Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Discerning a Congregation's DNA

It is a time worn adage that it is easier to start a new church than to move an existing church in a new direction. New church starts start out with fairly blank slates. If started by a denominational entity, there will be certain patterns involved, but still there is a lot of freedom to go in new directions. But what about long standing congregations? These are entities that have strong strands of DNA that define who they are and what they are.

While reading Philip Clayton's Transforming Christian Theology, I've also been dabbling in a book by Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr entitled Church Turned Inside Out: A Guide for Designers, Refiners, and Re-Aligners, (Jossey Bass, 2009). This is a Leadership Network book, written by Southern Baptists, so it has a certain perspective built in, but there are intriguing ideas here. And one that caught my attention -- almost in passing is the reality that churches have identity, and we as leaders may be called to do more refining and re-aligning than designing.

So, what is a church's DNA? The church I pastor has certain strands that help define it. Now these may need to be refined and realigned, but they are present in the church's self identity.

So, here are a few strands:

1. Although in the suburbs now, it was born in downtown Detroit and has a certain regional sensibility. That is, it has historically seen its area of ministry being rather broad. We're trying to "refine" this to be more sensitive to the local communities that lie closest to the congregation, but this DNA is important.

2. Music has played an important role in the life of the church -- symbolized by its pipe organ and choir. We are getting a new organ -- a digital organ that will be integrated with some of our existing pipes -- and the choir is growing (without paid section leaders/soloists). Again, music is part of the DNA, but we are refining and realigning, not necessarily designing something new.

3. The life of the mind has long been important. Through its history the church has been served by strong preachers and has had a variety of educational offerings that have stimulated mind as well as heart. This is a reflection not only of the congregation's DNA, but the Disciple tradition's as well.

4. Strong support for denominational outreach. Both through active participation of members and through giving the church has historically given significantly to the regional and general life of the church.

I could go on and name other aspects of the church's DNA, but I think it gets the point made. Churches have identities that define them. The question is: as we move into a new age of ministry, how do we build on this DNA without becoming subservient to it. That is, a church that reached its height of influence in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, can't live in the 1950s. It must adapt and change, but without losing its core identity. More importantly, as we discern a calling to be a missional congregation, we have struggled with aligning this calling with our DNA. There are those who would say that we should essentially let go of that DNA others wish to hold on -- maybe too much.

What I'd like to do here is open a discussion about church DNA -- maybe you have thoughts and ideas about how to design, refine, and realign congregations you'd like to share.


Anonymous said...

Sections of the DNA we inherit can be methylated (stops expression) or demethylated (triggers expression) before it is passed to us by our parents, and even after we are born as a result of environmental factors. It would be pretty hard to start from scratch.


1.2 Embryonic development
1.3 Postnatal development

David Mc

Anonymous said...

Oh, speaking of DNA, this was a great post too-

David Mc

Donna said...

I believe it is indeed vital to discern a church's DNA, but not as an academic study. Christ doesn't do things that way. Is the church relevant to it's surrounding culture? Has urban shift altered the culture, and if so, how can the church reflect that and minister to its surroundings? These questions make the quest worthwhile, and the answers make the difference between just another aging congregation and a vital, significant participant in the greater Body of Christ.