Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What Church Planters Taught Me about Welcoming New People into Community Organizations

This summer, a gift landed in my podcast feed: a five-part series on evangelical church planting.

This podcast series didn't come from a Christian source. It came from Startup, a podcast about entrepreneurship. The series focuses on the intersection between mission and hustle--a battleground familiar to many nonprofit leaders.

I've been fascinated by church planting for a long time. Not because of religious affinity--I'm an atheist Jew--but because church planters teach me new lessons about relevance and inclusion.

Church planting is the act of creating new churches, often targeted for people who may not feel like church is relevant to them. Church plants bring the message of Christ to new people in new ways.

Like church planters, I'm passionate about connecting new people with mission-driven community experiences. I see church planting as way, way outside my comfort zone--leading to surprising, catalytic lessons.

Here are two reasons you might want to join me in learning from church planters:

1. Church plants are petri dishes of innovation when it comes to inviting new people into mission-based organizations.

Church plant pastors are a lot like other nonprofit leaders. They're passionate about organizational mission. They want to connect people to work they perceive as life-changing and sublime. But church planters pastors differ in an intriguing way: they are unapologetically evangelical. Their evangelism makes them creative, courageous hustlers when it comes to inviting new people into their work.

Some nonprofit leaders are put off by evangelism. It seems pushy, or gauche, to insist that passersby check out the art center or adopt environmental habits. We want people to be inspired by our mission... but we want them to come to it on their own. Instead of evangelizing, we hedge. We court newcomers, but not too much. If they don't come running to us, we demur. We don't want to be too exposed. We assume they just weren't interested. We drop it.

Evangelists don't hedge. They feel called to share the mission, to spread the message. They may be pushy, but they're also more whole-heartedly invested in bringing in newcomers. And that means they take bigger risks and attempt wilder experiments in making their work relevant.

Put in a daycare center? Hold services in a brew pub? Evangelists push themselves to reach new people in new ways. There's a lot we can learn from their experiments in pursuit of relevance.

2. Church plants are part of a healthy ecosystem for innovation and diversity--the kind of ecosystem I wish we had in the cultural sector.

The biggest, most established churches don't see church plants as threats. They see them as innovative feeders. Tim Keller, head of the giant Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, claims that new churches are 3-6x better than established churches at attracting the "unchurched." And so Redeemer plants new churches. They don't just do it in far-flung cities. The majority of the churches they plant are in New York--the exact same city where Redeemer operates.

The result is an ecosystem in which large and established institutions help fuel new and risky ones. The rationale is both generous and self-serving. It's an abundance model, premised on the idea that more churches means more Christians and a better world for everyone. New churches bring new people to Christ. They bring new donors to Christ. And they bring fresh, innovative methods to pastors of churches old and new. So big churches like Redeemer spend time mentoring and funding church plants.

What would it look like if our largest organizations actively championed and funded new, experimental upstarts?

What would it feel like if we approached new potential audiences with the zeal of pastors on a mission?

What else can we learn from the weird and wonderful world of church planting?

Check out the podcast and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Who are We Protecting?

I remember the exact moment when I snapped. I was at an informal talk by a visitor research professional from a large American art museum. The presenter was a few minutes in, setting context about a recent rebranding effort at her institution. "Our real challenge," she said, "was how to attract new audiences while protecting loyal patrons."

My eyes locked on that phrase on her slide, "protecting loyal patrons." I couldn't let it pass. I asked her: "what are you protecting them from?" A colleague of mine helpfully added: "who are you protecting them from?" The conversation went downhill from there.

I'm grateful to this presenter. She put in black and white what goes unsaid in so many talks and press releases. Cultural institutions are willing to change to attract new audiences. But not at the expense of the pain or discomfort of loyal patrons.

Some people might argue that protectionism is the natural political position of a collecting institution. These institutions exist to protect heritage. To protect artifacts from harm. To protect and preserve that which would otherwise be discarded or destroyed.

But when it comes to people, protectionism is problematic. Loyal patrons don't need protection--even if they may be the people who gave us those artifacts. Loyal patrons get most of our attention, assets, and appreciation. And they already have most of the power. They are, on average, wealthier, whiter, more educated, and older than the general population. They are, on average, people with privilege. They may feel that their privilege is at risk, or fragile. But that doesn't mean they don't have it.

For people with privilege, protection is a waste of resources that demeans their agency. Loyal patrons don't need to be wrapped in archival tissue paper. They need to be engaged in change processes. They need invitations--to participate, to be part of the new, to embrace the unexpected alongside the familiar. Just like new audiences, loyal patrons need to be welcomed into institutions full of different people, experiences, and opportunities.

When the MAH was changing aggressively, we embraced Elaine Heumann Gurian's idea of "the museum of and." We didn't want to reject some people and anoint others. We wanted to build a truly pluralistic institution.

Most of the time, this strategy works. When confronted with a conflict between two groups, or two ways of experiencing the museum, we choose both. We bring them together. We build bridges. We choose "and." But when we have to decide--and sometimes we do--we try to stand on the side of those who have less power in the given conflict.

For the MAH, siding with the less powerful is part of our work and our mission. When an institution protects powerful people, it hobbles its ability to involve new people and grow more diverse. Organizations often protect powerful people at the expense of the very same new audiences they seek to attract. Protecting power means protecting the power structures that put whiter, wealthier, more educated, older people on top.

This incident happened at the same time ICE started separating families at the southern border of the U.S. My colleagues at the MAH were working with local organizers on the Santa Cruz #FamiliesBelongTogether rally (which ended at our museum). My colleagues were working with partners in the Latinx community who were receiving overt threats. These partners--who represent audiences we have recently worked to attract--were afraid for their loved ones. Their rights and safety were at risk.

Who are we protecting?