The Chicken and the Egg: Part 6, Some Helpful Advice for Churches

When I wrote this series (three months ago) it ended yesterday. Originally, I simply described the spiritual formation problem I call the "chicken and the egg" and shared four examples of the problem I've encountered in working with churches. 

But now that the series has appeared I have wondered about if I should say something about how a church might tackle these sorts of problems. What do you think? End with something helpful? I agree! So, a final solution-focused post.

To start, let's be clear that there is no solution. Quality spiritual formation in churches is like searching for the Holy Grail. This is the number one problem faced by churches and we're all chasing after answers. So many books, seminary classes, and church meetings have been devoted to the issue of spiritual formation it boggles the imagination. How can we reliably and effectively form our members into mature followers of Jesus? Goodness, if I had the answer to that question I'd be a whole lot more famous and well-known than I am now. But there is no silver bullet here. We just have to keep working the problem of spiritual formation in our faith communities doggedly, faithfully, hopefully, joyfully and contextually. 

That said, how can we approach chicken and egg problems, where lacking certain virtues cause us to avoid or resist virtue-formation practices? Here are five recommendations.

First, narrate what is happening in the church. Pastors do not possess the power of spiritual formation, but they do possess the power of narration. Pastors cannot talk people into becoming wise, faithful and loving followers of Jesus. But pastors can stand at the microphone and explain what the hell is going on. And yet, to my constant astonishment, pastors routinely fail to exercise this, the only real power they have. Pastors tend to speak generically, abstractly, and Biblically about topics and issues. They rarely speak concretely and specifically about what is going on in the pews, relationally, attitudinally, and emotionally.

In psychotherapy there is a technique called "immediacy." In a counseling session a therapist uses immediacy to "focus attention on the here and now relationship of counsellor and client with helpful timing, in order to challenge defensiveness and/or heighten awareness." Let's say in the therapy session you notice the client getting defensive. Using immediacy the therapist might say, "I noticed your voice raising a bit when you said that." You draw attention to the somatic symptoms of anger or anxiety as they are happening in real time. 

This is what I'm suggesting pastors do at the microphone. Use immediacy to help narrate what is happening when you face chicken and egg problems. Consider my examples about conversations regarding race, welcoming difference, or sharing the stage with the less gifted. As people get angry, anxious or bored in these experiences draw attention to those feelings (immediacy) and help narrate the church through those experiences. Pastors, you have a single superpower--narration--use it.

Second, use the community to help each other take the next steps. Spiritual formation is often thrust upon individuals. Taking collective steps, together, can help with this. Consider Sabbath. Asking the members of the church to individually take up Sabbath practices will be uneven. Having the entire church take on Sabbath challenges helps with this. We're all in this together. And pastors, make sure you devote time to tell the story of the challenge. Remember: You have no power over formation, but all the power of narration. So tell the stories as the church moves through a formational practice. Tell the stories of consolation and desolation. Get a panel of members on the stage and let the church talk to each other. 

Third, borrowing from Mark Scandrette, think about spiritual formation experiments rather than big ministry initiatives. Targeted, short term, experiential challenges, for the entire church or a small group within the church. Do you want people to get off their iPhones more? Have everyone leave them at home once a month before coming to church. Get creative and have fun. Chip away at those chicken and egg problems. And pastors, don't forget to narrate!

Fourth, come at things sideways. Making a church sit down to "have a conversation about race" might be too much given how polarized our world is right now. But what about taking a Civil Rights history tour or pilgrimage? Or gathering to watch a documentary or movie? People's opinions change because of experiences. No one enjoys moralized finger-wagging. Trying to get people to self-identify as "fragile," for example, is both stupid and ineffective. Instead, try to curate experiences that will affect how people see the world.

Lastly, use micro-habits to bootstrap your way forward. When we face chicken and egg problems we need to do some bootstrapping, pulling a little here and then a little there. Small movements, back and forth. Psychologists call these small movements micro-habits. The best-selling book Atomic Habits is a popular introduction to the idea. You want to develop a running habit, so you start by putting your running shoes out before you go to bed. You want to spend less time on your phone so you don't charge it overnight in your bedroom. Little actions help you bootstrap your way into bigger and bigger changes. Think about moving your church forward with micro-habits. What small things can you do that will accumulate over time? Don't crash into your church, nudge it forward. 

The last thing I'd say, as the author of Hunting Magic Eels, is pray. Don't make spiritual formation a godless, disenchanted bit of behavioral technology. Pray. Pray that the power that raised Jesus from the dead will be at work in your life and the life of your church. And if you struggle with prayer, put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself. It's a helpful little micro-habit...

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