Thinking Out Loud

September 26, 2019

Local Church Initiatives: More Isn’t Better

Some background: On Tuesday I posted a brief article contrasting those churches which are programmed to death with those not offering enough avenues for engagement. You can read that article here.

That promoted this reader comment:

I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. The calendar HAD to be full. I constantly felt the pressure as a leader to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved.

Then I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry, started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion, I found so much freedom in that…and I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul.

I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about 1/2 of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier. The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. That’s been my experience…

The comment came from Rev. Dr. Robin J. Dugall who describes himself as “Pastor, Professor, Musician, Teacher and follower of Jesus;” and writes at Spiritual Regurgitations. (see more below*)

Because of his insights with this, I invited him to expand on this…

More isn’t better: It’s exhausting and counter-productive

The editor of this blog started “thinking out loud” and, in the process, requested a bit more from a reply that I posted to “Volunteers Wanted.” This issue has been the story of much of my professional life in the Church. Without bringing up at all any thoughts regarding the differentiation between “volunteers” and those using their gifts in ministry as an expression of their unique Kingdom calling, I’ll wade into the invitational waters.

I never thought I would say this much less write it, but I’ve lived a good majority of my 65 years of life involved in some manner or form of “Church.” From parachurch ministries to outdoor ministries…from small congregational ministries to what used to be regarded as “large” church settings. Thanks to the Lord, I’ve never had the opportunity to live my Kingdom life within the sphere of the megachurch. There is a part of me that cringes simply imagining the intensity of financial and organizational pressure that goes along with the management of any large “company.”

As a “churchworld” (I’ll define that term below) leader, my responsibilities have ranged from that which would be regarded by some as the sphere of the Senior Pastor to the leadership of a plethora of “sub-ministries” including children’s, youth, music, small groups, leadership and theological/biblical development. So, in regard to this issue of “Volunteerism” and what it takes these days to not only “do” ministry but enable and equip Jesus following people to be responsive to the call of God upon their lives, I’ve had my share of experience.

I must say that I’ve made some drastic, strategic and, in my mind, God-honoring changes in my ministry philosophy over the past two decades. Much of those changes have occurred because of witnessing the futility and counter-productivity of the “more is better” mentality. I’ve been involved as a leader in both “kinds” of churches…at one church, we had the philosophy that MORE ministries were better, in other words, it was like a smorgasbord of ministries that were available every week. We operated under with the mindset that the “calendar HAD to be full.” Subsequently, it was. It wasn’t simply the fact that I was out of my home probably five to six out of seven nights per week, but we constantly felt the overwhelming pressure as leaders to fill positions, fund initiatives, provide space, and pressure people to be involved. The key aspect of the previous phrase is “pressure people”…and, trust me, that’s what happened.

When Christendom ruled, the belief stood that the Church should be the center of life. And, in some respects, Christendom did appropriately draw one’s faith journey into a rich life of worship, fellowship and encouragement in faithfulness. Yet what has occurred over time as many Christians have bemoaned Christendom’s demise is that a form of institutional tyranny arose in its place. The Church was no longer the center of culture, so Church people formed a hybrid (more of a mutation) of Christendom to take its place – something I call, “churchworld.” When I talk about “churchworld” I am attempting to put into approachable language some way to clarify the overwhelming, insatiable “hunger” of religious institutionalism to demand the whole of a person’s life and attention.

“Churchworld” is one-part theme park and one-part assembly line…one part “money pit” and one-part shopping mall. It is built upon the values of consumerism and utilitarianism – in other words, how can we get the most out of people in order to give back to people what we perceive they need. In my humble opinion, that’s what “churchworld” does…just as the price of a ticket to any Disney park has insanely and prohibitively increased in cost for day’s excursion, so has the “cost” in time, energy, money, and “personnel” of feeding the demands of “churchworld.”

My wife and I have adult children that are involved in “churchworld” ministries. They constantly give witness to the increasing demands for the totality of their lives to be focused on sustaining the institution’s strategy of ministry. They have shared with me the fact that many people who are their friends in the Lord have made it a habit to leave churches after a year or so simply because of the increasing burdens and demands of involvement. Once involved in feeding the “beast,” it is hard to back away graciously without risking the subsequent woes and grief given by overwhelmed staff. I would never coin myself as a predictive prophesy individual, yet it doesn’t take much forethought to see the coming fall of “churchworld.”

One of my favorite authors, John Kavanaugh compares Ancient Rome’s adherence to “bread and circus” (the book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society; John Drane says the same in his books on the McDonaldization of the Church) to that of “churchworld’s” fascination with entertainment and feeding/attracting the masses.

