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Ministry that Works
Mike Brantley is the speaker for both the North and South Island Baptist Conferences this year. A mentor and coach to empower leaders in church planting, church revitalisation, leader development and change in the twenty-first century, Mike shares some of his own experiences and how they changed his approach to ministry.
When you learn something which completely changes the way you run your church and the results are spectacularly good, you want to share what you learned
Brian McLaren said it best:
"If you have a new world, you need a new church.
You have a new world."1
I sat in my favourite cafe, the Screaming Turtle in Petone. I was in a discussion with Rich Black, a pastor in Upper Hutt, about the challenges we face as church leaders. Rich was sharing his angst over people who come to church with a thirst to know and engage with God, but leave still thirsting. Then he said it: "The way we do church is like running an orphanage. The parents in charge are doing their best, sincerely motivated to make a difference. Yet they can never nurture and love the kids enough to fulfil their longings."
Wow! What a profound analogy. We went on to talk about how leadership models have progressed. We now have lay leaders, team leadership (in some churches) and leaders concerned to be purposeful as they approach the task of leadership. It was this idea of 'purposefulness' that got me thinking.
Some leaders, aware of the missing generation of people in our churches (those under forty, the generations X, Y and the millennials), have worked towards relaxing the atmosphere in their churches and making their worship 'hip and cool' and multi-sensory -- yet something is still missing. People are not coming to know Jesus in any significant numbers. This is not a phenomenon unique to New Zealand. The Church is in decline across the western world. In Europe it is all but invisible now. The UK, Australia and the US are seeing the same trends.
The mega-churches based on the Willow Creek, Saddleback and Hills models are plateauing. These committed pastors admit that almost all growth they are experiencing is through transfers moving in or people leaving other churches. These churches have contributed greatly to helping us make the necessary transitions as western culture evolves faster than we can define it, and I do not at all want to minimise those contributions. We owe them much and we've learned from them.
With that said and understood, what is God saying now about what we are to do and what must change?
few years ago a huge transition took place in my life as a leader. I had tired of the programmatic energy expended in drawing the crowd and wowing them with our cool services and connected small groups. Our awesome worship, culturally cool music, drama and videos, edgy teaching and high standard of training for lay staff had limited impact.
I was thirsty, filled with anxiety, and had an ache in my own heart for more. Was this all there was to ministry? If so, it bored me and I wasn't going to stay in it. Ever been there?
My staff team and I had been to the conferences, all of them! We had seen the latest cutting edge philosophy of ministry. We had come to notice many were simply guessing, hoping and groping (with the best of intentions) for something that would work, "if we could only discover the right equation for ministry -- then people would respond, people would be converted and Christians would want to grow deeper and serve God." Frankly we were becoming cynical.
Then I met Paul, at the urging of two separate friends who thought he would be a person for me to process all of this 'stuff' with. He became my mentor. He was not anxious, not cynical, yet still burdened for people. He didn't claim to hold the secret for my quest -- nor offer easy clipped answers.
But he did listen, he heard me, he encouraged me and he challenged my entire understanding of . . . no, not ministry philosophy, but much deeper. He challenged and uprooted my very understanding of God and of being a follower of Jesus, and as a result dismantled the way I saw leadership.
I will save you the long story because I want you to make it to the end of this article. I will simply share the result. After about a year of regular (approximately monthly) lattese acute or micro-brews with Paul, I began to get a new perspective on myself (who God has created me to be) and my contribution (my calling and where I fit). Paul simply helped draw me out. He helped me recognise what God was doing in me, and consequently what God wanted to do through me.
Treasure, one of our dedicated and gifted interns -- who operated like a humble servant but had the impact of any gifted Spirit-empowered leader -- came into my office. She sat down and asked permission to ask a personal question. Of course I said okay. Then she gave me a compliment, or was it an indictment? She asked what was happening to me.
I looked at her bewildered. She said that I was changing, something was different. I asked if that was good or bad. Her reply was that I should keep going in whatever direction God was taking me. The impact in our ministry did not occur immediately. Yet, as I changed and got perspective, so did others on my staff team, as we dialogued what I was learning.
hat we saw over the next year was substantial. The number of people drawn and belonging to our community grew, the enthusiasm increased, the changing of lives was noticeable. Yet nothing in strategy changed. We still focused on being prepared and holding to quality, we multiplied, empowered and released leaders (a high value for us) and we worked to communicate in a language and cultural method that related to our focus group.
