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Friday, July 27, 2012

imagine/Northampton is Planted, (Check); Now What's Next?

Lately, I've been wrestling with a different set of issues from the ones I wrestled with in planting imagine/Northampton. We've been in Northampton for 4 years now. The Eagle has landed so to speak. I don't talk about planting imagine/Northampton anymore. It's planted.

The questions I'm asking and the concerns I'm working on are different now. When imagine became more than a "What if we could . . .?", or "Is God calling us to . . .?" idea, the questions were:

Where do we begin? Who do we need to learn from?

How do you actually do this?

What will it look like?

What will each of our roles be?

What will imagine's culture look like?

What are our core values?

Can we pay for and sustain the planting?

How will all the critical pieces take shape?

Those first days, weeks and months were a heady, exciting period. We weren't experts at this. We were older, and all sorts of challenges lie ahead with no assurance beyond faith we could pull off any of it. We were starting from scratch. Nothing existed, but a longing, and a compelling idea.

But today, I think there are different questions to answer and challenges to meet. For me, the most crucial  has become centered around how do you deepen and ignite a movement, rather than maintain an organization or build an institution? The "danger" I see at this point in our young life as a church is settling into equilibrium. It happens subtly, almost imperceptibly for many. We have an established identity and church culture with "rituals" (albeit simple), core beliefs, structures (also simple), and commonly held ways of relating. Imagine/Northampton looks and acts a certain way. The problem arises when who we are and how we relate internally becomes our raison d' etre. We settle for the groove we've gradually created.

Before I go further, let me explain what I mean by "equilibrium" related to church. In general, I mean a church's central focus slowly settles into how to sustain internal relationships, values, systems, protocols, programs and cultures. To that end, we ask questions such as:

How can we make our Sunday Service better, more inviting and relevant to our people.

How can we make our building better meet our needs?

Where can we rev up Children's Ministry or revitalize our Men's Ministry?

How come we don't have a Healing Prayer Ministry?

When can we do something about the Nursery to make it more inviting?

How can we ramp up giving?

How can we get a tighter hold on the budget?

We need more small groups and small group curricula. Who can we get to make that happen?

The Worship Team sounds a little tired. How can we get them to kick it up a notch?

How can we get more volunteers, produce better outreach events, offer more Bible study, entice greater attendance on Sunday and on and on?

Equilibrium is the church sinking gradually into managing and maintaining itself. The focus is us, becoming an end in itself. We manage or improve what we have and what we've become. What's wrong with that?

Now don't misunderstand me. Any of those questions can be important to consider from time to time, especially within a larger Kingdom context. I know people need to be healed, taught, cared for, and involved.there are plenty of practical "management issues to address in the on-going life of a church community. Internal matters need attention, but only in light of keeping our forward movement vibrant for what God calls us to in his mission.

So for the last few months, I've been growing unsettled, out of sorts spiritually and motivationally; something seemed consistently out of kilter. The feeling was/is disorienting, as if I'm in one of those liminal states again where I've passed through a stage of my particular journey to a place of unformed potential needing shaping. I didn't like where I was. Adding to the dissonance has been the niggling sense that what I seek lies just out of reach. True, but the feeling won't stop pestering me. 

Recently, however, very different questions have surfaced in my head; they all gather around our stated vision:

Building Kingdom-focused communities which creatively engage the culture to help 
people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine.

In an earlier blog I detailled imagine/Northampton's vision:

Hence, the new questions center on the words: building, Kingdom focused, and creatively engage. For instance:

Are we really building (developing) a Kingdom-focused communitas where the Missio Dei has become compelling in us all? If so, how? How does that "compelling" play out in our daily lives? What do we need to do better? Where are we mis-aligned with it, and thinking we aren't? Where are we treading water, but feel like we're moving forward? Where are we resisting?

Are we creatively engaging the culture or do we just talk about  it as if we are? In actuality, does it really matter to us - to what degree or in what way? What do we need to change or dismantle to get to really serving the creative community in Northampton? Can we innovate or engage creatively; is it even in us?

Where might we be slipping slowly into being church with a few quirky community habits expressed in worship, or how we do groups, or the language we use? One person said in response to my question about how Sunday worship was at imagine by using the word "routine." Yikes!!! I don't like the sound of that, but might we be drifting into the well-worn "rut of the gradual familiar?" Most churches do. Then, the creatives and innovators who might be attending end up having little or no influence in the church culture. Losing their out-of-the-box voices heightens the inevitability of equilibrium - a kiss of death in my mind.

How common is it for we imagineurians to work hard at helping people discover and follow the God who is far more than they imagine? Where are the stories we are telling each other about what God did in so-and-so's life because we helped her discover him? There have been a few, but would a guest get the sense by being in our midst that helping people this way is truly at the core of our DNA because of the stories we tell each other when we gather, and the evidence of new life?

So it seems to me that if we're going to do what our vision says we're about, one of the ways we need to go about it is by beginning taking seriously the call to replicate who we are, i.e., begin laying the groundwork for planting other imagine churches, whether they begin in homes and neighborhoods, adjacent towns on Main Street, or cities in New England and beyond. I suspect such a notion probably feels grandiose, but is it really in light of the Scriptures and how the first Christians set the example of, at great cost and risk, going out into the world to make disciples and teach them what Jesus commands all his followers to be and do? Are we exempt from this call? These folks were not professionals, yet they changed the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit, because they, by vigorous faith,  followed the living Christ in his redemptive mission. They saw it as a mandate, privilege and duty--the normal Christian way of life.

We certainly have had our share of trials and troubles here in Northampton, and we don't have a lock on how to do this thing (it often seems more like one step forward and two steps back many times), but we're planted, and there is a small group of gifted, wonderful people gathered in this church. 

Potential abounds. Yet it needs to be focused, vivified, and set free as a vibrant culture of collaborators with one heart and mind centered on God's glory, the furthering of his ways, and freeing blind captives wandering about. We look to make it happen, and will be spending time and energy doing so in the days ahead.

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