One of the hats I wear is that of consultant to churches. At times my consulting work takes place when I am the interim minister of a congregation, and sometimes when I am a hired consultant. One of the most useful questions I can ask is this: “Why is it important for this church to exist in this community?” Many times the people in churches have difficulty answering the question in that form. For many, churches simply exist – have for a long time – and “should” just continue to be.
In my opinion, churches that cannot answer this question are often in the process of dying. “Will the last person to leave, please turn out the lights and lock the door.”
A part of my job is to help congregations find healthy and functional answers regarding their purpose. One very fertile area to explore for a potential answer is the present level of anxiety that may exist in the wider community. In many (if not most) parts of the United States, communities today carry prodigious levels of anxiety. Upstate New York is no exception. The anxiety springs out of the many challenges that economic and social changes can engender. Let me give you an example:
A church I served a few years ago as interim minister was situated in a small community with a vibrant history. That community had been supported for many years by a single major industry. (The particular identity of this industry does not matter because stories like this have played out in many forms and with various details throughout the upstate region.) When the industry moved out of town, it not only left a huge economic gap, but it also left a residue of distrust and anxiety. These feelings were expressed in questions like: “Who are we without our industry?” “How will we survive?” “We’ve given heart and soul to ‘them.’ Don’t they care about us?” (And the most painful question of all…) “Weren’t we good enough for them, or was there something wrong with us that caused them not to stay here?” Over time the anxiety spread to the local government, law enforcement, and, of course, to the churches.
Now, we all know that life is fundamentally dangerous and is filled with peril. We also know that we are clever and resourceful, so when we are confronted with clearly identifiable dangers our communities can often respond with creativity and purpose. However, it happens too often that when communities, organizations, or families experience traumatic events, they don’t know how to handle those in a creative way. They try to “put it behind” them and just go on, but the inner experience of violation, vulnerability, and unspecified blame results in free-floating anxiety. It becomes difficult to trust anyone from the outside, but it is just as hard to trust anyone on the inside.
The loss of economic support from the departure of an industry is one kind of trauma, but there are many others, like racism and classism, to give a couple of examples. In response to any trauma at any level (family, organization, or community), anxiety spawns emotional reactivity, that in turn spawns less safety, more anxiety, and even more reactivity. In general terms, smaller units can deal with anxiety more easily than larger ones. In turn, a relatively non-anxious individual can help lower the anxiety of any larger group. (Or a relatively non-anxious smaller group can do it for a larger community.) Many useful books have been written on this topic (See Ronald W. Richardson, or Peter Steinke).
For this post, I am suggesting that one way for a local church (or other community organization) to answer its “purpose question” is to see itself as a potential “non-anxious presence” in its wider community. For Christian churches, we can draw from Jesus’ invitation for us not to be afraid. Our relative lack of fear (and anxiety is a form of fear) can then help us create safe opportunities for people in the wider communities to work through the effects of their collective trauma.
Being a non-anxious presence is not about fixing a community’s problems. Frankly some challenging conditions are not fixable. This approach is more about creating an atmosphere of relative safety that encourages communication, helps build relationships, and promotes community health.
As I see it, we need a lot of that.
What do you think?
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”