The Freeing Alternative to Narcissism: Serving Jesus at Home and Work

On 22 July 2011, in the peaceful country of Norway, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, posted online a 1500-page manifesto that outlined his hatred for Muslims, Liberals, Multiculturalists and Feminists. Evoking the spirit of his revered Knights Templar, he then went on a campaign to promote his message.

In a violent rampage that demonstrated his desire for Nordic purification, he exploded a car bomb at government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. Then, armed with assault weapons, he went to the island of Utøya, to a Labour Party youth camp, and massacred another 69 people, mostly teenagers.

In her new book, The Life of I, Australian journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne exposes the rising culture of narcissism in Western culture and begins with this massacre.life of i

Psychiatrists diagnosed Breivik as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder, consistent with the major traits of narcissism: he lacked empathy, claiming that he himself felt disturbed having to watch the violence; he had an inflated sense of importance posting photos of himself as a modern Knight; he was obsessed with his personal appearance undergoing plastic surgery to look Aryan; and he had an outlandish sense of entitlement, demanding a better view from his prison cell. Breivik believed himself to be far superior to others, was self-aggrandising, and had a “destructive rage.”

Pathological narcissism is a disorder predominantly found in men: in particular, their ability to love is greatly restricted.

While narcissism might be a pathological disorder, its seed is in all of us. The Bible calls it ‘sin.’ From the earliest chapters of Genesis, man and woman declare that they want to be God.

Adam and Eve believed that, despite God’s clear instructions to the contrary, they were entitled to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their son Cain, in a destructive rage, took the life of his brother Abel. And so the pattern of human self-obsession was set. By the time of Noah it had become an epidemic, and God responded in judgement.

What was evident in Noah’s day, is clearly still evident all around us today. Yet deep in our psyche we know self-obsession is wrong. In the opening chapter of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls our innate sense of morality ‘The Law of Nature.’ Lewis also points out, however, that none of us can keep the natural law. The dissonance between these two truths form the foundation for humanity’s need for redemption.

This redemption has come by way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that Christians should be able to resist the narcissistic urge and say: “I am not the most important person in the world, rather I know that I am part of a bigger story. I am part of a community who submits to Jesus as Lord. When I sacrificially and humbly love and serve others and God – when I die to myself – I truly find life.”

In Colossians 3:18-4:1, the Apostle Paul offers a Christlike vision for human relationships. Paul has already told us earlier in 3:1-4 that we can keep our faith on track by keeping our hearts and minds focused on God. We have a new life as a Christian – a new life in the pattern of Jesus Christ.

We need to remove our ‘old clothes’ and put on the ‘new clothes’  (3:8-14). Here, then, is a practical application of what that looked like in the extended first-century Christian household which included family members and slaves.

We are Really Serving Jesus

In Colossians 3:23-24 Paul says:

23. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24. since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

This sets up the Gospel logic for a new way of relating. As we live in our ‘new clothes’ as children of God, we must remember that we only have one master: Jesus Christ.

This is going to be important because it’s going to help us when we are in hard situations at home and at work. It will also establish a pattern for human relating that is characterised by justice.

The reality in most human relating, whether it be at home or at work, is that there will always be power differences. But if we constantly remind ourselves that we ultimately serve Christ, then both the more powerful and the less ​powerful will relate in a sacrificial and humble way.

This is truly what it means to have spiritual freedom. There are three ways this makes us free:

  • We are set free from having to please people because ultimately we are geared towards pleasing God.
  • We are set free to work wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly (because of who we serve).
  • We are set free from worrying about our reward because we have the ultimate reward of inheritance from God.

Paul is more concerned about the Colossian church’s relationship with God than their relationship with each other: he wants that to be set right first. His concern is also for their present situation rather than changing the future. Thus he applies his principle to slavery (rather than trying to abolish slavery). This message, if lived out, would bring the Colossians happiness no matter what context they found themselves in.

Serving Jesus in the Household Politic

Thus, verse 18 which says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” should not seem so controversial to the postmodern mind. If you weren’t thinking clearly, you might come to believe that this passage is not about freedom, but it is about defending patriarchy and slavery. In truth, it offers freedom and hope for people living with both of those social problems.

Paul advises husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them (3:19); children should obey their parents (3:20); fathers should not discourage their children (3:21). The fact that he doesn’t mention ‘mothers’ is simply because of his cultural context — in this society, fathers ruled, and they needed to be told how to do that in a Christian way.

You might say: “shouldn’t Paul be setting up a new post-patriarchal framework for the family?” No, that’s not his purpose. His purpose is to work at a higher level than that and offer discipleship principles that can be applied — in any cultural context.

The big Kingdom of God principle Paul is presenting is: all human relationships have power differences –  so no matter where you are on that scale of power – you should treat the people around you as Jesus would, remembering that you are ultimately serving Jesus.

Everyone in an Ancient Near-Eastern household understood their place in the heirarchy: from Fathers down to children, and slaves down to the children of slaves. Nobody was challenging this social system. So Paul can say “wives submit to your husbands in a Godly way.” To the women in Colossae, the controversial part of that direction is “in a godly way” the word “submit” was a given.

The rule of the husband over the extended household was expected. What was unexpecteded, however, was Paul’s challenge for them to love their wives and not to be harsh with them. In Ephesians 5, Paul goes further by pointing to Jesus as the model for husbands: they must be willing to sacrifice everything for their wife.

But let’s think a bit more about our own context. The power dynamic between men and women is complex. It’s not always clear in a twenty-first century western household who is always actually more powerful and less powerful.

In my relationship with my wife, I am physically more powerful, that is clear. Also, at the moment I bring more money to the family, but this might not always be the case. We have different intellectual strengths. For some of the ‘intelligences’, she is stronger, for others, I am stronger. In the sphere of parenting, she has more power. These power structures are always shifting in our marriage. The point is, whether I have more power in a given context, or whether she has more power in a given context, we both need to remember that we are free because it is Christ who we ultimately serve.

That there is a complex power dynamic at play explains why both men and women find themselves being abused in unhealthy marriage relationships. While it is men who have the worse reputation for physical abuse, women also can be selfish and abusive in their relating; manipulating sexually and emotionally.

We are released from feeling like we need to constantly make each other happy by pleasing each other  – which sets up an unhealthy dynamic – because both of us ultimately live to please God. I please my wife because my love for God and God’s love for me makes me want to please her.

We are both free to serve each other wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly, because ultimately we are serving Jesus. So, for example, I hate changing the sheets on the bed. But I should do that wholeheartedly, rather than begrudgingly, because my act of changing the sheets, is actually serving God. My wife and I both hate cleaning the kitchen. But we need to learn that our act of service is to bring honour to Jesus.

