I have been returning to issues of church growth over the last few weeks. There is much to be said about it - and the gods know that there there has been a monumental amount of ink used to discuss it. Many of these books are worthy and deeply thoughtful and many are premised on notions similar to what follows, but there is a core to church growth that, it seems, too often gets lost in the the techniques and the strategies and the programs and the intake process and all the rest of the machinery that supports a growing congregation.
To begin with the exception, it is important to recognize that every once in a great while someone comes into our communities that really shouldn't be there. They present a danger to the safety and well-being of others or they are so deeply mired in their own psychological dysfunction that the community cannot be of help to them without tearing at its own fabric.
That said, these cases are rare. For the most part, the people walking through our doors - whether members or friends or strangers - are "normal". Yet such normalcy masks something far, far deeper. There is profound beauty and grace that exists in each and every person in our midst. And every visitor to our community contains every bit as much of that same grace and beauty. Each person contains complexities beyond wonderment and profound possibilities for connection and contribution within our communities. This goes far beyond our first principle - it is a declaration not only of the inherent worth and dignity of each human being, but of the almost infinite wonder of actuality and potentiality embodied in each person in our midst.
Every person we encounter in our churches has a story filled with remarkable joy and heartbreaking pathos. Every person bears gifts and ideas. Every person has something to offer us. Every person has aching longings and dreams to be fulfilled. Every person is poetry incarnate. Every person wants to contribute and every person wants to exist in a place where they are seen and heard and, most of all, embraced in love.
Every person who walks through the door is far more precious and valuable than any jewel. To the extent there is divinity in this world, that divinity is reflected in the lives of those we rub shoulders with every day in our churches.
Yet our life together seems so profoundly ordinary. We have committee meetings, we squabble over this or that, we fret about the success of our stewardship campaigns or what someone in the congregation did or said.
It is easily to loose sight of the very big picture. It is easy to loose sight of the poetry and grace and compassion and spaciousness that allow our communities to grow and prosper. And the remedy is so simple. It is to simply listen. To listen with heart. To listen with compassion.
People long to be heard and when they feel heard, they connect and when they connect they contribute of themselves.
We spend so much time on the surface of issues and not enough time simply listening. If that listening starts within our communities and we become centers where people are heard and supported and encouraged to grow and change, our communities will grow. In a culture of profound alienation, what people most want is connection. They want to be seen and heard and understood. They want someone to understand what they bring to the community - both in their neediness but also, and more importantly, in their fullness. They want someone who recognizes their gifts and values them. They want people who will listen to their ideas and most importantly feel that the person behind the ideas was seen and heard and honored.
If our communities become centers of deep compassion, and profoundly compassionate listening, we will not be able to build churches fast enough.