PART 2: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

Last week I made the boring but necessary point that some church costs can scale with size, whereas others do not.

Today, I want to tell a fable, and then ask a question.

New Church

Suppose a church plant – let’s call it ‘New Church‘ – reaches a stage in their life together when they decide to purchase and renovate a local Art Deco cinema complex. New Church have been bouncing around various community facilities, but at a special meeting of their membership, the vote was cast to take out a loan and dive in. After all the fundraising and planning and construction, the outstanding amount of the loan is $1 million. It’s a lot of money, but with New Church‘s demographics – young, inner city workers – it’s an easy load to bear.

Three years down the track, and New Church has begun to diversify. Many of its original core team are now in the family mode. Church has got a lot more complex, what with the need for kids workers and the installation of a crying room. The all-black decor has been compromised, too, with a brightly coloured corner for breast-feeding mums and toddlers, as well as signage for the playgroup that has just started up.

New New Church

Then, down the road – literally, down the road, about 200m away –  New New Church opens its doors. The launch of New New Church reminds New Church members of their early days. Only, since then, the church planting scene has got a whole lot more sophisticated. The social media campaign is like a stealth blitz by internet ninjas. The graphics somehow manage to be both edgy and laid-back, communicating authenticity and excellence at the same time (no one knows exactly why, but they all agree it’s true). New New Church doesn’t have congregational ministers, but a Preaching and Vision Pastor and an Executive Director and a Community Pastor and about 50 interns.

All of this taps into something. And a group of young professionals over at New Church decide that this is a vision and a church plant that they want to support.

‘There’s always room for another church,’ they cry, as they tearfully farewell New Church and walk down the road to New New Church, full of great dreams.

A strange thing happened

The folks at New Church don’t know quite what to do. For years, they’ve talked about the importance of establishing new churches. Their lead pastor has been a keynote speaker at a number of church planting conferences and contributed to boot camps for aspiring church planters. It’s part of their DNA, their community story, that they ought to be excited about New New Church.

And, mostly, they are. The truth is that there are 500,000 people within 5km and, no matter how fast New Church grows, it can only ever scratch the surface. Multiplying churches is the only way that the gospel can penetrate the tough, hedonistic and profoundly secular culture of their city. They’ve been praying for new visionaries to found new gospel communities and for a wave of revival.

There’s only one problem.  You see, they still have building debt. And while it was easy to service at first, with every member of the church a young professional with a young professional’s income, things have changed. Most of the young families now have only one parent working. Plus they’ve got the extra costs of kids ministry. And the children certainly can’t pay.

So this strange thing has happened. Even though the church has been growing – faster even than the local population – the number of people earning an income and able to give has declined slightly. And suddenly, with a cohort of young workers leaving for New New Church, the load on those who remain has increased dramatically.

In fact, for each income earner giving to the church, the cost of fixed items (see last week’s blog) has gone from 15% of their weekly giving to 30% of their weekly giving. And that’s huge. At a time when New Church feels like it needs its staff more that ever, the staffing budget takes a 15% hit.

They don’t know how to feel

And, here’s the thing. Those members who have stayed at New Church don’t know how to feel. They want to celebrate the fact of a new gospel community reaching the local area. They want to be that church – you know, the church who gives its resources away, joyfully and freely.

But they also feel a little bit betrayed. They thought their church was in this together. They thought they’d agreed to shoulder the cost of buying a new building together. They never thought a significant cohort of the church would just walk away from the loan repayments.

And it’s not just the building and the loan. Because of the increased cost of repayments per income earner, they’ve had to cut the support their church has given (and had committed) to an orphanage in Africa. And they had some ministries to local public housing, but because these were mostly run by the young workers, they’ve had to close down. And the thought of no one checking in on the local shut-ins breaks their hearts.

The question

So here is the question. The question that I’ve never heard asked. The question is thus:

In light of the gospel, what is the nature of the ongoing obligation of a church member to the commitments that their church makes as a community? 

And the second question is like it:

What impact should the above obligations have on the church planting conversation and, in particular, the transfer of members?

More next week.

 

Where do I stand on the issue of women preachers?

