Last week Jonny passed around an article about a well-known Dallas megachurch pastor whose church is becoming an association rather than one main church and its satellites. Tim Keller’s church did the same in New York. Apparently, talking heads wear out and the church reverts back to being more of a church than a “site” for info distribution.
The devolution of the megachurches made me wonder how we are doing. We’re not quite “mega,” but we are “multi.“ Five congregations are a lot. When the pastors were on retreat last week, their love was so notable, it was amazing, so five does not seem like too many. But it is a lot. We are bucking the trend by staying unified – one church crossing the geographic boundaries of our split-up metro. But are we bucking it enough?
Eight years ago, I wrote a blog post called “What holds this church together?” It was in response to a person who had seen a few places fall apart and wondered if we were likely to do the same. I gave an answer at one of the meetings that pre-dated “doing theology” times and someone said “Every time you talk about this, you use the words ‘relational, love, incarnational,’ but I end up not knowing a lot more.”
So I tried again. And I want to try yet again to think it all through now that we are years older, hundreds bigger, and even more diverse than we were then. So I added some new comments to the original post in red.
Most of what I think is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
“[Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of [people] in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
What holds us together?
The Son of God, love, building ourselves and each other up. What Paul said.
More specifically, here are five ways we apply the scripture, with just one example each that demonstrates how we do it. (You might want to comment with some more.)
1) We assume people are not infants…
(or at least are not destined to be so). They are gifted and relevant. Jesus is in them to bring fullness and unity.
We expect our Cell Leaders to work out our agreements and follow our very general plan. We do not tell them what to do each week; they are not given a curriculum.
This is still true. But sometimes it looks like our leaders are a little tired of making it happen. We are infected with MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism) and other spiritual maladies that often undermine our radical assumptions. But we still multiply cells and they still make community and development possible in a spiritually arid climate.
2) The pastors and other leaders are relentless about contrasting the deceitfulness of the philosophies of the age with Jesus. We know
we are a “ship of fools”
as far as the deluded world is concerned.
You may have noticed that we are not an “emerging church,” we are not “postmodern.” We tend to rail against modernism, too and a couple of weeks ago I took a swipe at Facebook and the immortality of the soul in the space of a few minutes.
I think we are still on the same boat. The older people get, however, the less inclined they are to sail on a ship of fools. Many would rather have a good school for their kids and a backyard somewhere. We are a very inclusive bunch, so we include some people who are not on board with our radical ideas right off. Sometimes there is a contest for who is steering the ship.
3) Dialogue is practiced.
Speaking the truth in love is an organizing discipline; not just a personal aspiration.
Our yearly Map-making is an extravagant exercise in taking what people say seriously and encouraging them to say it.
I think this is a strong suit. Dialogue and healthy conflict, even, are in our DNA and it is noticeable. That does not mean people don’t fight unfairly and tear relationships up, sometimes, it means that we have a lot of resilience when it comes to relating and we direct people to the proper ways to overcome what often divides other churches to shreds.
4) We think of ourselves as a body with Jesus as the head,
not a mechanism with a set of instructions for “how it works.”
The hardest thing to understand is being an organism. Right now we have planted the seeds of another congregation and we are watching to see if it will grow. We also have a congregation in Camden that is stretching out roots. We have methods, but they won’t replace Jesus causing the growth.
People still don’t understand “being an organism” right off, but I think our leaders generally do. We persist in being an odd “institution” who are quite aware that we are flawed but loving people who are in it together or we won’t have anything to be in at all. If Jesus does not build us, we have little to fall back on.
5) We assume that we will fall apart if people do not love each other,
and promote such dissolution.
Some astute historian told me that such an idea is so 70’s — well, 90’s, too. I think it is central to what Jesus is giving is. As Paul says elsewhere, “Nothing matters but faith working itself out through love.” People come to the leaders quite often with a great idea for mission (and I mean often and great). We send them back to create a mission team. If you can’t team, your idea can’t matter. Sometimes teams don’t have the devotion and want the “church” to take over their idea, we let them die.
This conviction is so painfully realistic that cell leaders are loathe to let their cell die until it just caves in. Periodically we need to sweep through our teams to see if they are alive or just a wishful thought. But I think we are still committed to be what Jesus generates and not a program with slots well-meaning people should fill.
My dear friend was in wonder that we do not fall apart. Now that I have sketched out why we don’t, so am I. Jesus must be behind it. On a human level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And we keep on going. In the past year we started an new congregation, installed new pastors, started the Good Business Oversight Team, who are starting two new businesses, mobilized because black lives matter, advocated for immigrants and solar energy, and that is just getting started. I think Jesus is our Head and the body is building itself up in love as each part does its work.