Friday, August 14, 2015

Changing Our Questions: A first look at Rendle's Doing the Math of Mission

I just started reading this great book Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Therefore, this blog post is not necessarily a book review, though the reading experience thus far has been highly engaging and enjoyable.

The book is written by Gil Rendle, longtime church consultant with the Alban Institute and now senior consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation (Austin, TX). I read Rendle’s work often, appreciating greatly his work in the books Journey Through the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Abingdon, 2010) and Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders (Alban, 1998—now listed as Rowman & Littlefield, the current publisher of new and backlist Alban related books). 

With such a long career as a minister and church consultant, Rendle offers thoughtful engagements about the issues that frankly bedevil our churches and where our energy for mission gets expended (often in all the wrong places and situations). He suggests that as church structures choose to adapt to a changing context for ministry and mission, leaders and congregants will benefit from changing the questions around and looking for new ways to measure the church’s work.

For example, Rendle suggests when churches learn not to count their numbers (i.e. keeping tabs only on matters of attendance, buildings, cash) at the expense of following their mission, "Conversations are no longer about problem solving, but about possibility hunting” (p. 21).

By this point in reading Rendle’s book, I can appreciate the logic of reframing conversations. So many churches present their worries foremost that they forget to note what God is already doing in their midst. The cycle of woe and lament becomes so deeply embedded that it takes a good deal of time (and detox?) to start thinking clearly about the aims and purposes of ministry and mission.

Rendle suggests a way forward by learning to ask more perceptive questions and measuring/evaluating the outcomes rather than the usual place where churches and leaders tend to dead stop creativity and energy: at the point of wondering, “Do we have enough or can we risk enough?” For example, a food pantry ministry can seem an overwhelming burden on a small congregation, or comments can be made that wonder why we are wasting time on people who won’t become members of the church. Rendle challenges such thinking, asking us to measure more the questions of “how does this pantry help us become better disciples?” or “what would be the impact of closing down the only place in a neighborhood where food can be found when we know so many people without vehicles or accessible public transportation?”

In March 1999, an essay by the Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann appeared in The Christian Century. He challenges his readers to understand the world is in God’s hands. Therefore, any talk of scarcity ought to be understood as a contradiction to the greater truth we hold dear: God provides abundantly. He sees throughout the Scriptures the “myth of scarcity” being confronted by a veritable “liturgy of abundance”. I keep this framework in my mind constantly working with churches that present their woes far quicker than their blessings or as a search committee speaks to the profound sense of lack rather than an overwhelming trust in God’s provision, even at times of change and transition.

Now, I have another wise word to share with churches. When congregations wish to seek the way ahead, they must cultivate spaces and processes where a different sort of question can arise. Indeed, "Conversations [will be] no longer about problem solving, but about possibility hunting”.

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