The weather during July in San Francisco is best described by a quote mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Tourists clad in t-shirts and shorts shivering in the summer fog that blankets the city are proof of this adage.
But while San Francisco summer days are typically quite cool, it can be in the mid-90’s across the bay in Oakland the same day. The temperature differences are often so drastic that you need to take a change of clothes when you travel from one side of the Bay Bridge to the other.
The Bay Area, in fact, has hundreds of identified microclimates. Temperature, soil type, and cloud cover all vary depending upon how far you are from the water, how high you are up the hills surrounding the bay, and how close you are to the bay’s north or south end. A shrub that gloriously blossoms in one neighborhood can’t survive only a few blocks away.
When we lived in Oakland, it didn’t take us long to figure out that “fall” didn’t arrive on a single day throughout the Bay Area. Its onset depended on where you lived. We would track its arrival by driving a little higher up into the East Bay hills each week. One week, a particular corner would feature a liquid amber’s fiery foliage. The next week, we’d have to drive another couple of blocks up the hill to see a similar display. It took several weeks for fall to get all the way from the shoreline up to the top of the East Bay hills.
What plants would grow, what watering schedule you needed to set up, when you pulled your rake out of the shed all depended on the particular microclimate outside your home’s front doorstep.
The same is true of churches. No two churches are exactly alike or inhabit the same ecological niche for ministry. Every congregation, as Alban founder Loren Mead pointed out, steps into a unique missional context as soon as it walks out its front door. Innovations that blossom gloriously in this congregation quickly shrivel in that one. Postmodernity doesn’t arrive at every church’s door on the same day.
This is why pastors can attend an exciting conference, return with boatloads of ideas, and then don’t understand why none of them takes root. I am particularly saddened when leaders of a small to medium county-seat congregation adopt a program from the hugely successful mega-church in a nearby city and then can’t figure out why it falls flat. Every congregation inhabits its own microclimate: spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and structurally. To ignore this truth almost always invites discouragement.
This is the reason cookie-cutter approaches to strategic planning often have – as their sole lasting outcome – a binder collecting dust on a pastor’s bookshelf. They don’t attend to a congregation’s particularities. They don’t take the time to learn the church’s particular DNA sequence. Based on a generic model of congregational life, they try to squeeze the church’s unique ministry into their pre-formed mold … like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
We take a different approach to working with congregations at the Center for Healthy Churches. Like good gardeners, we try to learn as much as we can about the microclimate in which the Holy Spirit has set a community of believers. We assess the spiritual soil in which they have been rooted and attend to their particular stresses (and dreams). We think about whether they are growing in the sunlight or the shade of the community they seek to serve. We listen to how it really is in their life, rather than telling them how life in the 21st century church ought to be.
Especially in this era of adaptive change, when the “tweaks” churches formerly gave their ministries to reinvigorate themselves no longer work, we look and listen for the new, exciting ways the Spirit is bubbling up from below in the congregation’s life. Truly useful innovations will not be handed to congregations from on high but will emerge out of their shared life, especially when they open themselves to guidance from the Holy Spirit.
We trust the biblical witness that God never calls a congregation into a mission without also giving it everything it needs to accomplish that mission. We trust that all the wisdom that a congregation needs to discern its future already exists within the community itself, as it opens itself to the Spirit. Rather than telling churches what to do, we seek to serve as midwives of the Spirit in an open-ended, often surprising journey of discovering that “new thing” into which God is leading them. We would love the opportunity to accompany you on that journey, as well.
Jim Kitchens is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute.