The Effectiveness Lament
“I did not sign up for this.” The “this” in the sentence refers to the work involved in attempting to hobble together the seemingly mutually contradictory demands of loving the community, caring for the hurting, discipling the responsive and complying with tax, zoning and employee regulations. “I just wanted to communicate to my city about the power and goodness of God.”
I call this the effectiveness lament. Every pastor I know who launches into ministry with the objective of being a vital, authentic and missional church has ultimately reached a zenith in their travels in which they feel that the gravitational pull toward tradition and distraction becomes wearying. The congregation started by my friend Doug emerged from an evening discussion with friends around a coffee table. The gist of the conversation was frustration and disgust with the traditional concept of church. They committed themselves to be something different, to be involved in a missional thrust in their community that resulted in true discipleship and they succeeded at this. They began to see lives in their community transformed, they experienced what social researchers and theologians call communitas.
Communitas is a term used to describe both the unique character of the church’s experience of living together and the aspects of that shared experience. As Hirsch outlines it communitas describes the
…dynamics of the Christian community inspired to overcome their instincts to “huddle and cuddle,” and instead to form themselves around a common mission that calls them onto a dangerous journey to unknown places, a mission that calls to the church to shake off its collective securities and to plunge into a world of action.
Communitas can be differentiated between three types of social interaction (a) existential – a transient personal experience of togetherness as is often the catalytic event the draws people into the exploration of relationship with Christ; (b) normative – group experience organized into a permanent social system as that which grows up around missional communities committed to Jesus as Lord and (c) ideological – any number of utopian social models as seen in various attempts by groups of disciples who experiment with the meaning of koinonia as part of normative discipleship.
Communitas opened a flood gate
Doug and the team he worked with began to see people liberated from psychological/spiritual prisons they saw people physically healed and powerfully transformed. Communitas lead to an outbreak of grace in hundreds of social networks that all wanted to converge with the epicenter to share what they had experienced and to find some explanation for their experience. The way things took shape looked more and more like an apostolic movement. By this I mean that the perspective, energy, impulse and outcomes surrounding these emerging social networks were more and more characterized in the attributes of the church i.e., (one, holy, catholic, apostolic).
I visited Doug shortly after his congregation had doubled in a weekend from 400 to 800 people. The air around the neighborhood was electric (the congregation had bought an entire block of houses to facilitate the need for office space, single mom housing and child care). The church did not displace their neighbors they became integrated in the neighborhood. But as Doug and I walked out of the reception area to go to his office he paused went back in and asked the receptionist where his office was. I thought he was joking…he acted like he had been clubbed on the head. It was no joke, exponential impact lead to exponential chaos – Doug could not keep up with the changes.
Communitas is Contagious – Eventually
My own experience in pastoral ministry mirrored aspects of my friend’s. I left my staff position to assume the reigns of a dying congregation with the goal of finding like minded people who wanted something other than church as usual. A dying congregation meant that I simply could not fail. You can’t kill a dead church. I wanted to know what a church could really be in a community if it was unshackled from the weight of dead tradition and needless bureaucracy. It did not take me long to suffer frustration. The board of the congregation had been reduced to fretting over how to pay the electric bill and apologetics for why I could not be paid. When they weren’t decrying the failing finances they engaged in querying how I would grow the congregation and why I did not focus on salvaging their youth. In desperation for change one night, I crammed them all in my station wagon and drove them to a neighborhood. “What do you see?” I asked.
They answered with the obvious, “I see houses” one said. “I see a house that is poorly maintained” another replied. “I don’t get it” another said while the rest grunted approvingly at this not so subtle statement about wasting precious meeting time. “That woman with the stroller there, what do you see?” I pressed again. Finally one ventured, “I think she is single and hurting.” In an “aha” moment a voice from the back of the station wagon suggested, “I see a single mom who has no hope, who needs to know that God knows her. We can make a difference for her and her children by loving them – by demonstrating how much God loves them.” This finally unleashed a torrent of new ways of “seeing” our community.
