On Friday morning I went down to the basement to change out the dryer vent (which makes me sound way handier than I actually am). When I stepped into the area of the basement where the dryer vent is located, I splashed. Actually, the half inch of water that was standing on the floor splashed.
Our basement is three-quarters finished, while the other quarter is storage. My mother-in-law lives in the three quarters, and part of my library, our Christmas decorations, the kids baby clothes, and other junk lives in the one quarter. Needless to say, a half inch of standing water in the basement mixes well with none of the stuff living down there.
So, of course the thing to do is to call a water damage restoration company. They come in and take all the soggy boxes out, suck up as much water off the floor, pull up the padding under the carpet, and spray anti-microbial stuff all over. Then they set down industrial fans and humidifiers. Call a reputable water damage company, and that’s pretty much what you get. You have a problem that they promise to help you fix, and in return you compensate them for their labor.
And it works out pretty well. Without being a water damage specialist, I can pretty well tell if they’ve done the job. It’s easily measurable.
Is everything dry?
Yes. “Yay! Here’s your money.”
No. “Get back to work.”
When we want things fixed, we call someone who can be relied on to fix the problem. Whether the problem is that our hair or our grass is too long and needs cutting, or our Windows PC or our new Mustang is acting up, we know that there are people we can call who can correct the problem for us in ways that, without any formal training, we can verify.
But not everything is fixable—at least in a way that can be seen in a mirror or read on a monitor. Some things don’t give us the sense that we’ve solved a problem and are ready to move on from there.
What’s the fix for a broken heart, a crushed spirit, or diminished aspirations? Who’s available on call from Angie’s List for those kinds of things?
The way we handle the kinds of problems—the solutions to which aren’t easily quantifiable—is narrative. We tell stories that allow space for us to inhabit new possibilities.
To be sure not all narratives are created equal. Some are harmful.
“You’re suffering from _______________ (Fill in the blank: addiction, poverty, bratty kids, a lousy marriage, depression, Type II Diabetes, etc.) because _______________ (Fill in the blank: you’re lazy; you’re a bad person; you don’t care about anyone but yourself; you like misery; etc.).”
Some are too easy, requiring no creativity—just a rehearsal of old talking points.
“Things would be fine if _______________ (Fill in the blank: we gave more tax cuts to rich people; we could just get the right social program; we increased our military spending; people would just pray harder; cracked down harder on drugs and crime; etc.).”
Some are just wrong.
“Of course that would happen. You know _______________ (Fill in the blank: how those people are; gay people are out to recruit our children; foreigners only steal our jobs and raise the crime rate; there’s no such thing as a “liberal Christian”; all Muslims are terrorists; etc.).”
Stories all. People need stories to help them negotiate the vagaries of life. People need to be located within a narrative that helps them make sense of where they find themselves on the journey at an given moment.
That’s what theodicy is, for example: the attempt to locate suffering within a narrative structure that helps the sufferer to find some meaning in it. That’s why such ridiculously destructive narratives as “It was God’s will that … ” persist. The truth of theodicy is that even a bad story is better than no story.
Unfortunately, in the church, we have often mistaken our need for a story as a need for a measurable fix. Declining congregations are notoriously preoccupied with finding fixes. They’re pretty sure that whatever problem they’re facing is fixable, they just haven’t found the right solution yet.
So, declining congregations have a nasty habit of focusing on things that are easily quantifiable—attendance and budget. You don’t need any special analytical insight to know that 100 bodies on a Sunday morning is better than 50, and a 150 is better than 100.
You don’t need an MBA to conclude that a bigger budget is better.
But those things that appear to be quantifiable fixes to the problem of decline are narratives themselves—they’re just not very helpful in understanding decline. And congregations can find a technician/mechanic/consultant/fixer who will tell them that the numbers can be improved with sufficient attention to ___ (Fill in the blank: worship style, cappuccino choices, young dynamic minister, better stewardship initiatives, staff cuts, etc.).
What the fixers can’t do, what only the storytellers can do is to help you understand why bigger numbers are or are not significant, what valuable principles you might have to sacrifice to achieve them, and whether or not the really important story is taking place with little to no relationship to the quantifiable numbers.
As Seth Godin has argued, “The easier it is to quantify, the less it’s worth.”
In this case, I’m not arguing that numbers aren’t worth anything, that measurables have no value. What I am suggesting, however, is that they often tell us very little about the real work congregations do.
If you want to know about whether truth is being spoken, whether injustice is being confronted, whether people’s spirituality is deepening, whether children are being formed in ways that predispose them to healthy community for the rest of their lives, whether people who’ve given up on the church feel welcomed, you’re going to need a story and not a spreadsheet.
As it stands, spreadsheets, attendance rolls, budget projections are blunt instruments when it comes to telling the story of the quality of ministry you’re doing.
Good ministry may correlate with good numbers … but it may not. You’re going to need a storyteller, not an accountant, to sort that out.
Which turns out to be a good thing, because ministers—when they’re involved in true ministry—are, first and foremost, storytellers.