Hopeful Church

Maybe We Just Don’t Get It! 

… or teaching old dogs new tricks

by Graham Standish

“Dad,… you just don’t get it!”

How many times have I heard that refrain from one of my daughters? “Okay,… help me get it,” I reply. They just roll their eyes and mutter, “Never mind.”

Not getting it is the plague of modern parenthood: We never seem to get it, whatever “it” is, and they never want to help us get it.

It’s not just parents who don’t get it. Congregations don’t get it, or at least that’s what a lot of pastors have told me. Pastors come into their churches ready to help them grow, but the churches resist. The pastor works harder and harder to get them to change. But they won’t: “They said they wanted to grow, but they really just want to be a social club …” or “a big support group” or “a hospice.” Eventually the pastors lament: “They just don’t get it, and if they don’t get it soon they’re gonna be dead in a decade.”

What my kids don’t get is that I could very easily get “it,” but they’re too impatient and petulant to help. How can I possibly get it if they won’t take the time to teach me? I certainly love them enough to do my best, but they have to help me get it.

What if we pastors are guilty of being like our kids? What if the problem isn’t that churches don’t get it? What if it’s that we’re too impatient and petulant as we throw our hands up and think, “Never mind!”?

There’s a wonderful term that applies to most clergy: the curse of expertise. It’s a term understood in in business. The more training and expertise we get, the less we remember what it was like before we got that training and expertise. Marketers are afflicted by it—they know a product so well that it diminishes their ability to sell it to people who don’t. Engineers are afflicted by it—they design incredible appliances and software programs that consumers can’t figure out how to operate.

We pastors have had so much training. Our seminaries taught us about all the wonderful changes churches could and should go through. Countless seminars and workshops shared with us all the wonderful changes sweeping through cutting edge churches. We share these ideas with our churches, and… nothing. They. Never. Get it!

Why? We’re cursed by our knowledge and expertise. They never went to seminary or those seminars. That one small step for a pastor seems like a giant, overwhelming leap for congregation-kind. Maybe it’s we who don’t get it.

If we want our churches to make these seemingly simple changes perhaps we need to break things down into smaller and smaller steps that can add up to big changes. Let me close with an example.

At the last church I served we had a pretty extensive healing ministry. We offered healing prayer in worship once a month. Trained healing prayer ministers were available for prayer after each worship service, and they also visited people for prayer. We offered small healing groups. We made and distributed prayer shawls for people struggling with illness and other conditions. And we emphasized the importance of prayer for healing.

A pastor I know tried to emulate our efforts in her church. She explained the importance of healing to her session, invited people to be part of a healing prayer ministry, and talked to the congregation about the importance of healing prayer. It never caught on. Why did my church get it but not hers? The answer: we simply took more time to help them get it.

Our healing prayer ministry took over two years to develop. It started with two sermons on healing prayer over six months. Then I taught a class on healing prayer. From that I invited members to form a small group with me. We met every Thursday afternoon for a year, reading and discussing books on healing prayer. After a year we invited a nationally-known speaker to spend an evening sharing her thoughts and experiences of healing prayer. I wrote numerous articles in our newsletter about various aspects of healing prayer. I visited people with serious conditions once-a-week in their homes.

Only after all of that did we approach our session about offering healing prayer service once a month as part of communion. Finally, only after all of this did we invited members to be trained in healing prayer. The church never had to “get it.” They were slowly immersed in it.

Perhaps we pastors need to realize that our churches have spent so many decades in decline that they need tremendous help in getting it. Perhaps we need to be gentle, patient, and persistent over time in helping them get it. I’ll share with you what a dog trainer once said to me: “If you want to teach a dog to leap for a frisbee, start by showing it the frisbee and giving it a treat. Don’t throw it and criticize the dog for not leaping.”