After several more stops we returned to the building and spent time talking and praying about the kind of church we wanted to be. In a moment of refreshing and unguarded transparency they all admitted that they were tired of business as usual, they found the church irrelevant to their daily experience and they were bored with Christianity as they knew it. We had our own coffee table discussion. The result? We began to act like the church, to love our neighbors, to engage in honest conversation (versus religiously correct conversation) we grew into a new intimacy with Christ. Like my friend Doug’s experience we saw the same powerful change in people and simultaneous contagion begin to manifest in dozens of social networks. We began to enjoy communitas together. We saw God working in our community in new ways. We engaged a relationship with Jesus as Lord in a way that began to impact every aspect of our lives.
Radical Breakthroughs Happen Slowly Over Time
We went for several years blissful, manageable spiritual and numeric addition occurred. Then one September the numbers of people who showed up on Sundays more than doubled and before long I was as disoriented as Doug had been. I felt that we had lost control of the warm, authentic, intimate, organic congregation we had become. Yet, everyone who now showed up as strangers to me had a rich personal connection somewhere among the people in the congregation I knew well. We were also in the midst of exponential chaos that seemed engendered by communitas.
I had wanted to grow a large church but I wanted to do it while also avoiding the chaos of rapid expansion I had seen Doug endure. I wanted nice authentic (read, controlled) community. I began to realize the oxymoron involved in combining “controlled” and “organic”. There is no such thing as controlling the organic nature of the church…one can warp, twist, injure, starve, sicken or nourish, nurture and enjoy the organic nature of the church. The church once unlocked in its fullest DNA is unpredictable, irrepressible and transformational. It jumps across social and cultural boundaries. It cannot be domesticated by systems and structures instead it will grow around and through systems and structures transforming them and re-purposing them.
I found the lament of effectiveness flowing from my own mouth, “God, I did not sign up for this….” My time faced demands I had no idea existed before. The city had noticed we existed and I was faced with zoning hearings, police visitations over decibel levels emanating from the youth who gathered each week to share their experience with Christ and traffic flow patterns that had begun to choke the driveways of our neighbors. Some of my peers in the pastoral community became hostile and distant. New demands sprung up on our systems with regard to discipleship, financial management, staffing, volunteer training, facilities management, insurance, employment records, risk management assessments, property transactions and background checks. Some of the people who had joined the congregation complained at my lack of pastoral skill while others simultaneously declared me to be the best pastor they had ever seen. Some loved the worship services while others complained at the lack of traditional services. I sat staring out my office window one day feeling like a prisoner and longing for the simple days we sat in the station wagon together seeing the community with new eyes. How in the world could I get back to that day when the whole thing now felt so out of control?
Inescapable Complexity in Organic Growth
In light of all that is being written about the missional church, the simple church, the organic church etcetera it seems that one thing is consistently overlooked – something that should be as obvious as our own existence. Organisms don’t develop from complexity to simplicity but from simplicity to complexity. The transition I needed the day I sat in my office was not an escape from complexity but a reconnection with the DNA that drove the changes I was seeing. If the missional church movement is an attempt to escape complexity of social interaction and especially the exponential complexity inherent in large numbers of people being together in the same place then it will die a deserved death of irrelevance like so many other concepts.
That day in the office I began to reflect on one of Jesus’ more peculiar miracles, the feeding of the five thousand. The event is a great one to introduce the challenges inherent in leading a missional church. Recall, that a crowd (invaders in the communitas the disciples enjoyed with Jesus) had gathered drawn by the fact that they had seen the signs that Jesus performed on the sick. Jesus characteristically “…seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him….” engaged Philip in a mentoring moment according to John’s record. “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” Jesus asks. The complexity of the need and the logistics to meet the need obviously concerned the apostles who may have been more than a little taken aback that Jesus seemed to place the responsibility for addressing the need squarely at their feet. In case the reflection of John is not clear enough on this point, Luke’s record makes it crystal clear. When the apostles suggested that people be sent away to find food Jesus said, “You give them something to eat!”
