By Matt Duvall, pastor - FBC Middlesboro
This article isn’t about everything that was said at Hopeful Imagination (a church leadership conference geared towards traditional churches who are trying to find God’s way in a changing world). If you would like to hear some of what was said in the breakout sessions or download some of the handouts, go to the Hopeful Imagination website: www.cbfnc.org/Events/UpcomingEvents/HopefulImagination.aspx and check out that wealth of information. This article is about how FBC Middlesboro got to Hopeful Imagination and what we are doing with it now.
Why is this an important thing to emphasize? I constantly see how quickly individuals and congregations are to jump on the proverbial bandwagon of “new” and “innovative” at the expense of everything they are already doing. I can list multiple examples of ministers and churches who see something done successfully somewhere else and with little to no groundwork or prayer or preparation, they import that successful program/initiative/thing into their own congregation and culture expecting spectacular results only to be dumbfounded when it flies like a lead balloon and increases the congregational conflict. There are a lot of anxious churches and anxious leaders of churches these days who are looking for a silver bullet or a magic formula to increase bodies, buildings, and budgets--just the right “thing” to turn the corner and restore the church to how it was in the 50’s, or the 70’s or the 90’s or whenever the Golden Years were.
Hopeful Imagination wasn’t a panacea for all that ails traditional churches like the one I serve, and I don’t want to give the impression that if your church wasn’t at H.I. then you aren’t going to make it. I also don’t want to begin to think that simply because we went to H.I., we are going to not only survive, but we will thrive. There aren’t easy answers that fit any and all churches, and even if churches and leaders do find some answers along the way, we still have to do the hard work.
I asked Denise, one of our deacons and Sunday school teachers (among other things), to go with our group to Hopeful Imagination. She said, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I said, ‘Yes, I am willing’ to go to Wilmington--maybe just a good visit with good friends on the trip there and back. Wow! What a trip. What a renewal of hope! I have been inspired to look forward with hope and renewed dedication. The Spirit spoke to my heart in so many ways and now instead of roadblocks, I see opportunities. I see with new clarity that the “mission field” begins at my front door! The Lord is leading and my ears and eyes are open more than ever!
If there are places to begin to look for answers about what the future of any congregation might look like, it is the spiritual lives of the those who make up that congregation. Long before Hopeful Imagination was even an idea, our congregation decided to become more intentional about the things of the spirit. We recognized a lack of trust and have been working to build that between each other. We realized that we still carried old wounds that haven’t fully healed, and we talked about our past and acknowledged some of the ways that it is still affecting our present. We found space to be honest about where we are right now, and we gave ourselves room to grieve that which has been lost and the things that we can’t do anymore (or at least right now), and at the same time, we affirmed to each other the wonderful things that we can and are doing well!
Those of us from FBC Middlesboro who went to Hopeful Imagination were able to see and experience a specific congregation that is farther along on their journey of renewal and transformation than we are, and it was inspiring and encouraging to celebrate the wonderful things happening in the life of a sister congregation. At the same time, we recognized that we are our own unique church in our own unique context with our own specific past. We can’t be any other church than who we are--the church that God has created us to be. Our time away helped us to affirm that, and to see with renewed clarity that we are farther along than we think, and that we need to continue to be faithful to what is already happening in our midst.
So what are we doing now? We are expanding the conversation ever outward. We are working as leaders to remain focused and maintain the energy level. We are praying with and for each other. We are trying to ask “how we can” instead of “why we can’t”. We are asking God to keep us open and pliable. We are celebrating “small wins.” We are sharing our stories. We are caring for each other. We are giving our time and energy and resources to those in need. We are trying to practice what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” Above all we are trusting that, though times seem as difficult as they have ever been, there is no better time to be the local church and that God has created and shaped us for such a time as this.