Singlemindedness

Somehow, singlemindedness seems a poor strategy in today’s complex, unpredicatable world. Better to have many options and a Plan B, C and even D. If you really focus on only Plan A, and that doesn’t work you fail. Balance not focus.

There is a different point of view. Singleminded people put all their energy into one desired outcome, one project. They accomplish things because of their intensity. “Failure is not an option” is their motto. Focus not balance.

Christian singlemindedness

William Barclay, in The Mind of Jesus, makes a fascinating point about Jesus’ singlemindedness. In his opening proclamation of his mission recounted in Luke 4:16-20,  reading from Isaiah to his neighbors in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus stopped abruptly, half-way through the passage. He read the words in Isaiah 61 about God’s mercy and then according to Luke’s account “rolled up the scroll and sat down” and didn’t read Isaiah’s next line, “the day of vengeance of our God.” Barclay concludes that Jesus was showing his singleminded focus on his mission, which was proclaiming the arrival of God’s mercy not vengeance.

What about us?

If you combine this event in Jesus’ life with some of the others it’s clear what he is saying to us today. His forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery; his forgiveness of Peter who denied him in his own hour of need; his parable about the workers who came in at the last hour and got the same wages as those who had worked all day, and many others. His message is clear — I want you to singlemindedly forgive and show mercy no matter what the circumstances.

You might then say, how do I show mercy in a singleminded manner? Jesus summarised that in the reading from Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of The Lord is on me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclain the year of the Lord’s favor.” This means mercy and forgiveness and caring, without judgment, for everyone without exception.

With such clear instructions, it seems to me that we must make a distinction between “church-going” and “kingdom-living.” What we do inside “church” is important as preparation for singlemindedness in “kingdom-living”. One without the other misses the point. If Jesus had only read the passage from Isaiah to his neighbors and done nothing else, he would not have fulfilled what God’s Spirit annointed him to do. In the same way, if we see what we do outside of church as doing our best to live well in the world and maintain some kind of balance with living in the Kingdom, we are certainly not being singleminded. This may well mean that our “church-going” lacks something and, consequently, our “kingdom-living” suffers.

Distinctions and Generalizations

We live in a world filled with information. Media, Facebook,  email and mobile phone connectivity push information at us continuously. In fact. our lives are so completely full of information that we constantly need to make quick judgments about whether we should pay attention or not, or whether something rings true or not.

We ought to use critical thinking to make better judgments about what is true versus what appears to be true but isn’t, in important areas of our life. Much of what we encounter in the media or Facebook has some “spin” or bias connected with it and it requires some effort to sort out what is true. That’s especially important for Christians.  Jesus claimed to be “The way, the truth and the life.” Therefore, we ought to try to see things with “the mind of Jesus” to better understand the truth in the complex situations we encounter.

On the 7:30 Report last night in Australia a story was featured about the Victoria Police’s investigation of how the Catholic Church mishandled paedophilia cases in the past. Too say the least, the report was damning. This story was about the Catholic Church but it didn’t just affect Catholics. News about any Christian or any Christian church reflects on us all. Therefore we need to be able to help people outside the church understand how we Christians view such ugly incidents. This involves making some important comparisons and distinctions, rather than just generalizing, “Religion / Churches / Christians are all ___(epithet)____!”

Three important comparisons

First, I’d like to make three comparisons so help clarify some basic concepts that many people use quite loosely.

  • Church and organizations (government, corporations, etc)

Every Christian church is an organization. Like every organization, the primary interest of its leaders is the survival of the organization first and achieving its purposes second. There has to be an organization in order to be able to collectively work toward its goals. Where the church organization differs from other secular organizations (perhaps) is in its values. How the church survives, and how it achieves its purposes is paramount. The end doesn’t justify the means. Thus, church organizations are (and should be) held to account not just against the usual organizational criteria, such as ethics and following the law, but also each should be measured against its own espoused value system.

  • Religion and other institutions (legal system, healthcare system, etc)

Religion is also a human cultural system, which organizes itself to communicate certain foundational ideas and ways of thinking. There are no precise boundaries that limit ‘religion’ on our planet, so religion is a global cultural system. To a large extent, religion is out of the control of any church. In modern scientific terms, the Christian religion is a complex system that emerges from the interaction of enormous numbers of phenomena at all levels of all Christian churches as well as outside the church. This is exactly how the global legal system, global healthcare system, global economic system and all global systems work. In general all leaders are powerless to control how their specific brand of complex global system behaves and evolves. In fact, all these systems interact with one another, and influence each other’s emergence. The global system of religion is shaped as well as shapes, as we well know, by global political and economic events. That said, churches need a global understanding of how the system of religion works (or doesn’t) to advance the cause of love and peace on this planet

  • The Kingdom and reality (two views of “what is”)

We Christians also make another comparison, which hardly anyone else understands. We believe that, besides day-to-day reality, we also live in God’s Kingdom. Therefore, in addition to the realities of ‘church’ and ‘religion’ I described above, there is the real Kingdom of God. That is the fundamental meaning of who Jesus is — “I am the way, the truth and the life.” What is the Kingdom? Is it ‘pie in the sky by and by’ as some cynics describe it? Or is it “what is” right now? Some Christian scholars describe the Kingdom’s reality as being “already but not yet” fully present. The cynics would say the “already” bit is so tiny as to be non-existant. They may be willing to concede a hidden reality that only exists in some individual Christian hearts, but not many of those. I am of a different opinion, which I’ll cover in the next part of this blog.

