The Mission of the Church: Wrapping Up, Part 5 (Community Disciplines, Part 1)

Eucharist-Mission1What habits, practices, rituals, disciplines might we engage in to help us learn to love each other — in practice, not just theory. I mean, how do I learn to love the person in the pew next to me — and make sure that really happens time after time as people in this mobile age come and go?

Well, community disciplines have to be undertaken at the community level. Some are individual, but many are going to require that we do things together or through our leadership. No one person can make this happen.

For example, I would strongly suggest as rule 1:

  • All members have a job in the local church — absent health or family circumstances that make it impossible. 

Obviously, we all go through times in our lives when we’re sick or have a sick relative who overwhelms us — and in those times, the church should support us and not “guilt” us into doing more than we really have time to do.

(Matt. 20:26-28 ESV)  26 “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,  28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I used to belong to the Rotary Club (long story). They had a saying: “No one ever says no.” What they meant was — and they said it — we’re not going to ask you to do something you can’t do. And so if we ask, you must say yes, or else you forfeit your membership. Just that simple.

They are a civic club that has okay speakers and nothing-special meals. And yet they had the audacity to say, in effect, “Our leaders are volunteers, too, and they don’t have time to work around your immaturity. Either grow up and carry your share of the load or join a club that’s not trying to make a difference.” Of course, it helps if you believe in what your club is trying to accomplish.

Now, I don’t care how menial the job is. Whether it’s being an elder or picking up trash after services, it’s a job — and having a job means you’re investing time and energy in the life of the church. Church suddenly costs you something, and you have to decide whether you’re willing to pay the price. If so, then church matters and you’re willing to put up with some of the mess to remain a member — just as you’re not going to throw away a $200,000 car over a $200 repair bill. But you’ll throw away something that cost nothing for $200.

Rule 2: Find a way to give the members ownership of their own church.

In a small church, decisions are typically made by consensus in the hallways. In a very large church, the staff typically make the decisions, but they’re usually pretty good decisions (which is how the church got to be big). There’s usually not much congregational participation in decisions involving a very large church because (a) it’s hard to do and (b) people join knowing it’s a big church and so they accept that limit. They found something else about the church they loved and they traded ownership for that something else.

But in most other churches, members expect some participation in decision making, and they are right to do so. We see in Acts 15 that the Jerusalem Council somehow involved the congregation in the decision made regarding circumcision despite having at least 20,000 members and no telephones or emails. They didn’t even have street addresses (that came with the Post Office).

We don’t know how it was done, but the principle is clear enough. In fact, the Spirit indwells all members, and the Spirit indwells the congregation, not just the leaders. It’s not easy to involve the members, and impossible to involve them in everything, but some things just beg for membership involvement.

For example, “vision casting” has become the job of the preacher in many congregations. I think it’s a congregational job. In 1995, my church went through a process we called Vision 2000, and we had surveys and focus groups to meet with the members and ask their input on a wide range of issues — which led to several major initiatives by the elders. It wasn’t a men’s business meeting (ugh). It was men, women, teens, and college students being heard through a carefully thought out process.

We first crafted a survey form, expanded from a church growth survey from the Center for Church Growth. From that, the Vision 2000 team (one elder and six “lay” members) came up with four priorities. We then spent a Friday night and Saturday meeting with the church in small focus groups (30 or fewer) to brainstorm and receive ideas for how to address these needs.

This led to initiating a small groups ministry, to forming an involvement team to get new members connected through volunteer jobs, classes, and small groups, and the formation of an oversight team (the Ministries Team) to coordinate the work of the various church ministries. And it wasn’t exactly the Kingdom Come Early but it worked pretty well.

It was a whole lot of trouble, but when we were done, the initiatives were well supported because the congregation had been involved in setting the vision.

Since then, our vision casting has followed a different model. Either the staff heads off into the woods and comes back with their vision — even though most of the staff has only been a member of the church for a few years — well less than the average member or elder — meaning that their vision uniquely defined for this church in this setting is often very much like what the most recent church leadership books recommend. Or else the elders retreat with the staff and make a similar effort.

Not surprisingly, these “visions” are received by the church as the staff’s vision or the elders’ vision but not the church’s vision, since that would be what is true. Exclude the church from the process and you likely exclude the church from the realization of the vision.

Shouldn’t the church follow their leaders? Yes, but shouldn’t the leaders care what the church is feeling and wants? Shouldn’t the work of the Spirit among the members be as valued as the work of the Spirit among the staff?

Isn’t this just a whole lot of trouble? Without a doubt. But by going to this much trouble, the elders and staff build a bond of love and trust that will carry them a very long way. Now some elderships and some staffs have so much political capital (goodwill) built up over the years that the church will give them the benefit of the doubt and follow whatever vision they lay out. But this kind of capital does not come quickly or easily — and is better spent on other things. That is, political capital is finite — and you’d better not waste it. In other words, given a choice of creating goodwill or using up goodwill, why not create it?

Of course, many elderships and many church staffs don’t have the experience or training to pull this sort of thing off on their own. It’s not that hard, but it’s outside of our experience. The solution is to —

  • Include “lay” members who have this kind of experience or training.
  • Talk to the leaders of other churches who’ve done this.
  • Hire a consultant.
  • Buy a book.

I’d strongly suggest 1 first and then 2.

Now, notice that you really need to have done Discipline 2 (Give ownership to the church) in order to accomplish Discipline 1 (Everyone has a job). Otherwise, changing a church from “jobs aren’t required” to “jobs are required” will come across as high handed and harsh. But if the congregation rises up and declares that this is what we want, it’s not high handed at all. It’s the leaders’ submitting to the will of the congregation. It makes all the difference in the world.

But Discipline 2 doesn’t create mutual love to the same extent as Discipline 1. It’s working side by side with other members, for other members, that teaches love. But I believe that if the church is given the opportunity to ask for what it wants, they will want to be led in a healthy direction — but it’s the role of the elders to guide the process and thwart efforts to take the church in a consumerist, entitled direction.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to The Mission of the Church: Wrapping Up, Part 5 (Community Disciplines, Part 1)

  1. Mark says:

    I am a Rotarian and when we ask for volunteers, the events are typically on Saturday or Sunday and there may be multiple time slots and one can volunteer for a few hours or all day. That said, in Rotary, all Rotarians are equal. When one man, Dr. John Sever of NIH, himself a Rotarian, proposed attempting to eradicate polio worldwide, no one told him he couldn’t. Some wondered how it would be eradicated worldwide, but many people went along and Rotary raised lots of money. This project has gone on for 30+ years and polio is almost eradicated. Rotary says it only take one person with an idea and the person does not have to be in leadership.

    Sadly, in some churches there was/is still a distinction made between members. I felt like there were different classes of church member based on age, gender, marital status, parental status, etc. It almost felt like there were different classes of Christian. That needs to go away.

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