We have long been told that a local church is an organization. By that I mean, the church is a community with an organizational structure which allows the local church to do business. Our churches are non profit organizations, our goal is not to make money. Our goal is to proclaim God’s love and grace for the world. One thing I was taught is that the church is the only organization that does not exist for the benefit of its members. I like that a lot.
But recently I have come to a new conclusion. The local church is not so much an organization as it is an organism. The church is a living and breathing thing. Arie de Geus, a “for profit” business management consultant, has advanced the same theory for the business world. His book is entitled “The Living Company.” Both the local church and for profit businesses, as organisms, must adapt to their business/ministry environments/contexts in order to survive. Business organisms must
1. be sensitive to their environments,
2. be cohesive with a strong sense of identity,
3. exercise tolerance, and
4. be frugal in their financial world.
Local church organisms must
1. adapt to the uniqueness of their times and neighborhoods
2. adapt a culture of abundance over scarcity,
3. adapt a culture of trust over suspicion, and
4. adapt a culture of making deep disciples over enlisting marginal members.
Organizations seek to make structural changes and superimpose “best practices” templates while Organisms grow and thrive through cultural adaptations. In our upcoming book “Adapt to Thrive” (published by Abingdon press next month) we will talk more about organisms and how we can learn a lot about local church adaptation from the science of evolution.
I am sick and tired of being fat. I have tried every diet in the book. I get 1-2 hours exercise every day so it cannot be that. I do not eat the healthy foods I need to, and I eat too much. I did not know just how much until I started keeping a food journal. I vowed to write all the food and drink I consume in one week. I have done this for 5 days with only 2 days to go; conclusion…. With my diet, any family of 6 would be happy. Any family of 6 with two teenage sons. I don’t know the precise quantity of food I consume but by 2 in the afternoon, after recording my afternoon snack, I needed a fresh piece of paper for supper. Too much, too much!
I am happy I decided to write it all down. This is my reality check. A food journal is my reality check. To see everything in print is overwhelming. I have been lying to myself for years… “I just had a small bowl of ice cream.” 3 scoops, is that a small bowl? We have different size bowls in the cabinet but I always go for the big bowls when it comes to ice cream. In day 3 I found myself eating 5 cream puffs but only recording 2 of those in my journal. Heal me Jesus!
One guy I visited said he had cut down to 2 drinks per day at the same moment that his wife brought his first drink in a 32 ounce tumbler. Reality check is for those of us who live with self-deception. It is time to develop new, healthy habits in my relationship with food.
A member of the last local church where I was pastor reported to me that he was regular in his attendance at Sunday morning worship. “Do you register your attendance each week?” I asked “Sure I do, I write it down,” he replied. I think I may have offended him. I checked the attendance journal, the registration pads found in each pew where visitors and members alike write down their attendance each week. By those records he worshiped with us, on average, once a month. Neither of us would have known that if he had not written it down.
I do not mean to judge anyone else. I mean to be an agent of God’s grace. But this I do know, it is difficult for me or you to practice self-deception when we write down the truth. God’s grace begins with us telling the truth.
I was listening to the news. Syria is in deep conflict because they have been ruled by a dictator for years. This was possible because the dominant culture believed in security over personal liberty. The Ukraine is in deep conflict because the dominant culture has valued stability over individual freedoms, security over democratic rule, and economic ties to Russia over economic ties to the west. Middle East experts are telling us that unrest has come not because people want new laws but because people want to live in a new way, inside a new, more diverse, more inclusive culture. How is that different from the religious revolution brought by Jesus? I am convinced Jesus was not saying for us to do new things and try new ways. Jesus was saying it takes a religious revolution to change our culture!
Our local churches have not joined the Jesus revolution. We have not challenged the culture of personal convenience discipleship for the revolutionary culture of giving our whole lives to God. We are still operating in a culture of civil religion while Jesus implores us to practice civil disobedience. We are embedded in a pastoral care culture when Jesus calls for us to adopt and adapt to a prophetic word and action culture. We are encapsulated in a culture where local churches celebrate themselves through covered dish dinners while Jesus cries out for the hungry to be fed.
