Saturday, July 25, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong, Part 15

Family As Primary Image of Church, Continued

Many of the practical, how-to questions people ask about simplifying church can be answered best when we think of church in family terms instead of organizational terms. If we just think of church as family, then it isn’t so hard to figure out how to meet as church. Just do things the way family does things. Here come the examples.

“What do you do about money and finances and giving in simple church?"

The answer I’ve come to embrace is that we handle such things the same way a healthy family does. That means we live within our means. It also means that we do not overspend in order to indulge ourselves. We try to have something left in order to give away to meet the needs of others. This applies to both our time and our money. When it comes to meeting the needs of others, we meet the needs that God puts right in front our faces to the best of our ability with what God has given us. We do not go looking for some worthy far away cause that needs our money. But we do recognize real financial needs that present themselves to us in the course of everyday life. Much like a healthy family, simple churches talk openly and honestly about money. If we have financial problems, we discuss them. If someone in the family (either biological or spiritual family) is doing something to harm us financially, we have to speak the truth in love. We hold on to our possessions loosely and are always available to help meet needs. Yet we do not enable blatant waste by our generosity. All of this is similar to how healthy families operate with their finances.

“What do you do with kids in organic church?”

The answer really is, we do the same thing with our kids that healthy families do with their kids, which is that we readjust everything for our kids! Or, more accurately, we adjust almost everything to accommodate our kids. That is exactly what families do. Think about it.

Before we had children, my wife and I used to go on weekend trips at the drop of a hat. Every Friday night was date night – out to dinner, a movie, a game, etc. Then we would repeat the process on Saturday night, if we had the money to do so. Holidays and vacations were for going someplace fun and doing what we wanted. Life was care free and spontaneous. We could buy the things we wanted with a minimal amount of planning. We could use our free time to do what we liked doing with little pre-planning: going to concerts, going on overnight getaways, visiting friends.

Then it happened. We had our first kid. Eventually we would have two more. Now on a Friday night we had to adapt our routine. For the most part, we had to begin doing what the kids were doing. We plan our meals by considering what our kids will eat. If we do go out to a restaurant (sometimes it just is not worth the effort when you have kids along) we go to places where they will eat the food and where if they misbehave a little, we will not get kicked out of the establishment. We plan our weekends based on what the kids will be doing and what we can do with them. Their schedules dictate a lot of what we do. We wake up when they need our attention. We provide for their needs throughout the day and attend their activities and help them with their projects.

When I orginally wrote these thoughts down, I was on a plane heading on a family vacation. The packing, getting through airport security, last-minute snacking and going to the bathroom were all a bit more complicated because of the kids. But we gladly adjust. They are a huge focus in our life.

Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I long for and adore the trips we take without the kids. We can’t wait for the next one. Once every two or three weeks, we find a baby sitter or an unsuspecting relative to watch the kids so we can go out to dinner without them. And it is bliss. We also enjoy our time together in the evenings after they have fallen asleep.

We have changed our entire lives for our kids. Our lives, in many ways, revolve around them. And I would not have it any other way. It is great. We planned for this, and now we love it (most of the time). And when we get a little burned out on it, we plan a night out without them, or a weekend getaway without them, or (on rare blessed occasions) an extended trip without them. This is life. It is good.

If we really thought of church as family, then we would not be so likely to struggle with the question of what do we do with the kids. If we have kids, then as a church we should change what we do and how we meet to make it all about the kids. We should teach things that they can understand. We should sing songs they can sing. We should eat food they will eat. We should serve in ways in which they can participate. We should discuss what they need to discuss. We should pray with them, and even allow them to lead us in learning how to pray better. Honestly, what would be a better use for our church meeting time than to spend time investing in the spiritual growth of our kids!? What has happened to us that we so desperately need to ship our kids off to their own program during “church” so that we can get our own needs met? Once again, I am not trying to be overly critical – I too enjoy the kids-free time. But why, really, are we so unable to re-arrange our church existence so that it revolves around our kids in much the same way we re-arrange our family existence so that it resolves around our kids?

All of this is not to say that we do not need adult time. We do. Sometimes, just like my wife and I must get the babysitter and go out for an evening, or a weekend, or a week, sometimes we need adult time as church. We need to rely on someone to take the kids for awhile so we can have adult time and talk about adult things and be more intimate. Just like in a marriage.

