Who we are, not what we do

The course on which I am currently studying is excellent.  But there is one module with which I, and many others, are struggling: Missional Leadership.  The focus of the syllabus is around how we can lead our churches to grow numerically and spiritually.  So far so good.  But the content is based round a number of models, mainly taken from secular management and fitted into a church context.  The problem is, they don’t fit.

People today are in many ways more individualistic than previous generations.  But they are also seeking relationship, and that relationship has to be genuine.  The Millennials and younger will see immediately if they are being put through a “sausage factory”.  When it comes to evangelism, discipleship, and church growth, one size doesn’t fit all any more, if it ever did.

To be fair to the college, none of the models are being held up as the solution to everything – they are being suggested as tools from which we can pick those that will help in our context.  The problem is, I’m not sure any of them do.  Because no model, tool, or strategy, however good, can replace genuine, loving relationship.  People are individuals, with their own needs, hopes, questions, and aspirations.  Jesus knew that, and he approached each person he encountered in a unique way which would deal directly with what they needed in their situation.  We don’t have his insight, so for us that will take costly time and effort to get to know people, but it is time and effort we must be prepared to commit.

Ultimately, what will attract people to Jesus Christ, will encourage them into relationship with him, and will enable them to grow and deepen that relationship, is not a model or strategy, however well thought out.  It is as they see him shining through us, see his love at work in our lives, and see that Christians have something they are lacking.  If we genuinely understood how much God loves us, began to grasp the depths of the grace he has poured out upon us, our lives would be transformed in such a way that we couldn’t help speaking of him, and our actions would naturally back that up in a way that could not be ignored.  In other words, people will be won to Christ not by what we do, but by who we are.

So my strategy for Missional Leadership?  Well actually it’s God’s strategy, that he’s been speaking to us as a church in many ways over the past few weeks.  Pray, pray, pray some more.  Pray that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, transformed into the likeness of Christ, and so become people who constantly attract others to the Jesus who lives in and through us.

How important is the Bible, really?

God has been challenging me about the place of the Bible in my life, and particularly in the worshipping life of the church community.  Though we don’t use the label, Beverley Baptist Church comes from the tradition known as Evangelical.  The word means different things to different people, but common to all definitions would be a high place for the Bible as the Word of God.

And yet, look at our average Sunday service, and the Biblical content is often just a few short verses.  Contrast this with the “Catholic” tradition – in which I include Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Orthodox in all its forms.  In all of these the Bible would be held alongside church traditions which are in some way or other also seen as authoritative.  So on paper the Bible is less important than in the Evangelical church, yet in a Catholic service of worship there will be four readings – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel.  And alongside this a written liturgy that is packed with Biblical quotes, imagery and allusions.  Which tradition seems to place more importance on the Bible?

To which the Evangelical might respond that we spend a substantial amount of time each week unpacking, interpreting, and seeking to apply the few verses that we have read.  This is broadly true, and shows perhaps a differing understanding of the purpose of reading the scriptures – the Evangelical church reads a passage from the Bible in order to preach from it, and to hear God speaking through the preacher; the Catholic church reads the Bible because it is valuable to hear in its own right as “The Word of the Lord”.  That is perhaps an oversimplification, but one I think with some truth in it.

But I have a niggling feeling that the above is a convenient excuse to cover up the decreasing importance placed on the Bible in Evangelical churches.  Is it really our “supreme authority on matters of faith and doctrine”, to use an oft quoted phrase.  This was really brought home to me recently during my studies.  One of our modules is “Missional Leadership” and as part of this we have occasional guest lecturers.  Most of these come from Evangelicalism, broadly defined, and they have brought us ideas from various books, personal experience, secular management practice, etc.  Last week our guest lecturer was the Venerable John Day, an Anglo-Catholic.  And he turned us to the Bible, to the story of the Emmaus Road, and over the course of an hour ably expounded leadership based on what Jesus did in that story.

So, how important is the Bible to us, really?

Christian celebrity

Recently I have read a couple of things which have made me ponder once again celebrity Christian leaders.  The first was the Facebook post by Bill Johnson, Senior Leader at Bethel Church, Redding, California, defending his decision to vote for Donald Trump.  He tried to do so from the Bible, and in my opinion failed miserably.  Yet such is his celebrity status in certain sections of the church, his decision to back Trump will have influenced the voting choice of a large number of people across the US.

The second thing I read was by a leader from the other end of American Evangelical Christianity, John Piper.  In responding to an email regarding a pastoral situation Piper also, in my opinion, was extremely poor in his use of the Bible.  Even more concerning in this case was that Piper gave an abstract theological answer to a very real pastoral situation, about which he knew very little, and the potential for damage to that individual from his choice of language was huge.

This adds to the stories you read of the demands placed by some big name speakers on conferences and events who ask them to speak, and the large fees commanded for their appearance, to reinforce my feeling that the Western church has a big celebrity problem.

I am not a celebrity Pastor, and please God I never will be, but my reflections on this issue over the years, and particularly the past few days, lead me to the following practical steps to avoid such a temptation.

  1.  Avoid the myth that size equals success.  Reconfigure your church building so it will seat no more than 200.  If it starts getting full, plant another church.
  2. Avoid the myth that popularity equals success.  Don’t pick your speaking engagements on the size of the attendance or the fee offered.  If you really are a gifted speaker the village church of 40 people may benefit far more from your presence than the conference of 10,000.
  3. Don’t try to provide pastoral advice unless you have taken the time to get to know the people and the situation.  If issues of geography make that difficult, refer them to someone closer to home.
  4. Be accountable.  Seek out those who will disagree with you and dialogue with them regularly, genuinely listening to what they say.  Make sure this includes people who will challenge your character and attitude as well as your theology.

This is my list at this time, others may draw up a different list, or disagree with my premise entirely.  But I feel it is important to have thought now about how to avoid the traps of celebrity, however massively unlikely it is to ever arise, because it seems all too easy to get carried along on the tide of “success”, only to be spat up on the shore and left high and dry.