What if you are trying to live this gospel principle out but your partner, or other members of the household are not? Surely this is unfair? While I sympathise with your sense of domestic injustice, God calls to apply his gospel vision no matter what your context. You don’t want to give away your role as a disciple to anybody else.

If you are a martyr at home (and there are lots of us around!) confess this to God. Stop saying to yourself: “I am the only one who does any work around here. If I don’t do it nobody will.” Rather, see yourself as quietly serving Jesus. Stop worrying about your hard work being noticed by your family: “Did you see that I mopped the floor?” Stop moaning and groaning, and allow the Holy Spirit to soften your heart as you remember that you are serving Jesus. You have been set free. You will be rewarded. You will receive an inheritance of eternal life because of what Jesus has done for you.

Sure, you might have a case for feeling annoyed. It is true that many of us don’t do our fair share in the household duties. I have been reprimanded several times throughout my marriage for my laziness with the chores. There are constant surveys demonstrating that women still do a lot more household chores than men. Paul is not providing excuses for selfish men — he is, in fact, doing the exact opposite.

Moreover, I must emphasise that Paul’s teaching to the family does not endorse dysfunctional or abusive relating. If you are in a bad situation at home, you need to tell ​someone and get help. If you are being abused, physically, verbally, or psychologically, it is important that you ask for intervention. Children who are being abused by their parents need to be rescued from that situation.

Serving Jesus at Work

The second sphere to which Paul applies his principle of Christlike relating is slaves and masters. Colossians 3:22 says:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

and 4:1 says:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Because of a misunderstanding of verses like these, some have confused the Bible as being pro-slavery. Recently on the ABC television program Q&A, one panelist defended the place of Christian education in the school curriculum because, in his opinion, Christianity has been a positive force in Western culture: “it brought about the abolition of slavery.” Just after he made his point, a tweet appeared on the screen: “Christianity invented slavery, just look at the Old Testament.” Which was wrong for several reasons that we don’t need to prove here.

The important point is that Paul lived in a context where slavery was a reality. He was bringing the Kingdom of God to that context and reinventing it, providing hope for the slaves and compassion in the masters. This new freedom given to both the master and the slave set culture on a trajectory that would one day make slavery illegal in the Christian world.

hith-12-years-a-slave
’12 Years a Slave’ directed by Steve McQueen

The gospel brought freedom for the slaves first, and for the masters second. The slaves got it first. If you have seen the incredible movie 12 Years a Slave, you can see that the slaves, who the masters treated like animals, used their faith in Jesus to give them a sense of freedom and hope inside the persecution. It didn’t mean that they did not suffer, they did, and many were killed in the process. But while still living, the Gospel gave them a sense of higher purpose. And so they could sing, “We shall overcome.”

The application today is straightforward. If you exercise power over someone at work – as a boss or a manager – create a context of justice because you know that you serve your master Jesus, and that is what he wants. Pay your workers equitably. Let them have their holidays. Honour the contractual arrangements with women when they return from maternity leave. Don’t speak harsh words to your staff or ask them to do anything illegal, immoral or unjust. Bring the Kingdom of God to your workplace.

For employees, you have three new freedoms at work. Firstly, you are set free from having to please the people in your office because you too ultimately report to Jesus and only have to please him. So don’t get caught up in office politics. Treat your boss or your manager with respect. This is what it means to be ‘heavenly minded’ and to ‘put on your new clothes’ as a disciple.

Secondly, you are set free to work wholeheartedly. Instead of going to work with a frown on your face, know that you ultimately serve Jesus, so be positive. If you hate your job, you can always look for another. Thank God that you are not a slave. But even if you were, Jesus still calls you to work wholeheartedly for him.

Thirdly, you are set free from worrying about your pay or status in the workplace. Whatever your income or position is in the organisation, you have the ultimate reward of your inheritance from God. You can still work hard, aim for promotions, ask for pay rises, but don’t put your self-worth or identity in these things. Know this freedom that you have.

Yes, there is a culture of narcissism going on in our world. But a narcissistic culture only brings destruction, injustice, and unhappiness. God is calling us away from the self-obsession of Adam and Eve to his Kingdom, where the pattern for life is Jesus and his self giving death on the cross. We live and work for him, and in doing so, we end up living and working in a just and positive way for others. This will transform our families, transform our work, and give us freedom.

A Spirituality of ‘Boring’: Finding the Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life

In contrast to my last post, which encouraged a spirituality of adventure, now I want us to consider finding the extraordinary God in the ordinariness of everyday life.

It’s not hard to find preachers who will tell you that God wants to give you an amazing life. Of course, the discerning theologians among you will know that the truth of this all depends on your definition of ‘amazing.’ boringAuthor Michael Kelly argues in his book Boring: Finding an extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (2013) that while it’s good to chase your dreams, and have a spirituality of adventure [see my last blog post], we also need to be careful that we don’t start finding our significance with God only in what is big, showy and exciting. Kelly’s point is that we should resist thinking that being ‘extraordinary’ (in the popular sense) is what matters to God:

What if the whole idea of “ordinary” is a myth? And what if a life of great importance isn’t found by escaping the details but embracing them? What if God actually doesn’t want you to escape from the ordinary, but to find significance and meaning inside of it?

Kelly wants us to learn to find the beauty of God and his gospel in the ordinary. Learning to do this is important for any Christian who wants to experience spiritual nourishment. Sure, you can walk the Camino trail in Spain, spend time with the Taize community in France, or go to the Hillsong conference in Sydney, but what if you could experience transcendence while cleaning your bedroom?

In Colossians 3:23 Paul tells us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” He wants the Church to be a people who do not have their hearts and minds focused on earthly things, but on things above.

This requires a kind of mindfulness. Merri Creek Anglican member Ed Cavanough recently gave a great talk about being heavenly mindful. He urged us (along with the Apostle Paul) to embrace our new lives as people who have been “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) by setting our hearts and minds on “things above” (Colossians 3:2).

I loved this idea of Christianising mindfulness, so we are not just being mindful in the earthly here-and-now, but so we become mindful of God in the here-and-now.

Mindfulness has become an important practice for helping some people overcome depression and anxiety. When they struggle to move on from the difficulties they have experienced in the past, depression can set in. Mindfulness can certainly help people move their focus away from the past and onto the present.

Mindfulness is not necessarily Biblical — it is, in fact, Buddhist in origin — yet Ed did not reject mindfulness as a concept but used it to build a bridge to Paul’s idea of a ‘Godward posture’ or, as the writer of the Hebrews says, to: “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the last couple of blog posts I have written about the problem of being religious but not spiritual (RBNS). Heavenly mindfulness is another great way of becoming spiritually nourished for people who only experience dry religion.

