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.

Ideology versus ?

I had a very provocative dinner table conversation last night, with a woman who is a passionate advocate for social justice. At 15 she set up a special breakfast at her school for poor aboriginal children because they had no food. She has continued to be an activist for social causes her entire life. She made a statement that initially I objected to but eventually agreed with. “Ideology is one of the biggest issues that stands in the way of social justice.” She also claimed, as many people do, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” and wrapped ideology, church and religion together. The conversation made me think about how Christians distiguish between “ideology” — which is harmful — and . . .? What is the Christian antidote for ideology? Do we need an antidote? Will we bring the antidote into the world to help the cause of social justice?

What would Jesus do?

First of all, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know the answer to these questions. Any word I tried to use to describe the Christian antidote to ideology seemed to have problems of its own. Ideology versus faith? Ideology versus morality? Ideology versus love? If I am trapped in ideology aren’t these words also infected and twisted? Do I somehow claim a perfect understanding of “Jesus’ mind” and what he would do to overcome ideology? Isn’t that pride, the deadliest of sins? It seemed to me that, as a Christian, the only way out of this dilemma was to both understand what Jesus did during his life as well as how thinkers in the church since then have dealt with this question of ideology versus “right thinking and acting.”

“Right thinking and acting”

If you read the four Gospels — the stories of his life — it is obvious that Jesus did not buy into any of the religious, political or cultural ideologies of his time. He lived in opposition to them but did not create a counter- ideology. He simply announced and lived  what “right thinking and acting” in God’s kingdom is all about — feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the stranger and especially caring for the poor. You could say that, like my dinner guest, Jesus was advocating and living social justice. [He was spiritual but, unlike her, he was a Jew and generally followed that religious tradition but not any of its prevailing ideologies.] After Jesus, Christian thinkers down through the ages have dealt with the specifics of social justice but, it is safe to say, not one has ever disputed that social justice was part of Jesus’ core message about “right thinking and acting” in God’s Kingdom.

So, what must I do?

The answer is simple to my pragmatic Australian dinner guest. “Get on with it!” Don’t let my ideology get in the way of social justice. Don’t say to myself, “Well ____ doesn’t deserve my concern and help because she ______.” [You fill in your favorite ideological targets.] Go read my previous post about Christians and Moslems if you want to think about your ideology about a specific issue. Christians and Moslems: A Way Forward. Or pick your favorite sin — abortion, drugs, fornication — and see how you thnk about and care for the “sinners” engaged in such activities. But most of all begin to question, “How is my Christian ideology blocking following Jesus’ way?”

Read Ideology Part 2

 

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.

 

 

 

Three Cheers for Empathy AND Religion!

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald essay entitled Evil lives when empathy dies, Simon Baron-Cohen wrote “Unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.” I applaud his praise of empathy but, intentionally or not, the author has reinforced a stereotype — Religion equates to oppression. Christians need to understand that such statements represent the conventional wisdom of our culture and how many people typically see religion, including Christianity. If you ask the average man on the street to do a word association test, when you say ‘religion,’ I wager you will get mainly negative responses, all centered around religion limiting human freedom, historically and in the present.

Empathy accepts  the situation of another person, just as it is. We show genuine concern for another human being. What does religion do? Does it accept people empathically and show concern for them, or something else? To answer this, we need to look at the human situation as God sees it. Only then can we understand what we humans are attempting to do — and how well we have succeeded — when we create an organised way to relate to God, otherwise called religion.

A fundamental axiom of Judiasm and Christianity is that God created men and women to be free, like He is free. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” [Genesis 5:1] So, a key purpose of any religion ought to be to assist men and women in recognising that we are like God and meant to be free. It is evident that historically, all religions, not just Christianity have gone astray from this purpose. So, ought we now decide to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and eliminate all religions?

If one doesn’t believe in God, then religion is extraneous. But if you do believe,  then Religion is essential to discovering our true freedom and our likeness to God. We learn about God from others. Human beings can have some contact with God in a spiritual sense without religion. But we can never know God as God is because God is essentially unknowable unless He communicates with us. All the major religions — Judiasm, Christianity, Islam — base their authority on God speaking to us and revealing who He is. The Christian religion claims that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is. Making such a claim, Christians perhaps have more to answer for, beacsue so many men now conclude based on the historical evidence that man now longer needs religion!

Bernard Cooke sums up the Christian religion’s responsibility like this: “Christianity’s relevance is directly proportionate to the extent to which it can make the presence of Christ effective in the lives of men.” [in Christian Community: Response to Reality] If men do not encounter Jesus when they encounter the Christian religion, then we must change whatever has created that situation! That is the most fundamental “burning platform” for transforming local churches!

Reading the Bible, it is clear that people experienced Jesus through his empathy! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that abundantly clear — and its message to  Christians is also clear: “Go and do likewise.” If men experience Christianity as rules and judgment and limitation of freedom, and do not experience empathy, then we have to expect that they will not see Jesus in our actions. Christianity without empathy is a false religion!

 

Transformation needs a realistic assessment

How much does our local church need to change? Are we already doing our ‘utmost for his highest’ according to Oswald Chambers’ famous yardstick? How do we measure ourselves, and against what standards?

I offer the following standard as a starting point for discussing and answering the question how much do we actually need to change? Christians should break Jesus’ mission into three fundamental areas of focus of a church’s activities – Welcoming, Belonging and Serving. These three areas can be directly tied to Jesus’ own life and teaching so we can be confident that they are truly transformational activities. They can also be measured, which allows us to objectively assess how much we actually need to change.

  • Welcoming: Our attitude toward strangers and what we do to invite them to experience Jesus’ kingdom.
  • Belonging: What we do to grow the maturity of Christians, especially in regard to strengthening them in Jesus’ alternative cultural reality.
  • Serving: What we do to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc, following Jesus’ first Principle of the Preferential Option for the Poor.

Each church most likely will have on-going activities in each of these three areas. The question is not only how well we are doing these, but also what are we not doing? That is why I included “strangers” under Welcoming, Jesus’ “alternative cultural reality” under Belonging, and “preferential Option for the Poor” under Serving. We need to measure ourselves using the mind of Jesus and our measurement ‘yardstick’ must have some ‘bite’ to it. Looking at other options for these three areas, and applying Jesus’ Principles to decide whether they ought to be done is a good way to answer the question how much do we actually need to change.