Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
We should not be surprised.
In the midst of grief and anxiety, not to mention a life-changing transition, the disciples headed back to a place that felt normal, natural, familiar, and safe. Little did they know what was in store for them. When all else failed, these guys knew how to fish. They had fished for a living for years. Then one day, this Jesus had called them to follow him, and they dropped their nets and left behind the life they had known.
For hours, these dejected former members of a religious movement gone bad—and then strangely good again—cast their nets to no avail. There were no fish to be caught, just more frustration—until, unexpectedly, a familiar voice urged them to fish from the boat’s other side. They listened to that voice and did just what was asked of them. Then, before they knew it, they had caught loads of fish. Their nets filled to the brim, they joined the One whose voice they had trusted, Jesus. Gathered around that small fire on the beach, they shared a meal with him—a meal they would never forget. Once again, nothing was as they thought: It was deeper, richer, and life-changing.
All too often, congregations that find themselves in the in-between time of a transition do exactly what the disciples did: They go back to whatever they were doing before the crisis presented itself. This strategy worked out well for the disciples in this story—but only because Jesus was there waiting for them, offering them one more chance to understand who he was and the new thing he was calling them to do.
Just like the people in our congregations today, the disciples were part of a faith community that existed within a larger culture. As experienced fishermen, they knew how to function in the fishing-based culture that existed around the Sea of Galilee. They knew what to do, how to do it, and what kinds of techniques might catch different fish. But after leaving their nets behind to follow Jesus, they had become part of the unique community of disciples that arose around their Savior. Being with him had affected their particular culture, but now they found themselves living in between.
This thing we call “culture” is the thread, the deep stream, that connects persons within any group, organization, or community. For this purpose, we will focus on the culture created within communities of faith. Every congregation has its own unique culture. It consists of your congregation’s own particular set of behaviors, values, and norms, and it emerges as a group of people work together toward a common purpose over a period of time.
Especially in times of transition, looking at your church through a cultural lens will help you get a grasp on what is really going on within you. You will gain a greater understanding of your congregation as the complex, culture-creating, and culture-bearing groups that it is. From there, you can begin to figure out what decisions and actions will serve your purposes more effectively.
Look around the lake, pond, river, or seaside where you like to fish. What do you see there? Now consider what you see on the “shoreline” of your church as you arrive on any given Sunday. Try to imagine how you would view it as a first-time visitor. What do you see as you wade into the waters of your church? In short, what makes your church different from or the same as other churches around you?
All the little details, along with everything else that could be seen or observed, make up the first level of your church’s culture. It is the level called “artifacts.” This level contains the most obvious and observable details of a culture. However, just because this level of culture is easy to see doesn’t mean it’s always clearly understood. Appearances can be misleading. Artifacts might look the same from one church to the next, but you will soon discover they do not always mean what you might think.
Peering a little more deeply into the water, you will begin to notice some other things beneath the surface. This second level of culture is called “espoused values,” because it is here where we find statements that express the church’s ideals. These statements, which can be spoken or written, offer the church’s explanation for the artifacts we see on the church’s cultural shore. Espoused values are formal positive expressions of a congregation’s beliefs about who they are and what is important.
Espoused values simply tell us what sounds positive—which, in itself, is not bad. Espoused values are like the reflection we can see in the water itself. The image we glimpse there can be helpful in understanding a congregation. But be careful! What you see and hear in a church’s espoused values never provides a complete or fully accurate picture of that congregation or its culture. To get the full picture, we need to look even more closely.
Congregations typically do not pay attention to the whole story of who they are. However, as you learn to take notice of the culture of your church, you will be more prepared for (and less surprised and confounded by) the things that float up on your shore.
You can begin your fishing expedition by asking a few church members a couple of questions about why they prefer this church to other churches. The answers you hear will be espoused values. The words are true to some extent. But the responses to such direct questions tend to represent what the folks you ask want to believe about themselves and their church. Usually, the answers you get are more about sounding good than helping you understand more deeply what is going on. It is not that folks don’t want to tell you the truth; it is much more that what you can discover in the deepest level is not directly on the church’s radar.
