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Presbytery of Charlotte takes a turn at the nuts and bolts of church work

Placing more tools in church leaders’ hands is the purpose of a Saturday webinar

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Well aware that churches need additional tools for doing ministry as they emerge from the global pandemic, the Presbytery of Charlotte found the proverbial Swiss Army Knife to equip viewers during a Saturday morning webinar: the Rev. Jim Kitchens.

Kitchens is the founder and principal at Pneumatrix and the West Coast director for the Center for Healthy Churches. On Saturday Kitchens keynoted the webinar “Nuts and Bolts: Tools for the Church Today,” attended by about 50 people.

Kitchens served PC(USA) churches in California and Tennessee for almost 40 years before turning his energy to working with congregations and mid councils in transition.

“Over the past couple of years, we have come to understand there is no going back,” Kitchens said. “In our heart of hearts, we hope we would have arrived at some new normal by now. But we’re not quite there yet, and we don’t know when if ever we will arrive at some settled place where we’ll all know how to be church together.”

Kitchens once served as co-pastor of a church in California whose programs were “not working anymore. Things that used to hum were failing at each step.” The church started experimenting, and the Sunday school hour was one of the first to be put to the test.

“We began to ask, ‘How do we equip parents to be primary agents of their children’s Christian formation?’” Kitchens said. A key shift occurred when a girl asked her father how he prayed. Not having a good answer to give her, the man asked the co-pastor to teach him how. The co-pastor was inspired enough to herself get trained as a spiritual director, and then helped transform the Christian education program into a Christian formation ministry.

The process of Holy Experimentation was born. “Holy Experimentation is rooted in prayer and shapes our process as a form of spiritual discernment,” Kitchens explained. “It can feel like a daunting process. It might lead some of us to face the possibility that our current way of being church needs to die to lift up a new way to incarnate the gospel in our particular time and place.”

“It requires us to decide whether we really believe in the resurrection or not,” Kitchens said. “Something old has to die. There is no resurrection without death. We need to develop a resurrection-drenched faith.”

“The season we are in right now, this liminal season,” when “we want to experiment and have it rooted in prayer, where we let some things go gracefully, needs to be a season of curiosity and playfulness,” Kitchens said. “It’s also a time for nimbleness.” The churches that are “the most hopeful” emerging from the pandemic “have learned we need to continue to pivot. I am confident we have several pivots ahead of us before we arrive at anything that looks like a new normal.”

Kitchens also shared some ideas that congregations can try.

“Work to understand your congregation’s context, internal and external,” Kitchens suggested. He recommended developing “an honest age profile” and “a level of energy for experimentation” among members and friends, as well as a determination of “how much has the church building become a liability?”

In addition, “understand how the community around you has changed. Ask a casual acquaintance, ‘What do you know about my church? Tell me the good, the bad, and the ugly.’” One church Kitchens has worked with heard this message when it asked that question: “You are the church that kills its pastors.” Invite a friend to be a secret worshiper at your church, then ask them as a follow-up, “What was easy to understand? How were you welcomed?”

Kitchens’ partner at the Center for Healthy Churches, the Rev. Deborah Wright, developed a game that’s called Animal Farm. It’s designed to help a congregation learn more about the church by drawing illustrated cards and following the prompt. What are your sacred cows? What are you proud as a peacock about? What’s your dinosaur? What’s your roadkill, your epic failure? And, maybe most important, what are your nest eggs? What do you dream about what God might be doing in your midst?

One pastor who was new to serving a particular church called later to thank Wright and Kitchens. “You just saved me six months of getting to know people in this congregation,” the pastor told them.

The Rev. Jim Kitchens

In their work, “we ask, what is God inviting the church to become?” Kitchens said. One way to do that is through the Quaker practice of Shedding. “What would I have to let go of,” Kitchens said, “to be open to nothing more, nothing less and nothing other than the will of God?”

Following God into the future can mean that churches start a new community ministry, Kitchens noted. “God places us in community not to take care of ourselves, but to offer care and hope to the community around us,” Kitchens said. “It’s hard to argue with helping kids who need more support in school or ministering to homeless people who live in the park across the street.”

Kitchens recommended several books for those who want to learn more, including “Closing Costs: Reimagining Church Real Estate for Missional Purposes.” The author, Dominic Dutra, a Presbyterian and a developer living in the San Jose area, says that local churches are tasked with “evaluating and ultimately sacrificing all their resources — including underutilized real estate — to bring healing and hope to the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. By reimagining their church spaces, congregations can experience revitalization as they grow to better embody their missional purpose.”

“These buildings are not ours. They belong to God,” Kitchens said, “and they ought to be used to spread the gospel, not make us comfortable.”

“Please, for the love of God,” said the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, general presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte. “If you want your church to thrive and change the world in the name of Jesus Christ, that can happen. But you have to have the will.”

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