In one of her lectures, Dr. Roberta Hestenes challenged her students “not to witness for Jesus until you are fun to be with.” She got a laugh with that quip, but there is a profound, practical truth for churches at the heart of it. The quality of the experience that members of a church share is the most decisive factor in the mission of a church, and outweighs the combined impact of all the programs, projects, and personal abilities resident within the congregation.
The research backs that up. Nearly 90% of churches with poor climate are experiencing losses in worship attendance and no program of “inviting people to church” will be effective until the climate improves. Whatever their particular theological perspective, the witness of churches to Jesus will be muted until their congregations are communities of purpose, peace, openness, leadership, followship, and joy.
In more liturgical traditions, Lent is a season during which individuals are invited to explore the shadows within their lives that are impeding spiritual progress. As Hal Elrod put it, “Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.” We can expect to hear many challenging sermons addressed to us as individuals inviting us to become more aware of our tendencies to fall short of the abundant life Jesus has promised us.
Organizational intelligence takes the experience of Lent to a whole different level. Instead of focusing on the shadows within individuals, organizational intelligence explores the shadows within congregations as a whole: tendencies to be conflict-prone, inwardly focused, shallow, ritualized, unfocused, rigid, inhospitable, chaotic, and uninspired. Only as these shadows are identified, owned, and addressed can a congregation become what God has called it to be.-
While it may sound strange for an entire congregation to engage in the spiritual work of self-reflection and even repentance, it is actually an old idea. Most of Paul’s letters were addressed to congregations. In the book of Revelation, the Risen Christ addresses congregations as systems, including the church at Laodicea, which suffers from being neither hot nor cold (read “on the fence”). When Jesus says he stands at the door and knocks, it is not into individual hearts that he seeks entrance, but an entire church.
In contrast to the New Testament, most of the church’s liturgy is focused on individuals. Prayers of confession typically address individual failures, not the sins of a congregation as a whole. The Lord’s Prayer is corporate, but most members would be hard pressed to name a corporate trespass of a particular congregation when they say “forgive us our trespasses.” Rarely is the passing of the peace linked to a congregational tendency to duke it out. Creeds are “I” statements. Much of the hymnody is individualistic as well. Amazing grace saves wretches like me, not like us.
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love” hits the mark, as long as it is not sentimentalized and used superficially to distract from the ways that congregations are not loving to one another nor to the stranger who enters their communities. In many
churches, nearly 25% of members indicate they are disturbed by the level of conflict within their congregation. In a world starving for hope, only 17% of members believe they live in faith communities where members are comfortable sharing faith stories. These are not simply the shadows of individuals but entire communities. Churches will not grow and flourish as long as these are unexplored and untouched by the light of God’s grace.
All twelve step programs have, as their fourth step, the exercise of making a fearless moral inventory. In many ways, organizational intelligence is precisely that same exercise engaged at the congregational level. It builds on the previous steps of acknowledging powerlessness, believing in God’s ability to help us, and turning our lives over to God. Congregational sobriety is freedom from the internal demons that unconsciously sabotage its best intentions. Only when it has done that penitential work can it finally get to the twelfth step: carrying its message to others.
– J. Russell Crabtree