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All Tangled Up in Solutions

Imagine being on a ministry committee with the responsibility for examining the plan for Jesus and his congregation (the disciples) going to Jerusalem that final week. What would you consider? What would you recommend?

From my observations of the various decision making bodies in churches, I suspect there would have been a few people who would bring up good, practical business and political plans. After all, many claimants to the title of “Messiah” or “King of Judea” had come to bad ends. One should surely learn from their mistakes.

The best management advice would have suggested not going to Jerusalem at all, or perhaps doing so incognito. Of course, without 20/20 hindsight, we know that the best possible business and political advice would have been completely wrong.

Yet the pattern of decision making, and of evaluating decisions that would have avoided holy week is precisely the way in which we make and evaluate decisions in most of our churches.

[Warning: I’m about to ramble!]

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of the discussion amongst some Methodist blogs about measuring ministry. I started following this a bit when John Meunier wrote a post titled Check Day Every Week. In it, he tells us of Bishop Willimon’s (North Alabama Conference) new dashboard on the conference web site which informs all concerned–or not–of how each church in the conference is doing based on various measures.

Now I have great respect for Bishop Willimon in many areas, but his dashboard profoundly troubles me. I wonder, for example, just what such a dashboard would have shown about the climax of Jesus’ ministry. That may be an unfair question, but it did occur to me.

But then I read this post, It’s All in the Numbers, following a link from John Meunier again, and again I was profoundly troubled.

Now again there is much to be admired here. There are many ways in which this church is truly living out the gospel in their community. Yet there are no professions of faith as of the time of the post, and just one baptism coming up.

Now as I discuss this, please don’t mistake me for some sort of expert on church growth or pastoral ministry. (Actually, on re-reading, I see no chance that you would!) I studied Biblical languages in school. No church administration, no pastoral counseling, no ecclesiology. There are those who think that if you read Greek you can pretty much handle anything, but that’s not the case. On the other hand, I’ve been watching churches work–or not–since I can remember.

What troubles me about Bishop Willimon’s dashboard is the question of just what “success” is in a Christian context and how it should be measured. I’ve been studying 2 Corinthians over the last couple of weeks and I’m profoundly impressed by Paul’s simple, yet incredibly challenging words: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” — 2 Cor. 11:30 (NRSV)

So if I were a pastor or a congregational leader, should I want to show a dashboard that displays how many people I have brought to Christ, or how many I have baptized? How would “boasting of the things that show my weakness” work on a dashboard?

Even further, looked at from a business standpoint I would have to ask just who takes responsibility for those stats. Do we account for the different locations and callings of all those churches?

At the same time, I have to ask whether a church that is not growing, producing new spiritual life, is really doing the work of ministry. It’s surely not an indefinitely sustainable pattern. And there is, after all, the gospel commission. Evangelism may not be popular today, but it is a command. If we aren’t making disciples, just what are we up to?

In a sense, we see an apparent conflict here between making disciples and being disciples. Of course, this conflict may be, and probably is, largely artificial. It’s likely that many of the churches who are bringing in new members, and thus making new disciples, are also being disciples. Those churches who are doing the work of ministry–being disciples–may be doing the work of witness, but are just plowing hard ground.

It seems to me that what we look at is a set of methods or programs that we expect to help pastors solve these sorts of problems. There must be some method that one can use that will bring in more souls, make more disciples, produce a better church congregation and thus improve our witness.

I know how desperate pastors are for these kinds of things, because sometimes they will even ask me. And you know, I really know nothing whatsoever about church growth programs. But right now, I’m thinking it’s worse when they ask the experts on church growth, because then they get a method or a program, and they try to apply it in their own church. Very often, it doesn’t work.

In my own area–Biblical studies–I see this with the desire to find a program that will get one’s congregation studying the Bible. Church libraries and storerooms are overflowing with discarded material that was supposed to make the congregation more Biblically literate and build their enthusiasm for Bible study.

I’m often asked what “program” I follow. Well, I have written some materials, but those materials will only work with one additional ingredient. For me, the only formula to generate more active and effective Bible study in your church is to be excited about study yourself, and let that infect others. (Hint: It’s part of discipling!)

Similarly, I recall talking to many people during the Brownsville Revival here in Pensacola. People would come and observe Brownsville in action. They thought they wanted something similar in their own churches, anything to bring life to seemingly dead congregations. They would go home and try to implement the things that Brownsville did, and in general, it didn’t work.

