Five Fruits of Practical Congregations August 21, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Congregational Life, Core Values.
With apologies to Bishop Schnase for the play on words of his own title (Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations), I want to examine five characteristics — fruits, if you will – of truly vital and healthy churches. They are somewhat unique, in that producing these fruits is exceptionally difficult, especially in combination. Together, these five fruits (trust, transparency, respect, rapport, and passion) create a powerful congregational witness — a message to the world that community in Christ is different. These five fruits reflect the best in the church, and in the values of the Christian faith. They are valuable, partly because they are so rare, partly because they are so fragile, and partly because they are so dramatically different from the guiding values of the secular culture. These are truly delicious, nutritious, and wonderful fruits that, if we could learn to cultivate them in mass quantities, could truly transform this world.
The reason I believe it is appropriate to call these five qualities fruits is that they need to be cultivated. Certainly they occur naturally, but growing wild, they never truly flourish. They don’t produce abundance accidentally, but by intention. These five fruits require hard work, determination, commitment, and constant care. They can much too easily wither and die through inattention or carelessness.
I also believe they are the fruits of “practical” congregations because they provide the critical ingredients for health, vitality, and necessary energy to build and sustain the body of Christ. The absence of these qualities undermines the integrity of the congregational system. There is nothing more practical or rational than committing to the growth, cultivation, and spread of these five fruits.
Some cliches exist because they contain a deep truth — trust: it takes a lifetime to build, a moment to destroy. Many of our congregations are limited by a serious lack of trust. Rare is the congregation that makes trust-building and trustworthiness intentional pursuits. But trust must be built over time. It needs to be nurtured and protected. It needs to be guarded and defended. Congregational leaders must prove themselves worthy of trust.
In settings where trust has been damaged or destroyed, rebuilding trust should be a top priority. It is never enough for only the pastor to be trusted, but it is essential that pastoral leaders be trustworthy. Beyond the pastor, anyone who accepts leadership within the congregation must embody trustworthiness as well. Where trust is high, almost anything can be addressed, dealt with, and achieved. Without trust, there is no lasting sense of safety, no motivation to commit, and no reason to be open and honest. Broken trust acts like a cancer in a community. To tell the truth, to show respect, to honor other people’s feelings, to refuse to engage in gossip, to be a supportive advocate for others, and to do what one says he or she will do — these are key elements to building trust.
Another key to trust-building is open, honest communication — and a commitment to not withhold information. Keeping secrets seriously erodes community, and creates an environment for mistrust. Are there proper places and times for confidentiality? Most certainly, but most of what happens to church families should be openly discussed and understood. Even cases of clergy and laity misconduct should be dealt with by everyone in a group or congregation who will be directly affected. In the absence of honesty and transparency rumor, gossip, misinformation, and downright lying run amok. There is a wide disagreement about who needs to know what within a church, but there are two facts that are fairly incontestable — 1) churches where few secrets are kept are the healthiest, and 2) churches where problems are hidden, denied, or ignored are among the most toxic and dysfunctional. Think about it. What does it say about the power of our gospel when we feel we cannot openly and honestly deal with our flaws and failings (and criminal and immoral acts) as family?
Family systems theory has much to teach us about openness, honesty, and transparency. Generally, our attempts to hide or withhold the truth result is worse damage than our worst sins. Very little true healing can occur in family systems where people don’t know or understand what is going on. The fact that so many congregational leaders try to “protect” the faith community from negative or hurtful information is a sign of brokenness, not health. Churches are often destroyed by misdirection or deception. There is nothing to be gained by compounding problems, no matter how large or small, with poor leadership decisions. Sin, in whatever form it appears, needs forgiveness and redemption. Forgiveness and redemption — and ultimately healing — will not occur if there is no transparency.
Respect does not mean pleasant politeness or patronizing tolerance. It means truly acknowledging the value of every person — especially those with whom we disagree or don’t understand. We will never truly love or honor those for whom we lack respect. True community is impossible unless it is built upon a foundation of mutual respect. Disrespectful conduct is clear evidence of spiritual and cultural immaturity.
Do we truly believe that all human beings are created in God’s image? Do we accept that every person we meet is a child of God? Do we believe that all human beings are capable of growth and redemption? Do we believe that mercy, justice, equality, compassion, kindness, and love are integral to an understanding of God’s will? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then respect is not an option, but a mandate. Disrespect must not be tolerated in a congregation seeking health and vitality. (And this respect must extend beyond the community of faith into every corner of the world.)
I love the word and meaning of the word rapport. Its various aspects mean, “harmonious and sympathetic relationship, understanding, fellowship, essential connection grounded in affinity and trust.” It means much more than tolerance or acceptance — it means we connect at deep, empathetic, caring levels. It is the essential core of true community and healthy relationships. At its best, it means that we care about what others care about, we put the concerns of others on at least an equal level of importance with our own, and that we define success in communal rather than individual terms. It means we accept and embrace the idea that we are better together than we are alone.
Establishing rapport means we work as hard to understand others as we try to get them to understand us. It means we allow others to value things we do not, and that we don’t force our values on others. It is the key to truly celebrating diversity and honoring pluralism. The richness of “us” becomes one of the most important things in our own personal sense of identity. It hearkens back to the Hebrew scriptures understanding of community — what happens to any one of us happens to all of us. If one of us stumbles and falls, we all suffer. What happens to the least among us, impacts all of us. We don’t just want to know each other, we want to care deeply and become one with each other. This concept permeates the New Testament and many of our shared traditions and rituals. Rapport transforms us and creates synergy — truly we are greater than the sum of our parts.
Passion fruit enlivens, energizes, excites, and enthuses. Where there is passion, there is spirit. Passion is contagious. Passion makes the blood flow, the heart thump, and makes people MOVE. There is no passivity in the face of passion. Passion cannot be contained in a building. Passion doesn’t sit on a committee. Passion motivates and mobilizes. Passion inspires.
This isn’t Pollyanna Power of Positive Thinking. It isn’t being nice or clapping hands to a bouncy praise tune. It isn’t feel good motivational preaching. It is the burning ember of the Holy Spirit bursting into full blown flame catalyzing Christians into irrepressible forces of nature. It is the power of God manifest in men and women, girls and boys to change the world. It amazes people. It takes people’s breath away. It reduces people to tears. It makes people understand that our God is an awesome God, and that our faith possesses the potential for earth-shaking results.
These fruits epitomize the goodness, the sweetness, the juiciness, the extravagant lusciousness of life in Christ. Where these fruits grow, you cannot keep the people away. People beat a path to the door, just for one small taste. And at our best they don’t have to come to us, because we are moving through the world sharing these fruits with everyone we meet.
We talk a lot about health and vitality, about mission and ministry. We struggle to discover measures of success and signs that we are being effective. The simple fact is, we will be known by (and judged by) our fruits. There are many fruits we might cultivate, but few are more important than trust, transparency, respect, rapport, and passion.