How, then, can we become heavenly mindful? What are some discipleship practices that can help us find God and the beauty of the gospel in the ordinary?

  • Say grace before your meals
  • Pray in the car on your way to work
  • Put a cross up in your kitchen to remind you of Jesus when you are doing the dishes
  • Read your Bible and pray each day
  • Make a point of asking your Christian friends about how their faith is going (not just about their work and family)
  • Pray for the little things as well as the big things (“God, please help me to find my keys”)
  • Practice the spiritual disciplines which help you focus on God, such as meditation, silence and fasting
  • Choose a posture of gratitude to God, which could include, each day, making yourself name ten things for which you are thankful
  • Put a Bible on your desk at work as a prompt to involve God in your decisions and interactions with colleagues (you may even want to read it!)
  • Set reminders on your phone to pray (there is a good app calledCommon Prayer for Androids and iPhones that can send reminders).

The list I have given is not meant to be prescriptive: hopefully you will think of your own approach. The point is to build systems that bring God into your everyday life.

A Spirituality of Adventure

If you consider the ways in which Western culture has radically shifted over the past century in regards to politics, economics, media, or technology, you would be sympathetic to anyone complaining of change fatigue. Institutions and individuals have found themselves tumbling in an awkward and painful period of transition.

The Western Church has lagged behind, with a confused identity: what does it mean to lose our traditional authority? As a result, we’ve grasped in the darkness with regards to worship, mission and even theology (think about all the anxiety around gender and sexuality).missional spirituality

In their 2011 book Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out (IVP), authors Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson describe this cultural context as, “liminality … a threshold, an in-between place of ambiguity and uncertainty, disorientation and transition.”

Liminality does not have to be a threat; on the contrary, we can perceive it as an exciting opportunity. Australian mission and church specialists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch point to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings as an inspiring example of someone responding to a higher calling and consciously stepping into disorientation. He left the comforts of The Shire, with a high chance of failure, and ventured into the mysterious and dangerous regions of Middle-earth.

But most Western people do not have the Frodo sense of adventure. Most people respond to liminality by trying to create for themselves continuity and success, safeguarding themselves against surprise or loss. Helland and Hjalmarson argue, however, that the secret of the Kingdom of God for Christians is to follow God into danger:

“Only radical commitment to God’s kingdom, as we walk in the ways of Jesus in the power of the Spirit will enable us to welcome newness and surprise as we join God on a mission to reach lost people who also experience liminality.”

In my last post I suggested that too many from our Western Christian context are Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS). We participate in Christian religious behaviour, hold to a Christian identity, but experience constant spiritual dryness and so look to other contexts for our spiritual nourishment. Perhaps we contribute to our spiritual dryness because, instead of trusting God in the adventure, we opt for middle-class security. Helland and Hjalmarson write,

“The author of Hebrews described Abraham as going-but-not-knowing. And so it is with us. It is difficult to grasp what a mission-shaped spirituality is like while we live in such a security-focused culture. When tomorrow looks the same as today, when our world is stable and predictable, we have little need for faith.”

Let’s face it, churches that try and avoid liminality by safeguarding themselves against loss and being change-resistant, bleed a slow death. Alternatively, churches that are open to God, daily responding to his grace, allowing him to make them more Christlike, by the power of the Holy Spirit, find themselves spiritually alive. Frost and Hirsch write in The Faith of Leap (IVP, 2011):

faith of leap“When we embrace liminality – that in-between, discomforting place … and engage it head-on, we discover the truest sense of adventure. In fact … without the adventure we lose the necessary pathos by which we can truly understand the human situation and the meaning of the church.”

I am inviting you to jump off the ten metre high diving board of faith. Join a church plant team, step up into a new and challenging ministry, form friendships with marginalised people, or mentor someone. Take a risk for the Kingdom of God. This will require courage. I know that I have experienced some of my most spiritually enriching times over the past eighteen months while leading the Merri Creek Anglican church plant. I also know, however, that now that it has been eight months since we launched, it would be very easy for us to return to being comfortable Christians.

If you are RBNS, then perhaps you’ve moved too quickly to set up for yourself safety measures against change and loss? Surrender your insecurities to God, and follow him into the unpredictable and messy liminal space. You never know what kind of adventure you might have.

Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS)

It is amazing how many Christians I know fall into the category of being ‘Religious But Not Spiritual’ (RBNS). Perhaps this is not surprising. 21st Century Western Christians often admit to a dryness of faith: we come to church, tick all the religious boxes, but don’t feel spiritually nourished. We don’t feel connected to God. We don’t feel spiritually alive – at least not when we are doing Christian activities. As a result, like parched sheep in the desert, we go looking for the water elsewhere – like Yoga.yoga

This reality of the rise of RBNS should ring some alarm bells for us, considering the simultaneous rise in popularity outside the Church of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR).

In the last three years the notion of SBNR has caught the attention of sociologists and religious writers. Seven percent of all Americans describe themselves as SBNR (a higher percentage than Atheists, Episcopalians or Jews) and this seems to be a growing trend. Some SBNRs go as far as to argue that religion is an obstacle to spirituality. [Link] In Australia the percentages of SPNR are much higher. In the 2011 Australian census, 64% ticked one of the Christian denominations as their religion.  However, McCrindle Research has demonstrated that one-third of the 64% refine their answer as: “spirituality more than religion.” [Link]

The New York Times and the Huffington Post have both run a series of articles on SBNR, and in most cases, critiqued the concept as lacking substance, being un-profound, and self-centered.

Chicago based Congregational minister Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a popular essay in the Huffington Post called ‘Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me’ [Link] which sardonically cut to the bone of how cliched and un-insightful people are who describe themselves that way. The popularity of the essay caused her to expand it into a book: ‘When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough’ (Jericho 2013). Daniel “dreads” the predictable conversations she has with these people: they think they are so rebellious against the status quo, and unique in finding God in the sunset.

‘Spirituality,’ Daniels argues, fits too easily with individualism, hedonism and complacency. In an attempt to woo back the SBNRs, she makes the case for organised religion: “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Daniel’s line of argument has many supporters. Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin S.J., for example, bemoans the fashionable status of ’spiritual’ and the unfashionable status of ‘religious.’ [Link] While he knows full well the reasons people might stay away from organised religion (bigotry and arcane rules) it is unfair to overlook the many positives – traditions of love, forgiveness, charity, and social change led by religious leaders such as Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce.

According to Martin, the great problem with SBNR is that it assumes that faith is just between you and God. There is no one else who can speak into your situation or to challenge you if you go off track: “Religion checks my tendency to think that I am the centre of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.” Religious community corrects our naive individualism: God communicates through the group as well as the individual. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic order, the Paulist Fathers, sums it up by saying that religion enables one to “correct and connect.”