Why? I would suggest it’s because only discipleship begets discipleship, and I see this as a New Testament pattern. There is no program to produce true disciples. There is only the process of letting God take over. That is so hard. I like to hold onto my piece of the territory. Programs allow me to do that. They let me talk about my success, when I know very well that “God gives the increase.”

As I was thinking about this post, I received a link to a new review (from unlikely christians) of the forthcoming book by David Alan Black, The Jesus Paradigm. (Full discloser: My company is publishing this book.) Now Dr. Black is a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, and I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. Between those two points there is a great gulf fixed–or is there?

We have chosen to measure success in a manner that makes us feel comfortable: giving, attendance, etc. Nevermind that the “wildly successful” 500-member church is in a community where 1% of the population has really believed the gospel. This is success? Black offers another way:

It is necessary that we view what we do on Sunday as merely the beginning, not the climax, of our work. In other words, we need to change the basis for evaluating the effectiveness of the ministry of our churches. The question is not ‘how many attended on Sunday?’ but ‘What did those who attended on Sunday do during the week to advance Christ’s kingdom?’ This is what it means to be the People of God. It is a people who understand that the mission of the church is to fulfill God’s redemptive mission. (75)

I’d like to comment here on the best way to disagree with a book, or even a person. A number of folks have pointed out to me how “Southern Baptist” Dr. Black is. But that can easily be an excuse to miss the point. The question is not what your structure is or which program you’re following, unless your structures or your programs are preventing you from truly following Jesus Christ. The challenge remains the same. It’s a good idea to talk about church polity and how it impacts our ministry, but first let’s get to the foundational principles.

What Dr. Black is saying here is something I know my own pastor would preach. He has even begun adding “and your witness” to the areas in which new members are asked to support their church. I like hearing that. It says that we have a church hear to be a witness and to make disciples. Disciples carry out the ministry of Jesus loving one another as Jesus has first loved them.

One of the questions I always ask someone when they ask me for suggestions about how to make their church grow spiritually and even in numbers, right after I tell them how deep my ignorance of the subject is, is this: What is the mission of your church?

I’m amazed at how few people in the various congregations I’ve visited can state a mission for their congregation or even quote the written mission statement. I recall once asking a member what the mission statement of their church was. I was, in fact, looking at it written on a sign on the wall, but the member didn’t know.

But let’s take a step behind that written mission statement. What is God’s mission for your church? We know it involves making disciples. And before we take the easy road, consider the answers that many of God’s servants through history have received. Their paths have been difficult and dry, often they have seen little measurable success in their own lifetimes, and frequently they wind up in fiery furnaces, facing lions, or hanging on crosses. There’s no program that’s going to handle all of those things!

There is no substitute for prayerfully seeking God’s will for your church, then following it even when some dashboard doesn’t portray you in the best light.

God is calling you to accomplish in your community what God can do, not what you can do. So break off all the tangled thread of solutions that were designed for someone else, get back to the basic gospel, and do what you need to do.

Now that sounded like a conclusion, but I’m going to add one thing. I’m not against all programs and solutions that are suggested by others. I’m not against good business practices in church, with one critical proviso: All programs must be subordinated to the mission to which God has called you. To be honest, until you have the answer to that question, I don’t think you can possibly choose a workable program. After all, I can’t choose between my hammer and my saw until I know whether I want to pound in a nail or saw a board.

Thanks for sharing in my ignorance and weakness here. Perhaps if we’ll all be weak, we’ll see an outbreak of strength in our churches–God’s strength.

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One Comment

  1. Lifewish says:

    Nice post. I find this sort of stuff really interesting. For me, of course, it doesn’t matter whether the focus of a community is religious; its dynamics are likely to follow similar patterns to other groups.

    I particularly agree with your comments about the dashboard thingy. Keeping one eye on your “score” is all well and good, but what if the thing people want from you is to be treated as more than just a statistic? Communities are built on relationships, and relationships require more than just an intellectual involvement.

    Now there is an argument for tailoring your approach to your audience, and sophisticated market research can assist in this. There may be people who agree with your mission, would fit in well with your community, but e.g. are too old to drive in. Good market research would uncover this, and you could then respond by getting members to offer each other lifts.

    Ultimately, though, to build a community you need the arrogance to stick to your guns. Act confident and people will generally assume you’re in the right*; vacillate and people will quickly conclude you don’t know what you’re talking about. With enough backbone and elbow grease you can plant the seed of respect that lies at the root of any strong community.

    * This incidentally explains why I’m generally skeptical of received wisdom.

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