One of the crises of being a thirtysomething (or a precocious twentysomething) is answering an important question when it comes up: “Now that I can do something, do I have the courage to do it with integrity and conviction? Will I keep faith or will I shrink back when the challenges hit me?”
Circle of Hope is not only full of thirtysomethings (as well as many precocious twentysomethings), we, as a network, probably resemble a maturing person who has managed to accumulate some wisdom and capacity (such as our PM skills, many cell leading experts, compassion team ingenuity, money, buildings, structures and strategies, and well-developed relationships and marriages). We are definitely hearing the challenge from scripture:
“Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised….We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (Hebrews 10:35-9)
Many churches begin as lively organisms with great ideas and spirit. They are kind of like energetic, inspired twentysomethings. Once they survive for a few years and gain their confidence, they have the challenge the writer talks about. They need to persevere. Can you keep being the wild, receptive organism that made you great, or will you become a mere organization? A thirtysomething church like Circle of Hope could definitely “shrink back” from its wild inspired, organic beginnings and become a mere organization like all the rest in the world and, essentially, be destroyed — or at least see its genius be neutered.
How do fertile organisms get neutered into organizations that just keep doing the same kind of things the world has always done? No one would likely choose to have that happen! Maybe it is like the proverbial frog in the kettle. Supposedly a frog will not jump out of a pot of water that is slowly being heated up until it is so hot they are cooked! Likewise an organism like us could slowly acclimate to organizational habits that stifle what made it great to begin with. How’s the water?
Here are five ways our organism might become a mere organization:
1. People fit the ministry into their time schedule
An organism can become a mere organization if people tame it to fit into their personal schedule. If people could reduce their faith down to a meeting, they would probably do it – not on purpose, of course, but just to be practical. It is easier to do one’s faith than to be faithful. No one consciously chooses this, it just happens as soon as you can put the PM into your calendar. On one hand the disciplines of our time schedule are crucial to having faith. But they are designed change our false self into our true one. When the schedule becomes the essence of our new self, an organized schedule can become more of a jail than a liberating tool. If adopting a schedule of meetings did not make you a person who helps liberate others who come to your meetings, you must have missed the point of the meetings. If the meetings did not make you a 24/7 Christian who uses meetings to grow and help others grow, there is a problem. If you have managed to fit the church as an “extra” into your already hectic life, then there is really a problem.
2. Leaders argue about who is in charge of what
An organism can become a mere organization if the leaders spend more time worrying about their power than they do working together for the common good. Organizations specialize in setting boundaries and defining structures. On one hand this is crucial. You need a structure to finish a project; you need a map to get from here to there. Disorganized organisms die, or are eaten by more organized organisms. Figuring out how be an organized organism can be hard. Most people just give into “organization” and end up like a spiritualized version of the government or a corporation. Unhealthy or uninspired leaders can spend a lot of time figuring out their territories and wondering about who violated their protocols rather than imagining how to do the project together or how to get the church from here to there as we follow Jesus.
3. The structures can’t adapt quickly enough.
An organism can become a mere organization if the structures become sacred rather than tools in the hands of an inspired community. If they can’t change and grow, they shrink back to the level for which they were effective. As the Apostle Paul keeps saying in his letters, a main problem with humans is that they love law and despise the grace that sets them free. Rather than live by the law of love, they make rules to save themselves from having to do that. Once a useful rule is in place in a church, it takes courage to change it. Changes require dialogue and healthy dialogue requires love – and a commitment to having healthy conflict. What if we needed to change how we do things in order to do what God gave us to do now? Could we do it? Or would we just tell each other to try harder at what no longer works?
4. Love becomes sacred, not strategic
An organism can become a mere organization if people don’t have the freedom to cause trouble. In our era people often throw a “trump card” in a conversation: “You are offending me.” Love means you are supposed to have the sense to never offend someone by violating their opinion or sensibility. Autonomy and personal freedom are the greatest goods in the world right now. Christians are nice enough to go with that. So some of the most loving organizations stopped doing anything Jesus wants to do a long time ago — but they never have a fight! At least they are not fighting to become world-changing disciples. If they are fighting it is because they are offended! God’s love is creative and purposeful, not self-protective and easily provoked.
5. We get conformed by approaches from the world that don’t know Jesus but which can run an organization.
An organism can become a mere organization if it imports techniques from the world without putting them through “faith check.” Many techniques work for getting something done, but not all techniques work for nurturing the body of Christ. We need to be trained for life in the Spirit and that means we can’t import everything we learned from the world in which Jesus found us. Some techniques from the world will conform us to themselves more than become a tool for transformation in our hands. Even our yearly mapping process, based, as it is, on a common “business plan” and subject as it can be to “investigative inquiry,” needs to be watched.
The only way to avoid these pitfalls, it seems to me, is not “shrink” but to persevere in faith, hope and love. Being inspired by the Spirit is a whole-life work. Perhaps being a twentysomething lends itself to the wildness necessary to be a Jesus-follower. Being a thirtysomething, or more, is naturally dangerous to faith. The organism called the church has the same kind of maturation challenges. I feel like tackling them.