Important distinctions

So, what about the paedophilia news story? What distinctions ought we Christians to make in understanding this ugly situation that involves all of us?

  • As an organization, the Catholic Church ought to be criticized. The way it handled paedophiles was inept and didn’t follow its own ethical or moral value system. I suspect that the Catholic Church organization is already taking steps (like any corporation or goverment organization would) to find the flaws in its governance processes that allowed this evil to persist for so long. And, the wider society has a right to keep criticizing the Catholic Church’s efforts. None of this means, however, that the Catholic Church ought to be condemned and destroyed. That would be like saying close down a major bank because fraud was discovered in some of its transactions.
  • Religion has a lot to answer for, which goes well beyond paedophilia. I won’t catalogue the evils that have been done in the name of religion down through the centuries. The distinction to be made, however, is whether those of us who are ‘religious’ need, advocate and support this institution — or are those who say “I’m spiritual but not religious” on the right path? The value of religion is its global power and capability to bring God into the world’s affairs. (That power is also its human weakness). For Christians to say that we don’t need religion is ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ on a global scale. The question is, how to help the global Christian religious culture to evolve toward something that is closer to a “godly presence.” That is the task I have decided to support in this blog — transformation of the global Christian religion through ‘bottom-up’ transformation of all local Christian communities. Had local Catholic communites taken more responsibility for paedophilia, this current situation would likely have been fixed long ago.
  • Perhaps the most important distinction we Christians need to understand and apply is between living in a secular reality and living in God’s Kingdom. I described the ‘already but not yet’ idea above. My personal view is that the ‘already’ part is far more powerful than we Christians allow ourselves to imagine. The mystery of the Body of Christ is having a profound effect (in God’s time) on our everyday secular reality. The story of the “final days” is being written right now — and we individual Christians in our local communities are the Change Agents. So, in the paedophila case, we are responsible for changing the church and religious system that allowed that evil to persist — beginning right in our own local church, whether we are Catholic or not. It’s not a case of “That’s a Catholic problem.” We are all brothers and sisters, in one Body. Bottom-up change begins with the Spirit’s actions in each individual Christian when such outrages occur.

Paradigm Shift?

I went to a day of reflection yesterday on the topic “Contemporary Christianity.” What’s happening to the church? The session leader gave us some interesting perspectives. I’d like to share some of them with you, as well as my own reflections.

  • Weekly attendance at church services in Australia was 74% in 1954 and is 14% today.
  • The Christian church is shrinking in western countries with “European-based traditions” but growing in developing countries.

He also quoted a historian’s view that every 500 years or so, The Christian church goes major upheaval.

  • 500AD: The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian kings, with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in the western world
  • 1000AD: Increased conflict between east and west, with the schism in the church and the crusades
  • 1500AD: The reformation and rise of individualism
  • 2000AD: Our current experiences that “church” and “religion” are in decline, at least in Australia and other western countries

One author has called our current situation the “end of Christendom.” It certainly feels like an ending of some kind to me. But, with any change, there must be an ending before a new beginning. That current chaotic situation is a clear sign that Christians and others are experiencing what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift — when more and more questions emerge for which the “old” answers don’t work. [1]

The search for a “new” paradigm

Are the “old” answers of “religion” and “church” and “Christendom” not working anymore? If so, what questions were these realities created to answer? Are those questions no longer relevant?

To explore what’s going on, what if we seek the questions which Jesus asked. Were His questions “Which church do you go to?” or “Which Christian religion do you practice?” Seen in those terms, we can see that these “old” questions” seem wrong somehow. They weren’t central in Jesus’ preaching. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would even ask these questions today.

So what questions is Jesus asking? I suggest that you read his questions to his apostles, and decide for yourself. Make a complete list. See how many of them have to do with “church” or “religion” per se. I’ll give you a clue. Here’s one sequence from Mark 8:17-18: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

The unshifting paradigm

You get the feeling that Jesus was pointing beyond our human search for answers and paradigms when he asked His questions. He almost seemed frustrated at times with his closest friends when they didn’t understand what was going on. In the end, when Philip asked, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” [John 14: 8-9] If we understand who Jesus is, He is the unchanging ‘paradigm’, and history is understood in the light of who He is. “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” [1 Corinthians 15:24]

If we view “church” and “religion” in terms of dominion, authority and power (as we do), that way of human thinking (paradigm) is passing away, even in our lifetime. But we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ God’s kingdom is in the ascendency in the ‘final days’, and not merely in individual hearts. There is ‘one body’ of which Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, even if it appears that the ‘branches’ are being pruned right now.