Yes, we continued to work on technique, on being good missionaries in our context, but who we were was much more important than what we did or how we did it. What changed was the whole way God worked in, through and with us; and our love for people soared. Our synergy as a leadership team transformed to humility, prayer and a leadership style that empowered and put courage into people even more.
Okay, I know, it sounds super-spiritual, unquantifiable and what in the world are you supposed to walk away from this article with? That was the reaction of many people. But please hear me out.
We've tried so many techniques, so many methodologies. If we did discover the cool equation for ministry, the culture would be changed by the time it was shared and implemented. Anyone tired of the quest for a 'holy grail' of methodology? Why do we all say we know it isn't the solution, yet run to new methodologies like mosquitoes to the little blue bug zappers?
ast October Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles and author of several books including An Unstoppable Force,2 came to Wellington to speak at the New Life Churches' annual conference. I had truly resonated with Erwin's writings before and thought it a great opportunity to hear him and maybe have a chat. We ended up in conversations each day. In one such off-the-cuff conversation, Erwin and I lamented the limitless examples of people who -- wanting to make an impact for the Kingdom and finding today's situation so complex -- turned to 'experts' who shared what they had learned and experienced. These well-meaning people then returned home with a methodology and tried to apply it piece for piece without contextualising it to their own place, people and time, or taking into account their own gifting and personalities.
Erwin's take on this was interesting. People miss the essence, the ethos, the DNA of what is happening at these great, rare, successful churches, he said. They take the methodology flowing out of the essence, but miss the essence. I understood exactly what he meant.
Being on staff at a major mega-church in Portland, Oregon, we were often exposed to Willow Creek and Saddleback -- both such special places. The way they can get people to actually own the vision, serve sacrificially in myriads of ways and live it out in their lives blows me away. You simply do not find that often in any church. For many reasons most leaders don't look for that essence -- like a cheap thief they take the costume jewellery on the dresser top and miss the priceless core inside.
s I continue to reflect on the changes in my life that caused our congregation to go through such radical expansion and to think through the conversation with Erwin, I want to share what I learned, to help and encourage other leaders who may share some of the angsts that I had. I offer a list that is somehow more than the sum of the items. I hope it helps.
'Be' over 'do', people over programme. We've heard it all before, yet that is exactly what we did. We made 'being' our priority. Someone who witnessed it told me that her foremost recollection was that we cared -- relationships were more important than programmes, even when we were busy.
Walking with God was our first priority. If we were not filled from an on-going relationship with God what would we have to give anyone? Individually and corporately we made prayer a central value. We were not super-holy. In fact, I think our weaknesses shared made us stronger. We got tired and lost that 'spiritual' edge like everyone. Yet we worked to keep our own personal spiritual health at the front.
As a staff team, we had a safe place where we could be less than perfect, share our failures, our struggles and our hurts without judgment. We could reconcile problems and strive to keep our spiritual health ahead of the work of the ministry. It took work, but we tried really hard to make it reality.
Most of us, being very busy with lots of demands upon us, had regular scheduled 'God time' that we blocked out in our diaries. Mine was all of Monday mornings, and then quarterly retreat time for at least a day if not more. This was so refreshing over a period of time. Each leader needs to know his/her rhythm and schedule and find what works best for them.
Empowering Leadership Culture
The empowerment of leaders was central and core to our philosophy of ministry. We saw our role being to make emerging leaders successful. For us, to lead was to step down to servant leadership -- we took the bullets and passed on the praise, so to speak. We wanted to help leaders to be better than we were, to help them contribute far beyond what they thought possible. For example, we sent out four to five lay-led mission teams each year. Though we had multiple staff who could have led the teams we wanted to empower the lay leadership by apprenticing and supporting them. We trusted them to do what we would do. Our ministry-mission teams tended to be international -- even to rural Albania. Lay leaders led them and apprenticed future leaders.
Listen and Overhear
Know, understand, enter, engage and participate in the culture. We made this a high priority. It meant getting out of the Christian ghetto! We made journeying with lost people a necessity. If we do not understand them, we'll speak a foreign language they will not understand. We wanted to speak their language. To do this we intentionally went to cafese acute, sporting events, and places where the people we wanted to reach lived their lives and interacted with other people. Over time these became our normal places to go as well, and we developed a natural skill of listening to understand.
Holistic Leadership Development
We did not merely lead in ministry effectiveness, but in holistic missional health. If a small group leader was having marital, health or ministry problems, we sincerely cared for them -- they mattered. All of life impacts our ministry.
