“But I’m so busy,” the church member says. “I can’t possibly ________.” Fill in the blank here: chaperone the youth trip, teach Sunday School, serve on that committee, whatever.
And that shouldn’t come as a big surprise to church leaders. Churches in America seem to be filled to the steeples with to-do lists.
A recent Google search of the phrase “church growth” turns up hundreds of things for churches to do in an effort to attract the elusive new demographic: spruce up your website, create small groups, find your niche, map out a plan, serve better coffee.
Those may all be good things, but they make me tired. And they add to the to-do lists that seem to be swamping many people.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve served two very different churches in two different parts of the country, one in Austin, Texas, and the other in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Both congregations had plenty of people scurrying to check off items from growing to-do lists: bake a casserole for a sick neighbor, drive the soccer carpool, attend a committee meeting, volunteer at the hospital.
Both churches sometimes fell into the trap of checking off items on institutional to-do lists: re-think the newsletter, paint the restrooms, explore new curriculum.
(And I’m guilty myself. I love making a list and checking off my accomplishments: write this column, shovel the snow, tweet something clever.)
Both of the churches I’ve served have been anomalies of sorts. They’re both liberal churches associated with progressive mainline Protestant denominations. Both value fairly traditional worship (hymnals, robes, no screens, no praise choruses). And both churches are thriving, vibrant, growing congregations.
I don’t think either church is growing because the congregations are following prescribed to-do lists. In fact, both churches do things very differently, sometimes blatantly violating suggestions from church growth experts.
Rather than doing certain things, both churches have cultivated ways of being that generate health and growth. The churches have different geography and demography, but both have three guiding characteristics of being: be kind, be honest, be inclusive.
Being kind sounds so simple. The Franciscan contemplative-activist Richard Rohr said that Christians want to dismiss kindness as lightweight theology until we realize that the central command from Jesus was, “Love one another.”
Being kind has some to-do aspects. Having clearly marked signs to the restroom, for instance, is an act of kindness. It lets guests know where their toddlers can go potty. Including all of the words to the Prayer of Our Savior is kind to first-time worshipers. It lets them know how to fully take part. I visited a church once that said in the bulletin, “Lord’s Prayer (using ‘trespasses’).” I almost laughed out loud trying to imagine what someone who had never been to church before would think about that.
But being kind is not just about doing certain things. It’s about being a certain way. Putting up directions to the restroom and including information may sound like things on the to-do list, but remembering to do them, always doing them—making the do-list second nature—is about cultivating a spirit of kindness, a way of being.
Honesty follows not far behind kindness. Being honest requires us to admit our shortcomings. An honest church means we admit that everybody makes mistakes—sometimes over and over again. An honest church doesn’t trick people into thinking that imperfect people are welcome, only to attempt changing them once the doors close. An honest church lives with the mess of imperfections.
When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he included a sweeping statement: “All have sinned.” That’s my favorite line in the Bible. Sure, it could be debilitating if that’s all we read. But it’s really very liberating. It frees us from the pretense of perfection. It’s also equalizing—everybody messes up.
Which brings me to the third aspect of healthy churches: inclusivity. Healthy churches welcome everybody.
I’m fortunate. The two churches I’ve served both fall in the non-creedal Protestant tradition. Neither struggles with making sure everybody believes the same thing. Instead, both churches live with covenants that say we will learn and grow together, despite our differences.
My current church’s covenant is wordy on this issue. It says, “Our fellowship shall not be dependent upon identity of theological opinion, or of outward circumstance, or of denominational name.” My previous congregation’s covenant was more succinct on the matter: “We shall encourage diversity of opinion.”
That sense of inclusive covenant calls us beyond dividing lines like skin color, age, number of tattoos, sexual orientation, mental health issues, religious background. None of these things should be barriers.
We are who we are.
When Moses encountered God in the wilderness and asked the Holy One for a little ID, God replied, “I am who I am.” Other translations have tried to reconfigure the verb “to be.” “I am being that which I am being,” or “I am amming who I am amming.” None of that makes much sense in English. It really doesn’t make much sense to busy, list-checking church folks who are known by their doing, not their being. The long and the short of this burning bush revelation from God is that God is about “being,” not so much about “doing.” To understand ourselves more fully as made in God’s image means to understand ourselves as be-ers and not so much as doers.
If we could put down our to-do lists and sort out our to-be lists, three things should be at the top: be kind, be honest, be inclusive.