Thursday, April 19, 2007

Of maintenance and mission

It can be difficult to make tough calls about a church of which you are a part and which you care about. So an easier approach is to borrow comments from someone of another faith community talking about the Christian church generally. Then we have the buffer of distance and can see points to differentiate ourselves from their critique, at the same time as possibly recognizing some resonance with our own peculiar condition.

So here goes:

“Sadly, the Church does little more than ape the attitudes and priorities of other institutions we admire for their worldly success. Sadly, our agenda is set by a lust for attendance, buildings and cash rather than a passion for encouraging God’s life in the world. Sadly, we are more attuned to self-preservation than world reformation” (Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, page 219.

Let the differentiation begin—but let the more circumspect reflection begin also. From the local church organisation to our various institutions, entities and administrations, we spend a lot of time keeping the machine running. While this is necessary, we must always remember it is not our purpose.

As I have travelled around various church events during the past few months, I have repeatedly fallen into conversations in which a wide variety of people have expressed their frustration that “the church” seems not to be “working.” Of course, the first response is to urge that we — each of us collectively — make up the church and we should begin by checking our attitudes and contributions. If we perceive “the church” as not “working,” what are we doing in our respective corners of the church to make it “work”?

But, to me, it seems most of these people are not trying to or wanting to be harshly critical of a church they believe in—at least to some extent. They are not standing back, blaming others and refusing to do their bit. Rather, it is sometimes those most involved and passionate who are first to see the shortcomings. They are wrestling with the organisational tendency toward some degree of self-centeredness and inertia, when they sense that church should be something so much more than that. As one writer puts it:

“Nobody joins a church to maintain a building [—or an organisation]. People join churches because they believe they can walk the journey of faith more fully within a community that is making a difference” (Brian Mitchell in Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (editors), An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, page 117).

Probably there are natural and expected moments of disillusionment among passionate believers who join a movement for the purpose of living out their faith and changing the world but then have to spend some of their time keeping the movement together and functioning organisationally. But none of us should ever forget we are about changing the world.

In our individualized ways of thinking, we tend to apply the Bible more readily to our personal experience and understanding of faith. But our missional purpose—not business practices, corporate theory or marketing strategies—must also be the primary impulse of our management processes. One wonders how we might structure and manage our organisations differently if we were to apply—corporately and collectively—the call to participation in and prioritization of the kingdom of God that Jesus urged:
“Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs, and he will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern” (Matthew 6:32, 33, NLT).

But that’s probably less about corporate structure and more about being the people of God here and now. One of the greatest burdens church leaders face is that of making the church “work,” of answering the friendly—and unfriendly—critics who are looking to them as representatives of “the church” to give them the easy answers and programs for making an impact in their community. There are no easy answers to living faithfully as representatives of God in our various circumstances. But one suggestion comes from musician and activist Bono, quoting the advice of a “wise man” that he says changed his life. “Stop,” he was told. “Stop asking God to bless what you are doing. Get involved with what God is doing—because it’s already blessed” (Bono, On the Move, page 56).


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