Of course, I do want to affirm that spirituality is good. Rabbi Scott Perlo writes, “Spirituality is an individual’s direct, personal connection to God … It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. Spirituality makes us feel alive.” [Link]

But Perlo also points out that spirituality is me-focused, it ignores bonds between people, and it does not know that God’s voice can be heard when spread over community and time. Spirituality lets go of the past, it might be smart but it is not wise: “Though fiery and inspiring, spirituality is, in a word, thin.” Religion, on the other hand, is thick. Religion has generations of learning and it is wise. Perhaps, religion is a little too thick, such that it “smothers spontaneity and individuality” and “struggles to see people as different from one another.”

Thus Rabbi Perlo and Rev. Martin argues that we need to be spiritual and religious. Martin writes: “Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centred complacency divorced from the wisdom of community.” Religion and spirituality are opposites on the same plane, and our goal should be to hold the two in tension.

Christian spirituality, therefore, cannot be fully understood unless one is connected to a Christian “religious” community which shares common beliefs and disciplines. Church community is hard, but it is in the friction of inter-personal tensions that growth occurs. Presbyterian writer Bruce Reyes-Chow points out that: “in community our spirituality and our religiosity converge.” [Link] You might even hate each other, but through the processing of that hate, spirituality deepens. The Apostle Paul calls the Church a Body, where there are many parts, and no part is more important than the other. Reyes-Chow argues that: “as a Christian, it is by living with both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity that we discover who we are and who we are becoming.”

Marlise Karlin, founder of the Simplicity of Stillness Method, challenges the case for ‘spiritual’ needing ‘religious’: “Being accountable to a community doesn’t necessarily mean they will teach you reverence for humanity. How often have groups of people stood together, with a false sense of morality on their side, purely by the numbers who gathered?” [Link]

Karlin believes ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ people have equal access to selflessness and grace as long as they have an experience of infinite love. She believes she can guide people into the state of peace using her Stillness Method, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have. Therefore, she challenges Rev. James Martin and the advocates for the cause of religion, to stop being divisive and to focus on the source of truth in our hearts where we will find peace and inclusivity.

The fundamental problem I have with Karlin is her basic premise that our spiritual goal should be inner peace and inter-personal peace. While those goals are noble, they are not everything. She sidesteps, for example, the need for a moral compass, or the pursuit of justice. Like most 21st Century Western advocates of SBNR, she fails to consider that true, life-transformative spirituality might involve suffering and self-sacrifice. And, the real irony is that she argues that religious teachers like James Martin should not promote division by encouraging inter-personal and inter-institutaional correction – which is itself a corrective suggestion.

Religion needs spirituality: the Christian faith needs to be spiritually alive. So if you are a person who rolls your eyes at the thought of those pathetic Postmodern Secular SBNRs, you might want to pull the plank out of your own eye for being RBNS. The risk is you might just give up the ‘Religion’ and settle with being SBNR yourself.

A challenge I want to put to my own church, Merri Creek Anglican, is to be a Church that “Nourishes Spiritual Seekers” – and that we begin with ourselves.

 

For more on this theme, listen to a recent sermon I gave on Colossians 2:16-19 which asks, “Does God care if I do Yoga?”.

 

 

The strangely new radical discipleship choice to attend church services most Sundays

For almost 2000 years, Christians have regularly met together at least once per week (usually Sundays) to read and teach the Bible, sing, pray, break the bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death (communion), and build community together. This was a natural continuation of the Jewish Temple meetings, affirmed by the writer of the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:23-25), with direction to be orderly by Paul (1 Corinthians 14), and modelled in the Acts of the Apostles.  At first: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).  And eventually the Churches created their own Temple style meetings using the rooms in the larger houses of wealthier congregation members (Acts 20).

Due to legal complications concerning property ownership rights, services held in dedicated church buildings was uncommon until after Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century.  Of the few church owned buildings before Constantine, the earliest known is Dura Europos on the Euphrates River (eastern Roman Syria). Archeologists believe it was a house, bought by Christians, and renovated to suit church purposes between 240-250.  After Constantine authorised the Roman Church, he commissioned Basilicas, and church services begun to occur, for better or worse, in architecturally dedicated worship spaces.

There is not space here to trace the history of Christians and their attendance at church services to the 20th century, albeit to say that the model of temple and house gatherings continued in different forms and with different emphasis right up until contemporary times.

The point of this article is to consider the retrograde step of Western Christians, in the past 15 years, to attend services far less regularly.

In my context of Melbourne, Australia, this shrinking commitment amongst some Christians to attend weekly services seems to reflect a shift in priorities: families fitting in extra school activities, weekend holidays, going out for brunch with friends, and seeing church services as “a religious product that is provided for me” rather than an expression of Christian unity and covenant: thus, we have consumer Christianity.  Some church attenders express a sense of boredom: a criticism that may or may not be fair.  Perhaps the services are dull and predictable.  But if the said Christian is beginning from a place of apathy and spiritual dryness, then the expectation that services should inject them with all that they need to be excited about their faith is unrealistic and misguided.  If the Christian’s faith is childish (rather than child-like), they may  be unfairly comparing their local service, its preaching and music, to large Christian conference gatherings, or podcasts of the flagship churches.  (Perhaps the online marketing of churches to Christians via sermon podcasts and groovy websites has had a bigger negative impact on the local context than we expect?)

Of course some blame does go to church leaders, who haven’t worked to adapt their ministry to a culture changing rapidly around them.  Just like the local corner hardware store, now a quaint relic, that once was the go-to place for hammers and nails, but whose owner didn’t make any changes to his business plan when the hardware megastore opened up around the corner.  Or like the publishers who led their newspapers into redundancy by pressing on exclusively with print media as the advertising dollar shifted online.  Church leaders who have dug their heels in and preserved a bygone church culture for the sake of sentimental comfort rather than seriously respond to the challenge of relevancy, have limited their audience to a narrow pool of churchy people.  Ironically, even the Pentecostal movement in Australia is now dangerously holding on to past cultural forms, rather than adapting for new cultures (a quality they once held high): notice the commitment to mid -2000s Hillsong ministry forms.

Also, many church leaders suffer from one or more the following problems:

  • laziness
  • lack of skill
  • apathy
  • boredom
  • cynicism
  • burn-out
  • anger and bitterness at their own lack of results or circumstance
  • turned on more by denominational politics and bureaucracy than their faith in Jesus
  • overworked
  • under-resourced
  • lack of vision
  • low emotional intelligence
  • unresolved personal sin

And the big one:

  • lost their commitment to The Gospel

Why would you want to regularly attend a church service with a leader bogged down in the mire of despondency?

