There is often great discontent in smaller churches, especially when all the churches around them are experiencing tremendous growth. This was the situation I was in for over 20 years. When I arrived, my church was running 120 in attendance. When I left, it was running about 120. During those years, we saw numerous pastors come and go, all promising that we would soon be on road to phenomenal growth. I remember one pastor most clearly. Shortly after the elders fired the current minister on the spur of the moment, they immediately brought in candidates to fill his position. The one they eventually hired was a regular sales person. He talked up the church left and right, claiming that our church was “poised for great growth” and that in five years we could see 500 people attending. This young man had all the answers, being well versed in the latest church growth methods, and he knew how to work a crowd. He was going to lead our little church into a great and glorious future. Our members ate it up. Their drooling was embarrassing. This pastor was soon hired. Two years later, we had lost over one-fourth of the congregation and the church was dying. The pastor left, finding greener pastures, where he was able to split his next church in less than two year. So, what went wrong?
This story illustrates well what Caroline Ramsey proposes in her articles on management learning and provocative theory. As I read these articles, I couldn’t help but think of pastors as “managers” and found a great deal of application for her ideas in the local church. The major issue that she addresses centers on the real danger in separating learning and theory from practice and day-to-day reality. Ramsey suggests that “in emphasizing learning prior to practice we may be undermining the potential of managers to learn in practice, as they manage operations, people or markets in day to day activities.”[i] The evangelical church is notorious for developing universal theories that offer all-inclusive packages for success, from church growth to evangelism, from developing strong marriages to running capital campaigns.
What I experienced in my local church was the thinking that, if certain “programs” or “methods” are presented by experts and have proven successful elsewhere, these programs–when applied to my church—will have guaranteed outcomes! This thinking has led to many disastrous church growth programs in smaller churches, because it fails to take into account the context, the people (talents and attitudes) or the history of the church that these particular theories are being applied. In a very real sense, there is no listening or ground level engagement. Learning was never a part of the method. Ramsey rightly suggests that by blindly applying theory without consideration of context or people, “we may be restricting the potential for that day to day practice to speak as an alternative voice within polyphony, provoking mangers into action they hadn’t anticipated.”[ii] Our pastors preferred neat, clearly packaged church growth programs on “the tablets of stone to be handed to them,”[iii] rather than having to actually work out a practice with the people God had given them in their highly unique context.
I remember explicitly asking our leadership why they thought this new pastor was going to what the last pastor wasn’t able to do, when he was working with the exact same resources (i.e. us smelly sheep). They could not give an answer. They simply believed that the pastor had all the answers. He had a wonderful theory, and he thought that theory was all he needed. But, as Ramsey helpfully suggests, “The theoretical and research writing does not stand free, available to be applied but, rather is as both instigator and product of relationally-responsive, improvisational practice. It is a performance being constructed by, recreated by and also provoking and inviting managerial practice.”[iv] What the pastor’s theory needed was real life interaction, allowing for creative development where theory and life, people and practice mixed, and where room for learning and improvisation in practice was allowed. For a workable practice in small town Iowa, mere application of someone else’s theory (probably developed in a large, metropolitan suburb), may not be the best way to go. For the theories to find life in a new situation required “creat(ing) more a partnership, rather than hierarchical, relationship,”[v] where the pastor had to do the hard, slow, messy work of engaging with the people and learning through practice, rather than dictating solutions from on high.
My pastors were always amazed that their church growth theories didn’t work in our church. What was needed was “a practice centered learning where new practice is privileged, rather than knowledge that is to be applied in practice.”[vi] This process of “practice centered learning” requires mindfulness, attention and narrative that will change the entire focus. “To focus on processes of deliberation, judgment or knowing is to miss out a crucial step in our engagement with the world around us.”[vii] Here I think is where so many of my pastors missed out on. They failed to engage with the actual people and community in whom they were attempting to reach, and further failed to partner with the church members in developing practices. Instead of “learning in practice” that allowed for attentive and creative engagement to provide insights into how to grow the church, the pastors continued to force their theories on the people, even when they didn’t work. Here, the use of narratives is so important, as it provides the opportunity to hear the people who are partners in serving. Instead of assuming one set way forward, narrative “gives for multiple interpretations,”[viii] where the “answers were never complete, but, rather, always helped me notice new options or required me to investigate different contexts or see particular people. The answers drew my attention to different fields of activity.”[ix]
How much more effective would church growth theory (and other local church programs) be if we understood the concept of learning in practice? How easy it is for us to fall into the thinking that if it works somewhere else, it will work for us. Ramsey helps us to remember, theories are good, but theories that are applied without consideration of the people, the context and resources and are not open to creative opportunities through practice learning, will only frustrate and stifle possibilities for new and more effective practices.
[i] Caroline Ramsey (2011), “Provocative Theory and a Scholarship of Practice,” Management Learning 42(5) 2011, 9.
[iii] Ibid., 23.
[iv] Ibid., 11.
[v] Ibid., 15.
[vi] Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention?” Management Learning, 45(1) 2014, 2.
[vii] Ibid., 5.
[viii] Ibid., 8.
[ix] Ibid., 12.