Holistic care and leadership led to community being formed and every one had several people who cared for them, including the paid staff and senior lay staff. There were times when a leader would be overwhelmed with a personal problem, be wounded in the 'ministry fight', or fall to some sin situation. Many ministries we knew of wrote those people off as disqualified or too consuming to focus on.
It was a natural byproduct of our other values that those people remained in our sphere of ministry and we continued to care for them, working not merely to reconcile them to God or to help them overcome a situation, but to restore them to ministry and leadership in proper time -- always with our support and encouragement. This value was caught and lived out by every level of leadership. Most encouraging was that this same commitment, grace and encouragement was extended to us as a staff team.
Brian McLaren wrote an article in 2000 called "Leadership by Dorothy"3 where he recognises changes in our culture that require leaders to be fellow sojourners, sharing the journey not as experts, but as those also travelling, also learning, also vulnerable -- but yet leading. This is how we led.
Our people saw all my faults -- sometimes to my shame -- yet they gave me the grace I extended to them. That made all the difference in their lives and gave them the courage to give things a go. They knew we were with them, learning and growing too. There was permission not to be perfect, and there was always support to improve.
We were very aware of our target people group and we took being missionaries to that culture very seriously. Also, our methodology flowed out of who we were in that context. We developed our methods from these two realities.
Sure, we knew and understood several other successful models and programmes from the bestseller lists. None of them reflected us entirely. We learned from many things they did, but they did not dictate or shape us. That process was sculpted over time in journey together. This included morphing how we did ministry as we continued to learn as well as when staff changes occurred. Some new staff leaders needed time and help to grow into a position, or brought different contributions to their predecessors.
Willingness to embrace change
We experienced a morphing of our passion. We longed to see lost people saved, so we were willing to forego our own need for security, certainty and predictability. The value that emerged was that of 'change'. While holding to our core convictions, we knew that we would need to continually morph our structure and how we did much of our ministry and programming. Once we embraced this value the needed changes occurred much more easily, with much less resistance.
One example was using alternative Christian bands for outreach. We drew in some of the best-known labels, but after a while we discovered that they were simply drawing Christians from the metro area, not really being used as a tool by our Christians to expose and cultivate the next step with their non-Christian friends. So we cut them, even though they drew several thousand people and were a cash cow after the bills were paid.
f I were leading that same congregation now, I'd be many times more willing and ready to engage change and experiments. Thom Rainer, author of Surprising Insights from the Unchurched,4 surveyed churches which are effectively reaching lost people as well as churches that are not. Surprisingly, he found that people in churches which reach lost people value and accept change, while 76% of those in churches that don't reach lost people do not like or accept change easily. In the discontinuous world we live in today, change is an imperative norm.
We can't simply continue to do church as we always have. I'm not talking about watering anything down; on the contrary, I'm talking about the radical move from comfortably exegeting God's Word to actually obeying it. Our problem is not understanding God's Word; it is integrating it into the daily lives we live. We must transition from a people who worship God to worshippers who follow him, recklessly.
We must embrace the reality that we live in an era of Post Christianity, a culture that is relativistic and postmodern. We are in an era more akin to the exilic or post-exilic period than the Kingdom era. We have more in common with Ezra and the returnees from exile, along with the Church in the first century, than we do with the Church of 50 years ago. The post-exilic Jews and the first century Church founded themselves on values and living authentically by those values. This approach has nothing to do with which church growth philosophy or nationality you claim.
It is time to see ourselves as missionaries in our own culture, to understand our culture anew, to set our hearts to walk with, hear from and radically obey our Lord in reaching this very secular and lost society we live in. We must abandon the 'anchored security' of 'how we've always done church' and begin to discover how to be the church missionally in the twenty-first century.
Extensive structural, programmatic and technique/methodology changes will be required. Yet these come second to a paradigm shift in how we lead and see our role in ministry. We need a missional church, one where every person in our community of faith is equally involved, owning the mission to reach the people in their lives. The corporate impact the church makes must be second to the impact ordinary saints make with people already in their lives.
hat I am calling for is that we make sacrificial committed relationships with lost people, where we daily share our common life, love them recklessly and unconditionally and have an ongoing conversation with them about God. For our people to own this we must model it. Programmatic contributions can only be effective in concert with such an approach. I urge and encourage every leader to consider my argument and wrestle with the implications for how we define and do church.