ISO Norm Entrepreneurs

Norm enterpreneurs draw attention to what they see as the stupidity, unnaturalness, intrusiveness, or ugliness of current norms. From How Change Happens by Cass R. Sunstein

Someone phoned me a few weeks ago very troubled by the fact that a school bus driver had been nominated to serve as an elder in her church. “A school bus driver!” she said. “We used to have people like bank presidents and doctors to serve as elders, but now we’ve lowered our standards to elect a bus driver.” She wanted me to do something about it.

I told her that the elders are the spiritual leaders of a congregation and that God chooses all kinds of people to serve. I told her that I’d rather have a faithful bus driver who teaches Bible study than a faithless bank president who only worships on Easter. I told her it’s about discipleship not education level or bank account or name recognition.

I sometimes grow weary of this conversation. It shows up in countless ways.

Every congregation follows a set of norms and those norms could be killing their church. If the norms are “stupid, unnatural, intrusive, or ugly” that congregation will not survive much longer. Of course none of us believe that we are any of those things, but the reality is that:

  • It’s a little stupid if your elders spend time working on a Ten Year Plan these days. Exhibit A: COVID.
  • It’s unnatural if your congregation assumes that there is only one demographic (e.g. straight white men of a certain age and abilities) eligible to serve in leadership, as if the Holy Spirit doesn’t move through unlikely candidates. There is Biblical evidence for this.
  • It’s intrusive if your congregation expects all members to share personal information they don’t want to share. People are different. Some will want everyone to know about their brain tumor and others will not.
  • It’s ugly if your congregation has unspoken biases against people who don’t look, sound, or think like the majority of members.

Without exception, each of our struggling congregations struggle because of norms that harm instead of bolster their church. I’m in search of norm entrepreneurs who know how to shift the culture of a congregation from what doesn’t look like Jesus to what looks more like Jesus.

Show me a church that has norms based on Micah 6:8, Galatians 5:22-23, or Matthew 6:33 and I’ll show you a church that grapples with everyday hospitality, worship, spiritual growth and outreach into the community in an impactful way. Unfortunately too many of our congregations have norms based on keeping people comfortable. And instead of centering on The Things of God we focus on lesser things.

What was the last Big Conflict your governing board had? If it was about attendance, building or cash, you need to refocus. The Church is called to be about proclaiming the gospel and offering spiritual nurture and worshiping a God who is bigger than ourselves and preserving the Truth and promoting the justice of Jesus. What everyday norms help us to be that kind of Church?

We need leaders who know how to shift dated norms – with pastoral sensitivity, of course.

Image of Cass R. Sunstein’s book How Change Happens (MIT Press, 2019)

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