It was a simple question from a colleague. “Larry, do you have enough bandwidth to help me with a church staff analysis?”
Initially, I had no idea what he was asking.
“Bandwidth?” I replied, as I attempted to catch up with the 20-year cycle of change in language.
A central technology of the information revolution was being applied to my “energy or capacity to deal with a situation.” That is personal bandwidth.
Think about the explosion in the past decade alone of technological bandwidth that has allowed for the dissemination of information.
My wife, Sue, and I spent several days in the car recently visiting family. As we drove the interstates, we accessed the Internet, read the news, texted our children and answered telephone calls from a pastor wanting a recommendation for a youth minister – all on our 4G cell phones.
The church office of the 21st century is wherever staff members have their cell phones on.
Expanding bandwidth enlarges the capacity for digital signals, expands the amount of information available in less time and overwhelms us with its impact. It is a question of capacity.
Every congregation has a certain amount of bandwidth in fulfilling its dreams for the future.
The challenge of most of the congregations I know is that they have not adequately engaged in the hard work of discerning the fullness of their inherent potential in the settings in which they minister.
I have been unable to escape the question for congregations. The voices I hear from current research and conversations with church leaders is the language of limitations.
We are too busy, we are aging, we have too few people willing to take on new initiatives, we are tired, we are struggling to meet our budget, the culture is no longer friendly to the church, we do not know how to change. We do not have the bandwidth to survive.
The challenges we all face are issues of spiritual discernment. In those moments when communities of biblical faith struggle, the God-led response has always been a prophetic reappraisal of the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst.
Pentecost is the paradigmatic response as Peter claimed the prophetic insights of Joel 2:28-29 in the face of Israel’s struggles. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
Joel called for a “solemn assembly” of the people to participate in a renewal of the spirit of God.
Is that not what congregations need to do to enlarge their capacities, their bandwidth, for a new future?
This is part of what we mean by “healthy” at the Center for Healthy Churches. It is an enlarging of our capacities for new visions. How?
1. Gather in openness to new insights of our strengths and abilities.
Congregational vitality is essentially spiritual and the presence of the Spirit in our midst has no limitations if we are open to the reality of the new.
Congregational capacity is more fundamentally an issue of the imagination than the metrics of bodies, buildings and budgets.
Any congregation is capable of enlarging its bandwidth if led by the Spirit. The focus is on what we can do rather than what we can’t do. Ask your congregation about their dreams and watch the energy in the room explode.
2. Maximize the diversity of the congregation.
Low-capacity congregations tend to be controlled by an attitude of sameness, an emphasis on group cohesion or a power group that throttles new ideas.
Both Joel and Peter proclaimed the principle of participation by all in the body for the presence of the Spirit – young and old, women and men, servants and leaders, all languages and ethnic groups.
Processes that involve voices seldom heard can transform the vision of your congregation.
Any group with a willingness to try a new idea consistent with the core values of God’s kingdom will be affirmed in the Spirit-led church.
3. Enlarge participation at the margins of congregational life.
Enlarging capacity includes enlarging the connections with people at the margins – newcomers, teenagers and children, the people who live blocks away we do not know, sister congregations with whom we could build alliances, inactive members, and former leaders limited by mobility and health.
About 40 percent of the average church’s members keep it alive with their attendance, leadership, financial support and prayers.
Think about the impact if 10 percent more would feel enough inclusion to become involved.
4. Practice the principle that commitment follows participation.
The true capacity of a congregation is the level of commitment to its vision. Focusing on commitment without involvement in shaping and accepting that vision narrows capacity because it is someone else’s vision.
Whenever people participate in shaping what they wish to see happen, they will generate the resources needed to make it happen. It is a matter of maximizing your congregation’s bandwidth.
Larry McSwain is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Congregations. He is a retired professor of leadership at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared in The Center for Healthy Churches’ blog and is used with permission.