May 3, 2017

Part 3: Lessons from a Lazy Pastor

Maybe I’m just a lazy pastor, but there have been opposite reactions to my two posts so far on the way the pace and complexity of modern Western culture is affecting church, not least of all the issue of less regular attendance.

The reactions have ranged from “Phew!” to “But aren’t we in danger of being lazy?”

Our biggest stumbling block to change is the perceived need for a quick fix solution – to get on and do something.  That is completely the wrong approach, but we fall for it every time.  Perhaps I am a lazy pastor.   Because I have decided to get on and not do something, in fact to not do a whole lot of somethings, and then keep searching for somethings not to do.

Conferences and books often promote quick fixes – the do somethings, the “won’t somebody think of the children?” approaches. And if they don’t promote them per se, the medium is so tightly bound to the message, that the response to a kick-butt conference or best-selling book is “Quick, let’s fix it!”

Time-poor pastors are often suckers for the quick fix, either due to our drivenness and insecurities, or our desperate need to arrest both the slide in regular attendance, and the “thinness” of their congregants’ commitment.   On top of this many of us fear that people might think we are being lazy.

Our default then is to add whatever the latest thing is to our already burgeoning schedule instead of taking away.  And the result, sadly and ironically, can be that the problem is compounded rather than resolved.

The desire for the quick fix completely underestimates the time frame and conditions under which the problem occurred in the first place in our culture; the challenges of late modernity; the complexities of what Charles Taylor calls our “cross-pressured existence”, in which our secular frame pushes people to the extremes of belief and non-belief, tiring us out and making us feel adrift and alone in our own settings.

Let’s fact it, this thing didn’t happen over night.  The church ship, drifting on these dangerous cultural tides, will need to be turned away from the rocks slowly.  Sudden movements can tip the boat and cause sea-sickness.  Busying ourselves up with church to counter the culture,  doing more in order to squeeze out and resist the cultural push, is a hard habit to break.  As all bad habits are.

Take playing tennis as an example.  If you are an average to good tennis player, you may decide to get yourself a coach to improve your game.  Your immediate thought is that you need to add to your game to make it better.

But a perceptive coach will not simply build on the bad habits you have, or paper over the cracks of your weaknesses.  He or she will first deconstruct your game, taking away the bad habits; the ingrained postures and plays you have built into your game that are limiting it.  All of these hinder you from taking your game to the next level. It would be foolish to bring them with you.  You must jettison them. And this will take time.

Your tennis problem is not simply one of “deficit”, but of acquired bad habits that, if left unchecked, will nullify any of the good your coach is trying to build in to your game.

The result, unsurprisingly, but to your initial dismay, is that for a while your game seems to get worse, not better.  At this point you will be tempted to throw it in.  But give it time. Slowly, imperceptibly, your game will improve.  The fun will come back, and your new game will leave your old game in the shade.

But you have to be brave.  You have to trust the process over time. You have to constantly turn your back on the old and refuse to cobble a game together in a “new wine/old wineskins” manner.

That is exactly what I am suggesting when it comes to church.  Now I know many of you will be sick of books and movements over the past fifteen years that have pretty much said “junk the way you are doing church and do it …XYZ way.”  I don’t blame you.  I went down that rabbit hole too and ended up doing a “deep house” model of church.

But guess what?  All we ended up doing was junking the method of doing church and leaving the idol of busyness intact. We merely swapped one form of Evangelical Busianity for another form of it.

My own experience has been a salutary lesson. The way we ended up doing house church in the UK worked against anyone who had a full time job, or who lived a typical suburban life.  This just didn’t fit the ninja-style church model on offer, a model that was going to do what other models had failed to do.

Predictably enough it ended up with a two tiered system: first class Christians who got it and were kicking evangelistic butt, and those who were on the fringes, with difficult jobs and a long commute; who were, nevertheless constantly called to give up more and move closer to the centre of town or do more.  And that was all regardless of the solid reformed theology coming from the front that preached grace. Sound familiar?

What at first looked like a solution did not jettison the  “must do/have to” attitudes and drivenness that got us into trouble in the first place.  Nothing really changed.  Meanwhile the cultural pressures kept pressing us tighter and tighter.  The result was that the language used to describe who we were got further and further away from the reality of who we actually were!  No one could live up to the ninja Christian thing, despite the linguistic fictions we employed to convince ourselves.

