Monday, October 25, 2010

Sermon for October 24, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Independence and Community

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. Romans 12:1-8

Did you know that the actions of one affect all? There was a bumper sticker around a few years ago. It reads, “Commit senseless acts of random kindness.” This saying ties in with a branch of science and mathematics called chaos theory. In a nutshell, chaos theory says that the tiniest changes in one small area of the world can cause massive changes in other, distant parts of the world. In 1961, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz had been working on theoretical models about how tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes develop. He came up with an idea that was called the “butterfly effect.” The small eddy of wind current made by a butterfly wing can change the weather on the other side of the globe. One small change leads to a larger change, which leads to an even larger change, and so on. Of course, if a butterfly fluttering by can add to a hurricane, more butterflies fluttering by can change the course of that hurricane entirely. In the same way, initial conditions of acts of kindness can also cause small changes that ripple out, and eventually change the world.

In reality, the actions of one affect all. This law of connectedness reaches to the subatomic level of our universe. For instance, we now know that once two electrons have connected or touched in some way, they can never be the same again. No matter how far apart those electrons go, what happens to one happens to the other. We inhabit a universe in which everything is part of everything else. No matter how far apart we may be, we are all one.

This is hard for some people to accept. Especially in churches. Most churches aren’t known for their go-with-the-flow-live-and-let-live-be-and let-be attitude. Throughout history, churches have been known for the ability to control, restrict, contain, narrow, purify, define, and restrain. We Congregationalists are especially susceptible to thinking that we can over control people and situations. The Puritans who founded this church and settled this area were not known for their tolerance and open-mindedness. The Puritans created strict rules that that governed everyone’s behavior. For instance, in 1648, a law was passed ordering all playhouses and theaters be taken down, all actors were to be captured and whipped, and anyone who was seen watching a play had to pay a fine. But guess what? There's a loophole! In Puritan law, someone convicted of a crime could plead “Benefit of Clergy.” If convicted person could read a passage from the Bible without one mistake, the sentence would be reduced.

We have a long history of over control. Our church tradition values independence and autonomy. Every person is a law unto him or herself. And every church is a law unto itself. At the same time, we tend to micromanage others. We expect people to conform to our image. We want them others to dress a certain way, to behave in certain ways, to talk in acceptable ways. We still try to control others. And our desire to control can get out of control. Left unchecked, people try to dominate or marginalize others. We create insiders and outsiders. The goal of the church has been to find the outsiders and bring them in. But not without some cost. We demand transformation, right? We want people to clean up heir acts, live new lives. Break old habits.

Old habits die hard. Even for the church. Do you know how outsiders see Christians? Here are some stereotypes:
  • Christians are known for what we oppose: anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, anti-thinking, etc.
  • Christians are viewed as angry, mean, judgmental, wanting to convert everyone and generally are not peaceful people
  • Christians are judged as hypocritical and inauthentic in our faith and lifestyle (we say one thing, do another or act like we have it all together)
Today, I want to suggest that one habit of healthy churches is to give up some control. We need to submit to the collective subconscious of the people in order to better fulfill our mission. And to do that, to tap into the wisdom of the community. At the same time, we need to act more individually and instinctively. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve been reading about swarm theory. Scientists are looking at the behavior of ants, bees, locusts, schools of fish, and crowds of people. They are learning that these swarms and crowds organize around some simple rules. Each individual member of a swarm, acting individually, will impact the behavior of others. The actions of a few members of the group affect the actions of all.

No one tells the group what to do. There are no orders or commands from the leader at the top. Groups organize spontaneously, following simple, basic rules. One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no top-down management at all—at least none that we would recognize.

Or consider bees. What commands a hive of bees to swarm? Scientists know it is not the queen bee. When a swarm pours itself out through the front slot of the hive, the queen bee can only follow. By choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote. The hive commands. The queen follows. A mob, thousands of bees united into one, directs itself to swarm. The Queen Bee is not the leader. In fact, there are anonymous leaders within the swarm called “streakers.” The streakers direct from within the swarm by flaying faster and straighter than the other bees. The swarm has no center, but rather thousands of autonomous individual bees engaged in parallel actions, interacting with one another and influencing each other.

Relationship. Connectivity. Interactivity. Collaboration. These are the processes from which every living thing is created, survives, and prospers.

Almost any group that follows bees' rules will make itself smarter. Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups. Maybe even churches that want to follow God’s aims for the world. It turns out the group is smarter than the individual. If members of the group are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting to reach a group decision, they will reach a correct answer more with greater precision than any single expert.

A fascinating National Geographic article says:
Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part.
Science confirms something that some religions have taught for centuries. Selflessness. Losing the ego. Being a part of something bigger than yourself. Becoming a drop in the spiritual ocean.

One habit of healthy churches is to learn to tread the line between individualism and community. Leadership is less about controlling people than releasing them. In our tradition, every person must be given every decision-making power and boost to rise to the top. Creativity must be given free reign. Boards and Committees must be encouraged to self organize. Power and authority must be shared by everyone. When we drain complexity and chaos from our work, we snuff out the system. We limit our ability to learn and grow.

To me, this means we need to be defined less by what we reject, and more by what we select. For a healthy church, we need to focus less on control and more on collaboration. There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and inviting them to help lead it. For instance, some churches will welcome a gay person into their church as long as that person joins a group or class designed to straighten them out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a minister say, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” It’s not just gays. We put qualifications on all kinds of people: single moms, people living together, people who are going through a divorce, and any number of social choices. What would happen if we got rid of the “buts” and simply said, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No pre-qualifications before you’re really welcome. You are welcome. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.”

And it’s not just a liberal thing. Tolerance is not just for Unitarians anymore. It’s not just tolerance either. It’s true acceptance. I think people are starting to see that they can keep their beliefs, liberal or conservative, without watering them down. We can come together in a church to share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. We can be a church that leads others without the stigma of guilt or coercion. We are all in the same swarm and we have work to do. We work independently, and we work as a community of faith. We trust our collective wisdom, and we rely on our collective compassion.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. May it be so.

“Swarm theory supports spiritual independence,” at “”
“My Swarm Theory,” at
"Swarm Theory" at
The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller
The Perfect Swarm by Len Fisher
Aqua Church by Leonard Sweet

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