Pastors often don’t realize that churches can run into trouble when they pay attention only to espoused values and artifacts. More often than not, what you see is not what you get. Churches say they want pastors to do a certain thing, to take on some pet church project. All too often, the pastor discovers that when she or he does just that, the church’s apple-cart is toppled and chaos begins to take over.
You can learn to anticipate this kind of potential pitfall. Once you begin the process of discovering more about your culture, you learn to appreciate its richness. There is more to what you see on the shore, or even hear spoken aloud, than meets the eye.
As your fishing line begins to drop deeper into the waters, you may sometimes seem to get caught on something. Those things that seem to anchor the pond, lake, or ocean are the “submerged beliefs.” This is the third level of church culture, the place where your congregation’s energy rests. Even though its particular elements have been “down there” for a while, this third level is rarely noticed or acknowledged, so its various elements are seldom, if ever, spoken aloud. Yet, in order for the fish to thrive in this body of water, their life must be supported and nourished by what is deep below the surface.
It is still not common for most people to think about the lives of our faith communities in terms of culture—especially as we dig below the level of things that are observable (artifacts) and desirable (espoused values). Yet benign ignorance will not help your church during its in-between times! There is more energy within your congregation than you realize. Learning how to understand the complex character of this energy is one crucial way to help your church in the long run.
The story of Jesus helping his old friends catch fish offers a charming yet telling image of congregations in transition. When things get difficult, we may be tempted, just as the disciples were, to revert back to what we used to do. It is all too easy to be misled by what appears to be floating on the surface. Artifacts and espoused values never tell the whole story. Your church needs to find a way to “cast its net” to another side of the boat.
If you want to understand your church’s particular culture, you will learn to engage this process of cultural “fishing.” You will want to gather a small, dedicated group of members who are committed to this honest discovery. This group should include longtime members who are “key culture bearers,” as well as some newer, active members too. This fishing expedition takes commitment, hope, and “a sense of urgency.”
The question with which you will want to live is simple: “What will happen to our church if we keep on doing what we have done over and over again?” The time you spend together in this discovery process will affect the road taken during your journey of transition.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr., copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times
by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr.
Every community of faith journeys through periods of transition. In Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times, authors Beverly Thompson and George Thompson invite congregations to open themselves to the grace-filled possibilities that accompany these in-between periods. Drawing on biblical examples and contemporary experience, the authors invite the community of faith to see transitional times as an opportunity to develop deeper spiritual awareness of God’s call on its communal life—a call that open up fresh potential even as it calls us to consider what familiar things may need to change.
Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality, and the Future
by George B. Thompson, Jr.
Many congregations today exist in the “middle of anywhere,” living comfortably with the surrounding culture and focusing their energies on serving the needs of members. These congregations have many strengths and gifts that they can exercise without changing a thing. But Thompson envisions a deeper, more prophetic call for congregations: a church on the “edge of somewhere,” one that is deeply engaged in ministering to the community while calling on others to commit to doing the same.
The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Understanding Church Dynamics
by Israel Galindo
Faced with crisis, lack of direction, or just plain “stuckness,” many congregations and their leaders are content to deal only with surface issues and symptoms—only to discover that the same problems keep recurring, often in different, and more serious, ways. In The Hidden Lives of Congregations, Christian educator and consultant Israel Galindo takes leaders below the surface of congregational life to provide a comprehensive, holistic look at the corporate nature of church relationships and the invisible dynamics at play.
Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit
by Celia Allison Hahn
Parishioners today look to their congregations to feed their spiritual hunger. But many members and clergy are not sure how the words “congregation” and “spirituality” fit together. Author Celia Hahn interviewed 30 lay people and clergy from five Episcopal congregations to discover their stories of congregational spirituality and to help them identify the congregation’s gifts for spiritual development.
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