Contrast that experience with what happened in my life as a leader and fellow disciple when I started leading a church where the only ministries we had were the ones that “surfaced” within the Body itself…in other words, people who felt the leading of the Lord to begin a ministry, started them and “staffed” them with like-minded people they knew who shared their passion and sense of calling for that ministry. Some call this ministry strategy, “Organic.” Truthfully, that kind of language aptly describes what occurs in reality. The kingdom of God that Jesus described is viral, organic and, by nature, a movement. It grows where no apparent strategy or potential can be found…and it lives, not by human energy and ingenuity, but by spiritual mystery.

In the organic ministry realm, we are much more apt to be praising God for his leadership and fruitfulness in people’s lives than praising ourselves for the plethora of activities that we can effectively manage and multiply by sheer effort and relational intimidation. Personally, I found so much freedom living as a living “organism.” With that mindset, with a renewed embrace of the dynamic spiritual nature of the Body of Christ, I found that the ministries took care of themselves better over the long haul. For example, in my current congregational setting, we have a few teenagers who would benefit from a good youth ministry program. Now, I could for a ministry team, hire a youth worker and build an entire infrastructure to handle that ministry need…that’s the programmatic approach. Even so, we have no one in the church who is sensing the “call” of God to form another program.

In the past, I would have beaten down people in an attempt to build another program. I chose not to do that. Instead, I called a pastor friend of mine who leads another church in town. They have an amazing youth ministry program and have built a solid ministry strategy to disciple teens. I talked to the pastor; told him I was interested in “investing” the kids in our church into their youth ministry program. I felt that partnership was more important than simply duplicating what is happening right down our street (so to speak). I talked to the parents of the teens, the youth themselves and now they are loving what God is doing in their lives as they participate in that other church’s ministry.

Some might say, “well, aren’t you fearful that you will lose that family to that other church?” No, I’m not and if they did leave, I would bless them on their way. I’m not going to try to be “all things to all people” any longer. I’m not going to fear ministry partnerships…in fact, I want so desperately to affirm them.

Church, at least in what I read in the New Testament, has more to do with organic living than most people want to admit. I am now a firm believer in “less is more”…in fact, in most of the churches I’ve led since my “smorgasbord” days, the church has been healthier because we have allowed the Lord to lead us in birthing ministries instead of having a busy “template” for what church should look like. In fact, I think for most churches, they could let about half of their ministries “die” and they would be happier and healthier.

The issue is giving people the freedom and encouragement to build their lives in the Lord IN the midst of their lives instead of forcing them to live the life we think they should live…one built around church activities instead of simply living for Jesus in the spheres of influence that is their daily life. This explains why Jesus did not ask us to go and “make gatherings or churches or home groups or…” He did not ask us to go and “make house churches.” He said, “go and make disciples.” Discipling viral disciplers is the end game. This places YOU and ME squarely in the midst of reproductive life that the kingdom is intrinsically about. We become movement-starters not church-starters. We release disciples who will influence the world throughout their lifetime and beyond.

When we start “churches, communities, meetings, etc.”, our focus tends to be on the communal gathering—what to do, how to do it, what it looks like, etc. We may say to ourselves that we are learning to “be” the church but often our priority remains on developing the structure/form/institution. When following Jesus and inviting others to follow him becomes our focus (discipling viral disciples), we have to shift from the “gathering” mentality to the “lifestyle-going” mentality. This shift will propel us from being church-starters to movement starters (where churches and gatherings spring up along the way).

One more thought – consider “wiki-based ministry.” In other words, I desire to build a “Collaboration based” ministry environment. I believe that God is active in EVERY person so that our community creates meaning – our ministry partnership is a reflection of a descriptive process with no prescribed meaning; we fix us, no experts are needed; leadership teams and pastors are good but only one of the gifts of community. We believe in a distinctly relational ecclesiology. That is organic…that is a celebration of less is more.

 


*From his About page: “Currently, in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University, he is a pastor of a faith community, Adjunct Professor at Concordia University (Portland, OR) and an instructor/mentor of the Missional Training Team for the Lutheran denomination.”

3 Comments »

  1. […] The editor of a GREAT blog started “thinking out loud” and, in the process, requested a bit more from a reply that I posted to “Volunteers Wanted.” This issue has been the story of much of my professional life in the Church.  Without bringing up at all any thoughts regarding the differentiation between “volunteers” and those using their gifts in ministry as an expression of their unique Kingdom calling, I’ll wade into the invitational waters. […]

    Pingback by More isn’t Better! | Spiritual Regurgitations — September 26, 2019 @ 4:12 pm

  2. Thanks Paul for your thought provoking blog as well as to the link to Dr. Robin Dugall’s “Ministry Manifesto”.

    Maybe we should make a 1000 copies and start nailing them on church doors! Or better yet, let’s use today’s technology means to make the church’s community of saints stronger and more relational, unbound by religious institutional self interest.

    Comment by Andy Haskell — September 26, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

    • Making a thinly veiled reference to Luther was brilliant! Yes, let’s set “disciples” free!

      Comment by rdugall — September 27, 2019 @ 1:29 pm


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