There’s a deeper story than the ones we tell ourselves, but that story often stays hidden. Bishop Porter Taylor once said at a clergy retreat that as leaders we really have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing in our churches. If it’s of God, then it will unfold in mystery and a bit outside the light. Yet we speak as if we know exactly what’s going on beneath the topsoil.
Many of the stories we tell favor the thematic ruts of church growth and decline. Those are patterns are important but the story itself becomes addictive. A church is an incredibly complex organism, yet we struggle to find vocabulary beyond big or small, conservative or progressive, healthy or stuck, so those become the plumb-lines against which we measure ourselves…and the enclosures into which we settle.
If our church happens to be growing, we paw at that story like it’s catnip. We can’t put it down: we market it, we put in on a resume and we set our hopes and dreams upon it. We bust it out at clergy conferences and flash it on Instagram. This kind of storytelling has its place, but too much isn’t good for our souls. We get hooked on it. It’s a fine line, the one between marketing and ego.
But when our church is struggling we get stuck in the underbelly of the same story. Somehow the bitter herb is just as addictive. The stories we tell about growth and decline are often more about being enmeshed with the culture than about being authentic communities.
Yet when we listen for deeper stories – the ones that reveal themselves in contours and shadows but never quite in linear fashion – we might not quite see the Spirit work with perfect clarity but at least we get to put the meta-story down and take a breather. In that moment of exhale, can we catch a glimpse of the Holy?
Bishop Taylor’s words from a few years back have stayed with me. We have no idea what the Holy Spirit is doing. A church isn’t one story; it’s many hundreds or even thousands of stories that could never be captured with a simple metric or even an overarching story line.
What’s your real story? Perhaps if you can look past the noise of the present church anxiety, you might catch a restorative glimpse of the Holy Spirit, doing her thing, not thinking about church metrics and not caring overmuch, either.