I heard of a brilliant idea that never quite got off the ground. I offer it up to you. Try it and report back.
One of the congregations in the Pacific NW had an Adult Religious Education chair and a Membership chair who worked closely together. Their congregation was a mid-sized religious community with a fairly evenly stratified grouping of older members, middler members, and newer members (with regards as to when they joined the community.)
This congregation was also starting to feel the all-too-familiar rumblings of a pastoral-size congregation trying to break through to a program-size congregation. Newer members couldn’t figure out how to get a foot in the leadership door. Older members were tightening the reigns as they become more and more anonymous to the new members. And the middler members were the ones doing all the work and burning out.
The Adult RE chair and the Membership chair sat down with the membership book and divided the congregation into three groups according to when they officially became members. From these three groups they made smaller groups. In each of these smaller groups were a family unit of olders, a family unit of middlers, and a family unit of newer members.
These chairs contacted the social butterflies within the smaller groups and asked them to invite the others over for coffee and dessert. The only agenda for the meeting? To explore the following questions and see what happened:
- What brought you to <insert congregation here>?
- What keeps you?
- What are your wishes for this religious community?
The experiment didn’t make it past a season. But what they found in this one round was that the newer members starting taking more leadership off the shoulders of the middlings. And the older members got to share the stories and history. The middlings and newers gleaned the larger context. The community was noticeably transformed by this small, but organizing-intensive experiment. I asked these two chairs why they only did it a season and they quickly replied that it was just a heck of a lot of work.
Keeping that in mind I did a modified version of this experiment at one of our smaller congregations. In the middle of a worship service, I had the entire congregation stand up and put themselves on an imaginary chronological line according to when they joined their congregation. From this long line, I divided them up into three lines standing shoulder to shoulder. They reached out and grabbed the hand of the people next to them and then paired off in groups of three. I invited them to explore those three magic questions. The place was buzzing with energy and stories. Their notorious curmudgeon came to me after worship and said it was the most fun he’s ever had at worship.
It also occurs to me that this way of choosing members just might work for small group ministry… Try your own version in your own religious community and report back…
Religious Education happens when we are woven in to all the diverse perspectives, contexts, stories, and gifts of religious community. Woven into that fabric we become larger and more powerful than just our self.