Bill Kinnon's series of postings on the theme The People formerly known as the Congregation has touched a nerve in the populace of the people of faith. There are links to all the postings on the right side bar of his blog. Check them out.
What Bill and others are expressing is not new. It is important to understand that they speak from their heart, from their experience in the church, and about things that matter to them. It takes me back thirty years to my post-collegiate days when I was involved in an evangelical youth ministry built around the idea of "friendship evangelism." I was in a training program where I would end up with my own ministry serving a community somewhere. I was let go because <quote> I was too intellectual. <unquote>. What it really meant was I wasn't cool enough. My ministry to high school students was just different than the other men and women in the training program. So, I moved on and like many people went to seminary searching for what it was that God wanted to do with me.
By going to seminary, I knew it implied that parish ministry was most likely the outcome. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a pulpit minister. So, my tag line in seminary was, "God drugged me kicking and screaming into the church." I always laughed when I said it because I'm just that kind of congenial guy. But I was really unsure about whether I could be a pastor of a church. Not whether I could be a minister, but whether serving in that sort of institutional setting was what I could stomach. At that time, in my mid-twenties, I felt that that path was very confining.
Years later, after serving as an urban community minister for a large Presbyterian church, I took on my own congregation to serve as pastor. It was an ill-thought decision. We left being close to home with a three month old baby to move to a community that culturally was totally different than either of our backgrounds. We lasted two years, two months, eight days and thirteen hours. In the end, I realized some things about my self, about the ministry, and about churches.
I realized that my orientation was toward growth, not numerical growth, but a different kind. The church I served was not committed to that. Instead, they wanted a curator for the museum of memories. The past were the glory years of the church, and the future was about holding on to those memories through a practiced pattern of behaviors and rituals. It was traditional, but not sufficiently alive for me.
So, as I left that church and went to work for a small church-related college as a chaplain, I began to find myself increasingly alienated from the church as an institution. It became harder and harder to find churches that fit with my perspective on what it meant to be the church. It is my nature to be a problem solver, so instead of abandoning the church, I began to serve them as a leadership consultant.
There is more to say about this than the few minutes I have now can provide. But let me capture it this way.
1. Recognizing and admitting the pain and hurt, frustration and disappointment that we have had with the church is good. It can be very healthy. But it won't change the church. It may change you, but it won't change the church. The church is an institution. It is an organization. In fact, it needs to be an organization if whatever good that is there can be sustained over time. So, I've come to believe in churches as institutions. The question is what kind.
2. I have found that the number one thing church people want from their pastor is for him or her to love them. This is a feeling that people have about the church that gets transfered to the pastor. The relationship they have with the pastor is the relationship that they have with Christ. It really is that simple for many, many people. I don't think pastors see this coming when they are in seminary. It is very subtle, and eventually destructive of the church. Many of the reasons for people's alienation from the church has to do with their relationship with the pastor. So, the pastoral role is critical to the future of the church. The question is what does it mean to be in pastoral leadership.
3. The church isn't a museum. It is a place of redemption, reconciliation and transformation. To redeem something is to save it from being lost. We tend to over-spiritualize this with a theology of redemption that is only seen in the cross. In actuality , the church is a place of daily redemption, where the lives of people find purpose and focus issued as a call to service. We are saved everyday through our acts of redemptive love.(I'm not talking about works righteousness. Only that we find reality to our redemption in action.) To reconcile something is to bridge the divide that exists, to bring them together, to unite that which was divided. We can do this intellectually and relationally. We can find our minds made whole as we come to understand the practical application of the grand abstract tenets of the Christian faith. We can see it in our relationships as we humbly ask for forgiveness and renew of friendship. To transform something is to change it. For the church, it is personal transformation as God's act of grace. It is to be changed from what we are to what we were created to be. And it takes a million tiny steps for that transformation to take place.
4. Leadership therefore, pastoral leadership, in particular, is not focused primarily on what is internally to the church, but what is external. It is as Paul writes in Ephesians 4 about equipping the saints for works of service. We are so used to hearing these words when new Sunday school teachers are commissioned, that we miss the fact that this is not describing a program of the church, but rather the purpose of the church as an institution.
5. What this implies is that church is not simply a place of refuge and security, but a place of redemption, reconciliation and transformation so that people are equipped, prepared, able to live out their lives of faith on a daily basis. We are not organized this way.
6. The question for leaders of the church is how do we instill into the experience of the church redemption, reconciliation and transformation. To lead the people formerly known as the Congregation is first to live a life of redemption, reconciliation and transformation, and then provide both the social and organizational environment for this to take place for others. The old line that Christianity is one begger telling another begger where to find bread has some merit. Unfortunately, we turned that into a marketing pitch instead of a life-sharing experience. The model is Jesus' leadership of the disciples and how he transformed them from a rag-tag group of students into the vanguard of Apostles who would change the world. To be an Apostle is to be one who is sent. How many people in the church or in the people formerly called the Congregation feel like God has called them to go to the uttermost regions in service to Christ and the world of his creation.
7. There is a line from the film, The Emperor's Club, where one of Professor Hundert's students reflecting on his influence in their lives twenty five years later says,
" A great teacher has little external history to record. His life goes over into other lives. These men are pillars in the intimate structures of our schools. They are more essential than its stones and beams, and they will continue to be a kindling force and a revealing power in our lives."
This is true of pastors and churches where the focus is on each person's outward manifestation of faith as people of redemption, reconciliation and transformation. It is a calling to be someone different than we were. In The Emperor's Club, Hundert begins his class on Western Civilization with the reading of a plaque over the classroom door. It reads:
"I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Sussa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte -1158 BC."
Hundert tells the class that Shutruk Nahunte doesn't appear in the history books along side other great leaders of the era. "Why?" he asks?
"Because great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?"
This captures well what I see missing from the church. There are high ideals. There are great, successful churches. But what of their contribution. Contribution comes through each of us, one day, one moment, one relationship, one situation, one life at a time. It is being a person from whom redemption, reconciliation and transformation are the experiences that send us out to be the people now known as friend, servant, guide, mentor and sharer of the journey.
If you think that this makes leadership harder, you would be correct. It is easy to lead organizations. It is hard to be a person whose leadership is built on the integrity of a life still in the midst of being redeemed, reconciled and transformation. That is the life of faith. That is the way of leadership in the church.