‘Slow Activism’: Organizing to the Tune of a Different Piper

This fall, I am looking at the work of my church through a different framework.

It began over the summer at the monthly meeting of our local clergy association, when I began learning about the difference between community activism and community organizing.

Do you know the difference? I didn’t.  

Basically, activism is focused on raising awareness on a particular issue and, usually, trying to galvanize support for some kind of change. Done well, it’s very effective. But by design, it’s typically very short-term. Also, to achieve the focus it needs and to turn up the heat on the situations it seeks to change, activism often requires a very simple story line in order for the pressure to work—there are bad guys, and they are called out, until, with enough pressure, they are forced to cave in. In many of history’s most urgent moments, when people come together and speak with one voice, activism provides the crucial vocabulary for change.

Think Tiananmen Square…or Tahrir Square…or the Berlin Wall. When activism really gets going, the walls come tumbling down.

Community organizing works on a very different model. For one thing, it’s built around the long-term. Rather than being primarily issue-focused, it’s about relationship and capacity-building, often over years, through a sustained practice of listening to people talk about their values and aspirations, and about getting people from very different sectors in the community to grow comfortable speaking and working together. 

It’s fueled by a very different kind of energy—the energy it takes to keep talking through differences and personalities in all their complexity, and to build trust at whatever pace that needs to take.

3568817849_41510c1487_zIf activism is about emphasizing stark contrasts, organizing is about embracing a muddled, moderate middle—but with the idea that when the community speaks, and when it engages in trying to effect change, it does so in ways that are sustained and bring very different people together. It’s not about the charisma of a few visionary leaders; it’s about communities learning to know each other and work together.

Changing the world requires a combination of both, of course, and churches of all denominations have been important in both activism and community organizing.

But I think there’s also a bigger lesson here in how churches approach our own internal conversation. 

As we talk about change, so often, it seems as if we put our hopes in the short-term sprint, the galvanizing action, and the charismatic leadership that will finally wake the sleeping giant of each congregation. We dream of harnessing the power of activism.

See if your church sounds like mine:

This year, we will be hiring a new Youth leader. We’ve only been thinking about it for a couple of weeks.  Already, I’ve been told “I don’t care if this person is ordained or not. But whoever we get needs to be a Pied Piper.”

“Hey,” I stopped myself from saying in a perhaps rare moment of pastoral self editing, “didn’t the Pied Pier of Hamelin lure all the kids away like rats—while everyone was in church?”

Similarly, last week, I had to scrape two creative and thoughtful committee heads off of the ceiling. After a lot of initial encouragement from the congregation, they announced big events to great fanfare—new breeze blowing, sure to attract a lot of people, great to see some fresh faces step up, etc. Now, with crunch time approaching, nobody has signed up to help, much less bring someone. Few of the committee members have committed to attending the events they themselves heralded only weeks earlier.

We’re one month into our program year, and already, it seems like the same old panic has set in. The panic that This Will Be The Year When … nobody comes to the Halloween Happening … when the consignment shop has to cut down to only two days a week … when there will be nobody signed up for Confirmation.

And so on.

I’m not immune to it, either.  

As part of a church led by a lay Church Council, I look at the number of committee slots that the Nominating Committee has to fill for 2015, and my heart sinks. Like a lot of churches, at mine, 20% of our pledgers give 80% of our budget…and that 20% is liking the Florida winters more and more and the Greenwich taxes less and less. We are desperate to keep them engaged as long as we can. But how creative can a Stewardship campaign really be?

Like a lot of churches, at mine, 20% of our pledgers give 80% of our budget…and that 20% is liking the Florida winters more and more and the Greenwich taxes less and less.

We’re all feeling the challenges. 

That said, I wonder if we’ve been looking for the wrong kind of solutions. I wonder if, in our own way, we’ve been hoping in the power of activism— charismatic leadership, awareness-raising, firing people up to get CROP Walk, or the Youth Choir Car Wash, or whatever it is done in a way that’s bigger and better than ever.  And which brings in new members. Who pledge.

Forget for a moment that this year’s Thanksgiving pie sale probably lacks the fire of, say, tearing down the Berlin Wall.

The fact is, even if an “activist” approach worked, it might still be the wrong tool for the job.

The role of churches is changing, not only within our communities, but within the lives of our members. The powerful cocktail of personal piety, collective expectation, and societal need doesn’t have the kick it once did. Too often, we’ve seen that, and responded by asking the barkeep to pour us a double. 

We need to rethink that.

The role of churches is changing, not only within our communities, but within the lives of our members. The powerful cocktail of personal piety, collective expectation, and societal need doesn’t have the kick it once did. Too often, we’ve seen that, and responded by asking the barkeep to pour us a double.

What we haven’t done is something closer to community organizing: working patiently to meet and know people already in our own churches. Outside of the pastor, who usually knows people’s stories at least in a general way, many people in congregations don’t really know each other well. All too often, when a long-term member meets a new one, it’s about recruiting, not relationship building.

That has to change. People need to be engaged, not on the basis of how they can help with some particular campaign or other, but on the basis of what’s important to them, and how they see the world, and with an eye to helping them have conversations like that with other people in the church they don’t know.

Once they know each other, who’s to say where they might decide to take the church? Who’s to say which programs will survive, which won’t, and which will change dramatically? 

But, by God, they will.

With that in mind, last week I asked my most exciting new committee, the Community Life Committee, to go dormant for six months after they get through their first (hopefully annual, they say) Craft Fair in November. They’ve done a great job, and their creativity and energy have been wonderful.

But what our church really needs is something that will outlast their charisma. If this Craft Fair and all the other events like it really are going to become annual, then this committee is going to have to think about how it does its work.

It will have to build its own capacity carefully, thinking about how it develops relationships in the church and the wider community. It will have to take the time to listen and reflect on how the committee can truly engage and assist others, rather than the other way around.

In our church, it may be the patient work of community building that finally ignites the real revolution. Call it the slow activism of the new church.

Brightly colored pipers need not apply.

Photo credits:
Hypnotised by the Pied Piper of Hamlin,” by Michael Liu, 2008. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Desaturated from original.
The second arrested, a clergy member,” by Mirnanda, 2009. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Maxwell Grant

The Rev. Maxwell Grant is the Senior Minister of the Second Congregational Church of Greenwich, Connecticut.  He is a 2006 graduate of Yale Divinity School, where he was awarded the Mersick Prize for Preaching. He has also served as Pediatric Chaplain at Yale New-Haven Hospital and as the School Minister at Collegiate School in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @maxgrantmg, and he blogs at www.maxgrant.net.