So I’m not suggested a radical overhaul at all. That’s a blind alley. I am suggesting a radical reduction. And it’s the radical reduction that puts the fear of “a false” god into the hearts of evangelicals. Sorry to say it folks, but it’s true. There’s a whole evangelical industry out there just waiting for you to busy yourself up.  It’s in the very air when you walk into a Christian conference or bookshop.

For our church here in Perth, Providence Church in Midland, we made the considered decision that first, like that tennis coach, we are going in to deconstruction mode.  Now by that I don’t mean theological deconstruction along the lines of a Brain McLaren or a Rob Bell (Deepak Chopra’s new poster boy btw), but of ecclesiastical deconstruction.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the Chinese church at the start of the cultural revolution.  The church suddenly found itself on the margins and under pressure.  What did they decide to do as they went forward?  To delete everything that was not necessary for their survival.

Did the church in China manage to survive the Cultural Revolution? It has triumphed over it.  Not through political power, cultural power, or even structural power.  It triumphed over it in part – in terms of the flesh at least – by deciding to run lean, and delete everything that was not necessary.  And part of what was not necessary was the Western understanding of what life had to look like.

Our church has decided to run lean.  For a start we decided that in the modern West, the month is the new week.  Do you get that?  The month is the new week.  Go on, try it. Check how a month works in your life. Pace it.  See where it ebbs and flows.  Then see how much that mirrors what a week looked like several decades ago.

Now, the only “must” for us on a weekly basis is gathering as church.  We do that Sunday afternoons.  It’s an uncomplicated affair and it’s completely predictable and quite strongly liturgical.  We sing (we have a few good musicians, but utilise only a handful per week with a completely stripped back music team); we pray at various times, we have a sermon, we do communion every week; we spend time afterwards talking, having a coffee together and praying for people who ask for prayer.    The service lasts for an hour and twenty minutes, but people stay for at least another 90 minutes.  I have to kick them out to lock up.

Here’s another thing we don’t do.  We don’t fall in to the trap of expecting non-trained people to take hours to do what trained people can do quickly, easily and as part of their job.  So we don’t get our congregants to lead the service.  As pastors we do that.  Time and time again we hear from people that they are stressed or worried about getting service leading right, especially if they are the song leader.  We just take that out of their hands.

Our role as pastors is not to get them to do our jobs better, but to equip them for life in Babylon Monday through Saturday.   The irony is, that in saying we believe everyone is a priest before God, we get them to be a priest in the old way – running a liturgical service, when in reality it means that everything we do is an act of worship as we present our lives to God.

We do have a low-key kids ministry at Providence, but only because some people offered to lead it who could.  At other times we have not run one at all because we haven’t had leaders.  Kids have sat in and done a worksheet or (part) listened to the sermon. We’re not going to make kids church a have-to.

One lady did ask me about how kids church could possibly work if all we did was read the Bible and pray with kids.  It was a well thought out response to some of the things I have said.  She had a word of caution:

I am wary of making kids church ‘a bible story and prayer’ which you alluded to in one of your posts. We need to work out how to teach kids the bible in a Biblical Theological manner. AS Graeme Goldsworthy said (when reflecting on the number of children who went to Sunday school and now don’t attend church) ‘children are often taught a whole range of isolated bible stories, each with its neat little application deemed appropriate to the respective age levels. So much of the application is thus moralising legalism because it is severed from its links to the gospel of grace. By the time many of these children reach their teenage years they have had a belly full of morality, enough, they would think, to last them for the rest of their lives. They thus beat a retreat to live reasonably decent but gospel-less lives’.

All I would say to that is that the reason they live reasonably decent but “gospel-less” lives is probably less to do with what they get taught in a 45 minute class in Sunday School, and more to do with how their parents conduct their own lives, and whether it looks to the children that the gospel their parents profess at church is the gospel they possess at home, in front of the screen, in the day to day interactions of their lives. Pedagogically our parents are our biggest teachers, and the people who most infuse us with our values.  We’ve put too much store, and too much pressure, on kids minstry, and failed to help parents do what Deuteronomy 6 commands parents to do:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

And I’m pretty sure Graeme Goldsworthy would agree that when the Old Testament people of God taught their children the commands of God they were teaching them the gospel in seed form, not moralism.

Apart from that, what else do we do at church?  Apart from that, not much else.We have monthly Pastoral Community Groups; mixed demographic groups hosting a meal or brunch of about twenty people.