I am just suggesting that those times should be the exceptions – the much anticipated once-in-a-whiles that woo us into bliss – instead of the normal way of operating. This calls for careful consideration and openness to radical change.

“How does leadership work in a house church?”

Once again, the question becomes much easier when taken in the family context instead of the organization context. In a healthy family there is leadership. It is called parenting. Those with more experience at this thing called life are the parents. They lead the family, so to speak. Those with less experience at this thing called life, the kids, follow the lead of the parents. At least that is how it works in a healthy family. As the kids grow older, they take on more leadership responsibilities. It all happens quite naturally. There is no magic moment when mom and dad are ceremoniously introduced as leaders of the family. There is no certificate on my wall authorizing me to be a dad. The very act of becoming parents dubs mom and dad as leaders. It is not really a positional form of leadership. It is more of a natural, relational form of leadership. Roles are defined by function, not by pre-appointment. The family does not operate by having meetings, nominating leaders, or voting on who will lead. Instead, those who have the experience – those who have spawned children – lead those who were birthed. In time, the young ones grow to a stage where they take on more responsibility. This is especially apparent in large families with many kids. The older kids end up acting as mini-parents helping take care of the younger children in such families.

When we understand family as the primary image of church, then leadership looks much more like parenting and less like positional leadership. Those who have more experience, and who have been actively involved in disciple-making and shepherding, naturally lead. Their leadership resembles parenting. Those with less experience are led for a period of time. Then they naturally take on more and more leadership responsibility. There is no need for meetings or a nominating processes or official votes. Those who naturally lead are recognized as the leaders. Those who are being parented follow.

Another way I like to describe it involves an analogy taken from driving a car. I like to say that it is easier to figure out who the leaders of a church are by “looking backward in the rear view mirror” than by “looking forward through the windshield.” In other words, leaders are identified by their actions, not by their titles. We look at what is currently happening or what has already happened to see who the leaders really are. This is like looking in the rear view mirror. But the organizational model of church has encouraged us to predict who is ready to lead, give them official titles, then tell them to go lead. This is like looking ahead through the windshield.

When we started our transition into house churches in Las Vegas, we initially set out to start three communities. We identified the potential leaders, and had them all attend a series of training meetings. This was windshield thinking on our part. We gave them titles. We “appointed” them as leaders. We were trying, with great intentions, to identify leaders by looking out ahead, through the windshield. Some of them turned out to be great leaders. Some of them did not.

But after a few months, we had totally changed our approach to simple church leadership. We started checking out the rear view mirror. We began looking at each community, seeing who was actually leading (parenting), and then recognizing who the actual leaders were. We were seeing leadership in the rear view mirror by looking at who was naturally and healthily parenting each community. It did not take long to realize, though, that there was not much need for us to even do that, because the people within each community knew who their leaders were without us putting our official stamp of approval on them. Just like in a household where a healthy family lives, everyone under the roof can tell you who the parents are. It is quite easy to recognize.

We have really complicated issues of leadership in the church. We have elders and deacons and pastors and teachers and apostles and prophets and ministers and missionaries and board members and elders emeritus and chairmen and on and on and on. Many of our titles are right out of the New Testament. Some others are borrowed from corporate America. Still others are words used in the Bible, but we have come to define them the way either corporate America does. In other words, for example, we may call someone by the Biblical word “pastor,” but we define his role the way corporate America defines a CEO. We may call a group of people “elders” or “deacons,” finding those terms in the New Testament, but then we define their roles the way that Corporate America defines boards or committees. Because we have bought into an organizational model for church, we find successful organizations and borrow their leadership structures and disguise them with New Testament titles.

We have also defined our church leaders’ roles by borrowing definitions from our government systems as well. For example, many churches have two different governing boards that act much like our Congress and Senate. Some churches call these the elders and the deacons. Some churches call these the management team and the operations team. Further, many churches also have an executive branch, so to speak, made up of paid clergy and other staff. Though we use Biblical titles, we have really borrowed from our government’s leadership structure and applied it to the church.

Even simple church gurus have come forth with ideas such as the “five-fold ministry,” which is the idea that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are the real leadership structure of the church.

I am not smart enough to figure all of that out. Or, maybe I should say, I’m not willing to take one of the numerous approaches that we have used and endorse it to the exclusion of the others. I was raised in one type of church that had a system of leadership that they claimed was based on the New Testament. Only later would I realize that other denominations claimed the same thing, but used the titles differently and organized their leadership differently. But they also had rather convincing proof texts to justify their leadership structures.

