation bears something of that same dynamic. Missional transformation is not primarily a program or new set of initiatives in congregational life. It's the development of a new imagination so that everything is part of a surprising new picture.

Put another way, missional transformation is deep, cultural change. When we talk about a congregation as a culture, we are discussing issues of identity. And when we talk about issues of cultural identity, we are talking about narratives--the stories that authorize our practices.

This perspective on change requires more than a pulpit or a classroom. You can't simply teach yourself into this kind of change. Learning to tell a new story requires new experiences, reflection, and articulation.

In my experience, congregations expect very little in terms of what their members experience. Primarily, we expect them to experience Sunday morning worship. Other experiences are options, like leather seats on a car. It's nice if you practice spiritual disciplines, participate in the world with the poor, or share your faith with others, but its really kind of up to you.

We ask members even less intentionally to reflect or articulate what they think God is up to in the midst of their experiences. This is not only true at a personal level, but congregations do surprising little corporate reflection, or discernment, concerning what God is up to in their midst.

One final point for this post. Transformation tends to come in relation to adaptive challenges, those pesky anomalies we can't quite solve, those instances or chronic problems in congregational life that keep us off balance. These are the things we tend to avoid as church leaders. But they are often the kinds of challenges that force us to focus our eyes differently and see every detail in new perspective.

Thomas Kuhn maintains that the big shifts in scientific paradigms did not come as the logical result of a series of experiments. Rather, they came by imagining a new structure altogether based on a problem for which the old structure could not account. The same kind of thing is often true for churches who are seeking change. It often comes, not as a result of a carefully mapped out strategy complete with mission and vision statements, but around sometimes surprising and perplexing events that call for a new account of things.

I was a minister for a congregation in Oregon for eleven years. The most transformative events in my eleven years were three deaths that occurred in the congregation. None of those would have made it into a strategic plan for congregational change. They were transformative because of how death and grief had been dealt with (in this case not dealt with) in the congregation's recent history. They afforded us the opportunity for reflection and articulation, and in so doing gave us capacity to authorize a new narrative.


Cheryl Russell said...

Great thoughts. These are things that Tim and I have been thinking about a lot. PMC has given us new avenues and language to explore as we reflect on missional transformation. Most exciting, is asking, "What is God doing?"

The church we are attending now (in New Mexico) is in the process of building/renovating with the hopes that this will "add the flock." Sort of a "if we build it, they will come" type of thing. Needless to say, it is not easy to be the dissenting voice.

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Cheryl. And hang in there.

So, I'm confused. New Mexico? PUMP? Is it just my old age showing, or are you living a complicated life?



Cheryl Russell said...

We were living in Oregon for Tim's job, for ten months. Now we are back in New Mexico, but we are moving back to Oregon, for good, in December. Basically, we fell in love with PUMP and can't wait to get back. We have had a rough transition - returning to more "traditional practices," etc.

So you see, it's not your age. It is indeed, complicated. :)

Kevin said...

Thanks for the post Mark. This is troubling for the church I am working with. I am the associate minister and our ministry team is seeking the missional paths. Our problem is that the eldership wants answers or new programs or processes. We just want to plug in a pre-fab church model and go, but our minister team is calling for disernment. Thanks for your words today-- they are great encouragement.

Mark Love said...


Some ammo for you. I meet with a lot of congregations who have in file cabinets somewhere church growth plans or other strategic initiatives that are half done or less. The evaluative capacity of a problem solving approach is woefully inadequate, and strategic plans are very poor predictors. They are not evil, and can be used at the right place in a change process, but not up front and not in a way that is predictive. There's a lot of lit on this.

I'm also absolutely convinced that you don't get culture change just by the leadership stating a direction, even if this is what the congregations says it wants. We tend to respond to anxiety about our congregation's future with greater efforts at command and control, not greater emphasis on trust and formation. Command and control seems like decisive and strong leadership, but its actually leadership in avoidance of tougher and deeper issues.

anyway, hang in there.


Kevin said...

Thanks for the response. I know God is working on the heart of our leaders. It is difficult to listen and discern. Fixing needs makes us feel like something is happening.