Success or faithfulness in ministry?

The church growth movement has made many lasting contributions to our practice of ministry. But its overemphasis on technique and results can put too much pressure on ministers because it underemphasizes the importance of godly character and the sovereignty of God. Those who claim ‘what is required is faithfulness’ are largely right, but this mindset can take too much pressure off church leaders. It does not lead them to ask hard questions when faithful ministries bear little fruit. When fruitlessness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.

-Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Who is my neighbor?

‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’

And then the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

On Saturday I experienced a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. After spending the morning doing various things to serve our downtown community, members of our church went out and invited everyone they met to have lunch with us. Many came.

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It was a powerful experience that taught me several lessons about myself, humanity, the gospel, and the church:

  1. Myself: My fear of being patronizing often causes me to hold back. I deeply desire to encounter those with  fewer resources, less cultural power, and (perhaps) greater physical need as equals. This can be difficult to do, and so the fear of perceiving myself as a savior often causes me to miss out on deeper relationships with those who are different than myself.
  2. Humanity: All of us are united both in our dignity and our degradation. The photo above is linked to a collection of portraits of homeless people. As I clicked through the gallery, I was struck by the juxtaposition of dignity and degradation. Stare into the piercing gazes of these people and you will see their dignity. Eyeball don’t age, do they? Yet, those same eyes are set in a deteriorating and unwashed body. It’s no different for me. The form may be different, but I too combine dignity and degradation.
  3. The Gospel: The invitation to the banquet only deeply resonates with those who recognize their need. Those who respond to the message of the gospel are those who see their need. Those who joined us for a simply lunch of sloppy joe’s and potato salad where those who recognized and admitted their need for a free meal.
  4. The Church: The church is a parable of Jesus and so together our story has to mirror Jesus’ story in the gospels. It’s quite difficult for anyone to encounter Jesus in abstraction. Most of us will encounter Jesus through a message-bearer. As the church, we are the bearers of the message that there is free grace offered to us by God through Christ.

Let’s be clear, I’m no Mother Theresa. I am, at best, an apprentice at loving my neighbor. However, God met even me in the simple act of sharing a meal with those in our downtown neighborhood.

 

What is real influence?

It’s been a slow week here at jeffgissing.com. My family is in San Diego enjoying some vacation time and celebrating the wedding of my brother-in-law. It has been a fun week–Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, the Science Museum!

This week I’ve been reading Mel Lawrenz’s Spiritual Influence: The Hidden Power behind Leadership. It’s a great book and is helping me get to the heart of what ministry leadership is–something that I explored last week in a couple of posts. Ministry leadership is, in its essence, a function of discipleship. If a leader is not a disciple, her leadership rests on sand rather than bedrock.

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Here’s how Lawrenz puts it:

“[Great Christian leaders] know that they’re not the real influencers, but that they are being used by God, who brings enduring, transforming influence in peoples’ lives.”

He later writes:

“Leadership that is entirely self-directed [as opposed to God-directed] will always be pathological….spiritual leadership is an extension of discipleship.”

Most of us are prone to excess in this area.

We either think that ‘leadership’ is a bad thing and we avoid it or we valorize it. The problem with this approach is, of course, that Scripture bears testimony to the importance of using one’s spiritual gifts for the purpose of edifying and building up the body in ways that specifically employ our gifts.

On the other hand, many of us go further than Scripture to become obsessed with leadership. As Lawrenz points out in his book, there is no generic term in Scripture for leadership. Leadership is ever and always linked to participation in the mission of God in a specific and concrete way. Leadership is not abstract and ephemeral, it is concrete and involved getting your hands dirty in mission.

Your guide to pastoral facial hair…

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Facebook is a treasure trove of graphics, many of them pretty crappy. However, this little gem stands out! It’s masterful–I can think of at least one person I currently know who approximates each of these, except perhaps the angry whiskers.

Which one’s your favorite?

 

What is a pastor (cont’d)?

I’m on something of an intellectual journey to understand the essence of ordained ministry (the presbyterate and deaconate). I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. The first is that, by nature, I’m an inquisitive person and the challenge of exploring this sort of topic is really exciting to me. Second, there seem to be as many models or understandings of ordained ministry out there as there are ministries and individuals in ministry. Was there ever consensus about the pastoral office? Third, I have a suspicion that we evangelicals are missing something in the way we understand and communicate about ordained ministry. I wonder, frankly, whether we’re losing something of the soul of our leadership. In short, are we putting the cart before the horse by talking about leadership in isolation from discipleship. Leaders who aren’t disciples are, at least in spiritual leadership terms, not effective leaders.