In recent days, a number of people have asked me where I stand in the issue of women preaching in church. This is a question that matters to me. It matters because I’m the senior minister of one of the most recognisable Anglican churches in the country. It matters because my church, St Barnabas Broadway, has a history of women in the pulpit. It matters because I hold brothers and sisters to be precious on both sides of this argument. It also matters to me because I’m convinced, for whatever reason, that God has gifted me as a trainer of preachers. I have a small group of capable men and women who gather with me on Friday afternoons to develop as public ministers of God’s word. My vision is to see Barneys as the most prolific producer of compelling proclaimers of the gospel in Australia. Among those being trained are women. And so it’s important for me to know: what kind of preaching ministry do I think I’m training them for?

A confession

Firstly, let me make it clear that this is not an exegetical study. I don’t want to use a blog to step into the current war of words about the meaning of the word ‘didasko’, or the more vigorous discussion about books and responses. This is much more a personal confession, in the Augustinian sense – a brief statement of what I believe and practice, so that those near me may know clearly where I stand.

Men and women

So, then, here is where we begin: with my conviction that men and women are different. Different not only in who they are (in general, and as ‘kinds’), but different in how they are called to love and serve. This view is usually known as ‘complementarianism’. In the Christian community, it is associated with conservative evangelical belief. However, it is worth noting that amongst the latest wave of secular feminism, there is a strong argument being made for the importance of difference. Earlier feminism made the claim that women can do everything men can do (which, in terms of capacity, is hard to dispute). Contemporary feminisms (there are a plurality) observe that this appears to have resulted in masculinity becoming the standard by which ‘successful’ femininity is judged. Eva Cox, a prominent Australian feminist (and no Christian!) has argued, rightly I think, that this has resulted in a subjugation of womanhood to culturally male values, and that we need a new set of measures of ‘success’ that allow for parenting decisions and different priorities. So, I believe that men and women are in some contexts called to different roles. This doesn’t include the workplace, or the sporting field, or even the military, in my view. However, it does include families (as husbands and wives), and churches. Please hear again that I do not believe that these roles are necessarily rooted in capacities – in technical language, gender is not merely an extension of biological sex.

Soft complementarianism

My understanding of these different roles will strike some as hopelessly regressive (a new apartheid). Others will understandably see a dangerous, creeping liberalism. This I can live with. It has always been my policy to be one person, in private and public, and this includes contested beliefs. I have called my position ‘soft complementation’ because I feel no need to stake out the middle ground. It is always better to call oneself names (‘soft’) than call one’s brothers and sisters names (‘hard’). And, besides, I don’t for a moment believe that those more conservative than me are remotely hard. Many of them are profoundly gentle, sensitive and grieving about the hurt this debate has caused, and full of a deep love for God’s church. They should be honoured for defending what they believe to be biblical. So, let me first summarise my position, and then I will explain: I am convinced that God desires a public word ministry by women in the mixed assembly of the church that includes preaching under the authority of a male elder. (Now, may the fireworks begin!) Briefly broken into pieces, here are my assumptions:

  1. The New Testament reserves a particular role in the life of the church, that of elder, for certain men (elder is not a description of age, but of office).
  2. Part of the task of elders is to preserve the life and doctrine of the church through authoritative teaching.
  3. The church is called to submit to the elders set over them.
  4. Men and women alike are expected to exercise a ministry of the word to one another in the assembly, which includes (but is not limited to) activities such as praying and prophesying.
  5. This general ministry of the word is not authoritative and, when exercised in the public assembly, is to be tested by the elders.
  6. Eldership in the Anglican church is established by ordination to the presbyterate.
  7. There is no general agreement around what constitutes prophecy in my church tradition, which is evangelical and Reformed Anglican, according to the 39 Articles.
  8. In a community of grace, our bias should be towards loosening, not tightening, and so I am happy to presume that the ‘word ministries’, which include prophecy and praying, include something very much like preaching, until it is demonstrated otherwise.
  9. Therefore, women (and non-elder men) can and should preach in the mixed assembly.
  10. However, it is also true that authority is not only ex officio, but socially constructed.
  11. Therefore, non-elders (and that includes men and women alike) should preach less often than elders.

