Opening our eyes

Pastors love lightbulb moments. Those moments where an insight or a revelation helps make the task of understanding and leading a church community more informed. Craig Corkill, Senior Pastor at Narara Valley Baptist Church had one of those moments in 2011 and it has helped change how he thinks about church and community. Perhaps Craig’s lightbulb moment could lead to one of your own? 

When you close your eyes
For generations, the Maasai had described this area as ‘siringet’ – “the place where the land runs on forever”. Today though this region of over 14,000 km2, home to vast herds of wildebeests, zebra and impala, is known around the world by a different name … “the Serengeti”.

Shumba had visited this part of the Serengeti before. Ahead of her lay a small cave where two years earlier she had delivered her first litter of cubs – today she approached the cave for the same purpose. Away from the presence of the rest of the pride, and keeping an ever-watchful eye for any sign of danger, Shumba gave birth to three cubs, two females, Mwana and Diata, and a male – Ibhubesi.

As is normal for all lion cubs, Shumba’s offspring were blind at birth and their new legs were unable to take even a few steps. The three would-be ‘king and queens of the jungle’ were completely reliant on their hypervigilant mother for food and protection. Within a few short weeks though, eyes began to focus, legs began to strengthen and Shumba introduced the cubs to their first meal of meat.

At night, the sounds of the Serengeti seemed amplified in the small cave they called home in those early weeks. Ibhubesi would hear the cacophony of noise and imagine great danger lurking beyond the mouth of the cave. In a desperate attempt to comfort himself, he would close his eyes tight and snuggle closer into Shumba’s soft fur.

This behaviour was embraced by Shumba at first, yet as Ibhubesi’s senses heightened and heightened, the noises seemed to grow louder and louder for him. Regardless of whether it was day or night, Shumba would often find her son with eyes shut tight, hoping that whatever was making the noise this time would soon depart.

“Come out and play!” Mwana and Diata called to their brother as they chased each other in the warm savannah grass.

“I … I can’t … I just heard something!” Ibhubesi replied, eyes shut up tight as a trap.

“That’s right, you did hear something. It’s the sound of impala – and they look amazing … and delicious”

Regardless of whether the noises came from opportunities or threats, Ibhubesi remained fearful of the world that lay beyond his closed eyelids. It seemed safer to retreat to the darkness of the known, than to explore the world in the light.

After six months lived in almost constant self-made darkness, the time came for Ibhubesi to leave the pride. Since lions had begun to roam the Serengeti thousands of years before, young lions had always been forced out of the family group to fend for themselves and find their own pride.

As Shumba and the pride left Ibhubesi, she turned back once more from a distance to look upon her son. Already a group of buzzards had gathered around Ibhubesi, still with eyes shut tight.

“How could it be?” she wondered, “A great lion overcome by a small flock of birds.”

But that is the power of fear…

What’s your vision of the church?
How open are your eyes? What do you ‘see’ in the church and community you’re a part of?

For many years, I saw my church and community through the lens of the ABC’S – attendance, buildings, cash and stories. Like many pastors, I’d keep an eye on how many people were showing up on Sunday, whether the buildings needed some work, how much cash we had in our account and whether there were any cool stories of people experiencing life-change in our church and community (particularly stories I could share with other pastors to somehow validate my own ministry – pastors are just as flawed as anyone else!).

Yet there was something niggling me about this approach. For starters, it seems like Jesus wasn’t that focused on drawing a crowd. Most of the time people did gather around in significant numbers, he jumped in a boat to evade them or he gave really gross teaching about eating his body and drinking his blood!

Jesus also wasn’t that big on constructing impressive buildings. Last time I looked in the Gospels, Jesus was indicating that he didn’t even have a place to lay his head.

In terms of cash, Jesus sent out his disciples ahead of him “without purse, bag or sandals” (Luke 22:35), so I’m guessing that his Profit and Loss Statement was pretty lean.