We ought to take to heart what Jesus said to his disciples, and trust that he will answer our questions in due course. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

[1] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.

 

 

A. Why Change? — Is there an urgent need to transform our local church?

The need to change almost always starts with a threat. Someone can tell you how great the future will be after some change happens  but human beings will inevitably choose to stay in the status quo unless there is some threat or danger or bad experience.

This is especially true when it comes to changes relating to our spiritual life and church. “Many of us get caught in surface living or in the pressures of the practical. We want to escape the costly strangeness of this voyage within.”  [Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps] The promises of Jesus can easily be overlooked by Christians, who feel the daily pressure of living in a complex modern society. We are losing our sense of being a unique people with a vital calling: to announce the Good News that the world is filled with God’s grace. It seems unlikely and even absurd that we are God’s sons and daughters who are meant to transform the world. Most of us don’t even notice that we are losing something crucial to living;  the surrounding secular culture seems quite normal to us and church seems like something that must be fit into our everyday life.

I want to raise the possibility that Christians and local churches face a ‘burning platform.’  The burning platform metaphor originated when the oil drilling platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea caught fire. A worker was trapped by the fire on the edge of the platform. Rather than certain death in the fire, he chose probable death by jumping 100 feet into the freezing sea. He had to risk change because he was faced with a status quo that was completely untenable. We like the worker on the burning oil rig can’t stay where we are because the threat to our life as Christians is too great.

I will quote several authors, from among many, who sense that there is something profoundly wrong with church in general.

  • “[We live in] a culture in which central features of the Christian story are unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.” Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
  • “Everywhere in the Western world the Church has suffered a massive loss of ground. It is seldom at the centre of people’s lives. In today’s complexity it is just one of many potential sources of meaning, and perhaps not a very attractive one at that. For huge numbers of the younger generation what the church offers – in terms of teaching, or worship, or spiritual image – rings strange, and sometimes even hollow and dishonest. ” Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps
  • “. . . Traditional churches are emptying, their congregations are graying, the eyes of their fewer and fewer young people are glazing over, and turning elsewhere. ” Scott Cowdell, God’s Next Big Thing
  • “If we are the church, then the church is a fellowship of those who seek journey and lose their way, of the helpless, the anguished and the suffering, of sinners and pilgrims. If we are the church, then the church is a sinful and pilgrim church, and there can be no question of idealizing it.”  Gerald A Arbuckle, Refounding the Church

The first task of Christians in every local church is to read the signs of our times, both in the world and in their own church. Are these authors reflecting the true state of the church? What do you discern? Do you sense an urgency to act and transform yourself and your local church?

Discussing the need  to change with other people in your local church, and learning together with the Pastor how to proceed is a critical task which every Christian needs to prayerfully consider and then undertake.

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Personal AND Church Transformation

I often get asked, “Don’t you have to change yourself before you think about changing anyone else — or the church?” Yes, of course. But, on the other hand, we’ll never be good enough or ready — we have to rely on God to actually do the work of change in us and in others and in the church. So how do you know you are  ready enough, transformed enough to be bold enough to take on the role of Change Agent? I think it comes from seeing that both individuals and church communities need to be ‘loved into’ changing by God.

“First we receive love and then we can respond with love. Here we glimpse a glory and a beauty that not only calls us, but empowers us to a different way of life, to daily discipleship.”  This quote is spoken by the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in an imaginary monologue created by Michael Paul Gallagher in his book Faith Maps.  It summarizes the relationship between personal and church transformation that I am suggesting. Let me break it down for you.

  • “First we receive love” Everything starts with God’s initiative. Even the fact that you are reading this  is evidence that God has triggered some desire in you out of love. Probably the most quoted Bible verse in America, displayed at many public places and events, is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] That, in a nutshell is what salvation means. God acted so that human beings can have eternal life. Salvation precedes everything and any human initiative.
  • “then we can respond with love” Deep movements in ourselves continually pull us toward God. The Spirit prays for us when we cannot. God inspires and draws us forward. So, our first step in transformation is responding when we perceive these deep movements. Our response can be to change ourselves or help some neighbor or begin to transform our local church. The Spirit’s power is enabling all these responses.
  • “we glimpse a glory and a beauty” When we respond, something happens. We may only feel some ‘shift’ deep within ourselves, or we may actually do something that is good, externally. But our awareness depends on our noticing that something has happened, and noticing happens in prayer. This may during be a special time reserved for prayer or as a gift ‘on the fly’ when the Spirit has prayed that we notice what has happened. These moments in my life are what I call ‘peak experiences.’ I am lifted out of my usual perspective and allowed to see something wonderful. That gift is given to be shared, to build up the sense of the real presence of Jesus among Christians and, indeed, everyone who has ‘ears to hear.’
  • “that not only calls us but empowers us to a different way of life” When we see the reality of what the Spirit is doing in and through us, we experience the desire to do this again and again. This is our ‘call,’ to follow a different way of life, and take seriously our own unique role in Jesus’ mission, even before we know what that is. We begin to discover a different kind of inspiration and power in our life.
  • “to daily discipleship” Finally, we want to follow Jesus, in the world but not solely of the world. We don’t know what this is, of course, and fall short often. Nonetheless, we strive to follow him. This striving, over time, perhaps many years, becomes a ‘24×7’ way of life. Actually, striving is the wrong word, because it is too connected with the common western culture. A better word is ‘floating’ in God’s Spirit. We learn to trust and float, as the Spirit carries us to the “good works , which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10b] And we learn to trust that we will be up to doing these tasks, because it is God’s power in us, not our own self-development that is doing them. That is why salvation is the essential starting point for Christian transformation.