Some writers on the mission of the church from the 2000s have tried to argue that less of an emphasis on the Sunday church service could be a good thing because, in their opinion, there has been too much effort to imitate the mega-attractional church. The missional finger has pointed for a while now at churches who sink all their cash into performance based ‘digital worship’ (with lots of screens etc…), slick music, and a middle-class-upwardlymobile-alpha-male-pastor (with a sexy wife and a minibus of kids).  These churches have supposedly forgotten their mission to the world.  The other point that needed to be made, but is now twisted as a cliche excuse, is “we don’t go to church – we are the Church!”

Whether it is a shift in priorities, a lack of leadership, or a well intentioned missional trend, attending services with one’s local church once every three or four weeks has not caused an increase in mission activity or passionate spirituality (as could be predicted).  Rather, it has led to churches with loosely committed apathetic members – many who pick and choose to attend the community gatherings around convenience or what “worship product” (preacher, topic, music etc) is on offer that particular Sunday.  Let’s face the reality that, except in churches with high mission accountability amongst its members, Christians are not substituting Sunday services to get out and be ‘incarnational’ or ‘present’ or whatever missional weasel word we might want to dribble.  Let’s also face up to the sad truth that for many churches there is little sense of covenantal community or extended spiritual family.

I want to advocate for the mission focused church to also believe in Temple gatherings.  The church that I lead, Merri Creek Anglican, is a mission focused church, and we also believe in the long term power and importance of the weekly church service gathering. Watch this video and see why it’s so important…

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 5, The Essence of Gospel Renewal.” Reflection

Chapter 5 introduces an important corrective to evangelical thought – there are not two but three possible human responses to God.  Keller draws from the writings of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards to build a case for what has become key to his preaching.  The responses are:

(1) A gospel motivated heart response to the grace of God

(2) Moralistic Religion

(3) An irreligious rejection of faith

Churches are filled with two types of people who behave Christianly (1) and (2), “Yet they do so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, and resulting in radically different kinds of inner personal character” (p.63).  Those who respond religiously think “I obey; therefore I am accepted” – thereby rejecting Christ and becoming their own saviour.  While they may look obedient, they are in fact “avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing a moral righteousness and then presenting it to God in an effort to show that he “owes” you.” (p63)  Thus, there are two ways to reject God – religion and irreligion.  The way to truly accept God is by a heart response to his grace.  These people have the epiphany, “I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.”

Keller focuses on exposing religion because it is one of the Church’s biggest problems.  Even for people who have once had a genuine heart transformed gospel response to God, they can easily slide into religion because as Luther has argued, religion is the default of the human heart (p64).  This default position can cause the Christian heart to be divided between religion and the gospel. Churches must, therefore, always be on the case against religion through prayer, teaching and discipleship.

I have found amongst young adult Christians, strong evidence of the religious.  For most young adults that I meet and counsel, their motivation for obedience is driven more out of fear of the shame and loneliness that might come from rejection by their community.  The problem of course is that the community can quietly shift its own standards.  If enough of the young adults from church go out and party and get wasted, then that becomes socially acceptable amongst the church community, so drunkenness comes off the sin list.  In the last few decades, there has been a liberalising of the consensus amongst evangelical young adults about what sexual behaviour is acceptable before marriage (see Relevant Magazine and ThinkProgress.)  This has resulted in a culture of don’t ask don’t tell. These young adults are religious because they keep coming to church and performing the Christian activities, but they don’t have heart that has been transformed by the grace of God.  Their desire to be obedient is ultimately driven by selfish motives.  They keep coming to church for lots of complex reasons, one of the main being that their identity has become “Christian” because of family upbringing etc… and they find it hard to let go of that. What they need is to experience gospel renewal: they need their hearts reset by God’s grace.

The case for the gospel heart response to God can easily be found in Scripture. God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led them into the desert, and then gave them the law.  Their obedience to God’s law is because of their deliverance not the cause of their deliverance.  But God warns them that they can be circumcised in the flesh and not in the heart (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).  In Philippians 3:3 (and Romans 1-4), Paul lays out the three responses to God: uncircumcised pagans, circumcised in the flesh but not in the heart (proving their worthiness to God through law keeping), circumcised in the heart (obedience to God as a heart response to their salvation in God).  Why is religion a flawed response to God? Because “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one… who seeks God’” (Rom 3:11).  Religious people, according to Paul in Romans, will really find salvation by approaching God through Christ – through grace alone and faith alone. (p64)  Of course, Paul is borrowing from Jesus who contrasts the religious and gospel heart response:

Religion: The Pharisee (Luke 7, John 3), The respectable crowd (Mark 5)

Gospel: The fallen woman (Luke 7) or the immoral Samaritan woman (John 3-4); The demon possessed man (Mark 5).

In case we still haven’t understood, Keller sets out a helpful table on p.65 comparing religion and the gospel.  He follows this with one of this book’s most important words of application for teachers and preachers:

…If you are communicating the gospel message, you must not only help listeners distinguish between obeying God and disobeying him; you must also make clear the distinction between obeying God as a means of self-salvation and obeying God out of gratitude for an accomplished salvation. You will have to distinguish between general, moralistic religion and gospel Christianity. You will always be placing three ways to live before your listeners. 

The most important way to gain a hearing from postmodern people, confront nominal Christians, wake up “sleepy” Christians, and even delight committed Christians – all at the same time – is to preach the gospel as a third way to approach God, distinct from both irreligion and religion. (p.65)

…Moralistic behaviour change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape.  But this does not work.  If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat, it is likely to snap back to its former position…Many people, after years of being crushed under moralistic behaviourism, abandon their faith altogether, complaining that they are exhausted and “can’t keep it up.”  But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape.  The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude – new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration. (p.67)

People need the heat of the gospel to melt them into a new shape.  As Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, by focusing on God’s grace, your heart will change.  And, through ongoing discipleship and encouragement from the Christian community, good teaching, and the Holy Spirit, we will start to understand and overcome our idols.  When we apply the gospel to the idols of our heart, and the Holy Spirit works to change us, the idols will be rooted out and we will stop prioritising other things above Jesus, and stop pursuing self-salvation (p.71)

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch 4. Gospel Renewal,” Reflection

In the fourth chapter of Center Church, ‘Gospel Renewal’, Keller examines what happens when the gospel takes effect in the life of the individual and a community.  The gospel is no longer simply an intellectual concept: now it is a “life giving force.”  When gospel renewal takes effect, (as if for the first time) a light is shining on a person’s sin, and on their deep rooted idolatry and attempts at self-justification. This new self-sin-awareness creates a strong ache to experience spiritual, psychological and even physical healing.  Renewal occurs when the individual abandons their self-loathing and modes of self-justification, and surrenders to Christ in faith that only He provides that healing and new life.  This results in a profound and overwhelming knowledge of divine grace and love.  Keller makes a distinction between the (unconverted, or at least spiritually anaemic) religious Christian who intellectually understands the gospel and grace, and the truly renewed Christian who has a “new clarity” about what it means to rest in the work of Christ, and “a new experience of actually doing it with our heart.” (p54.)

