I have come to believe there is no biblical blueprint for church life and church organization, any more than there is a blueprint for the Holy Spirit of the Christ who is the beginning and end of the Church, who “is before all things, and (in whom) all things hold together”. Jesus himself said to one seeking a definitive answer to a similar question, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Indeed, God’s word seems so plain and clear when it comes to describing the spiritual aspects of the Christian life, yet becomes like the famed Rorschach inkblot test when it comes to matters of organization and structure. Each reader, with great sincerity and often certitude, tends to “project” onto the scriptures all his needs, longings, aspirations, biases, fantasies, opinions, experiences, fears, and maybe a few personal demons too!
As Christian leaders, I think there are a lot of burning issues in the Church, which can consume our attention. In facing these issues, the temptation can be great to give in to fear, rather than rely on prayer. This is especially true because we feel there is so much at stake. Yet, isn’t one very real need always the need for spiritual leaders who are inspired and inspiring, encouraged and encouraging? I know for me, there are indeed things about I care deeply, and so do we all. I hold dear a vision of what the body of Christ can and should be, and what its leaders might be, as well. These are a few of those thoughts.
A POSITIVE VISION OF THE CHURCH:
(a) The church maturing. My vision for the church is one where each and every member is devoted first and foremost to Christ, not simply to Christ’s mission, nor primarily to Christ’s body, certainly not to leaders, to tenets or to methods, but to Christ himself. Each disciple is maturing to the point where he learns to stand firm, in his walk and his beliefs, whether surrounded by many or by few, whether enjoying “a long period of peace” and being “highly regarded by the people” or undergoing “a great persecution”. No more “what do we believe about…?”, or “where do we stand on…?”, or “why don’t they do such and such…?”, or “how are we different from other churches…?” Instead, each believer will, as the old hymn goes, “know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.”
In the maturing church, a leader’s role is simply to teach, admonish and inspire his brothers with that end in view, like a mother or father nurturing and training their children so that one day they will no longer require such parenting but will be able to live life fully as independent adults and, in many ways, as peers to these very parents. Someone once said “if you love somebody, set them free”, and I wonder if leaders’ fears, their need to stay relevant and a false sense of importance have all kept them from desiring, even longing deeply for and, therefore, “laboring powerfully” toward such a mature body of saints, one who no longer needs to be “taken by the hand and led”.
Perhaps the plainest truth and the one easiest to lose, especially through the lens of leadership, is that the Church is very simply the Church, that curious, but somehow glorious “chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, and people belonging to God,” destined to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”. When we spend so much time talking about how much staff we can afford, how the staff should be distributed, what roles staff should have relative to each other, we can lose sight of the fact that “leadership” is certainly not limited to staff and that the church is capable with or without each of us, able to grow, able to love, able to serve, able to minister to a dying world, able to learn through mistakes. In fact, our narrow view of leadership often holds back this process.
Picture for a minute Jesus ascending to heaven, picture Paul waving goodbye from the road to one of the many churches of believers he had planted a few short months before his departure, picture John writing from exile to a flailing group of churches about to undergo the greatest tribulation yet. What went through their minds? Surely they wondered how these children in the faith would survive spiritually. Surely they doubted for an instant whether there really would be any “glory in the church” lifted up to the Father. Jesus, at least, must have known that the church 2000 years later not only would look so different, but actually would need to look so different. Surely, he knew that 2 millennia of Christian thought and experience, of inspiring victories and spectacular failures, of heart moving selflessness and spirit chilling wickedness, all in His Church, would mature it.
I am not original in noticing that the organization of the church was constantly evolving in the short 60 years that the New Testament covers. It was evolving and diverse, never static, never fixed. Patriarchal apostles gave way to pioneering evangelists who, in time, established mature elders. Well, it does get fuzzy after that. Elders were divided into monarchical bishops and presbyteries composed of a plurality of “lesser” elders. Prophets and healers, miracle workers and tongue speakers all seemed to go the way of the buffalo. But, of course, that was all after the New Testament. The point is simple: when the only example we have is of an ever-evolving, ever-maturing Church, why are we so intent in “restoring” a mythical structure or organizational scheme, one that presumably was “sealed” forever in the writings of the apostles, one that should remain static and dogmatic?