These wonderful things happen to us both when we are alone and when we are in a community of Christians. In fact, for many people, the ordinary experiences in the church community are how they encounter salvation and the lure of discipleship. This being so, we now need to talk about how personal and church transformation are linked.

How personal transformation is linked to church

Is the church necessary? If a personal relationship with Jesus is the essence of salvation, why get involved with church and ‘organized religion’ at all? Primitive man believed that life depended on being part of a tribe; you couldn’t survive alone. After Pentecost, believers didn’t “join” a church or an organized religion, but they became part of a community of Christians. But now, the common culture stresses “individualism” and therefore joining a church seems to mean giving up something, some essential freedom. What I’m saying is that we are all profoundly shaped by the point of view of the common culture, including Christians, and can no longer see the church’s utter necessity as Jesus sees it. Otherwise why would so many Christians see church as optional, or at best something they “need” occasionally, on Sundays or at Easter and Christmas? I want to help you get outside the common culture and see your local church through Jesus’ eyes. Then you will be able to see how your own transformation is inextricably linked to your local church’s.

Why did the Spirit send Peter out to immediately explain to the crowds what had happened to Jesus? What was Jesus saying about “church” in that first speech and the other speeches of the Apostles in the early days of “church? Not simply, look what you’ve done, but also see who I am, and what you ought to do in the light of the ‘last days.’ [Acts of the Apostles 2:14-41]

I believe that the three points made by Peter in his first sermon can lead 21st century Christians to a fresh understanding of how Jesus sees church. Let me expand each point of Peter’s sermon, and relate them to personal transformation and church.

  • What you have done. In a way, Jesus was establishing a ‘burning platform’ at the outset. To the crowds right after the Crucifixion, Peter said, “You are responsible for this. The Romans may have carried out the sentence but all of you are responsible.” Jesus is saying to us, today, “The human race is responsible for the wounds of the world and, because of that, I died. The Romans crucified me in the 1st century but you are responsible, even today, for the wounds that infect mankind.” I’m not preaching old-time fire and brimstone religion; I’m simply pointing out that in Jesus’ mind, what the human race continues to do is an extremely serious matter, which none of us can ignore, especially Christians who ostensibly know what’s going on in the last days.
  • Who I am. The crowd responded when they understood who Jesus is. Peter (in Luke’s telling of the story) led them carefully from what they knew, from Scripture, to who Jesus is. Their recognition was instant; over 3,000 people who heard Peter speak accepted who Jesus was on the spot. We can be certain that recognizing who Jesus is a key part of church. Not that there aren’t debates. Many of these arise from how our culture conditions even Christian thinking. But despite the debates Christians encounter who Jesus is and the fundamental necessity of a relationship with him.
  • What you ought to do. Here Luke uses the language of the early church to describe something that happened probably at least fifty years earlier. The story had been told over and over, but Luke’s purpose was to tell people who weren’t able to directly hear the story in his time and for all time, what they ought to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38] “Repent and be baptized” and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” were both phrases that developed as Christians considered what had happened in the first days after Pentecost. What these words do not mean is “Go, develop a private relationship with Jesus.” I think that they mean, “Realize something new has arrived in your life and come join the followers of Jesus.” The primary message is that the gift of the Spirit flows, at least in Christians, from accepting, perhaps tentatively at first, and finally fully at the level of conviction, that we are part of the Body of Christ. Church is essential to all Christians, not an add-on or crutch, as the modern culture sees it, for those who aren’t strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Church means being connected to the vine, being part of Jesus’ body, being part of God’s family. So how could any Christian possibly see the church as optional? Today, this happens because we are ‘swimming in a culture’ that has long since decided that life is for ‘rugged individualists’ and that being part of church detracts from our freedom. We accept that view because the church no longer presents a contrary view in any way that makes sense to us. That is another strong reason why local churches must be transformed.

