Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Hidden Lives of Congregations

With my interim training program just a week away, I've finished up the last of my assigned "churchybook" readings.  The book I just completed, The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo, was far and away the most comprehensive.  A few reflections:

Minus Side:  It's really quite dense.  This is not light reading.  Not at all.  It is leavened by the occasional anecdotal story about congregational life, but it's mostly meat, written in language that tends towards the academic.  It goes hard and heavy into some of the most significant findings of congregational researchers, occasionally to the point of being a bit inaccessible.  For a well educated layperson, this might work...but it feels very much like a text that speaks at the graduate level.  It isn't a book you can rush through in one sitting.  Or two.  Or five.  I liked it, but for some, that might make this inaccessible.

Minus Side:  It can feel a bit cluttered.  As it reviews and presents most of the literature on congregational life and dynamics, it sometimes gets a bit overwhelming.  With multiple typologies of church types and dynamics, it presents faith communities in such a multivalent way that establishing a clear set of metrics for measuring congregational health can get a bit challenging.  It comes at congregational life from so many different directions that it can be a bit dizzying.  There's intentionality in the structure of the book, but sometimes it feels a bit like drinking from a churchybook firehose. 

Plus Side:  It is thorough.  On the flip side to the above, it really does provide a complete review of congregational research.  Typologies that lay out the impacts of organizational size, internal structure, congregational self-image, and spiritual style are all presented.  Of all of the books that I've gone through for my interim training prep, this one has felt the most useful.  It really does open up the breadth and depth of congregational life.

Plus Side:  It resonates with reality.   Many academic works feel like just that...academic works, full of theories and concepts that exist in the Platonic realm of church forms, but have no connection to how things are.  With this book, I lost track of the number of times I scribbled things like "Yes!" and "Exactly!" and "That's so true!" in the margins.  The ways that Galindo opens up church decision-making, organizational stumbling blocks, and other elements of how congregations function (or don't) is profoundly grounded in the actuality of church life.  Having grown up in a large church, and having served both mid-sized and small congregations, I see a tremendous amount of truth in Galindo's research-based insights.

Plus Side:  It's not just for interims.  Though referencing much of the same literature as the other interim books I read, The Hidden Lives of Congregations approaches congregational life in a way that does not assume you're only there to facilitate a transition.  It's more of a generalists book, something that is designed to be broadly useable by anyone in a position of congregational leadership.

Huge, Huge Plus:  It gets the theology right.  Many churchy books smother the spiritual element of congregational life under therapeutic or academic language, or have Christianity as a light gloss over top of a basically secular approach to organizational life.   While Galindo does a good, full job of exploring family systems theory and the broader organizational research on congregations, when it comes time to get to the heart of church, he sets aside that sort of language, and to my eyes nails it.  As he puts it, no matter what the size and context and systems dynamics of a church as a human entity:
All congregations have the same mission: to be the body of Christ in the world, participating with God in the redemptive work of restoring the people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  (p.42)
This is repeated, reiterated, and restated as the primary and governing purpose of congregations.  Which is good, because it is. 

Not sure why it is that Galindo seems better at this than others I've read.  Maybe...um...because he's Baptist?  Hmmm.