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Let me state my concerns about the evangelical theology of ministry that marks so many churches today in four theses. I hope I’m wrong about this or that, at least, I’m going too far:

Thesis 1: In our desire to affirm the gifts of non-ordained Christians, we have unnecessarily degraded our understanding of the ordained offices of the church.

Thesis 2: We evangelicals–as a people inclined to value experience in the first instance–have unwittingly accepted the claim that religious knowledge is not a legitimate form of knowledge that has bearing beyond first person experience. As a result we are increasingly incredulous of any claim by clergy or the church to interpret religious experiences.

Thesis 3: Since the interpretation and understanding of religious knowledge/experience has become privatized, clergy are increasingly understood as professionals who facilitate religious experiences.

Thesis 4: We typically understand religious experience being precipitated by events. As a result, clergy are increasingly understood to be people who facilitate, arrange, and provide religious events that serve as conduits for religious experiences to take place.

Thesis 5: Since clergy have a greater degree of control and can plausibly reach a greater proficiency in event planning, clergy are drawn to this elements of ministry. Events are concrete, demonstrable evidence of religious accomplishment. They validate the leadership of a minister.

Am I going too far? Do you worry about this too?

Law and gospel in a kickboxing match

If law and gospel faced off in a kickboxing match, I’m pretty sure that this would be the result (warning, graphic footage):

Ultimately the gospel is stronger and surer than the law. As a means of trying to make ourselves right with God, the law is weaker than this guy’s leg. The law is weak not because it has no value or no purpose, but because we are fundamentally weak, flawed, powerless to perform to God’s standard.

We often think of the gospel and the law as opposites. We make them opposites when we try to use the law for a purpose other than which God intended for it.

Why did God give us His moral law and how are we to use it? 

  1. The law is a restraint on sin and stands apart from the work of salvation
  2. The law confronts sin and points us to Christ
  3. The law teaches us the way of righteousness

The law and our good works do not cause us to be saved rather they prepare the ground for us to encounter and receive the gospel. They also travel with us as we follow Christ as his disciples.

As long as we remember this, we needn’t see law and gospel as foes. The law serves the gospel and together they are necessary and helpful both for our justification and our growth in holiness.

The Belgic Confession puts it like this:

So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification– for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

The Belgic Confession, Article 24.

Focusing on the law can lead to, well, legalism–subconsciously trying to earn points toward God’s love. Ignoring the law can lead to well, antinomianism, casting aside all restraint and cheapening the grace and love of God. Neither leads to a deepening life of faith.

Four ways churches manage the tension of gospel and culture

Evangelicals are learning to face some new realities about the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture. The church exists for the purpose of proclaiming the truth of the Christian gospel–that reconciliation with God is possible through Christ. As God’s missional community, we are to embody that truth we pursue the various callings God has given to us (father, mother, husband, wife, etc). We are also to verbally communicate that message as God gives us opportunity to do so through organic, authentic, respectful conversation. As a result we live with a tension in deciding which parts of our message and faith are culturally-conditioned.

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This tension between message (gospel) and means (practice) has been addressed in at least four ways by the contemporary church.

  1. Change neither the means of communication nor the message itself. This is the traditional church that continues to speak and act as if it was still 1950. A traditional gospel is preached using traditional religious language, and in the context of a program driven church with a very traditional worship service.
  2. Change the means of communication, but not the message itself. This group includes many new reformed churches associated with the Acts29 network, a fewer number of emergent/ing communities, and generally those who are associated in some way, shape, or form with the center-right constituency of the missional movement. I’d even include a church like Redeemer New York (and its daughter churches) that assume a non- or post-Christian audience. The essential meaning of the gospel message remains consistent with the church’s traditional formulations. The language is updated and much insider language is jettisoned in favor of verbal symbols that connect with contemporary hearers. Context is king and so some of these churches embrace older, more liturgical forms of worship and some embrace what could be called “contemporary” Christian music (contemporary having a range of meanings each specific to the decade in which the preponderance of the congregation became believers).
  3. Change both the means of communication, and also the message itself. I’d include in this grouping the majority of the emergent/emerging conversation. It’s clear to me now that classical theism doesn’t describe the views of many of the proponents of emergent/ing. Many would object to (or at least downplay) doctrines like: God’s impassibility, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and/or foreordination of that which is to come. Since these concepts (often thought to be cultural accretions owing the Greco-Roman origin of the early Christian church) seem to many emergent/ing folk to be insufficient to addressing our contemporary world they are essentially jettisoned. As with group number two, these folk work hard to create worship experiences that are participatory, aesthetically rich, and transformative.
  4. Change the message, but not the means of communication. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that this should be an empty category. It’s not. Most of the mainline churches have essentially revised the gospel message to be accessible to their conception of what (post)modern people want. However, few have changed the form of their worship beyond including ethnically diverse hymns in their hymnbooks and editing out masculine language.