My claim is that being part of a local church is not optional; it is essential to life “in the Spirit” for Christians. Is the Holy Spirit unable to operate outside local churches? Of course not. “The wind blows where it will.”  But, without a local church, how can any Christian firmly believe that they are part of the body of Christ? Yet, many Christians basically try to live outside any church community today. I think such Christians distance themselves from the reality of church because it is too painful for them to belong. Why? Perhaps because they agree with the common culture that there is something wrong with ‘organized religion.’ Or perhaps because they cannot actually see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their local church. (Of course, the church could be perfectly all right and all these ‘Christians’ are simple wrong-headed or misled.)

Local churches ought to begin considering how much they need to be transformed by examining themselves honestly, not by assuming all is well. Jesus gave us a good way to assess ourselves. “By their fruits you shall know them.” A spirit-filled church produces good fruit; one that isn’t spirit-filled produces no fruit or even bad fruit. Spirit-filled churches have spirit-filled people. So, an excellent first step is to ‘soul search’ about whether your church is spirit-filled or not.

Let’s assume that you sense some gap and want to further consider transformation. This then raises a ‘chicken and egg’ question. To transform a local church must you initially transform its members to being spirit-filled, or do you transform a church so that it can help its members become spirit-filled? My answer is a “both-and” answer. However spirit-filled or wounded a local church may be, the members of that local church should begin the transformation process. By helping the church become a better follower and lover of Jesus, it will thereby be better at helping its members become more spirit-filled. And Spirit-filled people can help the church transform itself even more. This is a ‘virtuous circle,’ that starts in the hearts of its members.

Why aren’t you excited?

I had a ‘eureka’ moment the other day, as I was reading Hans Kung’s The Beginning of all things: Science and Religion. He had discussed science’s view of the beginning in the Big Bang, and the beginning of the human race in Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  Then Kung summarised Polkinghorne’s view of  the role that God played in the beginnings as  “. . .a patient and subtle creator who is content to pursue his aims by initiating the process and by accepting that degree of vulnerability and uncertainty that always characterises the gift of freedom through love.” A number of things clicked for me when I read this.

  • “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” [Acts 2:17]
  • “They are not of this world, even as I am not of it.” [John 17:16]
  • “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:14]

Eureka! We are in the time God and Jesus promised, when the very Spirit of God will empower us to do great works and ‘move mountains’!

So why aren’t you excited? Probably because your common sense tells you that this simply cannot be true. But where did your common sense come from?

Everyone faces three choices when they consider how to view and put into practice Jesus’ promises. First, they may decide it’s all too fantastic and refuse to think about it anymore. You might view them as the cynics of this world. Such people withdraw, become passive, remain victims, and generally wait for someone else to do things. [1]

Second, some people at least reflect on Jesus’ promises and begin to realize there might be some truth in them. But then they become overwhelmed by the reality of the world.  You can recognize such people because they actually talk about the Spirit and Jesus’ promises and seem to understand that they might not be the ordinary people common sense says that they are. In the end though, they say that Jesus’ promises are so improbable that it isn’t worth the risk of putting them into practice. These are the people who settle for the status quo, the skeptics.

Finally there are some people who realise what Jesus’ promises mean. You can call them visionaries or heros. Heros, in the great myths, went on a quest. The hero’s quest was seen to be an extraordinary journey requiring great courage. The first step in Christian heroism is imagining that Jesus’ promises mean exactly what they say: Ordinary people have the power to influence things. The second step is acting despite personal risk. The third is persevering despite difficulties and failures because Jesus’ vision is so vital and compelling.

A person who believes in Jesus’ promises says, “Even if I am only one person, I might make a difference. Therefore, I must try!” They begin to believe that a powerful force — the most powerful imaginable — is at work changing them and empowering them. They understand what Jesus meant by saying we can create whatever is in God’s will by asking him to do it. It isn’t our strength but his.

Isn’t that exciting? If you’re not excited, I encourage you to reflect on why that is. Are you actually a cynic or a skeptic even though you are a Christian believer?


[1] This is based on Melanie Klein’s model, taken from “Mourning, Potency and Power” by Laurent Lapierre in The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, pp 26-31.

 

 

Living as if . . .

Hindus describe how man lives using a story about four ages of man.

  • Youth simply enjoys life
  • Young adults use their powers to achieve
  • More mature adults seek ways to contribute
  • Then, finally, some people seek  ultimate meaning

What story do we Christians tell about life? I would call it the “living as if” story. Christians live

  • As if everyday reality is much more than what it seems on the surface
  • As if God is present and active in our lives
  • As if love is the most fundamental force in the universe.

