A couple of years ago I met with a church council as part of a classical visioning process. Our classis had asked church councils to engage in an appreciative inquiry exercise and reflect on their church’s experience with classis. I met with this council to help facilitate the discussion. We were not very far into the meeting, however, when I realised that I had to abandon my script. Few members of this council had much experience with or awareness of classis. Rather than asking them what gifts our classis had or what dreams they had for classis, we had to start with the basics and talk about what classis is meant to be, what their money was being used for, the regional ministries our classis was engaged in, and the resources classis could provide to churches.
Our classis had what might be called a crisis of awareness. People were simply not aware of us and I doubt our classis is unique in this respect. Many church members have little awareness of classis beyond the line item that appears in their church budgets. That is not really a surprise, in an era of declining denominational identity and media saturation. This lack of awareness might also have something to do with classis’ position as the “forgotten middle child” of church government (to use Paul Vander Klay’s phrase). It is just hard to get attention when bigger (denominational) and smaller (congregation) siblings are busy telling their stories.
Classes use a variety of means to try to spread the news. Some classical ministries produce high quality newsletters that tell compelling ministry stories. These, however, tend to get buried in thick agendas. Some classes produce a summary of their meeting to be printed in church bulletins. These, however, rarely go beyond the mechanics of the meeting and have a hard time communicating vision or spirit. Some classes print excellent newsletters, but I wonder whether these suffer the same fate as the other newsletters that fill my church mail slot. Most classes have websites, but these tend to be repositories of documents like rule books, agendas and minutes. Some produce videos for use in worship, but most worship services are already crowded with information. Each of these strategies shares a common issue; when there is so much for people to read and watch, what makes this stand out?
An elder I know says that he only came to appreciate classis after his congregation went through an exceedingly difficult time. In that time, they were helped by regional pastors, church visitors, classical ministry committee members and pastors who served as classical pulpit supply. Through these the church felt supported and their opinion of classis changed. This suggests that while newsletters, web sites and other media can help, it is personal connections that still make the difference. If classes create strong regional ministries that connect with people, stories will be told and the word will spread.