church baggage sarah keasler
Sarah Keasler

Got Church Baggage? There is Hope.

It’s not always easy being a Christian, especially when the Church can be the best at turning people away from Christ rather than demonstrating the love of Christ.

My Story

My own church baggage began accumulating a long time ago. My parents were founding members of a South Florida church, the denomination of which started in India and was brought to the United States in the 1980s. My parents were a part of every facet – the choir, the Sunday school, the house prayer groups, the governing committees, you name it. I grew up loving these people – they were my family, my life. Everything we did revolved around the church and these people.

Until one day at a youth retreat when Jesus became real. He wasn’t just a building I would attend to have fun with my friends. He wasn’t just a worship song I sang. He wasn’t just a social gathering – Jesus was wooing my heart and inviting me to dive deep and live this Christianity thing out. But what about everyone else I grew up with? Why didn’t my church have this vibrant passion for Jesus and for sharing him with others?

For many years I wrestled with trying to figure out how to bring a real understanding and unique experience of Jesus to what felt like a very antiquated and culturally irrelevant style of worship, especially if we wanted to reach others in our neighborhood. I was caught between this raw experience I had with Jesus that I wanted everyone in the church to experience and fighting an old, culturally dense bureaucratic system of leadership that I felt was tainted with a lot of tradition, power politics, and even racism. It seemed to me that rather than being an authentic people trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit each day, the leadership was trying to stay put where they’d long been.

Red Tape Subdues Jesus Freaks

This is the hang-up for a lot of us cynical, jaded baggage-bearing Christians – we see the systems, the structures, the bow-down-to-the-bishop mentality of denominations and think if it smells like a weird religious country club, and looks like a weird religious country club, it probably is one.

In other words, for those who fall madly in love with Christ, denominations seem to quell the flame.

Denominations tend to engage in politicking, governance, unnecessarily elaborate respect for people (usually men) with titles, and rule creating/abiding, which all feels like wasted time and money to us at the early stages of our faith. We just want to love God and love people well, not be more consumed with what’s going on inside our church walls than with those outside of them.

We want to simplify. In resistance to the complexity and darkness of the structures and systems we see in the world, we do not want a hint of the same to pollute our pure faith. We want to be on mission and live radically. We want to learn what it’s like to listen and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, even when it seems crazy. And we want to do all this without fifteen seemingly arbitrary levels of holiness to get through.

Don’t get me wrong, I understood the reasons to having checks and balances, tradition, structure, organizational hierarchy, norms, governance, and the legitimacy and safety they bring. And I understood the downfalls of purely autonomous churches that lack accountability and history. In both cases, I was suspicious of it all, especially when running the country club seemed to be more important than Jesus.

However, my faith having evolved, I think it’s ironic that after personally rejecting antiquated denominations years ago I am now working for Fresh Expressions US, an organization that helps a variety of denominations learn how to reform by addition. This is what I’d always wanted to do with my church growing up, but I hit a wall and gave up early on.

Don’t Give Up, Be a Change Agent

So if we decide not to give up on our churches, yet change still needs to happen within them, how do we change by addition? Below are four change management concepts that are used in businesses in order to transform cultures from the inside out, that I believe can be applied to the Church context.

1. Focus on the Bright Spots 

Authors Chip and Dan Heath of the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, argue that humans tend to disproportionately focus on problems rather than strengths. They use the example of a child who brings home a report card that has all A’s in every subject but one F in Mathematics. What do you think happens? All of the attention of the parent immediately goes to the F, of course, without any thought for the child’s strengths in her other subjects. We use our power of analysis to focus on what isn’t working rather than what is, not just with our children but also with our churches.

We focus on all the resources and people we don’t have rather than the things we do. We can’t even see the bright spots because we are so bogged down by the dark spots. The Heath brothers implore leaders to find what is working well – by extension, the ‘bright spots’ in your church. For example:

Who are the natural leaders?

Who already regularly find themselves among the unchurched?

Who are the evangelists and teachers among you, even if they have not been formally trained?

What areas of the church and its ministries are working really well?

Analyze the things that are going well, figure out how to scale their impact outside your four walls, then multiply.

2. See, Feel, Believe, Act

Outdated theories regarding change and human behavior are built on the assumption that change happens in three stages: 1. educating people with new information, 2. analyzing the new formation, and 3. a combination of the former stages, which then leads people to change. However, the Heath brothers argue that if you want people to change, you can’t just stop at informing them why they need to change – a 72-slide PowerPoint just won’t cut it. In other words, knowledge isn’t where it stops. If you want long-term change, people need to see the change, feel its impact, believe in its power, and then habitually act out of what they see and feel. How will people see and feel the need for change?

3. Form Tiny Habits

In order to encourage behavior that would lead to seeing, feeling, believing, and acting, leaders must be examples to their congregants by starting with one tiny habit. Pscyhologist B.J. Fogg suggests that in order to create long-term change, you need to progressively build that change into a habit. And in order to build a ‘large’ habit, one must start with a series of ‘small’ habits – it is highly improbable people will change by going from A to Z. Rather, people must take tiny, attainable steps toward the ultimate goal – from A to B, B to C, and so on.

Fogg suggests using the pattern, “After I (insert existing habit), I will (new small habit).” Forming a new habit after an already existing habit helps form larger habits in the long-term. For example, a small habit for a potential leader in your community could be, “After I attend worship on Sundays, I will take 5 minutes to pray at the local park for this neighborhood.” In a few months, the next habit could be, “After I attend worship on Sundays, I will play basketball once a month at the local park to get to know people in this community.”

After you create a habit among those of your community, for instance, you will see the need, feel what God is calling you to, believe in His power to do something through you, and then act on it. But in order to see what God has for you, it requires you to start with one tiny habit– one habit that requires you to step outside of yourself and into the lives of others. When we follow the leading of the Spirit through habitual spiritual exercises, we can begin to truly see and feel the need of the ‘other’ outside the church.

Although the Church has both beauty and brokenness in its past, the entire Church is our history as Christians and our way forward. The Church is God’s Plan A for the world, and there is no plan B. So instead of carrying your baggage with you, lay it at the feet of Jesus and ask him for the strength to be a change agent from within.

 

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Sarah Keasler

Sarah Keasler

Sarah Keasler serves as Coordinator of Operations and Communications with Fresh Expressions. Keasler is a leader in non-profit management, most recently having developed the operations of a city-wide after school program for underprivileged youth in Miami, Florida. Keasler is a graduate of the University of Miami and is pursuing her MBA at Friends University. She is married to Keas Keasler and they live in Wichita, KS.

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