Origins

There is one more thing that may be worth saying here. I was trained under Phillip Jensen through Campus Bible Study at the University of New South Wales. I love him dearly, am thankful to God for his ministry, and continue to partner with Phillip from time to time in important initiatives, and seek his counsel on difficult issues. However, I am not Phillip, and his views are not my views. That is as it should be. My own reading of the Scriptures has led me a little away from what I was taught at CBS. This was allowed, by the way, and those who characterise CBS or St Matthias as a sausage-factory for hardliners are simply ignorant. However, we are all shaped by our heritage. What this means is that while I support preaching by women in the congregation as a matter of biblical conviction, I have not always found it an entirely comfortable experience. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the place that trains the most women for preaching, and trains them the best, is CBS. But CBS does not train women to preach to mixed congregations. This means that women preaching before mixed congregations are unlikely to have the best training currently available. And, in turn, this means that, if you are a man, then you are less likely to hear a woman preach who has had the same investment in her preaching as most male preachers have experienced. Secondly, my considered position hasn’t entirely overridden my own story and consequent ingrained preference. And here is the most important sentence of this article: I choose to do what I think is right, not what I most enjoy or prefer. And that is what leadership is all about.

Why my wife is not the most amazing wife in the world

My wife is not the most amazing wife in the world.

Some of you – especially those who actually know my wife, Fiona – will be appalled at what I have written. You will note that when I first came on staff at my church, members of the congregation found it hard to believe we were married. I was ‘punching above my weight limit’, or so I was told. She was ‘out of my league.’ (These observations, of course, are absolutely correct.) Then, when I was asked to be the senior pastor, some members of the church sighed in resignation and said, ‘Well, at least we get to keep Fiona.’

My wife is an extraordinary woman. She is patient, kind, clever, godly and wise. Fiona loves reading the bible with mums who are new to (or new back to) faith. Since she started homeschooling our daughters (she is a great mum), she has had to schedule in bible reading with mums at 6am. I am in awe. Besides, I can’t imagine anyone but Fiona teaching me to love brussel sprouts.

But my wife is not the most amazing wife in the world. This is because the idea of the ‘most amazing wife’ is a category error. A non sequitur.

My problem is not with the word ‘amazing’. I trust that the world is filled with amazing wives, and amazing husbands, too. Rather, I object to the qualifier, ‘most’. ‘Most’ brings into play the language of comparison. ‘Most’ is a superlative. It implies that the value of what is being qualified is only found in comparison to other, lesser objects.

In other words, to say ‘my wife is the most amazing wife in the world’ is to say that her value lies in comparison to others. My joy in her qualities is not inherent and absolute, but rather in light of the lesser qualities of others.

And while this may be said of chocolate, or barrel waves, it ought not to be said of wives. Or husbands, churches or God, for that matter. My wife is not one of a set of ‘my wives’. She is uniquely my wife, and the value that I ought to set upon her arises from the fact of her being uniquely my wife, not how other wives are being wives to their husbands. Precisely because she is uniquely my wife – I have no other wives, and she is wife to no other – there is not possible or desirable basis of comparison.

You may complain that I am being pernickety. That the sentiment of the phrase is clear, and this entire blog mere soulless pedantry.

But I would say: don’t be silly. Words matter. Words really matter.

When our standard of preciousness is based on comparison, our language – and hence our very thoughts – have become a hostage to our culture of relativity. We live in a world where Facebook constantly corrodes the innocent delight we ought to have in our experiences by presenting to us the other, ‘better’ experiences our ‘friends’ are having at the moment. Our capacity to take simple pleasure in the moment, a child’s touch, a stray beam of sunlight, a task completed, has been eroded by the need to compare it. Does it stack up? Is it as good as what others are doing? This is the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), which is the ground of the hunger for perfect and authentic experience lying behind ‘you only live once’ (YOLO). They are both pathologies.

This isn’t mere speculation. Repeated studies have confirmed that we are a culture of hedonism but very little joy. We are manifestly more disenfranchised by every minute spent on social media.

When I speak of the very goodness of my bride, I do not want my language to drive my mind astray. I do not want to be lost in thoughts of how she compares; I want to be lost in her.