“Corporate gospel renewal” is Keller’s phrase for revival, which is “an intensification of the normal operations of the Spirit (conviction of sin, regeneration and sanctification, assurance of grace) through the ordinary means of grace (preaching the Word, prayer, and the sacraments)” (p54.)  While revival should see the conversion of new believers, one of its main functions is to see the spiritual energising and heart enthusiasm of already existing church communities who had sunk into the apathy and cynicism of religiosity: revival brings the Christian community and its individuals back towards having a deep transformative knowledge of  divine grace and love.

All churches should desire revival because, in all likeliness, while their members might have once known the gospel, it is quite likely many have also forgotten.  This forgetting is not necessarily an intellectual forgetting – although it might be.  Rather, in most cases it is a “deep psychological forgetting.”  A bible believing Christian might be able to rattle off the doctrines like grace and the atonement, but at the same time be operating in serious modes of self-justification, idolatry or self-loathing.  They might be able to articulate their belief in God’s love for humanity, quoting chapter and verse, and at the same time hold on to hatred and un-forgiveness for a Christian brother or sister.

The solution to this dilemma is a kind of preaching and teaching that doesn’t simply teach the gospel as doctrine, but as a renewing force that changes lives.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.41.00 pm

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:5, that the gospel he preaches is one that is “the power of God.”  Churches should expect this power to be at work.  Of course to be able to do this, the preacher and teacher needs to deeply know that renewal in their own lives.  If you find yourself as a preacher/teacher experiencing “dry toast” faith – then you need to experience gospel renewal yourself.  Go on a retreat, fast and pray, see a spiritual adviser, repent of your sins, take a holiday.

Revivals and Catechism

Keller goes on to discuss the nature of revivals.  In my Australian state of Victoria there were several recorded revivals such as: the Warnambool and Portland revival of 1858; the 1861 revival in Daylesford; 1863 revival in Fitzroy; and through the evangelists “California” Taylor and Matthew Burnett, to name a few (for a comprehensive examination of revivals in Australia see Robert Evan’s work.   Revivals have happened at different times and places across the world under different conditions.  Keller points out, however, that revival often does not occur under the razzle-dazzle spiritual context that one might expect.  He points us to the book by Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer who encourage churches to re-embrace and reinvent catechism (catechism is a summary of the major doctrines of faith often used as a curriculum to prepare people for baptism or confirmation.  A modern catechism is Alpha).

I have become converted to the importance of catechism.  After leading a large university and school aged congregation through the 2000s, I have come to see the consequence of not having a structured bible and discipleship curriculum.  In response to what I thought they needed, I preached through Bible books and topics, set small group material, and used guest speakers from the local bible college for camps.  But at the end of the day, some very smart kids can still have a vague grasp of the gospel.  Why? Because if I teach you calculous and you have not yet grasped division and multiplication, then you probably haven’t understood the calculous – all you have had is the sensation of being treated as a serious student of maths.  Catechism is the obvious compliment to a responsive teaching curriculum.  Catechism should improve your chances at helping your congregation stand strong in the face of the challenges to their identity and the allures of the culture and competing world views. Christians need to learn the Christian faith, with the same pedagogical approaches that they learn to do the three Rs.

Keller’s discussion of catechism comes as part of a bigger argument around genuine revival.  He warns against the shallow individualistic revivalism in the contemporary church that gets many conversions but fewer long term disciples.  But he also warns against a culture of no conversions: having no opportunity for people to respond.

The Heart

The church – especially the non-charismatic church – needs reminding that “gospel renewal focuses on the heart.”  As Romans 10:9 says, you need to believe in your heart as well as confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.  By “heart,” Paul (and Keller) mean not just our emotions but that deep place within us that drives our decisions, our longings and convictions.  The act of calling Christians to revival is consistent with the Bible; Jeremiah called the circumcised Israelites to “circumcise your hearts” (Jer 4:4; 31:33),  Paul contrasts the outward and inward life of the believer and required that disciples have hearts that are circumcised by the Spirit (Rom 2:28-29 see also Phil 3:3 and Jesus’ words in John 3:7).  A heart response is required for genuine repentance to take place.  This kind of heart faith is required for all believers new converts and old.

What Keller ultimately wants is “balanced revivalism – a commitment to corporate and individual renewal through the ordinary means of grace – [this] is the work of the church.” And it is crucial because of the unfortunate reality that “it is possible (even common) for a person to be baptized, to be an active member of the chruch, to subscribe to all biblical doctrines, and to live according to biblical ethics, but nonetheless to be wholly unconverted.” (p.60).

Selections from Peter’s library (with comments)

Below is some reading I’ve been doing.  Each title links to some good quotes that I’ve been gathering.    

MISSIOLOGY

David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (first published 1991 [2012 reprint]).

MISSIONAL COMMUNITIES

Mike Breek and Alex Absalom, Launching Missional Communities (2010)

CULTURE

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007).

Mark Sayers, The Road Trip that Changed the World: The Unlikely Theory that will Change How You View Culture, the Church, and, Most Importantly, Yourself (2012)

CHURCH LEADERSHIP AND STRATEGY

Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church, (2011).

DISCIPLESHIP

Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006).

Michael Kelley, Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (2013).

D M Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Warfare: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10-13 (1976).

PREACHING

David Murray, How Sermons Work (2011).

“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” – Part 1 of 2 – Church Leadership

For anyone who keeps half an eye on film and television journalism, you would have noticed the brouhaha over the conclusion of the television series Breaking Bad.  I don’t need to add any more veneration, but I do wish to discuss a comment I heard in an interview by the show’s team of script writers.  When asked about how they knew when to stop redrafting a script, they said they went with the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good:” a phrase attributed to Voltaire in his poem La Bégueule (The Prude) about a woman who had a good life but nevertheless was discontent and so had an affair just to feel something exciting. Thus

Voltaire aged 70

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

In his writings, a wise Italian

Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

says that the best is the enemy of the good.