As I reflected on the event I found Jesus’ words remarkably contemporary and disturbing. I wanted to disengage from the complexity I faced because missio Dei was happening around me. I was seeing the signs that Jesus performed on the broken, the sick, the isolated, the successful and the downcast. A crowed had invaded our communitas and I wanted Jesus to dismiss them. Jesus wanted me to assimilate them into communitas. The very complexity I wanted to avoid Jesus was asking me to embrace as a way to draw more people into communitas.
Embrace a New Definition of Capacity
I was struck by the extreme differential between my capacity and God’s. My capacity was the small group I had grown to love and share life with. God’s capacity was to love the whole world. I was rapidly moving to an “us four no more” focus that sought to isolate my closest friendships from those challenges and complexities introduced by strangers or outsiders. I wanted control over who, when, how and where complexity entered my life. I possess a limited capacity defined by my own abilities, time and resource. This is the essence of what missional church writers call a traditional or an attractional church. When we rely on our own capacity or comfort to define what a faith community looks like toxicity is de facto loaded into relationships. Writing on what it means to be a missional congregation Hirsch makes a similar observation:
As we shall see, structures are absolutely necessary for cooperative human interaction as well as maintaining some form of coherent social patterns. However, it seems that over time the increasingly impersonal structures of the institution assume roles, responsibilities and authority that legitimately belong to the whole people of God in their local and grassroots expressions. It is at this point that things tend to go awry.
This tendency for things to go awry or become toxic is evident in three successive encounters between the apostles and Jesus in events recorded by Luke just after the feeding of the five thousand.
The first event is an argument over who would be the greatest. Jesus reinforces the reality that the focus in communitas is on responsiveness not position or power. The illustration of the child contrasts sophistication and superiority (adopting an attitude of condescension toward others) with response and engagement. Capacity cannot be enlarged if one’s pursuit is the power to control or dominate. Capacity is released when complexity is embraced with responsive curiosity that asks questions previously either unasked or unpermitted. Until leaders embrace the perspective of play and characteristic engagement of children capacity remains consistently limited.
The second encounter was the unnamed disciple rebuked by the apostles for casting out demons because he was not part of the communitas of the apostles proper. Jesus made clear that the criterion of communitas is relationship not parochialism. Capacity cannot be enlarged if room is not made within the leadership circle for new people who demonstrate an intimacy with Christ. Capacity is limited when entrance into leadership is restricted to a false criterion limited by personal connections to the familiar rather than to Christ. The central criterion is demonstrated intimacy with Christ as Lord not demonstrated connections with the right group or power structure.
The third encounter emerges from the rejection suffered by the apostles at the hands of a Samaritan village. The apostles wanted to call fire out of heaven to consume those who had openly resisted them. Jesus made clear that the agenda of communitas was liberation not destruction. Capacity is never enlarged when the focus is how we are personally received. If leaders look more to their own feelings of rejection (the need to be right) rather than the need for reconciliation then capacity for what God is doing is constricted to the point a congregation becomes toxic rather than redeeming.
A Metamorphosis not a Destination
A capacity for dealing with complexity (the condition of being made up of many interrelated parts) is imperative to being a missional church. Yet this capacity to being the missional church is reduced when one possesses a misaligned focus, a poorly defined criterion and a faulty agenda. It is impossible to fathom engaging the complexity resulting from the works of Christ when one is more concerned; (1) with their role in the plan rather than knowing Christ in a more intimate way; (2) with who is like them and therefore in or out rather than seeing others relating to Christ as lord and (3) why outsiders should be judged and condemned instead of seeing what God is doing to liberate them.
For leaders who do pursue the concept of being a missional church two things seem unavoidable. First they enter an engagement with the living Christ that irreversibly alters how they see the church and the community around them. Second, they enter a relationship with Christ characterized by exquisite transparency – the awareness of God’s penetrating gaze that simultaneously judges sin and frees the guilty. Being a missional church is not a destination, it is a metamorphosis engaged by living a life style of repentance and discovery.