Archive for July, 2010

Take One Step at a Time

July 25, 2010

This past spring, Scott Cormode wrote an article for the Fuller Seminary News & Notes where he talked about how most people want the wrong things from a leader. He says that most people are looking for two things in their leaders. One, is that they want vision (this is where we are going), and two, they want a plan (here’s how we are going to get there). In short, they want a leader who can tell them the next seven steps to help them reach their goal.

I understand why we long for such leaders, but there is a problem with that. It doesn’t work – at least it doesn’t help us get the things that matter the most. The lay-out-the-steps leadership model works great if you are putting together a bicycle on Christmas Eve. It works great on a predictable system where you know in advance exactly which parts are there and how they fit together.

But, it doesn’t work when your daughter is trying to grow some plants. Once she has planted and watered them on the first day, what is the next step? Here’s where the flaw comes out in the lay-out-the-steps leadership model. The next step depends on what happens. If it is really hot outside, your daughter needs to water the plants a lot. If it is rainy, she has to move them under the awning so they don’t drown. And so on. Her goal is not just to plant the seeds. Her goal is to help them grow. So she can’t determine the next step because the next step depends on what happens after the previous step.

Her goal is to help them grow. Our goal as Christian leaders is not to put together a ministry like a pre-packaged bicycle. Our goal is to help God’s people grow. Helping God’s people grow does not follow a lay-out-the-steps model of leadership. So, what can we do? The goal of the Christian leader is to help people take one step at a time. Once a person or a missional community takes a step, then we can help them take the next step. We can’t predict in advance what steps will be necessary. You can’t predict for sure where your congregation is going. You can’t predict for sure where your denomination is going. What you can do is take one faithful, Biblical step at a time.

Think about a congregation that wants to do a relatively straightforward project like building a fellowship hall on the church property. (Those of you who have been through this are already laughing.) They expected to form a committee, draw up plans, collect the funds, hire a contractor, and build the hall. But at each step along the way, they discovered things about themselves that made the next step anything but straight forward. Even forming the initial committee proved a challenge. It brought up latent controversies between the church staff and the board about control and who was in charge. It brought up buried resentments between wealthy nominal families and poor active members. And they ran into construction delays that created a whole domino effect of unanticipated changes. A lay-out-the-steps leadership model would have forced the original schedule without paying attention to the emerging issues. But, to help God’s people grow, the leaders had to listen, pay attention, and have conversations with others, to determine the next steps that would help God’s people grow. What they thought was going to be a straight line from point A to point B turned out to be more like a sailing ship tacking back and forth and back and forth as it crossed the lake.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe that church leaders need to have a general outline of how a process will go. But, we have to hold that process loosely enough to be able to adjust to the needs of each step. Otherwise, we will miss the most important issues that emerge along the way that God wants us to pay attention to. Sometimes, this can be difficult. Sometimes, it can be painful. Usually, it takes more time than we think. But, if we want to help people grow to become more like Christ, it is necessary.

We often look for the wrong things in our leaders. We look for people who will tell us where to go and what to do. But, what we need are leaders who will help us grow in Christlikeness. We need leaders who will help us take one faithful, Biblical step at a time.


The Missional Church and Denominations

July 1, 2010

In the book The Missional Church and Denominations edited by Craig Van Gelder, he discusses that while denominations are a fact of life in Christianity today, they are actually of rather recent origin, dating back to just the last 250 years. A wide variety of observations have been made about denominations during this time.

In the mid-1800s, writers like Robert Baird celebrated denominations for their ability to be entrepreneurial in reaching out and contextualizing church life for distinctly different groups of people. In the early decades of the 1900s, H. Richard Niebuhr critiqued denominations by saying they represented the ethical failure of Christianity. In the second half of the 1900s, Martin Marty observed denominations moving past their divisions and competitiveness towards unity. As mainline churches stopped growing in the 1960s and 1970s, Dean Kelly and Fink and Starke looked at denominations in a framework of a market economy and began describing the winners and losers.

