I was recently listening to an episode of The Daily, the daily news podcast from The New York Times, in which host Michael Barbaro interviewed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Anthony Romero. In the conversation, they discussed the ways in which over the past two years the nearly-100-year-old ACLU has been pivoting its strategies, both in its advocacy work and in its ways of making its appeal for the attention and interest of the broader public. In a number of ways, the shift in approach has drawn on what the ACLU has observed being effective in the messaging and appeal of the National Rifle Association (the NRA)—an organization of similar size and resources that has arguably shown itself significantly more effective and influential in the contemporary landscape of politics and public opinion.
One of the things that most interested me about this discussion—and the reason I bring it to your attention—does not have to do with the relative merits or end-goals of either the ACLU or the NRA. Rather, what the folks at the ACLU noticed about the NRA’s messaging is the way the NRA appealed to the broader public through story rather than statistics, through passion-cultivation rather than policy-wonk-work. The ACLU’s Romero spoke about how even just looking at their respective websites a couple of years ago revealed a significant difference in approach. When one went to the NRA’s website, they were greeted with video of people telling life stories, stories like a woman talking about childhood days spent with her father in which they bonded as he shared with her what he knew of the age-old traditions of hunting and taught her about effective and responsible use of their respective hunting weapons.
Again, I don’t wish in this space to make an argument either for or against hunting as a sport or about the merits of gun ownership. Rather, what struck Romero and others at the ACLU—and me, in listening to this interview—was the importance and effectiveness of this kind of narrative shaping of information and passion. The case being made before the court of public opinion was not one of legal minutiae, but one of lifestyle, culture, and impact.
The importance of impact can easily get lost in the day-to-day details of running, or even being a part of, a faith community. All too easily we can get sidetracked by schedule vacancies, budget shortfalls, or building repair needs. We can likewise easily focus on our preferences and predilections—what we “like” or “don’t like” about the worship service or the room décor or the communications that get shared among us. In their appropriate time and place, any of these things merit our proper care and consideration. But they are not ultimately why we are here. Filling the slots, fixing the toilets, getting exactly the liturgy or music we prefer… all of these can be good things, but they are not ultimately what we exist for. They are not the things on which the church stands or falls.
It behooves us, therefore, to always come back around to the central questions of purpose and impact. Why are we here? What difference does it make that we are here? What effect does the life and work of this congregation have in our lives as individuals, in our shared life as a community, and in the life of the communities and world around us?
At the July 24th meeting of our Governing Board, we set aside the bulk of our time together to have a “mini-retreat” thinking and praying and talking with one another about just such things. After taking some time to review what we all have taken notice of in light of the various goals, open questions, challenges, and achievements our church has had over the past two years, we engaged in a 3-round series of conversations using a small-group discussion technique known as the “World Café”. The questions we engaged with in each successive round were:
- If describing our church to an acquaintance (who’s not already part of our congregation), what would you name has having the biggest impact on your own life?
- What does the world need this church to be more of, or better at?
- What is the next level for our work & life as a church? What would it take to get there?
Today, I would like to particularly commend to you the first of these questions for your own reflection.
What about being part of SCC has had (or is having) the biggest impact on your own life? Note that this is a different question than what about SCC you most like—I may like the lighting and layout at a particular store better than its competitors, but ultimately that probably doesn’t have a huge impact on my life. So, for you, what about this congregation’s identity, life, and ministry truly impacts your life—who you are, what you feel and believe, and what you do?
This question (actually all 3 questions) are big, life-long sorts of questions. But they’re important. If we ourselves don’t have a sense of why SCC is important, and why being a part of SCC is important—that is, why it matters and what difference it makes—than no one else will, either. So, won’t you join with me and your sisters-and-brothers who serve on your Governing Board in thinking, and praying, and dreaming together? And be sure to share your insights!
Yours in the journey,