This is true, by the way, of church. My church is not the ‘best’ church. It is simply ‘my church’, and anyone who knows the gospel will also know that there is nothing more wonderful or profound that can be said than this.

One final note. I think that, most of all, our dependence on comparison means we are in danger of losing our sense of the absolute.

You see, God is not the subject of comparison. He is not the ‘best’ God. He is not even the ‘only’ God, as if there were a set of all Gods which happens to be empty except for him. He is uniquely the ground of what we mean when we use the word God. He is not the kindest – he is kindness itself. He is not the most beautiful. All beauty is but a pale reflection of Him.

If my language of value depends on comparison, how am I ever to apprehend anything of the absolute wonder of God?

PART 1: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

There is a conversation that church plants and established churches need to have.

It isn’t happening. And this is a problem.

Over three posts, I’m going to unpack some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between old and new churches, about effective resourcing of mission and about the dark side of the minister’s heart.

Another conversation

Many Christians have had a conversation with their pastor, and it goes like this.

It starts when the Christian informs their pastor that they are thinking of changing churches. There are all sorts of reasons church members may change churches. The apostle Paul travelled to Jerusalem to evangelise the Jews, to Tarsus for safety, to Antioch to help out Barnabas and to the world to proclaim Christ. For many of us, the causes are more prosaic.

At my church, St Barnabas Broadway, most people move away from the church because of either career or housing costs. We send people all over the world in order that they may become leaders in their field. And we send people all over Sydney because real estate in the inner city is apparently made out of solid gold.

And so the conversation happens. The minister impresses upon his brother or sister how there is a profound implied covenant within the life of the church. He earnestly argues that we need excellent – no, unimpeachable – reasons if we are to change churches. He sternly invokes words like faithfulness, partnership and perseverance.

There is much truth in all this. If you want hear the confronting way the Bible speaks to our decisions about church, check out my recent sermon video, ‘Why you should leave your church.’

However, I want to show you that there are other genuine issues, about which we have complicated and mixed feelings, that come into play here. Many of these issues don’t feel like they should make a difference. When we talk about them, it doesn’t really sound anything like the vital and organic missional community life that we would like to think of in connection with our church and the gospel of grace.

But they are real issues, and here is where we begin – with two kinds of cost.

Two kinds of cost

Churches have costs.

1. Fixed relative to the individual but variable relative to the overall church

The classic example of this kind of cost is staff.

Different staffing models produce different staff-to-church-member ratios. However, within a particular model, as a church grows or shrinks, two things are true.

Firstly, the staff-to-church-member cost tends to remain static. The church may employ one staff member for the first 100 people. When they grow to 200, they employ a second member of staff. It is true that these are ‘stepped’ increases, but the steps can be made more linear and gradual by employing part-time staff. The staff costs per church member remain more-or-less static, while the staff costs in relation to the overall church (or ‘in total’) are highly variable.

Secondly, the great advantage of this kind of cost is flexibility. At various stages in its life cycle, the church can adjust to ensure that the cost-per-member remains constant.

2. Fixed relative to the overall church but variable relative to the individual

The major form of this other kind of cost is church facilities.

No matter how many people turn up to church, the same number of lights need to be turned on. The bank doesn’t change its interest rate if you drop below 500 members. The roof doesn’t last longer if it shelters a smaller congregation.

These costs are fixed in relation to the overall church (yes, there may be additional wear-and-tear, but that’s usually a marginal issue). If your maintenance budget is $50,000 p.a., then it will still be $50,000 when your congregation doubles and $50,000 when it spirals into terminal decline.

However, these costs are variable relative to the individual church member. If a church with a $50,000 p.a. maintenance budget has 500 financial partners (giving members), they will each need to cover $100 p.a., or about $2 per week. If your church declines to 50 members, then they will each need to cover $20 per week. That’s pretty much the total average weekly giving per person in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Not every example of this kind of costs is as impersonal as a building, either. The needs of the unemployed single mother in the congregation, or of the local public school, or of the elderly shut-in around the corner, don’t change as your budget changes.