These are the four options most Christian churches pursue. It is my belief that the path of Christian faithfulness requires innovation in almost every area of the church’s life. My preferred means of innovation is breathing new life and forms into classical Christian worship as it existed prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054. Any innovation must be severely restrained (even chastened) in terms of the way in which the church talks about God and the gospel. Our talk about God does not exist in a cultural vacuum–it is anchored to and flows from God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, in the Word of God written, and in the church’s theological reflection on these over time. This is a limiting factor on the extent to which we can speculatively formulate notions of God and gospel that are “acceptable” or “palatable” to our present cultural moment.

Those are my thoughts–what are yours?

[Missional Monday 5] Missional is urgent and lean

This is the fifth post in our series about missional ministry. You can read my prior posts by following the links:

1 – Introducing missional theology

2 – Why you can’t be missional alone

3 – Why prayer is the fuel of missional ministry

4 – Why missional ministry requires vulnerability

Missional is urgent and it is also lean. Christians (and churches) make the missional shift when they come to realize that not only is the mission of God their mission, but that the ways in which we’ve pursued that mission in the past are no longer effective. In The Missional Leader Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk detail a common response to declining ministry effectiveness in non-missional churches: confusion, anxiety, and conflict. Often, our first response to a major change in the context in which we’re ministering is to keep doing what we’re doing, but to do it more intensely. We decide to work harder rather than smarter. Roxburgh and Romanuk call this “the reactive zone”–not a good place to be.

Some typical reactive responses to diminished missional effectiveness include:

  • Tension with senior staff that results in pastoral turnover.
  • Building a new worship center in order to attract more people to worship.
  • Adding a “seeker” service or an extra AA group.

These reactions show that the leadership of the church is struggling to really grasp what’s going on in their context. They think that by adding some “extra” they can revamp their flagging ministry success. In reality, they need to take the time and do the hard work of digging down into their unique congregational DNA and asking God to reveal to them where, why, and how they need to change in order to be better stewards of the Gospel.

When a congregation and its leadership are willing to start that journey, the likelihood is that they’ll move toward being a missional community. Jesus addresses one of the realities that, I think, restrains pastors and churches from becoming more mission-focused: it’s urgent work and to be done with lean resources.

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As he sends the seventy-two, ambassadors preparing the ground for Jesus’ upcoming preaching tour, Jesus tells them: “Do not take a purse or a bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road” (Luke 10:4).

There are at least three ways we can understand what Jesus is saying and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive:

  1. Their ministry is urgent. In telling them to depart without stopping to provision themselves for the journey points to the urgency of the task that Jesus has given to them. It was critical that they depart immediately and make progress down the road so that they could do the preparatory work of establishing a missional vanguard in the places Jesus would visit and preach. Common sense would dictate making some preparations for the journey, but Jesus places that as a relatively unimportant task compared with getting the good news to the people. 
  2. Their ministry is lean. This leanness is a function of the urgency of the mission–the more baggage a traveller has, the more difficult it is to be flexible in travel. It reminds me of my honeymoon. We way overpacked and had a miserable time dragging full-size rolling suitcases down the cobbled streets of Hereford, UK. The messengers had what they needed–it was time to get on the road.
  3. Their ministry depended on others. Since they carried and important and urgent message and were barely provisioned, these missionaries had to depend on the hospitality of others, a high cultural value in their culture.