The question is, how do we live as if our story is true when the world around us tells a different story? The world tells us to live

  • As if everyday reality is exactly what it appears to be
  • As if God, if He exists at all, is remote and not active in our lives
  • As if energy is the most fundamental force in the universe

It seems to me that the purpose of church is to help Christians live their ‘as if’ story. A good way to measure whether this is happening is to look at the ‘fruits’ of the church. Paul describes these this way: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.” [Galatians 5: 22-25]

 

B. Where Does Our Church Need to Go? — A New Model for Local Churches

In my consulting practice I usually try to get business people to think about what their organization does (driven by its primary purpose) before they think about its structure. This follows the ancient Roman architectral design principle of ‘Form follows Function.’ It is better to design the functions of a building, an organization (or a church) before you decide how to organize the people doing these functions.

Most people find this very hard to do — their natural tendency is to want to know the ‘pecking order’ first. Who is the leader? Who is my boss? Who wields the power? I was part of a team many years ago that invented a way to get people to think in fresh ways about what their organization needs to do, without worrying about its structure. We called this method Value Streams.

Simply put, a Value Stream describes all the work necessary to satisfy the needs of a particular type of customer. For example, if a business has both large corporate customers as well as individual consumers, they would like to design the work for these two types of customers differently because their needs may be very different. You don’t worry about how the work is structured; you worry about what work must be done to meet needs. Value Stream thinking puts a premium on satisfying the needs of customers. [You can also have Value Streams focused on internal ‘customers’ too, such as a People Value Stream that is all the work that must be done to meet the needs of employees.]

I have used Value Stream thinking to create a fresh model of  a local church. This model has the following advantages:

  • It focuses on the needs of diverse people, whom the church is meant to serve.
  • It takes into account the differences between people in different situations, making the church sensitive to their different needs
  • It look at all the activities that a church might do and asks the question, “Who is this particular activity in service of?”
  • It provides a way to assess whether, and to what extent, a church’s current activities are meeting the needs of their key ‘customers.’

The following diagram shows a simple Value Stream model that fits any church.

Here is a brief explanation of the model. In the future, I will publish a more detailed model together witha Guide to the design process required to customize the model to meet the specific needs of any local church.

The Primary ‘Customer-facing’ Value Streams

  • The People ‘outside’ the church — non Christians — are served by the Connecting Value Stream. This might include activites like welcoming, evangelizing, initiation into the church, Baptism, and others. This value Stream responds the the Great Comission of Jesus.
  • The Members of the church — Christians, whether members of the local church or not — are served by the Belonging Value Stream. This might includes activities like liturgy, education, Bible Studies, community-building and others.
  • Poor and Needy people — whether Christian or not — are served by the Serving Value Stream. This might include activities like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, healing, visiting the imprisoned, and other activities by which Christians fulfill the most basic command of Jesus of loving our neighbors.

The Supporting Value Streams

  • The people who do the work in the Conecting and Belonging Value Streams are support by the work of the  Spiritual Value Stream. This might include activities like preparation for ministry, creating or enabling liturgies, coaching, retreats and others.
  • The people who do the work in the Serving Value Stream are supported by the Equipping Value Stream. This might include activities like special training, program creation, collaboration with other agencies and groups and others.

The Enabling Value Streams

  • All the work in the other value Streams is served by the Leadership Value Stream. This might include activities like parish council, recruting and organizing volunteers, transformation and others.
  • The financials and church building are served by the Stewarship & Facilities Value Stream. This includes fund raising and management, build programs and maintenace and others.
  • The professional employees of the church are served by the People Value Stream. This might include hiring, training, and other traditional HR activities.

This model can used used in a variety of ways

  • As a way to assess how effecteively a church’s current activities are linked to the needs of primary customers.
  • As a means to help everyone in a church see where their particular activity fits, and how it supports the overall church community
  • As the starting point for rethinking how a church might better prioritize and apply its resources.

 

 

 

C. How Do We Get There? — Seven steps to transform your local church

The transformation of a local church can be viewed in terms of a logical progression of steps. These steps don’t always follow one another in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, I will present them as a coherent progression because it is easier to understand. Where there may be alternative paths, I will highlight this possibility and its significance at the appropriate time.

The seven steps of transformation of a local church

Transformation happens, not as a well-designed, planned program, but as a series of surprising changes – like a child growing. A church may plan a transformation program but it will never proceed according to plan, because the Holy Spirit is involved and a local church is complex. So, when you read the following Steps, think of them as overlapping, iterative and ‘messy,’ meaning never working exactly like you expect. It is best to think of transformation as a continuous learning process, with new understandings raising new questions and the need for more learning. Nonetheless, the work of each of these Steps is necessary so the local church ought to begin its ‘change journey’ by understanding the basics about each Step. This blog is only an introduction; I will be writing a detailed Guide and making it available when it is completed. But remember, there isn’t a ‘cookbook’ for transforming your local church. Real transformation is ‘advanced’ change, and there are no experts in local church transformation, only many students sharing their experiences.

Here, briefly, is the ‘100,000 foot view’ of local church transformation, to give you a perspective of what is involved involved.