Even the stories I was being told weren’t a great barometer of the health of the church and community. If your context is like mine, people are far more ready to tell you the good stories and avoid the hard truths. Equally, some colleagues of mine would tell me how the loudest voices in their world were the people who couldn’t wait to tell them how much they, the church and the community had failed.

There had to be a better way to see the church and community. To be honest I felt like Ibhubesi – occasionally I’d open my eyes to the ABC’S, but then shut them tight again. I knew there was a bigger world out there that contained both opportunities and threats, but I wasn’t sure what they were and if they’d be scary.

Yet back in 2011 I had a bit of a ‘light bulb’ moment.

My light bulb moment
Like many churches across Australia we completed the National Church Life Survey (NCLS), and when we got the results back, it felt like we were opening our eyes. The information we received went far beyond ABC’S, it began to tell us (among other things): whether people were actually growing in their faith; how relationally connected people felt; whether people were confident sharing their faith; how people were serving and where; and whether church leadership was empowering or inhibiting. In addition, it also gave us a snapshot of our local community that went way beyond our ‘gut feel’ of challenges in our neighbourhood.

But here’s the thing … NCLS is only run nationally once every five years. My ‘light bulb’ moment came when I began to ask the question “Would it be possible to have this kind of information every year, and if it was possible, how could we use that year-on-year information to shape our goals and strategies for the up-coming year?”

An annual Church Life Survey
So it turns out that if you ask them nicely, the team at NCLS are more than willing to run the survey annually for the church you lead. So here’s what we do:

Each year around September we run the NCLS survey. Some people in our congregation will roll their eyes at doing the survey again, but the vast majority are glad to be part of a church that listens to them.

Survey Results – Step 1: How to read them
A few weeks later we get the survey results back, and gather the church leaders. Initially we simply read through the survey result. Let me give you a practical tip right here … always start reading the report with the back page. There’s an amazing ‘dashboard’ on that page that gives you a summary of the results – it’s brilliant!

Then we start drilling down a little further into the results.  We look at what it tells us about the effectiveness of strategies we used over the past year to lead the church in mission. To be honest, there have been some years where you can almost hear the Hallelujah Chorus in the background and there’s hi-fives all around. Equally there have been other years where we’ve still been thankful, but the hi-fives haven’t been anywhere near as plentiful. Some years it seems like a mix of both. Last year, for example, the results showed that whilst we were strong in serving our local community, people on the whole weren’t confident in sharing their faith. That takes us to the next step …

Survey Results – Step 2: Prayer & Strategic Planning
Next, we prayerfully consider where God is leading us into the forthcoming year. Now please hear me on this – the survey results are a PART of what guides us into the next year. There’s also a whole lot of seeking God in prayer, listening to those with prophetic voices in our church, and being attentive to our collective ‘leadership gut’. We’ll also consider data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and conversations we’ve had with local leaders (e.g. school Principals, local Council, etc) because we want a clear picture of the community which we’re missionally engaged within. With that said, the survey results do give us some very tangible information about the church and community so that we can more effectively embrace the opportunities and attend to the threats.

After planning for the coming year, creating a budget that reflects where we sense God leading us, we take all that to the church. We celebrate ‘the wins’ together, name the ‘losses’, talk about areas where we believe God is taking us into the future, and begin to step into that. Then come September the next year, we repeat the rhythm again.

The outcome
The net result of all this?  We ain’t Ibhubesi no more.

Our eyes are open. We’re more convinced than ever that God is good. We’re more intentionally attentive to his leading among us. We’re more focused on making disciples and measuring things that count, than being caught in the headlights of only seeing ABC’S.

So I encourage you … open your eyes. Don’t wait another five years before the survey rolls around again. Contact the team at NCLS and ask them if you too can start doing the survey annually. I know I sound like a paid advertisement (which I’m not), but it’s a tool that is seriously that helpful in ministry.

Craig Corkill, Senior Pastor at Narara Valley Baptist Church, NSW

Contact National Church Life Survey (02) 9701 4479 [email protected]