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The Importance of Narrative

My recent blog entitled “Struggling with Appointments” has sparked an unusually high degree of interest and response.  Overwhelmingly clergy have noted the dilemma of some members wanting no change while at the same time expecting to reach a new generation.  This often puts clergy and proactive lay leadership in a significant dilemma.  Furthermore, a number have lifted up the struggle between raising the metrics of vitality and dealing with congregational resistance to the necessary change needed to engage the mission field (and thus raise the metrics).  Taken together it can feel like a Kobayashi Maru (the Star Trek no win scenario). Both I and the Cabinet have repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing the narrative.  Narrative is the story, the background information, which helps understand what is taking place.  Often (usually!) the narrative changes before the metrics.  What does this look like?  A pastor and congregation(s) start discovering and sharing with each other stories of significant mission impact in their life together (i.e. “remember when we were helping that homeless family find a meal” or “it was moving to hear Jimmy talk about the difference that following Christ has made in his life” etc.).  One of the keys to understanding narrative is that it is a specific story.  Narrative is not a vague assertion.  It tells a tale of God in action in the life and ministry of a congregation and individuals.  In our use of the vitality metrics, we (Bishop and Cabinet) have left a large place for the narrative story to be shared.  It is critical piece of learning for us as a Cabinet, for pastors, and for lay members of a congregation!  Narrative begs to be shared! On the flip side, a small (actually very small but quite strident!) handful of responses came from people (all self-identified as lay) who felt the blog somehow dismissed older adults and endorsed “bands” (meaning contemporary Christian music over against classical hymns).  Such is not the case!  I am an older adult and am married to a recent retiree. I was very careful in the blog to assert that our ministry needs to be a both/and!  It is worth repeating what I wrote about the need to continue a strong and effective ministry to existing members and older adults while effectively reaching out to a new generation:  An effective pastor must minister sensitively to this loss all the while leading into a new future.  It is not an easy balance.  Congregations that refuse to embrace change are choosing to die.  Simultaneously, pastors that charge ahead without compassionately facing grief are doomed to failure.  It is worth noting that the Vital Congregations research (which I shared in every district in 2010) overwhelmingly notes a connection between church missional health/vitality and having multiple styles of worship. These are exciting times to be in ministry together.  They challenge us to a deeper faithfulness and a wider outreach with the love of Christ.  Sunday I headed to Nashville for a meeting on the Focus Area “New Places for New People.”  Called Path One, we are working on our national strategy for new church development and especially on reaching “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.”  And yes, this work doesn’t ignore reaching older adults; all are embraced in this great ministry of sharing the gospel.