A Tale of Twin Churches

]As a parent of identical twin girls, I find twin studies pretty interesting. Research in this area, particularly of those who are monozygotic (identical) sharing “nearly 100% of their genes,” can provide a unique opportunity for scientists seeking to understand the impact of environment and behavior upon human development. Such studies often undermine assumptions of genetic determinism. The environments that nurture us and the practices we develop matter as much as, and perhaps more than, our genes.

During the early years of parenting twins, my wife and I developed a couple life hacks to help us to identify our children. Recognizing a small birthmark that one of our daughters had saved us from painting toe nails as some parents must. Eventually, our daughters started to develop their own patterns and personalities that made the task of identifying them quite easy – at least for their parents.

IMG_5411As of late, our twins are in the process of overcoming a significant developmental milestone. The oldest, by one minute, lost her first tooth last week during dinner. There was no drama around it. One moment it was loose, and the next it was lost on the tough crust of a piece of bread. With my wife out of town, I was ecstatic in the absence of tears.

Fast forward two days. The younger sister’s tooth, the same tooth, is now loose as well. But we can tell already that the loss of this tooth is going to take awhile. In chewing and brushing it is gingerly avoided and treated lightly. At bedtime, it is the object of some whining and worry. While an accidental bite will likely bring about its demise, I sometimes wonder if this tooth will hang out until a stiff breeze finally blows it from its precarious perch.

While their shared genetics may have brought them to this milestone at essentially the same time, different personalities and approaches to change and pain are impacting how they encounter it. The oldest is, in most things, the brave and curious soul. She is more likely to ask “why” and to explore boundaries with her behavior. Her younger, by that whole minute, sister is more cautious and comfortable with familiarity. She likes the nightlight on; her older sister says it is too bright.

While no two churches are identical, it isn’t hard to find parallel settings that beg a twin comparison. Beyond the familiar building designs that were used and reused in numerous settings, churches with similar congregational DNA are common, as are the subsequent blessings and challenges those particular make-ups lend themselves toward. It is likely each will encounter similar milestones in their communal life but we know from observation that their responses may vary significantly.

When we become stuck in a ministry rut, we tend to imagine that our church’s health is predetermined by the resources we have access to. There is a certain amount of truth and experience that undergirds this sentiment. A strong pastorate can make a difference. The financial resources of a significant endowment, or wealthy and generous members, can impact the range of possibilities we might have. A church’s theology can dictate the manner (and flexibility) a faith community with take in addressing a larger social concern.

Still, I wonder if we don’t undersell the importance of our approach to things. Are there occasions where scarcity is a convenient cover for our fear of change and the pain that might accompany it? Do we allow problems to linger, like my youngest daughter’s tooth, because we don’t possess a sense of adventure? Do we undermine our ability to engage our surrounding communities when we never ask “why” or explore the boundaries of our own creation?

Practices are the key. That is a truth we might glean from a Finnish twin study that was released recently. The study looked at “identical twins in their early- to mid-20s whose exercise habits had substantially diverged [only] after they had left their childhood homes.” It sought to understand the role of continued attention to fitness after adolescence.

The differences they discovered in these identical twins are significant. The sedentary twins had less endurance, higher body fat, and signs of insulin resistance in comparison to their active counterparts; all of this despite their maintenance of similar diets. Most surprising was the increased grey matter found in the active twins, “especially in areas of the brain involved in motor control and coordination.”

As individuals, and as the body of Christ, we inherit obstacles and opportunities that we might fairly categorize as our DNA or genes. There are certain traditions and quirks, gifts and deficiencies, we may need to just live with; or better, learn to accept and allow God to work through them.

But if there is wisdom we might learn from the study of twins, it is this. While it is true that we may start with varying resources or DNA, our practices play a more significant role than we are prone to give them credit for. While some churches may be so dilapidated that good practice may be too little, too late, most churches hold more of their fate in their hands than they imagine.

The environments that nurture us and the practices we develop shape our future as much as, and perhaps more than, our genes. This is true for us individually and it is equally true for us as the church. Contrary to those who believe that our collective fate is sealed, churches that step forward in good faith and practice are most often rewarded.

That said, we must summon some bravery to take risks. Just as certain folks are inclined to avoid and even pamper a loose tooth, many churches put off necessary change because it can be, undeniably, painful. Unlike my daughter, we are well past our adolescence and may be running short on our reserves of cute.

Some questions for your reflection:

  • What are some of the spiritual obstacles and opportunities you’ve inherited as a church?
  • Are these essential parts of your community’s DNA or are they the practices that mold and shape you (for better or worse)?
  • Are there changes, or loose teeth, that need to be explored and engaged? Does fear get in the way, how so?
  • Are you familiar with similar churches, in their genetic makeup, that have arrived at different ends? What were some of the key differences?
  • What are the key practices, from your experience, that lead to spiritual health? What are some that should be avoided?

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