[As a side note: this is why churches that cannot use their resources effectively to see kingdom growth are a self-indulgent and wasteful exercise. This is true of the congregation of 16 saints who refuse to allow a church plant to have the run of their space for fear that things might be changed around. It is equally true of the church plant that rents its own funky space, produces its own website and collateral, and yet fails to result in conversion growth that wouldn’t have happened anyway. We need to be shrewd with our funds, and not waste mission resources for the experience of a few. Far better for staid Builders and funky Hipsters to groan together in a thoroughly middle-of-the-road church service, and give the extra funds to the poor or the local missionary society.]

Costs are nothing new

 

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this problem has only arisen from the institutionalisation (and calcification) of the church. From the beginning, churches depended on financial commitments. When the early church met in the temple courts, someone had to pay for a place to gather (in those days, of course, it was through the temple tax). Someone had to supply the needs of those on the widows’ list.

 

NEXT WEEK: Sunk costs and church plants

Why I love the parish church

You might think, from the state of the current conversation around mission and church planting, that parish churches have had their day. That they are a quaint, nostalgic and ineffective legacy of comfy Christendom. But parish churches have never been more important.

It is true that a great deal of evangelism naturally proceeds along lines that largely ignore residential locality. In a highly mobile (geographically, economically and socially) culture, relationships often cluster around workplaces rather than neighbourhoods. Friendships are made more elastic – and, frankly, more vulnerable – by our reliance on the connections provided by cars. And, as Mark Driscoll has observed, the place where people play is sometimes the best place to invite them to worship.

However, it is also true that churches tend to target the ‘soft underbelly’ of society, rather than its hardened carapace. And this means that some tribes are vastly better served than others. Witness the recent rush of church planting aimed at young professionals in the inner  city. The density of this activity (it is too uncoordinated and uncooperative to describe as a movement at this stage) has led to something of an arms race of media, music, personality and venue to secure a slice of the pie of young Christians looking to escape the ‘burbs.

Interestingly, it isn’t young professionals in the inner city who are most underrepresented in evangelical churches. That title belongs to groups like mainland Chinese, ex-cons, the mentally-ill, long-term migrants isolated by language, Muslims, baby boomers, and communities from South America and the Mediterranean.

This is where the parish model comes in. The parish model insists – demands – that the local church take seriously the call of Christ to reach the hardest and most resistant corners of our multicultural world. It says: you may not follow the easy seams of your culture, like a river working its way to the sea. You must travel uphill. You must batter against granites. You must bridge cultural gorges, becoming all things to all people, rather than becoming just what you really wanted to be, anyway.

The parish model says: yes, there is no mission more economic than the mission to young professionals. Everyone of them has a salary, and nothing to spend it on except themselves and their church. But we are also called to love and evangelise the most uneconomic groups in our world.

And this, of course, demands a different kind of culture. One of sacrifice, where church can’t be ‘the way I like it’, since I am in the midst of diversity. The parish model creates middle-of-the-road churches. Churches where no one loves everything they do. Churches where they sing songs so old that they need an organ, or so new they contain 4 separate melodies. Churches where kids scream during the really, really deep part of the sermon.

Simply brilliant. I love the parish church.

 

The impossibility of excluding religious belief from the political sphere

KEVIN RUDD ON Q&A

On Monday night, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fronted the ABC’s Q&A panel TV show. By now, it would be hard to find a person interested in the intersection between religion and politics who is unaware of his comments. A Baptist pastor, Matt Prater, said:

From what I’m hearing, most Christians I connect with are voting against you, because they are disillusioned and because you appear to be chopping and changing your beliefs to get votes, with regards to things like marriage. Why should we vote for you?

And Mr Rudd responded with two points – one which I’m often surprised to find controversial, and another which, in the fullness of reflection, should make our Prime Minister a little embarrassed. Firstly, he said

They are gay if they are born gay… You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other.

SEXUALITY – PREDETERMINED OR CHOICE?

As I wrote above, this ought to be largely uncontroversial amongst Christians, at least as a generalisation with exceptions.  I say ‘with exceptions’, not least because while human sexuality – and sexual orientation – is a complex, fluid, messy, and individualized human trait, and one that most likely has some genetic components, some insist on not being defined by biology. Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon famously declared that for her ‘being gay was a choice’. Prominent UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has said:

 

[A]n influence is not the same as a cause. Genes and hormones may predispose a person to one sexuality rather than another. But that’s all. Predisposition and determination are two different things.