Denominations are not going to go away; however, they are going to continue to morph within our ever-changing cultural context. The DNA of most denominations has been built on a core genetic code that places more emphasis on polity (how the church is organized and administered) than it does on ecclesiology (how the church’s nature or essence is understood). During our shift to the corporate model from 1920-1970, denominations focused on bringing productivity and efficiency into their business organizations, and built command-and-control systems by establishing a hierarchical bureaucracy. As denominational loyalty began to erode, denominations became more regulatory in character, hoping that rules and procedures would ensure compliance. They did not. New interest was placed on the church renewal movement, the church growth movement, the church effectiveness movement, and then the church health movement. But, all of these movements were simply trying to improve “how we do church”, focusing on technical answers rather than adaptive solutions, and did not shift the paradigm of how the church operates in an era of discontinuous change. They did not touch the core genetic code of the denomination, so nothing much changed.

What is new today is that the missional church conversation has reintroduced a discussion about the very nature of the church – its essence. This conversation no longer understands “being missionary” primarily in functional terms as something the church does. It understands “being missionary” primarily in terms of something the church is, as something related to its very nature. This shifts the conversation from what God is doing in the church to what God is doing in the world. The missional church perspective understands that congregations are created by the Spirit and that their existence is for the purpose of engaging the world in bringing God’s redemptive work in Christ to bear on every dimension of life. Congregations cannot function as ends within themselves, as is the tendency of the established church. They cannot be satisfied with maintaining primarily a functional relationship with their contexts and communities, as is the tendency of denominational churches. The missional church has a different genetic code.

The book suggests that we avoid the two main temptations we face in the denominational church today: institutional idolatry and antinomianism. The temptation is to either love it or leave it. People tend to either entrench themselves in the current denominational system or pack up their bags and evacuate. Neither approach is ultimately very helpful.

Those who love the denominational status quo tend to think that if they solidify a policy or procedure by vote, then their problems, issues, or struggles will be resolved. But, this is rarely the case, especially when it concerns deeply divisive issues. When we put our hope in a polity rather than in God, then we are in danger of practicing institutional idolatry. Conversely, those who pack their bags and evacuate, do not see that God’s Holy Spirit continues to be at work within denominations, if certain votes go the “wrong way”.

The challenges we face today are extremely important. They are vital to address not because denominations need saving, but because they provide us opportunities to participate in and anticipate God’s mission. Sadly though, we proceed as if there were really only two polity options to consider – entrenchment or evacuation. The entrenchment option typically rings of nostalgia – trying to return to the golden days through legislated revitalization programs. The evacuation option is typically expressed in the certainty that God is not strong enough to counter unfortunate votes that have been taken or a slide into cultural capitulation. These people believe they will be contaminated if they stay in the church, but not if they continue to live in a fallen, sinful world. I believe that neither option will achieve its expressed outcome. What we need to do is to look, listen, and discern what God is up to in our denomination today. We need to participate and join with the Holy Spirit in what he is already doing, and work to inject a new missional DNA into the bloodstream of the church. It is the infusion of a new genetic code that will lead to the conversion of the church.

I believe we live in a time similar to Ezekiel 37, where the prophet is shown a valley of dry bones. Some people love the old dry bones, even though they are not working and performing their intended function anymore. Some people look at the dry bones and feel hopeless and want to walk away. I believe God surprises us when we ask the question “Can these bones live?” God’s answer is yes. God says “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:14). We should not make idols of our denominations. Nor should we give up hope and abandon them. I believe God will surprise us yet again. We can be a part of the Holy Spirit’s work to breathe new life back into a set of tired, old, dry bones. We can infuse a new missional DNA into the church. We can be a part of God’s work to bring about the conversion of the church. We may not see much of it this week at General Assembly. We may not see much of it in the coming year. But, slowly, over time, the Spirit will breathe God’s new life into these bones, and when that happens, we want to be right in the middle of it.