Variety of Story

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)
Thumbnail and main image: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877), Public Domain
One of the first things we did when we started this project was to dream up an application that would be short enough to actually be completed, but thorough enough to get a solid picture of churches serious about participating.

We were actually worried about being overwhelmed with dozens of applications because some of the other innovation hubs funded by The Lilly Endowment had that experience. After all, $30,000 is a lot of money, on top of the possibility of gaining answers to a vexing, decades-long question: How to get young adults back into church.

One way we sought a better understanding of all our church applicants was to ask for at least 5 narratives from members of each congregation. We asked for the pastor's narrative, of course, but we also asked for a number of other narratives, as seen below:

Q3.2. Please have 3-5 individuals write 5 short narratives of your congregational history and culture. Please write the accounts independent of one another. Ideally, the narratives should be from a pastor, an elder or councilperson, a non-leader younger than 30, a non-leader older than 50, and an additional person of your choosing. Include the good and the bad, the hopes and dreams, the failures, the miraculous, and the perceived effect on the congregation.

The idea was that the pastor has a particular vision for a church and a lot of pressure to write a narrative conducive to being chosen for participation in the grant. Also, the average pastor will only have been at a church anywhere from a few years to a full career of 20-30 years. This would still perhaps be less, on average, than some of the old-comers of any given established congregation who have seen anywhere from 2 to half-a-dozen pastors.

If we wanted to really understand the history of a congregation and how that history played out in the church's current identity, it seemed prudent to stitch together a handful of stories from different experiences in order to get a fuller understanding of what a congregation is bringing to the project, both the blessings and challenges.

Is there a history of shorter stints of pastoral leadership or longer ones? Is there a recent exodus or schism within the church? Have there been building changes, property sales or acquisitions, or shifts in demographics? Has there been recent growth or revitalization?

What we ended up with was a composite story that really helped us better understand the long- and short-term concerns of the congregation and included both voices that regularly made decisions and ones absent from key decision-making spaces. It was the hardest part of the application for many congregations to complete, and fittingly, it was also the part that caused the best reflection and learning for those involved.

In the end we got only about 2 dozen applications and ended up with half that many churches involved over the long term. But what we knew about the history of those churches was rich—the ups and downs; the faithfulness, traumas, and joys; the questions and the experiments. It helped paint a much fuller picture of what God was doing in these congregations and the communities they call home.
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