 

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent adds:

 

Thankfully, the experience of human endeavour tells us that who we are need not be determined by a biological accident. Yes, our genes influence our behaviour. But this does not determine who we are. We are not the slaves of our biology and possess a formidable capacity to make our own world and on a good day to even choose who we want to be.
To say what ‘is’, as David Hume famously observed, is not the same as declaring what ‘ought to be’. The Christian worldview is unaffected either way on the innateness or otherwise of sexual orientation.

SEXUALITY AND SLAVERY

But while Mr Rudd’s comments in support of gay marriage have attracted the most attention in the popular media, within the Christian community, it is his handling of the bible which has proved the greatest disappointment. When Mr Prater responded by asking:

Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?

the Prime Minister replied

Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.

Now, while I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this guff reproduced on an ABC discussion board, it is startling to hear this kind of wild error from a man who has spent some years learning Greek in order to better understand the Gospel of Luke. If you are in any doubt about the abysmal ignorance and misrepresentation involved in claiming the bible promotes slavery, I suggest you read this brief and helpful response.

A MORE IMPORTANT CONVERSATION

However, I want to suggest that Kevin Rudd’s comments on gay marriage are less interesting and ultimately significant than those made by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Annabel Crabb interviewed Tony Abbott last night on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet. When she broached the implications of his Catholic faith for policy leadership, Mr Abbott replied

I think it is essential that someone of faith understand that while faith is a splendid thing in private life it can often be quite a misleading guide in public life.

Now, it may simply be that Mr Abbott was making the point that personally held religious beliefs ought not to be imposed upon the broader constituency of a secular and pluralist democracy. After all, he also said

You’ve got to accept that there are all sorts of private views which can be passionately held but in a pluralist democracy such as ours the idea that you could somehow make those private views mandatory is bizarre, just bizarre.

But his comments seemed awfully close to affirming the oft-made claim that religious belief has no place in public sphere or in the formulation of policy.

THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF EXCLUDING BELIEF FROM THE POLITICAL SPHERE

For someone interested in a more full, but still non-academic, treatment of this issue, I recommend the first chapter of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. Better yet, read all of Andrew Cameron’s Joined-up Life. Until then, though, a couple of comments. The great 20th century American philosopher and atheist, Richard Rorty, argued that religion had no space in the political sphere, being a source of controversy and division rather than unity, but this position has been roundly criticised. Rorty suggested that we simply pursue ‘what works’. The problem is that what we think works will depend on our values. To quote Keller,

Any picture of happy human life that ‘works’ is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life.

Keller goes on to provide an example:

Let’s take marriage and divorce as a case study. Is it possible to craft laws that we all agree ‘work’ apart from particular worldview commitments? I don’t believe so. Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more primarily for the happiness and emotional fulfilment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. the former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well-being in which the family is more important than the individual, as in the traditions of Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think ‘work’ will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human. There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is.

In other words, the kind of political agenda that a politician pursues (arising, we hope, out of conviction rather than mere polling) is dependent upon underlying values and beliefs. These values and beliefs may be individually selected, or they may be derived from religious belief. For the purposes of public policy, there is no difference between these two kinds of origin. Christians, of course, would maintain that their values derive from the character of God, rather than arbitrariness. So Stephen Carter of Yale Law School writes

Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organised religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider most vital.

Why your church strategy is wrong… and that’s OK

Zig Zag Railway

The problem

Here’s a familiar problem: for the last few years you’ve had your church small groups based around congregations. You keep on hearing about the good this does, strengthening fellowship and encouraging shared evangelistic activities. Only recently, though, something disquieting has been going on. You’ve heard comments and complaints: ‘No one’s looking after me’, ‘This church is too segregated’ and ‘I wish I could get to know some older Christians.’

So, in November you bite the bullet and announce that, next year, small groups will be cross-congregational.

Initially, your decision is met with a burst of enthusiasm. Uni students love meeting in the homes of real grown-ups. There’s better food, more wisdom and a sense of family. The older members benefit, too. They tell you on Sunday how encouraging it is to experience the passion and energy of young Christians.

