By Tom Ehrich
There was a time when passivity worked for churches.
Moravian settlements of the 18th Century, for example, had one of each trade – one smith, one candlemaker, one bootmaker, one butcher, and so on — as well as one church.
No competition, no need to market one’s services, no business expansion plans, no doubt about who did what. It was a simple life centered around work done in community and a church whose bell drew everyone to chapel.
When I first visited Bethabara, North Carolina, now a living museum, I tried to imagine its ethos of cooperation and mutual dependency and a spiritual life grounded in certainty of place and prospect, one set of approved beliefs and practices, and required attendance.
It was charming, but clearly a museum. For in our modern world, industrialization, commerce, free-market capitalism, travel, urbanization and rising aspirations long ago changed everything.
Nowadays, passivity is a recipe for failure. Whatever your line of work, you can’t just open a door and wait for business to come in. You can’t just wait for an employer to find you, or a publisher to ask for your manuscript, or the telephone to ring. Nor can you expect consensus on anything, not even on beliefs.
How, then, do churches move beyond the passivity that is deeply ingrained in our religious practices? How do we win the victory over what management consultant Seth Godin calls the “tyranny of being picked.” (His answer: “No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.”)
Here are four critical ways to go from passive to active:
Recruit new constituents
Don’t just wait for them to show up. Use every tool available, from signage to social media, to establish your brand and your presence, and then “drive” people in your door. Get aggressive about invitations. Give people good reasons to come to you. Demonstrate benefits. Be strategic about pursuing age cohorts and intentional diversity. Then follow up aggressively when prospects do come.
Recruit the right leaders
Don’t just ask for volunteers. Recruit people who can do the job. Train them to do the work the way you want it done. Say a loving but firm No to inappropriate candidates for leadership. Give leaders a stake in a constantly rising level of leadership performance.
When hiring clergy, don’t wait for the judicatory executive to send you someone. Task your outgoing clergy with recruiting a promising successor. When raising up candidates for ordination, seek out the best possible candidates. Don’t wait for people to present themselves.
Develop a clear path for transformation of life, and make it normative for all constituents to be on it. You will always have placeholders and half-hearted pew-sitters, but set a higher standard as your community norm. Act on it in stewardship: stop waffling about the tithe. “It’s the Law!” Act on it in mission work, small-group participation, community life. No more apologies for meddling. It’s your job to meddle.
Risk courageously and fail gloriously
A culture that avoids risk and punishes failure will die. Instead, imagine possibilities, test them out, learn from the duds, and plow more resources into the hits. People will imagine amazing things if you give them permission to imagine.
Passivity feels safe, it might even feel holy. But God expects more. Jesus, after all, set his own course, chose his own leaders, went where he wanted to go, shunned all shoulds, and kept the initiative. Even when he submitted, it wasn’t in wan defeat, it was in bold obedience and active pursuit.