I think the church of tomorrow will need to be less preoccupied with the organizational chart, the format of assemblies, the way the church looks, but much more concerned with the spirit and spiritual health of the church.
(b) The church Spiritual. My vision for the church is one where the Spirit is given His due. Where “obedience” to Christ is first and foremost defined as a total surrender to and possession by the Spirit of Christ. Where we trust more the Spirit that gave birth to our fresh ideas than either our ideas or our own abilities. Where we listen to the Spirit’s movements, rather than put our confidence in our “movement” or trust our methods. Where we believe, when faced with decisions, that the Spirit will speak clearly if we will still ourselves and listen, learning not to speak so much, act so much and fret so much. Where, as individuals, we not only do our best to capitulate daily, even hourly to the direction of the Spirit, but also call each other to do the same.
To be sure, Jesus did talk of obedience, enjoining people to “hear these words of mine and put them into practice”; he also warned that he would some day tell many do-gooders that “I never knew you; away from me, you evil doers”. But, “these words” of obedience, in that glorious sermon, all referred to the heart, to the inner man, to the attitudes behind the actions, not the actions themselves, as He said himself “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” Thus, obedience defined by a few actions will never and could never define those who are His, and therefore should never become that which defines us as a body.
In the Spiritual Church, each Christian, would be compelled by “Christ’s love” and “empowered” by (rather than pushed, coerced, passively led, or otherwise directed by) its leaders. The members of the Church would joyfully, willingly, and freely contribute their gifts, those given them individually and collectively by the measure of God’s grace to the body of believers and the brotherhood of man. Above all, this gift sharing would be Spiritual, literally led by and moving like the Spirit, in keeping with Jesus’ own words, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” It took me years to notice that it is the Spirit filled disciple, not the Spirit himself, who moves unpredictably and unexpectedly like the wind! How exciting is that? Exciting, yet scary; too scary for any leader who finds confidence in being in control, like a captain steering his ship, in being able to chart and predict the course, in being competent to provide the answers to others’ questions.
Let’s be honest. As leaders, we have been and still are afraid of really turning members loose, of trusting them to find their way (not without any teaching, encouragement or example, of course), for fear of apostasy, for fear the whole thing will take one dramatic wrong turn and head into disaster. The key word is “fear”, fear versus faith, fear versus entrusting ourselves to God who is able, fear versus, like Paul, having “great confidence” and taking “great pride in” the average disciple.
(c) The church committed. Finally, my vision for the Church is one where each member is wholeheartedly committed, fully engaged, having truly in his “heart set apart Christ as Lord”, “eager to do what is good”, devoted to the body. No doubt, that is what every disciple desires. The questions are (a) how is such commitment defined or recognized, and (b) how is it attained? This is where scientific psychology and biblical truth converge.
Self-determination theory distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. (These words may not speak to you; you may simply wish to think of “intrinsic” as heart-motivated, and, “extrinsic” as people-motivated). The former is motivation by enjoyment of the activity itself, apart from external consequences. In its truest form, spirituality is entirely intrinsic, as the Christian has internalized the heart of Christ and is thereby motivated to do what he does. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is driven by the possibility of obtaining a reward outside of the satisfaction of doing the activity itself or by the threat of a potential punishment for failure. This is particularly relevant to church commitment (for instance attendance, evangelism, or giving).
Research has, in fact, found that three factors are related to intrinsic motivation: a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness1. In addition, there is now considerable evidence that introducing external sources of motivation (extrinsic rewards like praise or recognition, and external punishments like a constant dose of “should” preaching warning of dire consequences) for behaviors that were previously intrinsically motivated actually decreases the intrinsic motivation, so that when the external consequences are removed, the desired behavior ceases 1.
Autonomy. In order to sustain intrinsic, or heart, motivation, Christians must feel a sense of autonomy, in other words that the “origin” of their behavior is from within, from their own relationship with God. “Pressure and attempts at coercing compliance, such as through excessive rules or elaborations of acceptable conduct” 2 while possibly effective in producing immediate change of behavior undermine intrinsic motivation. Emphasizing free choice and giving opportunities to influence how things are done both enhance this sense of autonomy. Delineation of minimum expectations of members, and a call for strong preaching that lays out very specific requirements or challenges are neither bad, and, in fact can bring about observable change, but, such emphases may also weaken the self-motivation needed for sustained spiritual transformation.