It will do us absolutely no good to incorporate helpful hints for hurtful habits when Christ demands more radical change in our local church culture. We are called to transform the world. How can we transform the world when we are fussing about what hymns we will sing in worship, and how prayer concerns are to be handled? We are overwhelmed by a sensitivity culture that refuses to hurt anyone’s feelings. We have yet to adapt to a culture of dignity and respect for the marginalized. We cannot simply adopt new “best practices” in ministry. We must adapt to a new culture that is committed to transforming the world and refusing to let anyone get in the way of that sacred duty. The church for tomorrow must live into a new culture of transformation.
Len Sweet has taught me another valuable lesson. Sweet writes in his latest book, The Well Played Life, (pg 193) Aging is a schizophrenic exercise in going opposite directions at the same time: I mature with age, and I immature with age. I call this simplexity. Simplexity is a systemic combination of both complexity and simplicity. The Holy Spirit reveals the God of simplexity.
Simplexity is not lost on this 61 year old fat man. I have graduated from the twenty second grade of good God school. I have worked as a local church pastor for more than 38 years. I have preached untold numbers of sermons, as well as conducted numerous weddings and funerals. I sat at the hospital beds of hundreds of persons scrambling in their last moments for the meaning of life while leaning against the doors of death. I have studied Liberation, Narrative, and Process theology yet my belief is sustained by the simplicity and complexity of Psalm 139 where I learn about the inescapable God. The day after my son’s suicide I read Psalm 123 as my prayer of both angst and comfort, and in the spirit of Karl Barth I now sing my statement of faith in those childhood verses “Jesus Loves Me this I Know.. for the Bible tells me so……” Simple messages which are simultaneously complex… simplexity.
Faith is not an either/or, black/white, good/bad, proposition. Faith are gray areas coming to life. Faith is something I love and hate at the same time, in the same moment. I feel wonderful being fully known by the God described in Psalm 139. At the same time, being fully known terrifies me! Both those things are true.
The church for tomorrow will make room for simplexity. The church for tomorrow is more interested in questions than definitive answers. The church for tomorrow is thankful to Len Sweet for reminding us “the older I get, the more complex my theology becomes, but the more simple my faith is.”
We have special Sundays in the church in order for some things to get highlighted for special attention. For instance, in days gone by we would have Boy Scouts Sunday, Women in Ministry Sunday, Higher Education Sunday, or Missionary Sunday. The list goes on. Some fall off our radar and some are added on. We lift these things up, one Sunday per year, to prevent them from being ignored in the life of our church, or any church for that matter.
Last Sunday was particularly perplexing for me. In my denomination’s tradition, once a year, we have a special Sunday called “Human Relations Day.” This Sunday has its own special offering envelope with the printed message “your gift today encourages the weary and empowers the afflicted just trying to survive.” My heart sank. I grieve. I am not opposed to encouraging the weary and empowering the afflicted but I am sad that we need a special Sunday to get the job done. I am grieving that we have a professionally produced brochure this one Sunday which implores us to take one day in 365 to do what each Christian is called to do every day!
Rather than have one special Sunday each year to do such things, I propose we align our church behavior into recognizing Human Relations day every day. When we design our adult, youth, and children’s Christian education classes let’s ask the question “How does this activity help us encourage the weary and empower the afflicted?” When we set our yearly budget we ask “How does this annual budget bring us into alignment with our purpose to encourage the weary and empower the afflicted?” When we design weekly worship we ask “How can our worship time together encourage the weary and empower the afflicted? How can we treat everyone, every day, with dignity and respect?”
I believe that it will please God when we get to the place where Human Relations Sunday is every day of the year.