In the same way that people can become depressed about the humdrum of a good but normal life, so too can artists be easily dissatisfied with their good work, holding out hope that they might be capable of something greater.  The pursuit of perfection, for example, can cripple the writer such that they never publish. Settling with the ‘good’ version of the manuscript would have meant something for the world to experience.  But for the unrealistic perfectionist, the draft remains in the top drawer, the film an unfinished edit, and the album a demo.  The Breaking Bad writers polished and polished but to a deadline, and then finally pressed [send] with attachment in time for production.  Pursuing perfection is important for any artist: Voltaire was not advocating mediocrity.  But the artist who never says, “this will do,” will only ever have unfulfilled potential.

What is true for life and art, is also true for leadership.  An important lesson I have learned as a church leader who has tried to be entrepreneurial is that while my new ideas might be ambitious and seem ‘perfect’ (in my own head), to make them a reality, I must aim for a ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ implementation.  Am I setting a low bar for myself? Au contraire, the bar is still high. I am simply ensuring that I actually make a jump for the bar – even if I mess it up.

My logic goes: I am limited in my leadership capacity; my team is limited; the strategy needs more refining; I don’t have all the capital or resources I need; and I usually run out of time.  Actually, limited time is as much self-imposed as it is forced on me.  My personality is such that unless there is a deadline, I won’t get it done.  With my music recording projects, we set the album launch date, then work backwards with the recording timeline.  It may not end up perfect, but at least we are not still sitting around waffling about the idea of recording an album.  Similarly in my doctoral research, my supervisor always pushed me to just submit something every month – even if it was unfinished and a bit of a mess – the act of forcing something on to the page was an important step in the process.

My motivation to operate this way is also theological.  Paul writes in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice…Do not be anxious about anything….I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  These words from Paul reveal his response as a devoted disciple of Christ to his unpredictable living conditions as a traveling missionary Apostle.  They also reveal a basic principle of Paul’s approach to leadership – I seek to be at peace with God no matter what happens in my life.  I don’t need to feel anxious.  I rejoice in the Lord because of what He has given me.  Even when I suffer or go without (or try something and it fails) I rejoice because I know that God loves me as his child.  If one should learn to be content in God in their personal life then so should they be in their ministry life.

In fact, the wisdom of Voltaire and Paul applies well to ministry leadership.  ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ should be a golden rule for those who have an unrealistically high expectation of their own ability, or a sense of entitlement or fantasy view of their own capacity.  Or, in the other extreme, it should become the mantra for those who carry a deep-seeded fear of failure.  Many pastors feel quietly ashamed at their lack of success: “why is my church not as big as his?”  This lack of contentment in the good that God has given them makes them insecure.  And thus, as they forever pursue a more idealistic outcome, they struggle to achieve anything at all.

Another way philosophers have described this phenomenon is as ‘The Nirvana Fallacy’ – the idea that you unfairly compare a realistic option with a perfect world fantasy, and then dismiss the realistic option on the grounds that it is not good enough.  The Nirvana Fallacy can be explained using this simple logic formula:

X is what I have got

Y is the Nirvana ideal

Therefore, X is not good enough

The Nirvana Fallacy creeps into church leadership all the time: trying to preach the ‘perfect’ sermon every week by spending three or four days preparing and still making edits minutes before the service which means you never get to do a read-through; not appointing a staff member because you won’t settle until you have a saint like Dietrich Bohoeffer or Mother Theresa; having Sagrada Familia as your standard for church architecture; closing a ministry because you don’t see thousands of conversions; or remaining unemployed because you haven’t found the dream position.

So how can a church leader respond and apply the proverb to their leadership?

  1. Make wise decisions
  2. Aim high but be wise enough to see the ‘good’ that God has given you
  3. Create deadlines for yourself and stick to them
  4. Try your ideas even if you are under-resourced
  5. Thank God for what he has done through you
  6. Always rejoice
  7. Don’t criticise other’s work for not being perfect

Fellow friend, minister and entrepreneur, Rev. Dr. Adam Lowe, adds some wise words in response to this post:

“…given our imperfection, the perfect of our own accord is most certainly not attainable. And then, if we were to afford some favourable evaluation of our own merit (thinking it were perfect), how quickly pride would become the focus instead of the perfection only found in Christ…”

And, here are some further thoughts from an English friend, hand surgeon, Dr. Tim Halsey,

“Voltaire’s quote is one that goes through my head daily in the operating theatre, having the wisdom to leave things alone that are good but not perfect, because often tweaking things can lead to making them worse and there’s no rewind / delete button in an operation!…  The other saying I was brought up with was that “a job worth doing is worth doing well”, it is one of my grandpa’s favourites. We were challenged about it by a Godly friend who pointed out that sometimes a job worth doing is worth doing, full stop, and that the drive for perfection hinted at by the “worth doing well” bit can stifle us from ever trying for fear of failing to do it well. If its worth doing, it’s worth doing.”

Part 2 will apply ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ to discipleship

Your Church is Not a Bike: The Perils of Church Strategy Reductionism

Church strategy reductionism is where simplistic ministry strategies are formed based on a mechanical understanding of church systems.

System theorists love to use the imagery of organisational ‘bikes’ and ‘frogs’.  A bike can easily be broken down into its individual parts and put back together again.  But when you take an individual part away from the bike it stops working.  A frog is a highly complex and comparatively robust system that cannot be taken apart and put back together again, but when you remove one of its limbs, the system is sophisticated such that it usually can adapt.  Frogs can grow substitute limb stumps surrounded by skin, or in some cases a fully regenerated limb.  Understanding and manipulating a complex frog like system requires a combination of smarts and informed intuition.  Most complex organisations, like churches, where human interaction and psychology play a major role in the system, are mostly frog but also include some functions and processes that are bike.

The frog systems in a church include functions and operations such as mission, discipleship, community, pastoral care, and worship.  Ministries, and the people that they include, interact and respond to each other in an organic way.  When you factor in the mysterious work of the Spirit who “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), then the systematic complexity multiplies. If church leaders don’t grasp this complexity, simplistic and ineffective strategies follow.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth mentioning that a ‘simplistic’ strategy is not the same as a ‘simple’ strategy.  Simple strategies are ideal because they are easy to communicate and implement.  However, one must be aware that while they are simple, they exist within a complex frog system.  A simplistic strategy, on the other hand, is designed with the naive understanding that it is part of a mechanical bike system.

