By Eddie Pipkin

Did you ever have one of those forms to fill out where they ask you to write an answer in that sequence of boxes, one letter per box, but your answer is too long to fit in the number of boxes they provide?  What do you do?  Ignore the boundaries of the boxes, overwriting them so you can get your 13 letters in the 10 spaces?  Did you ever have one of those forms where they ask you to write down your email address, and they leave a blank line to fill in, but the blank is minuscule, and your email address is long?  Do you revert to micro-script, cramming teeny letters into an impossible space?  I fear that, too often, that’s exactly the kind of experience that people have when they are trying to find their place in the local church.  We ask them lots of (sincere) questions, but we like them to keep their answers short and conformed to a limited number of options.

We routinely stress the value of spiritual gifts and the individual nature of “God’s call” on each of our lives, but what we are really hoping is that people feel gifted and called to fit into the system of ministry we have so carefully crafted.  We need them to be gifted and called within our framework.  I think this is one of the unspoken factors in the ongoing struggle to keep church relevant for people (especially young people – I’m sure you’ve seen the latest Pew Center research).  In a world in which people have more options than ever for self-actualization, owning their own spiritual development and exploring that development in an unhindered fashion thanks to new technology and an increasing freedom from social judgment, the local church can be a constricting environment.

Because we live, professionally speaking, by planning and executing programs and events, we tend to guide our interactions with people by constantly recruiting them to be a part of attending, leading, and supporting the programs and events in which we are so deeply invested.

We define engagement by participation in our programs and events.  We define commitment by a person’s support of programs and events (monetarily and with volunteer hours).  We define spiritual growth by progress through a sequence of programs and events.

Obviously, the program and event organization structure – which also, traditionally, requires the ownership and maintenance of dedicated facilities to host the programs and events – is a time-honored, highly successful approach.  It’s hard to even imagine the concept of “church” without it.  It’s not going away.  It gives structure to the whole thing: a structure in which people can find community, grow, and accomplish great things together.  But the structure should not put a straitjacket on individual enlightenment at the expense of the preservation of the structure.  The structure itself should not become the priority over the growth and empowerment of individual souls.

Discipleship has an implicit connection with “joining” and conformity.  It means being a part of a very special team, and churches attract people who enjoy being a part of a team.  Even as new modes of worship and new models of congregations have burst forth in the past few decades, they have, for the most part, replaced the old conformity with a new and often just as meticulously developed new conformity.  That’s why I will sometimes identify the current, hip model of praise worship as the “neo-traditional” service.  From congregation to congregation, across the nation, worship increasingly looks like it came out of an institutional cookie cutter.  Sure, worship looks dramatically different than it did 30 years ago, but from hip church to hip church, the new worship elements are so derivative as to be ripe for parody (the ultimate gauge of conformity).

So, is it possible to give people the true freedom to be who God has uniquely called them to be . . . within the framework of the events and programs that give our ministry structure and direction?

Sure it is!  But it involves more work.  It turns out that such a ministry model means we have to think of the people in our circle as individuals rather than as groups of volunteers, groups of ministry customers, or groups of junior leaders.  Such a model requires many more in-depth conversations, many more individualized options, and many more empowered leaders at various levels of our ministry organization.  Such a model requires better questions and much more space for the answers that follow.  It requires that we care more about those answers and the people who provide them than we care about our programs and events themselves.

The events and programs should serve the people and not the other way around.

Kind of like what Jesus said about the Sabbath.  In Jesus’ time, the Sabbath was a sacred event which had evolved to include literally thousands of specific technical rules which defined one’s appropriate engagement and enthusiastic support.  Jesus observed that these rules of engagement had begun to overshadow the very people they had been created to benefit in the first place.  Instead of leading people to healing and wholeness, they had become tools for keeping people from healing and spiritual progress.

Jesus did not advocate throwing out the Sabbath!  He also did not advocate throwing out the laws which had guided the people of God for millenia.  He didn’t even directly argue for the replacement of the organizational structures which had defined the ways that leadership functioned.  He definitely, however, invited a re-imagining and reformation of how all those elements interacted, and his emphasis was clearly on individuals and how God’s grace was relative and transformative in their lives.

What does this mean for those of us who lead ministry?  Our explore these themes with more specific details in next week’s “Part 2” on this topic.

  • It means we move from a “them-to-us” model to an “us-to-them” model of conversation and engagement.
  • It means we ask better questions and we listen more sincerely to the answers.
  • It means we tweak the ways we evaluate success.
  • It means we train leaders differently.
  • It means we are fiercely entrepreneurial in our ministry approach.
  • It means we are re-committed to the power of humility.
  • It means we leverage the astonishing power of technology to offer people more and better options to individualize their spiritual journey.

I hope you are curious to join me on this exploration.  I recently had a conversation with a 20-something, sincere in her pursuit of a life lived in relationship with Jesus, but frustrated with her options.  She is no whiner.  She’s not a snowflake.  She understands that institutions, worldwide and local, are imperfect.  She understands that she is definitely imperfect.  But she wants to feel free to be who God has called her to uniquely be — she absorbed that message we church leaders gave her — without having to give up her sense of self to prove her fidelity to the events and programs of the individual churches that are actively recruiting her.

She knows she has a gift for leadership, but what if she doesn’t want to lead the annual pumpkin patch or VBS?  Are these her only options?  She knows she had a gift for teaching, but is her only option to be shoe-horned into the traditional course offerings on Wednesday nights or Sunday mornings?  And heaven help her if she’d like to teach something different but doesn’t really know what that different looks like.  There is no good system at all for helping her explore options and alternatives  — on this count, most local churches have a serious deficit of imagination.  She also has a gift of music, but she doesn’t fell like her niche is the worship music team.  What other options does she have to faithfully serve the Lord and still feel connected to her local family of believers?

The young lady in this example is obviously abnormally gifted!  But her dilemma is not unique.  There are plenty of people out there who want to serve and grow and feel stuck in their pursuit of their goals.  Next week we’ll start unpacking some of the challenges faced by this young disciple and the local church that really would like to help her along on her journey.

What do you see as the legitimate frustrations that are keeping people away from church?  How do you see our obsession with events and programs keeping from spiritual growth and maturity?  Do you wish you had more time to develop (and respond to) deep conversations with individuals about their own spiritual walk?  As always, share your comments!