Making the missional shift requires us to embrace the urgency of the mission and to engage it with a creativity unencumbered by the baggage of ineffective mission strategies. The mission is so urgent that it ought to be the criterion by which we evaluate most (if not all) elements of our church budgets. To what extent does this program or this line item play a key part in taking the gospel into the community? Where there seems to be a tenuous connection between the two, we should consider entering a period of prayerful discernment about the future of this program–how could it change to be more missional? Is there a place for this in our congregation?

This is difficult work of spiritual leadership. It requires focus, humility, prayerfulness, and proximity to the heart of God. For that reason, it’s imperative that before all else we prepare our hearts before we rearrange our priorities.

 

 

Time famine and future church

I often find myself wondering what church will look like in the future. I’m a member of a large (ish) downtown church that is evangelical in theology while being a member of a mainline denomination. We have a large campus: sanctuary, worship center, educational building, annex for youth and college ministries, etc.

We have a fairly large budget, including a significant budget for mission giving (which we, as campus missionaries, benefit from). We have a lot of staff on the payroll, both ordained pastors and program staff. Traditionally, our ministry in Winston-Salem has been centered on programs.

I find myself wondering about the future of program-centered ministry. Programs take two things that I think are going to be in short supply as we look to the future: time and moneyThe late Michael Spencer wrote about the “coming evangelical collapse” referring to a diminished future for evangelicalism as Christianity moves to the margin of society. This may well mean fewer resources for ministries and churches. Combine this with our culture’s embrace of a manic and consumerist way of life–measuring costs and benefits for every social engagement, invitation, meeting–we are going to be facing a stiff headwind in the next 5-10 years.

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I’m not here to say that this model of church is wrong–I’m saying it’s not enough. The church has to have a hybrid culture, part missional and part attractional. I like to say that the church has to be centripetal and centrifugal–it has to go out and to bring in. The church is ever gathering in worship and scattering on the mission of God in the world.

In light of this churches should to do several things:

  • Think before you build. The church is a relational matrix, not a building or an institutional structure. If you must build, please build in a way that advances the biblical notion of church as called-out, sent people. Remember too, every building decision locks you into a model of ministry. One day you might need to change that model but find it difficult because of your mortgage payment.
  • Think about tomorrow: plant a church. If you have to, call it a second campus. Give it a campus pastor and rent a location for it. It can organizationally be part of your church….just plant a church. We need more Gospel witness in our society and larger churches need to think about how their resources can be deployed to advance the mission of God in new and innovative ways.
  • Be wary of consumerism. Listen to the ways you describe your programs and ministries. Are you using consumerist language. Think about who you’re reaching with those programs. If people are coming from other churches because they like your programs, do you think that God is particularly pleased by that? Consumerism is the air we breathe and, perhaps more than the Gospel itself, it forms the ways in which we unconsciously think and act. Be wary of producing religious services for consumption by other religious people.

The letter Screwtape should have written

It is not [the Christian’s] primary task to think out plans, programmes, methods of action and of achievement. When Christians do this (and there is an epidemic of this behavior at the present time in the Church) it is simply an imitation of the world, and is doomed to defeat.

Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (1967), 80.

 

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If C. S. Lewis lived today he may well have appended one last letter from Master Tempter Screwtape to his apprentice Wormwood (in The Screwtape Letters). In it the old master would have encouraged the young tempter to try to lead his convert down the byway of technique into the cesspool of causation. 

Now in leadership in the church, Wormwood’s quarry would be encouraged to come to think of ministry as something that requires the securing of the correct technique. The right words. The right affect. The right strategy. He would be encouraged to believe that any number of things could be a substitute for personal holiness in the life of the Christian minister. Would it not be better to have a highly relational pagan as a minister than an introverted saint? Ministers are, after all, people persons–like those in sales.

The byway of technique leads to the cesspool of causation. When mired in this desolate place, the Christian comes to believe that having the right technique will (of necessity) bring around a desired result). In so believing he replaces God with an idol of his own creation.

I don’t know if our churches and ministry organizations have moved beyond using planning and training as a tool and into the zone of making it the church’s reason for being. I hope not. The church’s reason for being is to be the incarnate community of God who lives the Gospel in a way centered on the Word and Sacraments by which they participate in the life of God. 

Planning and training can be no substitute for prayer, the word, and the table. To confuse them is to cause the church to lose its uniqueness and to negate its mission.