“We’ve always done it that way before.”
You probably have heard of the Seven Deadly Words of the Church. And it doesn’t matter how often we talk about the need for change or transformation, or that we are in the 21st century, these words creep back up into board meetings, coffee hour conversations, and other areas of decision-making and complaining. Other variations of this are “We’ve never done it this way before” and “We tried it once, it didn’t work.”
All of these statements center us and our experience. The universal “we” can mean the whole church, or it can mean a small group of people, or it can mean just one person under the assumption that there must be more than one. Whatever the case, they are centering themselves. The reason whatever-it-is-you-are-trying-to-change won’t work is because from their experience, from their perspective, it won’t. They are putting their experience above any others.
How do we take a step back in these conversations in congregational life? How do we de-center the ones dominating the conversation when it comes to being the Christian Church in the 21st century?
This question of de-centering has greater implications. In the current climate of the United States, too often white persons have centered themselves in conversations about race. White people have decided what is or is not racist, what actions are or are not racially motivated. Straight people have centered themselves in the conversations about welcoming and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Cis-gendered people have centered themselves in the conversations about what gender is or is not. Often, we center ourselves in the conversations that really have to do with other people and not with us, just whether or not it makes us comfortable, and we dominate the conversation rather than accepting an invitation to listen to those who are different.
If we are attempting to be the body of Christ and to “grow” the church (whatever “grow” may mean for you and your congregation), we need to allow for voices to come from outside. We need to de-center the insider voices and move to the outsider voices [Note: you may very well have outsider voices within your congregation—youth, elderly, people who work on Sundays, homebound, folks who come on occasion, children, disabled members, etc.] You may need to de-center the voices of those who are part of the congregation and listen to those who are not. Listen and center the voices of those in the community.
All too often, churches find a perceived need in the community and decide to address it. However, they don’t always ask those they are supposedly serving if that is the real need that needs to be met. When we center ourselves in the context of mission and ministry, we are doing what we want, what makes us feel good—then we get upset when no one shows up, or they aren’t as grateful as we hoped they would be. We didn’t center the voices of those we should have been listening to.
In this post-Christendom 21st century, maybe it is high time we all de-centered the church voice. We are not the most important building in town. We are not the most important group. We are not the most important thing in people’s lives. God is still working in the world, in our community, and God calls out through the voices that we often have pushed to the margins. We have put ourselves first, our survival first, our prominence first. And we have failed.
I know. We’ve never done it this way before. Let’s take ourselves out of the center of the conversation, and move to listening to those voices that need to be centered. Maybe then the church can really grow into what is was intended—the body of Christ.