The Birdcage Church

26 Apr

Last year, while doing some spring cleaning, I came across an old birdcage. I had bought the birdcage about 10 years ago at a store similar to Hobby Lobby. I don’t exactly remember what I thought I was going to do with it, but it was one of those things that looks great when you first buy it, but soon ends up in the back storeroom of the basement. Just as I was about to throw it out, I decided to give it to our 6 year-old neighbor, McKenna. And she loved it. She quickly set about trying to catch a bird. Her method was subtle. She would leave the birdcage in a spot that she thought was likely to have a lot of bird traffic–next to a bush, in the middle of the yard, or under the tree. Importantly, McKenna would leave the door to the birdcage open. Don and I enjoyed coming home in the evening and seeing where McKenna had placed the open-door birdcage. After a week or two of leaving the cage in various places (with its door always open), McKenna must have realized she wasn’t going to convince a bird to come inside; consequently, she gave up. The birdcage disappeared and McKenna went on to other pursuits.

However, the image of the birdcage with its little door propped open has stayed with me. It reminds me of how the Church often views getting new members. We leave the door open and hope for the best.

An open door is nice, but it just won’t do it.

Yesterday I was at a UCC church giving a pitch for OCWM and someone asked me, “how do churches grow?” I gave kind of a quick, standard answer– personal invitation to worship, warmth and friendliness of church members, necessity of a growing demographic. But in thinking about it, I would say that my answer was pretty lame. The question is not how do you make a church grow? The question is, how do you keep a church from growing? To keep a church from growing takes work. And unfortunately, most of our congregations are very good at it.

Churches don’t grow because growth means change. We don’t really think of it like that. We don’t think about growth as change, but at its heart, it is.
Here is a universal example of a church that is so terrified of change that it will never allow itself to grow. A growth terrified church always has this characteristic: only the ladies who have been working in the kitchen for 30 years are allowed to touch ANYTHING in the kitchen. If that is true in one’s church, my advice is to pack up and find a new place to worship because your church will not be around in 10 years. The terrorist church kitchen is a sign of approaching death.

Personally, change makes me nervous. Change gives me anxiety because it means that all that I know and understand (which could translate to “all that I control”) is no longer my reality. So I feel out of control. You’re wondering why would a pastor be so fearful of change that she would secretly wish her congregation would never grow? Crazy, right? Right. Not at all descriptive of today’s clergy? Nope. Very descriptive. I am not saying I am paralyzed by my fear of change. I’m just really aware of it. Awareness of one’s vulnerabilities is one of the nice parts of growing up. (You did notice I said “growing up” not “old”, right?).

We have been experiencing a pleasant and consistent growth at Zion– about 35 members in 3 years. Our new members are a diverse group of talented, interesting individuals who have brought a wealth of experience, energy, and enthusiasm to our congregation. We are blessed. We are also not fearful. And our kitchen is run by very sane, not terrorist women.

So why is Zion growing? Because we are one of the rare church communities (OK, I’m shamelessly prejudiced) that embraces change. For example, when three new members came to me and said that they wanted to start a coffee hour following church (Zion hasn’t had one for decades), the response of every long-term member that I talked about it with was “oh good! What a great idea!” Many churches would distrust a new member making such a big change. Zion members just line up for the cookies.

An open door is important. But like my little neighbor and her birdcage, you have to do a lot more than open the door. You have to open yourself also.



Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Blogging With Jane



8 responses to “The Birdcage Church

  1. Gail Lawlor

    April 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    To capture a bird, or a new member, I suppose, you have to offer them food.

  2. janewillan

    April 26, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I think you’re right– and the food could be any kind of nurture– friendliness, warmth, welcome.

  3. bill daws

    April 26, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    I like the analogy except that a cage is a trap or at least confining. I like the idea of enjoying the “birds” on their own terms outside the cage

    • janewillan

      April 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

      enjoying the “birds” on their own terms would be a good metaphor for all that is to be gained by the benefit of new people.

  4. Rodney Botts

    April 26, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    “Change” what a concept. Outside the box-pushing the envelope-chaos. Exploring a range of possibilities. When your next door neighbor took the cage she was moving through many of those things. Her vision was she would have a bird in the cage-soon. She tried different processes didn’t work? Hum I bet in another time and place she will think of her experience and come up with a desired solution. When change is accepted as a way to a desired solution wonderful and unexpected things happen. Wouldn’t it be be nice if church members accepted the change grove!!

    • janewillan

      April 26, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      So another word for “change” is “process” . Less scary and therefore, more productive.

  5. John

    April 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    The cage metaphor focuses on an open door to an empty space…possibly containing a little swing, food, a waterer, maybe a little bell. Behind the bars a nice place for a bird–we think. Maybe as long as the bird has not tasted freedom, the cage is fine, but once free to fly, returning to confinement would be intolerable.

    Only by fleing the cage and entering the world outside the cage and affecting it, can we make differences in the world. We have to be desiring and producing more than sitting on a perch inside.

    • janewillan

      April 27, 2012 at 7:34 am

      your comment makes me think of the nuns vs the Vatican. the nuns are out there in the world making a difference and the Cardinals and Bishops are sitting on the perch inside.


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