But, after a while, things start to slide a little. Your bible study leaders tell you how hard it is to pastor people when they don’t see them in church. Members talk about how they wish they knew members of their congregations better.

And so you go to Amazon.com and order every small group ministry book you can lay your hands on. As they arrive, one by one, you devour them, asking this question each time: ‘what is the right ministry strategy for my church?

Newsflash: pastor. There isn’t one. Every single strategy you will apply is wrong. And that’s OK.

The zig and the zag

No ministry strategy fell from heaven to resource your church.

This isn’t just a way of saying that there are lots of good strategies to choose from. It’s also a way of saying that every strategy is bad in its own way.

Cross-congregation small groups provide increased opportunities for older Christians to share wisdom with younger Christians, and the younger to share energy with the older; but they make it harder to build congregational connections. Congregational small groups provide great congregational connections, but concentrate the problems of a particular demographic.

Long sermons allow you to teach doctrine, provide examples, build cases, communicate strategy and shape culture. They also exclude the poorly educated and emphasise knowing over doing. Short sermons are accessible to all, and challenge preachers to be concise and clear. But short sermons can starve a congregation of the truth and model a consumer approach to church.

And so on.

As a result, there is no single strategy that will get you where you want to go.  What you need to do is tack. To zig-zag.

tacking-when-sailing

Ministry is all about zig-zagging. Anything else is idolatry. It’s just that very few people realise it.

I can’t mention how many times we’ve considered a change in strategy only to be told, ‘we tried that 20 years ago.’ Our innate insecurities mean that we are likely to respond in one of three equally stupid ways.

  1. ‘Did we? And it didn’t work? Oh, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all.’ = It’s time you bought yourself a spine.
  2. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do it properly this time.’ = Congratulations, cowboy: you just alienated everyone who loved the old minister.
  3. ‘No, no, this sounds the same, but it’s really quite different.’ = You’re really selling them the same pig, but now you have to go and put lipstick on it.

The correct answer is this: ‘Yes, we did do it before. And now it’s the right time to do it again.’

What you need to know to tack well

To zig-zag well, you need to know three things.

Firstly, the direction in which you want to go. You need to be crystal clear on what outcomes you want to see in the long haul, because everything else is going to be messy.

Secondly, the strategies that, when alternated, will take you in that general direction. If I can bring maths into this, you’re looking for a vector sum where the negatives of your strategies cancel each other out, while their positives add up.

And, thirdly, your boundaries: how bad you are willing to let it get on a zig before you decide it is time to zag again. That’s because every time you change strategy, there is a cost. Congregation members like to know what is going on. They like to know what it is that we do. They like to know what to expect. Every time you make a change, you introduce uncertainty and doubt. The longer you can go without changing strategy, the more time there is for a particular model to do its happy work (and the more time for the costs to accumulate, too).

Outputs trail inputs

There is one thing you absolutely must remember, and that is: outputs trail inputs.

Every been water-skiing? A skilled speedboat skipper can make her boat turn on a dime. She can go racing right up close to the bank and flick the wheel at the very last moment, and still be out of danger.

The same isn’t true of the water-skier. He’s attached to the boat by a long rope. It takes time for the speedboat’s change in direction to communicate itself to him, and in that time he’s just kept on going and going. Splat.

Outputs always trail inputs.

Your leadership team can analyse the situation, recognise the growing disconnectedness in community and decide to change all your small groups to a congregational basis in a single 30 minute conversation in October.

But then the groups have to finish over Christmas. And new groups have start up again. And trust needs to be built as members get to know each other.

It’s not until the middle of July that the change to congregationally-based groups has begun to contribute positively to the sense of connectedness in your congregation. All the while, disconnectedness has been growing – plus, you’ve lost the advantage of the benefits of mixed ages.

So don’t leave the call to the last minute.

Your church strategy is wrong…and that’s OK

What does all this add up to? It means that your church strategy is wrong, and that’s OK.

Any set of tactics you choose will help and hinder all at once. Your job, therefore, is not to find the perfect strategy. Your job is to recognise when the negative consequences of the current model are approaching unacceptable levels.

And then go back to what you were doing last time.