Karen and I served a church in San Antonio. This church was fed up with “fear based” Christianity. Fed up with the “Get right or get left!” theology. This church was ready to proclaim “Hell and Judgment Not Included.” So the church bought billboard time in the center of the city and posted that very message using the traditional circle with a line drawn through it. The billboard drew attention. One fundamentalist pastor called me on the phone to express his disappointment in our advertising. “If you don’t preach about hell scripture says you are like an anvil around the neck of others.” The implication was, an anvil dragging others into the depths of hell itself. I politely listened as he finished his rant and then asked him “You preach about hell don’t you?” He responded “Of course I do!”
“Well let me tell you why I do not….. first, I am confident you have the preaching about hell and judgment covered for our geographic area. I don’t need to cover ground you are covering so effectively. Second, when I read the scriptures, and do all the things that Jesus tells me to do, I find myself carving out a 60 hour per week workload. If I just do the things Jesus tells me to do then I don’t have any time left to preach hell and judgment.” Our conversation ended shortly after that.
The purpose of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Is it more effective to transform the world using fear to change behavior or using forgiveness and proclaiming hope to the oppressed? Don’t get me wrong, I believe the gospel is meant to afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted but I know we have done a spectacular job with the first one and have largely missed the boat on the second one.
Organizations will grow with the creation of small groups. Churches grow when small groups multiply. There are plenty of resources to help us create small groups but how will we know if our newly created small groups are healthy? Healthy small groups have 4 roles represented; leader, supportive giver, critic, and clown. Think now about the small groups in which you participate? Are all 4 roles represented?
The leader helps name the agenda and directs full, inclusive conversation. The supportive giver provides encouragement. The critic will see and name all the cracks and shortfalls in the plan. The clown’s role is to lower anxiety and tension for the group.
The leader needs the critic to ask the questions “Have you thought of this?” “I see some problems with that.” and yes, the proverbial “We never have done it that way before.” A leader without a critic will not be able to think things through, may not have anticipated every problem. The supportive giver needs a leader just like all workers need a supervisor. The supportive giver cannot survive without a leader anymore than worker bees can survive without a queen. The clown is essential for those times when the tension is thick and conflict is over the top. When folks face off, and will soon come to blows, the clown is the one that says “alright, I propose that instead of a lunch break let’s choose up sides and have Bill and Robert lead us in a food fight!”
It is not common, but by necessity or choice, some folks assume different roles for different groups. In my old man’s basketball group I am a supportive giver. As a pastor of local churches, I was a leader. In one peer group of mine, I am the clown. We are rarely effective if we try to assume more than one role in any group, and it is the balance of these 4 roles that provide a healthy small group. My question for you today is “What role do you assume in the small groups where you participate?” Are the other roles represented? Pastors are expected to assume the role of leader. What if your pastor is wired to be a supportive giver in every small group where he/she participates? Do you have the laity that will step up and be small group leaders when that is not possible for the pastor?
Something to think about.
Throughout my life in ministry I have heard that the local church is a hospital for sinners. The local church is where sinners go for healing. The local church receives the sick and makes them well. Most church leaders I know speak of the church as a safe place, a place of respite, a place where persons come to experience the healing power of God’s grace. Bring your suffering to the hospital church and receive your cure. Return to the hospital, at least weekly and get the continued therapy you need in order to keep up your strength and face our disease riddled world. The church is a hospital for sinners where we bubble wrap sinners in the healing balm of Gilead.
Not only is this false but it is destructive. We must not speak of the church as a hospital for sinners. We must now understand that the local church is a medical school that trains us to be healers. Once trained, we are sent out to be healers that transform the world. After modeling the art of healing with his disciples, Jesus sends his followers out, two by two to transform the world through healing practices. We do not need the church to be a hospital for sinners anymore, we need the church to be a medical school where we are trained in the art of healing and a medical supply house where we can receive necessary instruments that allow us to heal others.
Henri J M Nouwen wrote about the wounded healer. Remember that if your wounds are attended to in church, it is for the purpose of leaving the warm confines of that local church, going out into the cold cruel world, and healing others. Once you have received grace, thank God for the healing, then fulfill the desire of Jesus and heal others. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop his disciples wanted to build a church on that spot and hang out. Jesus said “transfiguration are not for building church hospitals but medical schools in my name. no, you cannot hang out here, this experience is a classroom that teaches you how to leave this place, go out and heal others.”(paraphrase from the original passage?) Jesus says he did not come for the whole and healthy, Jesus came for the sick, the least, last, and lost.
