Here's another thought: God is not a micro-manager. Imagine a micro-managed relationship ... ghastly! Instead, in his amazing grace he calls us to partner in his work. In any functional relationship each partner understands and respects the role of the other with a mutual expectation that each will "get on with it". Of course there's consultation, but on the level of dependency and on big-issues within a relationship of mutual trust and accountability.
May I speak bluntly? Why not? It seems its only this generation that has built Christianity around saccharine statements of comfort, lest we offend or disturb anyone.
This post seeks to speak plainly (too bluntly perhaps?) to three groups: (1) church visitors, (2) church regulars, and (3) church leaders - you decide which you are (and see the afterthoughts at then end for my own church’s context).
So here we will build on the recent blog posts on worship, with three overriding concepts.
- First, worship is the top priority for Christians, its the totality of who we are.
- Second, it's not just about singing of songs in church, but the breath of our very existence.
- Third, it is about an attitude of creative choice, and that to be creative is a personal investment.
So with that in mind, let me bring this into the context of the church, and pose some issues and questions I have about each of our three identified groups. Lets also recognize that church is about relationship and communication (more on that later) with God and with each other. It's not about building and maintaining an organization!
1. Church visitors
Sorry to bundle you into a group, and I hope you'll pardon my shining a light on you, but there's something you can help us with. You see, as a visitor from outside our church culture you have something that we who are inside the culture desperately need. Perspective! You come as a stranger to our opaque language, our odd activities, and our archaic imagery. Yet even so you may also find some unexpected points of familiarity, perhaps most especially where you encounter contemporary music styles that would be right at home on MTV.
If I could venture to say that as a visitor you have a responsibility: it's to talk to us, and tell us when we're being simply too strange to understand - meaning that then we've plainly failed in our attempts at communication. Please tell us when we fail! It's really helpful, and as we're polite Christians we'll smile and say "thank you" rather than bite your head off.
2. Church regulars.
Ah, what a large group you are, by ratio at least. Sorry to point generalized fingers here - I know there are always individuals who are exceptions to the rule. And of course I know that you, the reader of this, are one of those exceptions. But think about the rest of the regulars.
You see, unfortunately most churches operate on the 30:70 rule -- 30% of the people (if we're optimistic) do 70% of the work. The remainder are consumers ... pew-sitting "clients" ... that is, when they find it convenient enough to actually turn up. Now, in the understanding that a Christian's top priority is total immersion in breathing worship, this means engaging in creative expression of God's values through all we are uniquely created to be and do. Creative expression is not passivity, its passionate personal investment.
The 30:70 rule is all good and fine in a young family. Think of a Mom and Dad with three young kids ... the parents do just about everything. But as the children grow they find they have duties, responsibilities in the family, commitments to each other, merely because they are a family. And so the family evolves from 30:70 responsibility to mutual shared responsibilities where each has a role, and in this we find that true joy and love flourishes and touches all those they connect with.
But the family where kids are allowed to stay consumers; there the parents are depleted, the kids become arrogant, selfish, unpleasant, unloving and unloved individuals that nobody wants to relate to unless they can be leveraged for some other benefit.
Families grow up! New kids come along, but the ones already there also grow up! And growing up means engaging in the responsibilities of leading. It's not simply a duty, its participation in relational leadership where each has a role founded in mutual trust and expectation out of a love for what God created us to be.
So Church, if you want to truly be known as a worshipping church, then grow up.
Else you've become parasites on the worshipping service of others.
3. Church leaders
Its dangerous to generalize here, because there is such diversity of leadership. So while one can always identify some issue or other (Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, are you listening?) with any individual (myself included), perhaps it's best to speak plainly on things that leadership needs to address.
First of all is this simple and incredibly important fact: Spend a long time immersed in any one culture, and you lose effectiveness in talking to other cultures - more quickly than you'd care to believe.
Cross-cultural communication requires constant contact. So to the career ministers and lay leaders, when did you last try and really comprehend the stresses, strains and attitudes of someone walking a path in the secular world around you. When did you last converse with, "immerse with", rather than talk at, someone who finds our church culture incomprehensible?
You see, we live in an age where communication is not governed by hierarchical authority but by effective conversation; outspoken, opinionated, and rooted in the power of the individual. In ages past the assigned authority was enough to command attention, now no longer. With the power of the blog, the reach of twitter, the infiltration of social media, and the expectation of self-promotion, anyone and everyone can command (perceived) authority. Anything can be said, any position taken, and any argument initiated. Its no wonder militant "New Atheism" has taken off ... today's society is totally geared to giving an audience to anyone who wants to be provocative.
Church leaders, do you understand the nature of contemporary communication, and how people learn in today’s society? Do you realize how the power of conversation and story is dominant, the classical teacher is in decline. We buy learning, its a product framed in new educational paradigms. Even in the church its "have you done this course" and "you must go and do that course". In this we acquire knowledge but have we really learned anything? Add to this the incremental dumbing down of language such that the nuanced meanings and complex richness of our vocabulary has lost so much power.
Today the voice that is heard is the one that is accessible, not just accessible in language terms, but accessible by the average man and woman in the street. The one that speaks in language and concepts that are quickly understood, the one that has the ready hook of metaphor and story to capture fleeting attention, the one that entertains; that voice is sadly the one that communicates (something), teaches (what people want to hear), and is followed.
Is this right? Of course not. Is it reality? Absolutely.
So church leader, what do we do? For one, lets use the fact that worship (defined as the breathing of a Christian) is intended to be a creative expression. Worship-breath is that which esteems God directly or indirectly through elevating Gods values. Lets get creative in our communication!
There's a world out there that does not comprehend our church culture. Do we wait for them to find their way through to us, or do we speak plainly?
What does plain speech mean? It means communication in the language of the listener, with examples drawn from their experience, in metaphors that they can resonate with, using music, visuals, and other non-verbal expressions that are familiar to the cultures outside our doors. It means combining the communication of the culture with the timeless truths of Jesus.
Church leaders, converse in the cultural commonalities!
If the culture of communication is so different from the forms used inside our churches, then what about church leadership structures?
Christianity is hierarchical. There's God on top, and everyone else below is more or less on the same level -- we're all priests. Yes, God appoints some to be apostles and teachers, he gifts some to be healers and helpers. But he differentiates this human mass not as the more important and the less important, but as a body where the foot is no more or less important than the eye. God gives roles! Institutional church has taken this and stratified the human layer into a myriad of new hierarchies.
So what then is church leadership? It's leadership-in-relationship! Each has a role, each grows up into roles, and each role has functional authority in relationship to everyone else. Yet in our churches institutional cultures we have instead individuals who, because of their position in the hierarchy, presume to incorporate a breadth of authority over areas that is beyond their God-given role.
Speaking bluntly: In institutional church leadership there has been a substitution of relational authority and co-dependency with instead a hierarchical authority having no relational accountability to the members of the body.
In this age of extreme secular individualism, in a time where communication is increasingly not by community relationship but instead determined by access to resources and voices, this is a time where true relational-leadership is needed more than ever before.
In my church we have visitors, but we don't really know where our communication fails. We have our regulars, and some are growing into leadership, but we also have those for whom church is an option in a personal lifestyle of choices. We are blessed with a leadership that is well engaged with relational authority, but exists in an external hierarchy that is deaf to the extant realities - that is, the external institutional authorities barely comprehend (which is not the same as "know about") the realities of life in the secular world.