My reaction to this is to simplify it all. I prefer to divide all church leaders into two categories: stayers and goers. I am not trying to come up with new titles. I just think those two words describe the two kinds of church leaders I have observed. Stayers are the ones who parent within a single community, one house church. Goers are the ones who travel (whether within one country or among many countries) and start new churches and make new disciples. Of course, most goers act like stayers for awhile, and some stayers end up being goers at some point in their lives. But generally, some people are stayers and some people are goers. God seems to have provided for both kinds of leaders within the church. There are many ways to label these two kinds of leaders. The purpose of this book is not to endorse any one set of titles. Some call the goers apostles and prophets and call the stayers pastors and teachers. Others call the goers missionaries and the stayers pastors and elders. Each group of Christians has labeled it in their own way. The real key, though, is the function of leadership that these people peform. The stayers, to me, are like parents and are easiest identified through familial language. But even the goers are parents in a way. They just tend to spend much more time with extended family than with immediate family.

The real issue in all of this is health. When the church is healthy, it functions much like family does when it is healthy. But even that is a vague description. When it comes to family, we all are related, really. No matter who you, the reader, are, if you traced back your family tree through enough generations, and then traced back my family tree through enough generations, you would find that you and I are related. Really. And it probably would not go back as many generations as you would or I would think in many cases. Yet you do not likely think of me as family. You think of people such as your spouse, your kids, your parents, and your siblings as family. Or, if you do not have any biological family, perhaps you think of some other group of close people as your family. You might have found a community of people who have become your substitute family. And if you do not even have that, chances are you wish you did, and that you will keep searching until you find it.

So it is with the church. You are part of the church universal. In that sense, you are related, so to speak, with the Apostle Paul, and Mother Teresa, and me, and the Catholic down the street, and the mainliner across town, and the evangelical next door, and the Christ-follower across the globe. Family is really quite large. On the other hand, you think of church as the people with whom you experience intimate community. That is where life happens, growth happens, parenting happens, and all the defining moments take place. Just like within our biological families of origin we learned how to function, talk, read, write, use the bathroom, bathe, eat, think, and function. Church is family, both in the relational sense, and also in the extended sense.

We can’t really understand how it all works without this imagery of family. If we have an idea of what healthy family is like, which we all do to varying degrees, then we have an idea of what healthy church is like. And vice versa.

"How does the church grow?"

In a family, growth will happen if there is health. This is true both within the individual and within the community. The family unit grows larger if its members are biologically healthy. Literally. A man and woman fall in love, commit to each other, and a new family unit (or sub-unit) is started. The forces of nature will eventually take over, assuming both man and woman are physically and emotionally healthy, and a third person will come into being. And it happens naturally. The forces of nature will make the two do what they have to do to become three. You do not have to convince them or encourage them. They won’t be able to help themselves, if all is healthy. They will do their part. And, if all is healthy, the forces of nature will not just make for some really good times. There will be fruit of the labor in time: a child. The family will grow naturally. You cannot stop it if everyone is healthy. You would be fighting an uphill battle to keep it from happening. That’s why the earth is full of people.

It does take time though. A newborn baby will multiply eventually. But not overnight. You have to wait for the baby to grow through infancy, through the toddler stages, through the childhood years, and through adolescence. But puberty comes naturally. Then pairing up happens more or less all on its own. And though it takes twenty or thirty years normally, a baby will eventually reproduce itself without anyone forcing it too! If all is healthy, that is. And this kind of growth is all that was necessary to literally populate the earth over a period of time.

Church growth is really the same. It is a natural by-product of health. It doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. A healthy spiritual baby may not multiply right way, though sometimes the gestation period is much quicker than we would think. Healthy disciples multiply naturally when the time is right. Healthy churches multiply naturally when the time is right. Nobody can stop it from happening if all is healthy. It would be like trying to stop the twenty-something bride and groom from doing what comes natural when they go to bed together at night. Good luck!

If this isn’t what is happening in the church, then health is the real problem. Just like a person who is having fertility problems is the church that never grows. Yet history teaches this has not been the problem all that often. The church has grown from 120 in the early pages of the book of Acts to hundreds of millions today. And I would suggest that this growth has been from natural multiplication among somewhat healthy disciples over the years. You just cannot stop it, no matter what you try.