Step 1.             Awakening – An individual or a group within a local church reads this Blog or has some other experience, and realizes that their local church needs to be transformed. These individuals are the Change Agents within the local church. They approach the Pastor and obtain his support to do Step 2, the Assessment Phase.

Step 2.             Assessment – A ‘Learning Team’ appointed by the Pastor, which includes the original Change Agents, reviews the church’s current ability to carry out Jesus’ purpose and presents their findings to the Pastor as well as other senior local church leaders.

Step 3.             Sponsorship – The Pastor agrees to be the Sponsor, and appoints and empowers a Transformation Team to design, plan and lead the rollout of the transformation. The original Change Agents ought to be part of this Team, or at a minimum be Advocates.

Step 4.             Design – The Transformation Team designs the future local church’s ‘Value Streams’ to better carry out Jesus’ purpose, and the changes required to build the future church. [There will be a future Blog covering Value Streams, a specific way of thinking about the ‘architecture’ of the functions of a future local church.]

Step 5.             Decision and Enrollment – The Transformation Team receives the Sponsor’s approval to implement the design and enrolls those people in the local church who are both the change leaders as well as the Beneficiaries of the new design.

Step 6.             Implementation – The change leaders, supported by the Transformation Team, do the detailed design and plan the required changes, then implement them, supporting the Beneficiaries of the changes as they make their own change journeys.

Step 7.             Guidance – All during this process, the Pastor and other appointed senior church leaders review and guide the progress of the transformation.

Again, these steps will be detailed in the Guide to be made available later.

The key roles involved in transformation of a local church

There are four key roles that are critical to the successful transformation of a local church. The people involved in these roles need to learn how to do them. It should not be assumed that people in these roles understand what is required of them just because they have read this Blog. This implies the need for an advisor (or teacher or coach) with experience and expertise to also be involved in the transformation process.

Sponsor (Pastor as Servant Leader) – A person who defines the intent of the transformation, allocates resources and enforces consequences of following (or not) the transformation initiative within the local church.

Change Agent (the core of the local church’s Transformation Team) – A person who sees the need for transformation, energizes the local church to change, and designs the changes in the local church required to accomplish the transformation.

Advocate – A person who believes in the transformation and actively persuades others in the local church to support it

Beneficiary – A person who must change in order for the transformation to happen, and who also receives the benefits of the transformation

These roles will be detailed in the future Guide.

Three major risks in transforming a local church, and how they must be mitigated

Lack of clarity – When the Sponsor, Change Agents and Advocates are unclear about the goal and process of transformation, a number of things can happen to endanger the transformational journey. First, the people in the church get mixed messages, which leads to added change resistance. Second, decisions are made more difficult because the choices are unclear. Third, energy is wasted pursuing tangents because the goal and outcomes are indistinct. This risk is mitigated by an early focus on achieving absolute clarity about intent and constant communications about this intent among the key players as well as the entire church – why we need to change; the desired outcomes and what the major steps will be to get there.

Change resistance – This risk is natural in every kind of change but especially in the fundamental changes involved in transformation. Many people may feel as if the church that they know and love is threatened by change, and they try to find ways to slow progress or even completely stop transformation. This risk is mitigated by helping such people adjust to change in small steps.

Poor management – The changes involved in transformation may involve all aspects of a church, many people and multiple tasks, all of which need to play together harmoniously. There needs to be an overall transformation initiative manager to achieve this result and many times that skill is absent in a church. The confusion that can result from poor management can demoralize the Transformation Team and even the whole church. The risk is mitigated by ensuring competent planning and management disciplines are understood and practiced.

Transformation as Cultural Change

The important thing to keep in mind is that transforming your local church is fundamentally about changing its culture. This generally means  ‘freeing’ it from the restraints that it has put on itself in order to ‘co-exist’ with the surrounding culture. Only if you see transformation in this light, will you focus on the right areas that need changing. A key barrier to cultural change is busyness. It is too easy to create activities that serve others but also serve staying in the status quo. Also, Jesus is the true leader of transformation and we always need to reflect and apply Jesus’ Principles before acting. “Who are we following in this area of church activities: the world or Jesus?” Since Jesus’ Principles are transformational, when we faithfully apply them, we will inevitably run into conflicts between the way things are now and the way they ought to be. That gap is an opportunity to transform the church’s culture.

What are some of the key points to keep in mind about cultural change?

  • A church may (and most likely does) have multiple cultures within its congregation. This usually results in clashes within the church that slow its overall transformation but also ensure that many different Beneficiaries, both internal and external, have their needs met.
  • Culture has many subtle yet powerful ways to defend the status quo.
  • Culture changes slowly, especially if there is a ‘paradigm shift’ involved.
  • Changing culture requires Change Agents who are willing to stay out of their personal ‘comfort zone.’