These groups each have overseeing families who do a short reading, some prayer, then provide a question people might like to think about and discuss.  If Christians can’t gospel and encourage each other around a meal, and if their leaders can’t model how that happens naturally, then no amount of courses or cajoling will do it.

We also have a once a month prayer meeting to which anyone can attend, during which we pray for church matters, and for our friends who don’t know Jesus.

And that’s it.  That’s all.  Nothing else is required of our people on a monthly basis.  And that’s only six things per month at the most, and only 72 per year, which means once every five days.  Nothing else.

Nothing else, that is, apart from the fact that what we have found is that God’s people want to spend more time together.  They want to meet up one-on-one or in smaller groups to read the Bible. They want to share meals together as Christian families so their kids can hang out. They want to evangelise and help serve in the community in areas such as indigenous health, food distribution, refugee-advocacy and mentoring.   They want to help pastor the growing number of teens with some food, Bible and hang out time on a fortnightly basis. And none of this “want”  is anything that we have scheduled.  None of it.

Why do our people want to do this?  Because they are God’s chosen and redeemed people who, by the power of His Spirit, desire to share the gospel and its fruit with the world. We’re going to trust God to do his work among his people and allow us to shape them without driving them.

When you factor all of those “want” factors, plus some needed leaders meetings etc, what do you have?  You have a much more relaxed way of doing church and life together that starts to slow down the Christian run-away train that, added with the complexities of the rest of their lives, threatens to derail people.

Ironically, it’s not easy.  There are always times – and people – who say “But we’re not doing enough!”  Always people who say “We need to be doing XYZ in order to be faithful to God.”  And the danger is making something that is a “want” and thereby something that people are “free” to do, into a “must” because we have organised it.

A wise young friend of mine, who has been a Christian only a few short years, but has completed a theology in that time, still has a clear window in the evangelical culture, simply because he was not brought up in it.  His thoughts are honest and refreshing:

In my (recent) experience, I’ve found that what is creating pressure, is not only the amount of events and programmes going on, but that they are all (most of them) advertised with the same intensity, and suggesting the same commitment level. What got me thinking about this is Luther’s distinction between a “must” and a “free.” For Luther, when we make a free into a must we are in a dangerous place. And in my context, I’m experiencing bible study, church camp, men’s event, women’s event, all advertised with a feeling of “must” attached. As I see it, the local gathering (once a week) is the must. And the bible study and other things are free. But when all the church events start to come across (from the front) as “musts” this is worrying, and ultimately, exhausting, guilt inducing, joy stealing.

To that end we’re just getting firmer and firmer in saying “no” to good things because we have the toxic ability to turn a “free” into a “must”.  Evangelical culture just seems do default to it.  So we’re getting firmer and firmer at saying to people “Our church doesn’t need that, and if people do want it, they can sort it out themselves and we won’t be baptising it as a church ‘have to.'”  And we police that policy, , announce it constantly, promote it, all in the hope that over time it rubs off.

Someone who constantly needs need more and more events, or pushes a “free” as a “must” can be dangerous. Their concern that we’re not doing enough, signals to me that they are either missing something about the gospel, or they are not realistic about what is going on in their own lives.

When I see this franticness at the start of a year from someone I usually give it to about August (at the latest), before the wheels start to come off.  Busyness at work, sickness, family issues; financial pressures – the usual stuff that is going to happen – puts paid to grand ministry plans.  And if we’d said “yes” to those plans, guess who’d be picking up the pieces? Not them.  There’s be a whole bunch of “frees” that had been turned into “musts” and which now need to be managed or junked.

I dunno.  Maybe I’m just a lazy pastor.  Maybe the idea of doing more simply challenges my laziness.  But I don’t think so.  And I don’t think our people think so either.  I think they find it refreshing.  I think the fact that we have grown exponentially and need to find a larger building soon because we’ve maxed out, says that we’re on to something.

I think the fact that as soon as I turn my back and don’t organise events or don’t allow others to, I hear that a whole bunch of our people are meeting up and praying and helping each other without my intervention.   And I don’t find that confronting.  I find it comforting.

Let’s always leave people wanting more.  Let’s always leave people with space for more. And then let’s leave them to fill in the blanks themselves.

 As comedian Louis CK says “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.  Leave the dude alone, he’ll figure it out.”

Is it working for Providence Midland?  Are we confident that we are turning the ship around?  Ask me in December.  December 2022. For as I said, this thing will take time. The only question we need to ask ourselves as we deconstruct, is whether we are confident enough in God and his gospel to give it the time it requires.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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