Of course, such autonomy is all over the Bible: “choose this day whom you will serve”, “choose life and not death”, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices”, “we make it our goal to please him” and “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” We could be so bold as to say that the ONE thing God does in fact want from us is our free will, considered choice to follow Him. He hardly needs the love we give him in keeping with that choice, nor does he depend on the labor that is prompted by that choice, nor is He impressed with the spiritual growth that follows that choice. He just wants us to choose Him, His ways, His grace, His Lordship.
Autonomy does not mean humanistic self-direction; we need the Scriptures and the Spirit to guide us. Autonomy does not mean fierce independence; we need a community to shape and form us from childhood onward. Autonomy does not mean selfishness; we are a cruciform people called to live sacrificial lives. Autonomy simply means freely chosen and driven by an inner desire.
Competence. Motivation is further enhanced by a sense of competence. Disciples need to feel they have something to contribute that is needed in order to develop internally motivated spiritual behavior. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” We cannot dream of church-wide biblical commitment as long as we limit each Christian’s ability to use his gifts for the greater good. And talking about it will not suffice. Leaders must at all cost learn to defer to those who have greater gifts in certain areas and to delegate, in truth, without needing to closely oversee, guide or direct. We cannot allow our love for the church and our earnest desire to see things go well drive us to stay involved in every decision, to personally manage every matter. The elders first, then the evangelists, must lead the way in learning to remove themselves, purposefully and wisely, from being involved in everything.
Additionally, Christians need an atmosphere that fosters growth, with lessons and study groups that challenge them to go deeper, as well as fellowship that calls them higher. Our sense of competence and, accordingly, our level of investment are proportional to the degree to which we see ourselves growing, maturing, and developing. Twenty percent of the members of one congregation signed up for a class to learn elementary New Testament Greek! While the time of the class and the choice of teacher were undoubtedly factors in some people’s choice, the fact remains that disciples long to be challenged deeply. They desire to grow, to become more spiritually “competent”. We must facilitate that and not let our lack of preparation, our lack of depth, our lazy theology, our preaching geared toward “instant result” stifle that desire.
Relatedness. Finally, a sense of relatedness is key to intrinsic motivation, which has to do with caring for others and feeling cared for. The Church is above all a family and must feel and function like one; being in a family does our heart good! Scripture itself instructs “the household of God” to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” The absence of genuine, deep, intimate, enduring, connected relationships in the body is, in my opinion, one of our root problems today and surely rises as a collective sigh or cry to heaven. People feel lonely in the midst of a crowd because their relationships are too superficial to be depended on in times of crisis, are too ephemeral to produce the safety needed for the fearless and complete revealing of oneself, are too distant to be spiritually healing.
Enhancing family begins with each leader involving himself daily in the lives of his people, refusing to hide behind platitudes such as “I cannot be best friends with everyone in my ministry”, refusing to accept the “sucker’s choice” 3 that either one must lead through others, raising up leaders, or one gets involved personally, intimately and over time, however long it takes, in the lives of the weakest and most troubled brothers and sisters. Leaders must refuse to be emotionally, intellectually and spiritually side-tracked by meetings, philosophizing about models, and managing financial or practical matters of the church.
In summary, a healthy vision for the church involves a functioning family, where individual Christians are trusted and empowered to use their unique gifts and bring their singular vision into body life. Where teaching is rich and Bible centered, aimed toward stimulating maturity, passion for Scripture, and depth of conviction, rather than limited to the handing down of definitive positions and conclusions on various issues or doctrines. Where preaching is moving, challenging, Christ focused, and designed to “fan into flame the gift of God” which lies within each Christian. Where leaders avoid the temptation of shortcuts that rely on external motivation for the sake of quick change and tangible results. Where everything is done to foster genuine, sincere, lasting, spiritual friendships among members, with caution not to undermine these relationships by constant “reshuffling” of small groups and an excess focus on producing external change at the expense of grace-filled acceptance.
1 E.M. Deci, R. Koestner, R.M. Ryan, “A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation”, Psychological Bulletin, 125 (6), 627-668
2 Baard, “A motivational model for consulting with not-for-profit organizations: a study of church growth and participation”, Consulting Psychology Journal, Summer 1994, 19-31
3 K. Patterson, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high. 2002, McGraw Hill, NY, NY. pp. 37-39