Leadership

Strategy reductionism seems to be a particular danger for churches whose leaders are:

  1. …ideologically and myopically aligned to a particular model of church.  These are models which are not necessarily based on reductionistic logic, but through mis-application and selective overemphasis, reductionism follows: leaders latch on to features of their favorite model, and push them too far.
  2. …non-consultative, domineering, alpha-male/female, or arrogant.  These leaders, who are often proud and aggressive, push past any kind of process like a ‘bull in a china shop’ thinking that they’re being decisive.  While they do make decisions, they leave a trail of destruction behind them not having considered consequences.
  3. …poorly self-differentiated / low emotional intelligence.  These leaders might come up with ideas, but they are too insecure to open their strategic thinking up to consultation.  Also, they can find it difficult to be empathetic and consider how a strategy might work for people not like them.  Part of understanding the frog system is being able to calculate how different ages, genders and cultures will respond in a given situation.
  4. …quick decision makers who don’t take the time to think through consequence.  While some leaders are brilliant intuitive strategic thinkers who can just envision the plan out of the ether, most cannot do this and need time to experiment and consult as they understand the church frog system.
  5. …inexperienced.  Sometimes inexperienced leaders are savvy enough to see the frog, but usually this comes with time.
  6. …very experienced but assume church systems work the same way in every context.  The risk with older and experienced leaders is that if they have had some success in ministry in their earlier years, they can be convinced that the strategies that gave them that success still apply 20 or 30 years later.  While a bike might always be essentially a bike, frogs adapt over time to fit in with their changing ecosystem.

When you think about it, many churches have leaders who fall into one or more of these categories.  The great thing is that by the grace of God, their simplistic strategies are still used and bear some fruit.  However, if they were able to start to see their church as more of a frog, and develop some sophistication in their understanding then their ministry and church would run more efficiently, smoothly, and effectively.

Example – Evangelism

What does it look like when bike thinking is imposed on a frog system to create strategy?  By way of example, you might have heard arguments such as: “Attractional programs are so 1980s mega-church.  Attractional activities just pander to church shoppers. We should stop putting effort into programs to bring consumeristic Christians in and got out and be missional so that we can reach real non-Christians.”  Notice the ‘bike’ logic of cause and effect,

 attractional programs -> church shoppers ≠ new converts ∴ be exclusively missional

However, if you listen to people’s testimonies about coming to faith, you’ll discover that their stories are complex and unpredictable: rarely do their experiences conform to simple rules.  One individual might have interactions with twenty different Christians, and three different churches, and then respond to an alter call at a rally.  Another person living in a Muslim country might have a dream about Jesus, and then go seeking out a church.  While another person might experience miraculous healing from prayer and come to faith that way.  My point is, the ‘system’ whereby a person is evangelised, cannot be reduced to bike logic – it is far better to see the frog in the system that is evangelism.

Church strategy reductionism that dismisses all attractional evangelism fails to accept (what was the elephant in the room for the emerging church movement) that there are many attractional strategies that are effective.  In children’s ministry, for example,  playgroups, Mainly Music, and Messy Church are attractional strategies that – depending on their good implementation – have great success in bringing non-Christian people in contact with churches and on the journey towards faith in Christ.  In addition, there are great benefits to attractional evangelism: it can visibly communicate to the congregation a value of excellence, the idea that serving God is important, and that this church expects the Holy Spirit to be guiding people towards us because we are a “light to the nations” (missional activities can achieve all of this too but not as easily).

It’s not that the critique about attractional strategies is completely unfounded.  It is important for churches not to over-rely on being attractional lest they become a church that mainly “preaches to the choir.”  The problem is the simplistic strategy that followed.

A more informed and nuanced strategic thinking about evangelistic strategies, might look like a mind map, where the complexity of the frog system is taken into account:

 frog church system

 

The following are some examples of reductionistic ministry logic leading to simplistic strategies.  These are functions of the church which should be thought of as complex ‘frog’ systems, but are often given a mechanical ‘bike’ logic.  Remember that each reductionistic logic statement will have some truth to it and that the simplistic strategy might also have some merit.

Leadership

Reductionistic logic: It’s the ‘priesthood of all believers’ so we should resist putting leaders on a pedestal.

Simplistic strategy: Let’s have no one main leader, but share the leadership.

Reductionistic logic: The church has become feminised which is why men don’t really want to come to church anymore

Simplistic strategy: Cultivate a macho persona in the leaders

Preaching

Reductionistic logic: ‘Sermonettes’ create ‘Christianettes’

Simplistic strategy: 70 minute sermons

Reductionistic logic: The Bible is all about Jesus

Simplistic strategy: Land every sermon at the cross

Reductionistic logic: I want to preach Spirit empowered sermons

Simplistic strategy: Improvise your sermons – let go and let God

Music

Reductionistic logic: Australians don’t like group singing

Simplistic strategy: No group singing in church as a way to be incarnational and relevant to outsiders

Reductionistic logic: Spiritual intensity in music is directly related to time.

Simplistic strategy: Songs that are repeated lots of times, and really long song brackets

Reductionistic logic: All contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and individualistic: Jesus is my boyfriend songs

Simplistic strategy: Only sing hymns or non-emotive and theologically dense ‘we‘ songs

Youth ministry

Reductionistic logic: We’re here to disciple the kids not baby-sit them

Simplistic strategy: Don’t run social events

Liturgy

Reductionistic logic:  People prefer worship that is from the heart and authentic rather than pre-planned and tightly controlled

Simplistic strategy: Never use pre-written prayers in public worship

Children’s ministry

Reductionistic logic: Church services should always engage children because it is wrong to think they are the future of the church – they are the church

Simplistic strategy: Sunday services must have a children’s talk or children’s song

Marriage Counseling

Reductionistic logic: All that Christians need in a marriage partner is that they are of the opposite sex, single, and Christian

Simplistic strategy: Encourage people to marry without regard for cultural difference or even if there is no physical or intellectual attraction

Strategies to improve on frog strategic thinking

  1. Pray and ask God for wisdom
  2. Be slow to speak and quick to listen
  3. If you are on a ministry hobby horse then get off it
  4. Read and associate with ministry people who are outside of your ministry tribe
  5. Consult and use teams to make strategy
  6. Learn to know your leadership limitations
  7. Don’t assume that because a strategy worked once it applies a second time
  8. Invite people who you often disagree with to critique your strategies
  9. Have a healthy trust in your gut instinct, which means being willing to let it be critiqued and changed
  10. Draw a mind map of how ministries strategies relate to each other
  11. Go to counseling and work on your emotional intelligence

Finally, watch out for people who say, “yeah but…”

Because churches are frogs, there can be a problem that decision making becomes stifled by those people who always see alternatives and risks or problems with your strategy.  You don’t want to never be able to make a decision.  You will know of people whose default mode is to confidently disagree with any idea anyone suggests.  Those are the people who will be reading this post right now, and saying to themselves, “yeah but…”  If this is you, then stop, take a breath, and work out how to make the idea work rather than being an unhelpful blocker of creative thinking.  You can still offer your thoughts but do it in a generous and encouraging way, and let others have their say.