- Chris Wethman
Plans, Plans, Plans and More Plans
“…if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, then think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Introduction: A Pathway of Hope for the Future
Since this entire COVID-19 event began, we’ve had to come up with plans. Plans, plans, and more plans. Plans to account for schools being closed. Plans to work from home. Plans to leave the house to get groceries. Plans to hold meetings. Plans to worship. Plans to locate masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and yes, even toilet paper. These are difficult and often troubling times.
The sentiment of many individuals has been, “Don’t worry. We’ll get through it.” Their optimism is appreciated. We can be grateful for their encouragement to trust God’s promise that He is with us and will bring us through.
However, what we need to be careful of is just getting through it. The more important question to ask is, “What is the Lord trying to teach us through this? What does God want us to learn from this?” Remember, the purpose of God’s plan for us is to prosper us. (Jeremiah 29:11) Yet, the reality of our life together now and in the future needs to be addressed.
Worship services are not being conducted. Choirs are silent. Opportunities for faith formation have dwindled. Children’s activities at church have halted. The intrusion of COVID-19 in our lives together as the Body of Christ is taking its toll. So, how can communities of faith confront these challenging times?
In troubled times it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong. However, the usual problem-solving approaches often provide more discouragement than effectiveness. Our minds spiral downward as we concentrate on the negative – weaknesses and threats – while the solutions to challenges elude us.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) reveals that those answers are often already present in our experiences. AI helps explore when things have worked well, when things were at their best, and identify the causes of success.
Effective teachers know that maximum learning comes from catching children doing right and building on the skills that are already present. AI asks participants to do just that, to notice what’s going right, make it visible, and to build on that wisdom. The most important underlying assumption of AI is the belief that there is already excellence in all communities and systems.
By looking for, displaying, discussing, and analyzing what already works, an organization can rise to greater heights. The power of the process lies in building on strengths instead of attempting to combat weaknesses. AI contends that people and organizations like plants that move toward the light, grow in a positive direction when light becomes evident.
When Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) he asked us to lift up that light and not hide it under cover or negativity. Appreciative Inquiry invites Christian communities to consider a different way…
What is Appreciative Inquiry?
A powerful methodology, Appreciate Inquiry (AI) is a process that invites people to look deeply into what most “gives life” and what can create “abundant life” in their lives. It redefines the way organizations and individuals exist by focusing on core strengths and leveraging them to reshape the future. It is centered in the art and practice of asking life-centered questions that can strengthen an organization’s ability to reach its full potential. Rather than deficit-based approaches which outline only problems, resistance or obstacles, AI asks people to rediscover the best of “what is” in order to dream boldly about – and initiate – “what could be.” The result is a newfound desire to achieve both a shared vision of the future and sustainable change.
When connected to our life in Christ, AI provides a framework for envisioning a congregation, ministry, or life-setting that is centered in seeing and telling the “Good News” of the Gospel message that has the power to transform the lives of its people. The source of power for AI to work in the church is always and only God’s Spirit at work connecting us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This makes the AI process in the Christian community unique from its use in any other organization. We are not simply shoe-horning the church into a secular model to get “results,” we are bringing new meaning and pouring real power into the AI model for God to use for our good and the expansion of His reign in our lives.
AI shifts the focus from deficit-based thinking toward mutual valuation. Exposing weaknesses and focusing on a lack of resources, rather than God’s abundant blessings, leads church leaders and members toward negative thinking. This mindset is in sharp contrast to the power of the Holy Spirit that points us to the words of St. Paul in Philippians 4:8. Visions of a new and vibrant future thrive in an atmosphere fraught with enthusiasm, anticipation and hope.
The theory and process of AI was first developed by David L. Cooperrider, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1980s, and named in his doctoral dissertation as: Appreciative Inquiry: Toward a Methodology for Understanding and Enhancing Organizational Innovation.
To define terms, “appreciate” means to value, recognize or affirm the strengths, successes and potentials in people and communities. We appreciate things that give life, health, vitality and excellence. To “inquire” is to explore or discover. It is to ask questions with the hope of seeing new potentials and possibilities. “Appreciative Inquiry” is thus the process of asking questions and exploring things that most give life, health, vitality and excellence.
The moments of life and excellence in the churches should never be taken for granted. They help us to see the grace of God at work in our lives and inspire people to live out the salvation that is theirs through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul Chaffee, in his article “Claiming the Light” writes, “It means attending more to the abundance of God’s love than to the drama of human sinfulness.” While always maintaining Law-Gospel tension it is the Gospel that predominates, wins the day, and brings new life. The law always condemns and kills. The Gospel brings life that allows the community of believers to identify and attend to what is most important about its life now and in the future.
Why Does Appreciative Inquiry Work?
John 16:33b says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Sometimes we stop with the first part of this verse and forget the second part. Trouble, suffering or problems are not the only things present in life or churches. There are successes, hopes and dreams buoyed by the profound peace, security and joy found only in Jesus’ final victory. Redirecting the focus of congregational analysis to these positive qualities allows people and organizations to be raised up, as on the wings of an eagle, beyond the conditions in which any problems originally existed.
According to Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, authors of The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change, “Appreciative Inquiry works because it treats people like people and not like machines. As humans, we are social. We like to tell stories and listen to stories. We pass on our values, beliefs and wisdom in stories.” This truth is wholly reinforced in Jesus’ parables and words of Moses as he conveys the story of The Ten Commandments, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6) and “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?’ tell him: …Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders.’” (Deuteronomy 6:20, 22). It is the story of God in the Bible that sustains us and gives us life. And, as we look at the stories of our congregations in light of the Story of God, the Spirit breathes life into us.
While developed in a secular context, the life-centered focus of Appreciative Inquiry relates well to the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of John, “…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). AI is a resource that can help congregations connect to the life that is theirs in Christ and experience it more fully. It provides a practical way to take seriously the Scriptural message “Harden not your hearts.” (Hebrews 3:7) It places gratitude for God’s blessings and creation, and hope in our God-given potential, at the center of our process.
Appreciative Inquiry: For Such a Time As This
COVID-19 has brought about changes that will impact how ministry is conducted in the months and years ahead. Congregations must take the steps to evaluate the mission God has called them to and identify how they will position their ministries. The time is now to ask some probing, yet positive questions:
· What new opportunities exist for the Gospel?
· How is God working through this health crisis and doing a new thing to see lives transformed?
· What unique strengths characterize our ministry?
· What is God asking of us in this place and time?
· With all the changes taking place, what is important to retain or bring along as we move into the future?
Engaging and envisioning by way of Appreciative Inquiry provides an opportunity to answer these types of questions and then go beyond what is thought to be possible. It is a time to push the creative edges of possibility and to wonder about a congregation’s greatest potential.
AI focuses on that which imbues a congregation’s efforts with excitement and energy. It is part of the journey that is a response to its evolving needs and trends impacting congregational life today. Transformation begins with the simple act of people talking about their passions and core interests. Positive questions promote change and growth by uncovering incredible untapped energy unlocked by storytelling about successful experiences that can form the foundation for positive futures.
“And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly in love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, in the fullness of God.” [Ephesians 3:19 -The MESSAGE]