Now that you have gone to church and received some measure of spiritual, emotional,and physical health, go heal others. Treat your weekly worship experience as continuing education for healing from your favorite medical school.
Took my computer to the Geek Squad. My computer was running slow. The Geek Squad fixed it and updated my Kaspersky software to strengthen my virus protection. I am sure all readers in cyberspace know a lot more about computer viruses than I know but I am learning more every day. A computer virus is an unwanted, outside infection, (some times called a trojan) that comes into your computer. The virus presents itself as something helpful, just click on it and your world will be made more simple, easier to navigate but BEWARE! The virus may look appealing but it distracts your computer from doing its work. It is the unwanted take over. A sophisticated virus can shut down your computer’s system altogether. I ran a “critical areas scan,” and then I ran a “full scan.” Took about an hour but it was worth it. Now my computer is back on track and doing what computers are supposed to do.
This is a new year. Viruses can infect a local church. It is time to run a “full scan,” or at least a “critical areas scan” of your ministry, your life, the leaders in your local church. Viruses may have infected your congregation, your leadership, without your knowledge.
1- A virus of “don’t make waves” or “we have never done it that way before” may be in your church. This virus will prevent you from risk taking for the gospel.
2- A virus of “just find a warm body to volunteer” may grind your leadership to a halt.
3- A virus of “proud piety” may block you from authenticity and humility, sabotaging your ability to be in relationship with others.
4- A virus of “Jesus is coming: look busy” may be popping up and preventing you from the necessity of prayer or recreation time.
Pick your own virus for numbers 5,6, or 7. Name it. Guard against that virus. Do your own critical area scan to detect and isolate that virus from your life so it will do no more damage. Some church folks talk of the powers and principalities of evil, maybe even the devil. I do not. The demonic appears as a virus. These days I am talking about prayers and conversations that identify the hidden virus in my local church and how I can clean up my computer as well as my life.
Got a new Bicycle for Christmas. This bike is sweet. It is a carbon composite road bike which means it is very light. I can lift it with 2 fingers. It goes fast! I can keep a steady 14-15 mph speed on slight inclines, and going downhill, I regularly am traveling 18-20 mph. A 10 mile ride is easy. A 15 mile ride is routine! There is only one problem…. my backside hurts (note to editor; I am using the word “backside” in place of the preferred “a” word to maintain a certain level of decorum in this blog).
The bicycle has one of those skinny, hard, elongated seats. The first time I got on the bike my backside hurt. I bought inexpensive riding shorts, the kind with the adult diaper thing in the seat, and my backside still hurt. Then I went back to the store, bought a ridiculously expensive pair of bicycle shorts and my backside STILL hurt. What is a budding Lance Armstrong supposed to do? I called my friend and bicycle consultant and whined ”my backside hurts!”
He told me to stop whining and keep riding. “Things will get better” he assured me. He was correct. Things have gotten better. I enjoy my rides now in a way that I was unable to enjoy them before. My goals have changed. No longer is my goal to eliminate pain in my backside. The new goal is to enjoy the sights, feel the wind in my face, ride smooth over the rough places, stop often at Starbucks for a mocha, don’t get run over by a truck and keep moving forward. My backside still hurts but now I enjoy my ride because my goals are more realistic.
Not unlike exercising leadership in a local church…. enjoy the possibilities you see, feel the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in your face, smooth out the rough places, periodically stop and re-create over a beverage of choice, dodge the trucks that want to run you over and keep moving the vision forward. What I learned in cycling is good to know as a church leader. No matter what kind of pants you wear, every church leader will have someone step up and be a pain in his/her backside. This is a fact. This will not go away. Simply ignore that and keep moving forward for the greater good of the gospel.