31. Looking Through the Binoculars, or At the Binoculars?

Iím an avid birder, and I always enjoy sharing my hobby with others (in fact, you can see my bird photos at www.pbase.com/mobish). When my sons were young, weíd go exploring by canoe and kayak, looking for birds. I remember teaching them how to use binoculars, and how to go through the careful steps of adjusting one lens and then the other and then focusing and refocusing according to distance. I also showed them how the rubber eyecups work and how to use some of the other knobs and buttons and straps and lens covers that go with the binoculars.  

I discovered in these long-ago exercises that sometimes the hardest thing to teach was how to focus oneís attention on the bird rather than on the binoculars! Sometimes weíd spend so much time looking at the binoculars and fidgeting with the knobs and lens that by the time we looked through the binoculars, the bird was gone. 

As the book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, continues to see wider use, I receive an ever-increasing number of comments, stories, and responses. Mostly I here about congregations, pastors, or laypersons who have used the book as the basis of a sermon series, a book study, a leadership retreat, or an adult study, and usually this is followed by a great story about what a church learned about itself, or about a new initiative or practice or work project that has been inspired by the conversation. These responses warm my heart, and I want to say, ìGo for it!  Tell me more! Tell others!î and I give God thanks for these wonderful fruit and expressions of ministry. Thatís what the book was intended for. Pastors and leaders use the book as a lens through which to see their congregations, their purposes, their callings.

But occasionally I hear about a pastor or some lay leaders or congregations that spend their time with the book simply looking at the book rather than through the book at the congregation. They get stuck on words, examples, illustrations in the book. Or they get focused on a heavy-weighted process internally in the congregation that causes them to burn all their energy on meetings, motions, reports, arguments about strategies. I realize that sometimes this is the way progress is made. But I would simply want to remind folks that the book, the processes we use to learn, discuss, create, and plan with the bookÖ.these are all tools toward a greater end, and that end is to learn about our own congregations and ministries so that we can better fulfill the purpose of the church and the ministry of Christ. The point of book studies and sermon series and leadership retreats and Lenten studies with the book is not to learn about the book, but to learn about the congregation in order to stimulate us to greater ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  It is not to focus on the pages, but to allow the pages and stories to refocus all of us on our mission.

System theorists who teach about organizations remind us that when we face challenges that require learning, cultural change, a shift in behaviors, attitudes and values, that the organization naturally tries to avoid this hard work. Avoidance takes many forms. One form is too heavily focusing on the book rather than on ourselves. The book helps us hold a mirror to ourselves, and ask, ìHow are we doing at Radical Hospitality? And how could we do better?  How are we doing at Risk-taking Mission and Service, and from whom can we learn more so we can do more?î If you find yourselves talking more about the book than about your own ministries, watch out!

How has conversation about the Five Practices shaped your understanding and practice of ministry?  How has it served as a lens by which to see your church differently? Are you looking through the book to see greater potential ministry, or only looking at the book itself?

Yours in Christ,