My church is tired! How do we overcome missional paralysis?

July 1st, 2020

“So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.” - Hebrews 12:1-2 CEB

Churches across the country have been doing amazing work during this incredible time of disorientation. Yet it seems as the pandemic rages on, much of the energy and creativity is beginning to dissipate. How are some churches continuing to innovate and thrive, while others seem to be stuck? 

Some pervading sentiments throughout the country are the grief, content overload, pressure from congregants, no easy answers, exhaustion and screen fatigue. I led a webinar last week titled “How Tired Churches Can Re-engage for Mission While the Pandemic Continues.” Over 400 people registered, and each person represented hundreds more in their faith communities who resonated with the word “tired.” [1]

With the spiking of the virus, and loss of a clear plan, many of us have fallen into a state of “missional paralysis.” Missional: Missional is derived from the term Missio Dei (Latin for mission of God). In the basic sense, missio means “sent” and comprehends mission as a primary attribute of God. Paralysis: the loss of the ability to move (and sometimes to feel anything) in part or most of the body.

Recently I have found encouragement in Hebrew 12:1-2. To know we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” and that times of great challenge and cross-carrying are not unfamiliar to Christians across the ages. But most importantly, the instruction to "fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter." (italics mine)

Hebrews 12:2 identifies Jesus as the ἀρχηγός (pronounced är-khā-gos), which means “pioneer” or “author” (and conversely, my personal favorite “instigator”). This term is the closest we get in Koiné Greek to “innovator” or “entrepreneur.”

We follow in the slipstream of a Jesus who is always out ahead of us, making all things new, and innovating a new reality, “the kingdom” that is breaking into the world. As the church we are called to join Jesus in this activity. 

None of us have ever lived through a pandemic like this before. My state, Florida, has become an epicenter of the virus, just when many of us were making plans to return to in-person worship. Additionally, we are experiencing a time of massive social upheaval, as the evil of racist policy is being confronted. 

Needless to say, life in the local church is challenging these days! Every congregation, in their own way, has been learning, adapting, and finding new ways to be the church.

I wanted to share five key learnings from leaders across the country that may be helpful to overcome missional paralysis

1. The health of our congregants is the top priority. The virus is very real, and it is deadly. The grief and loss is also very real. “Loving our neighbor” and the well-being of our parishioners should be our top priority, everything else is secondary. The church needs healers right now, and we need to be innovative in how we do that work. 

2. Self-care. Are we taking time to encounter the risen Jesus daily? Are we spending time in prayer, meditation and searching the Scriptures? Are we going outside on a scavenger hunt for beauty, goodness and truth? Are we eating well, exercising our bodies, finding a way to stink and sweat every day? Are we taking time for Sabbath, family, play and fun?

3. Grow the center, experiment on the edge. In this time of liminality, we have to manage the tension of caring for what is, while creating what will be. I used to talk about sustaining the inherited church, while planting fresh expressions in the community. Now we have had to redefine the center and create new ways to care for our people. In addition to cultivating new digital, smaller, and hybrid forms of church. [3] Perhaps you will find this axis helpful as you think about this work, every church will need to be engaged in mission in each quadrant on this new missional frontier.

4. To default or pivot? That is the question. This is no time for technical problems with technical solutions. One way to grasp this, is to understand the difference between “kind learning environments” where patterns repeat consistently, feedback is accurate and rapid. And, “wicked learning environments” which may not include repetitive patterns, the rules of the game are unclear, status quo changes, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

Wicked learning environments thrust us into an adaptive challenge. It’s like people who have lived in a jungle our whole lives, now learning to live in a dessert. It’s a totally new ecosystem. We all operate from a particular “mental model” deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.

These mental models determine not only how we make sense of our environments, how we see, but also shape how we act. Some of the best ideas fail, brilliant strategies never get translated into action, because they conflict with these deeply held mental models. In the disorientation, we either “default” or “pivot,” defaulting back to old mental models or staying with the disorientation and see what new things we can create. 

I know this is not right for everyone, but at Wildwood we decided not to return to in-person worship until even the most vulnerable among us can do so safely. We are not “closed” we are just finding new and creative ways to worship, care for isolated persons, continue our food pantry/recovery ministries/ in-house rehab, add new members, and plant digital fresh expressions. For us, the availability of a vaccine will be our cue to return to in-facility worship. Taking the long view like this, and committing to pivot, has released us to be more creative.

5. Discern actionable dimensions and prototype forward. Adaptive challenges have “wicked problems.” A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize (wicked as in resistant to resolution, not necessarily “evil.”)

In wicked learning environments, unlearning is usually the first move. Unlearning refers to cleansing the gates of perception, to consciously choose to give up, abandon, or stop using knowledge, values, or behaviors to acquire new ones — in the organizational sense—a process of clearing out old routines and beliefs that no longer meet current challenges. [3]

Effectiveness cannot be replicated in another context without adaptation to the context. Every success must be achieved, every game won, on its own terms and in its own context/time. Missional vitality requires unlearning what we think we know and learning the immediate context with fresh ears and eyes. COVID-19 has placed every church in a new context.

In an adaptive challenge the “problem” is usually not the problem. The first solution is usually not the right solution. Usually we think there is one big solution to solve the problem. Actually, there are multiple problems, many layers of complexity, and multiple ways to solve them. We can start by defining multiple possible problems. Then we decide which one of those problems is actionable. Then we dream up prototypes to move forward. 

It’s not that we need to figure out the best possible plan, and then execute it. We generate iterative experiments to prototype our way forward to multiple possibilities. Let’s say a congregation is in decline during the pandemic and receiving new clergy. A wicked problem if there ever was one!

Think of this process as having three phases: 

I. Reframe the challenge. We might diagram as many aspects of the problem we are aware of.

Then we rate some of these dimensions using the following grid:

II. Determine an actionable item. We determine what is in the “important and urgent” category.
We choose a single dimension that is actionable.

We map out the obvious factors of the actionable dimension.

III. Mind map potential ideas we can prototype. Finally, we determine possible solutions to the single actionable problem, and we decide where to start and what to prototype.

Teams can employ this process to discern their own actionable problems and envision possible solutions. Then prototype the new things that may move us forward. For instance, in the above scenario, we chose to have a weekly Zoom meeting with the core leadership group of the new congregation. This can release a tired church from missional paralysis, by simply taking the next step through the current disorientation. Each small step we take, opens new possibilities.

I hope these thoughts will spark some ideas appropriate for your own context. Remember, we are following the great “pioneer” through a challenging but rewarding journey of innovating a new future together!

[2] For more see, Michael A. Beck, with Jorge Acevedo, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020).
[3] Sweet, Leonard and Michael Beck, Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines (in press, September 2020).

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