Let’s talking about congregational leadership. I will, once again, shamelessly rip off the writings of Mark Love, this time from a post “Three Smooth Stones: Action-Reflection-Articulation.” What he describes is absolutely typical of every church everywhere:
I was determined that our congregation be a group characterized by prayer. Not just a congregation that prays, but one that knows it as a way of life. So, I preached a sermon series on it. What else could you do? I would be remiss if I did not say that these sermons were brilliant. En fuego. And I even had a plan whereby members could join prayer groups that would change our lives. Who could resist this opportunity?
Turns out, nearly everyone. Lots of people told me how good the sermons were. Only one prayer group formed and they lasted only a few months.
How many times have we seen this? The leadership wants change, excellent sermons in favor of change are preached, and nothing changes. The logical case is made, understood, and even praised. But no change. It’s not just common; it’s typical.
Later, Nancy came to our elders to ask them to anoint her with oil and pray for her healing. Our elders didn’t know what to do. They could read James 5 like everyone else and knew this was something they should probably do, but they didn’t practice this verse and they didn’t know what they believed about it. After some deliberation, they prayed and anointed with her oil and God worked through that to heal her suddenly and dramatically.
Well, now we’re in a different ballgame. Others came to the elders for prayer.
What changed? Well, partly it was experience. God answered a prayer and the church was open enough to see it.
Now, dear readers, many of you are doubting that God answered that prayer because you are filled with an Enlightenment worldview that denies the power of God in today’s world. That’s a problem, because the Bible teaches otherwise. And your conclusion is not based on experience but assumption.
On the other hand, God doesn’t always answer prayers as we wish.
The results were mixed. Now we had more to reflect on and with many people. What did it mean to pray this way and to experience such mixed results? How is God at work in all of this? We couldn’t answer all the questions, but the elders prepared themselves for prayer to be at the heart of their ministry.
A few months later, we started a fifth Sunday evening service for prayer and healing. We expected that the elders would receive only a few people for prayer and we would be done in under an hour. But we were still praying two hours into the service. Soon, prayer groups were popping up all over the congregation.
Did you notice the “and healing” part? What Church of Christ would have a periodic healing service? You see, the problem is, at least, that we don’t believe in prayer because of our Enlightenment worldview. It’s not very scientific at all.
But the elders — the elders — led by example, and this created a new story. Respected leaders considered prayer real. Well, maybe I should ask them to pray for my sickness. And things happened because God is not dead — and a new story was inhabited, a story in which God is alive and active.
Now, information was important all along the way. It helped us clarify what we were doing. But the main action happened around our experiences and our collective reflection on them. I was changed as a minister.
One more piece to add. I had noticed how formative it was for people to actually say things out loud, how once you confessed it, you had it. And I stumbled across Paul’s statement in Rom 10:10, “one believes with the heart, but one confesses with the mouth and is saved.” It’s not enough just to reflect on experience, its important to say something meaningful about it. In fact, the effort to bring to expression a word that all consent to is a transforming act in and of itself. Over time, we got fairly good at saying what it was we thought God might be doing or calling us to. These statements were like little ebeneezers along the way, making us a belief-ful congregation.
Notice the importance of expressing what is happening. Stories are lived but they are also told. In fact, it’s in the telling that a sequence of events becomes a story.
In our religious tribe’s culture, it’s acceptable to believe that God heals by prayer, but it’s bad taste to talk much about it — because it goes against the prevailing metanarrative of a God who is distant and governs by law. When we begin re-telling the story in terms of a God who is present and governs by his Spirit, it creates what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” We don’t even know how to process the information — it’s just so foreign to our thinking.
In most churches, if a preacher were to speak of a healing by God due to a person’s faith, he’d be called down, even fired. The members are very skittish in talking about experiences with God and the Spirit. Might be “Pentecostal”! And so some stories are never told.
And yet when God heals someone or otherwise answers a prayer, he does it, I believe, in large part so that the story will be told. And when we fail to tell our stories, we treat God’s interventions on our behalves as worthless — in a world that desperately needs a God who lives.
One more point: When leaders need to push for change, they need to do so in light of the nature of our reality. We are relational people affected powerfully by our stories.
First ask what is the story inhabited by the church? Not: what is their position? And not: what is the error in the doctrine that needs to be corrected. What is their story?
It really is more about experience and story than doctrine. Many years ago I could not be persuaded of the advantages of a praise team until I visited the Pepperdine lectureships and worshiped with a praise team. Some things don’t communicate in words.
Just so, I believe much of the distaste we have for instruments comes from not having experienced instrumental worship done well. And there is a lot of instrumental worship done badly. But it’s not hard to find examples of excellent instrumental worship.
And it’s not just instrumental worship. If you want to change someone’s heart about slavery, do what Wilberforce did. Have the members of Parliament visit a slave ship and experience the degradation and stench of true inhumanity.
If you want your church to care for foster children, invite the leaders to visit the orphanages and the shelters.
There’s a place for logic and reason. But we are ultimately creatures made for story — and stories move us and change us.