Applying Jesus’ Principles to decisions

Imagine that Jesus is sitting in your Parish Council meeting. Eleven people are discussing some decision that needs to be made, e.g., should we construct a quiet room in the church so parents can attend services but their babies won’t disturb the rest of us? This room will cost a significant amount of money. Jesus sits silently and listens to the discussion, which winds on and on. The hour is getting late. Finally Jesus speaks. He doesn’t say what the decision ought to be; he just lays out the pros and cons from his way of thinking. He leaves the decision up to the rest of us.

Jesus is showing us how his mind works in this specific situation. If he does this for enough different issues, over time we begin to get a sense of the ‘mind of Jesus’ when it comes to the ordinary life of our parish. We can infer certain common principles about how Jesus thinks about the pros and cons of the everyday issues in our local church. Eventually, Jesus doesn’t have to speak up in the Parish Council at all because we understand and apply his principles to our choices. He may occasionally nod, “Yes, you’ve got it right” or shake his head, “That’s not quite the way that I think about this situation.” We gradually become comfortable that we are making the choices that Jesus desires. When that happens, the local church is thinking and making choices with ‘the mind of Jesus.’ There are no guarantees that we are 100% right all the time, but in prayer, before and after serious decisions, we sense whether Jesus is nodding ‘Yes’ or shaking his head ‘No.’ We are doing the process of Principle Based Decision Making based on common principles that we have tested with Jesus.

When Christians accept Jesus as their leader, in practical terms they believe that they can understand Jesus’ plan and his guidance on how to ‘execute’ it. Otherwise, saying Jesus is our leader would be just an empty statement, because Christians would have no practical way of following him. A usual way that all Christians use to understand what Jesus wants of them is by using the Bible. From reading, discussing and praying about relevant passages in the Bible, Christians understand Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, especially how he made practical choices.

Life in modern society is complex. We are faced with many practical choices each day, e.g., How to use our time, how to use our money, how to relate to people, how to relate to political and legal systems, etc. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning what the mind of Jesus is about our choices in life and how to follow his example and teachings. This is a life-long undertaking. All of us miss the mark sometimes; nonetheless, we know in our hearts that following Jesus as our leader means that we must take his guidance and plan seriously.

When it comes to the choices that a local church makes, following Jesus’ leadership is even more important because the choices that a church makes affect many people. There are many ways that different churches try to guard against making the wrong choices. In this regard, most churches are conservative and avoid making abrupt or sweeping changes. But when transformation seems called for, we obviously need to understand the mind of Jesus.

I am advocating Principle Based Decision-making as an appropriate way for local churches to make difficult, perhaps controversial choices and, at the same time, be respectful of the mechanisms that are in place to guard against the risks of wrong choices. Obviously, how this process is implemented will vary from church to church. Nonetheless, by applying the principles I provide, which overtly bring the mind of Jesus into every serious choice, churches will take a fresh look at how they are living out the plan and guidance of their leader. That is an important step towards transforming the local church. [Click here to download a pdf of a starter set of Principles and Process for Christian Decisionmaking]

Jesus was focused on helping people find the freedom that God intended, and healing whatever ills they were suffering from. He wanted to shock the local church into paying attention to God’s priorities, which weren’t following rules but feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, healing the sick, etc. This would require changing how people thought about the structure of society and the church’s role in society. Jesus knew that this would transform everything in his disciple’s lives.

Each local church needs to decide how to transform itself and engage in actions that further Jesus’ mission. This requires that we know how Jesus would decide and act if he were present with us in the various situations we face, so that we can decide and act like him. This, in turn, requires we agree on a set of principles that will guide us as we make choices, as individuals, as small groups and ultimately as a whole local church.


[1] There are many other ways as well, which are not universally practiced across all churches, such as tradition, authoritative teaching, discernment in prayer, and others. Because this book is for all Christians, I will only use the Bible as my source for understanding his mind and purposes.

Cocoon to Butterfly; The Church’s Journey

Human beings first understand things metaphorically. When we encounter something new, we understand it by comparing it with something that we already know.

Many of us have never encountered the idea that the Christian church, like all living things, is on a journey. If we want to understand its ongoing life journey then the transformation of a butterfly, from egg to larvae to cocoon to butterfly helps us understand this.

After Jesus died, the church was in its primitive egg stage, tiny but with tremendous potential. Then it began to grow, becoming an organization among other organizations in the world, and entered the larvae stage. It was in this stage of its life for many centuries. This was the ugly, squirming stage, almost painful to consider in retrospect, with schisms and crusades and reformations and many excruciating learning experiences as it tried to survive as an organization as well as apply itself to Jesus’ vision. At some point it started to become more self-reflective about what it had become and entered the cocoon stage. That is where it is now. In the mysterious dark place where it finds itself there is change and growth but this isn’t visible. But now, finally, it is struggling to emerge from this cocoon and ‘reinvent’ itself as a butterfly, to better live as Jesus intends, and ‘fly’ so the world can see God’s kingdom as it is actually present today. The world is already filled with grace, and all human beings can access it to transform the world.

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