Here's part two of this ongoing conversation about the church and its role in our lives and culture and world these days...
Moving toward a "man-max" philosophy of ministry.
In the first part of this post, I discussed my suspicion that we have confused the church (the community of God’s people) with the church institution (the 501c3 tax-exempt organization). This leads to a myopic understanding of Christian mission and service. We can slip into the idea that the only legitimate use of one’s gifts, time, and energy is within the institutional structures of the church organization. In part two I want to explore why we may have fallen into this mindset, and how we can begin to think differently.
Without doubt there are numerous factors behind our exaltation of the church institution above the community of saints that created it, but one critical component may be cultural. In our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that institutions are the vessels of God’s Spirit and power. (The reason for this is a subject I explore in more depth in my book due out next year.) The assumption is that with the right curriculum, the right principles, and the right programs, values, and goals, the Spirit will act to produce the ministry outcomes we envision. This plug-and-play approach to ministry makes God a predictable, mechanical device and it assumes his Spirit resides within organizations and systems rather than people.
You often see this mindset after the death or departure of a godly leader. A man or woman powerfully filled with the Spirit’s breath demonstrates amazing ministry for Christ. Others are attracted to the leader and over time a community forms. But once the Spirit-filled leader is gone, those remaining assume his or her ministry can and should be perpetuated. The wind of the Spirit may have shifted, but they want it to keep blowing in the same direction. So, an institution is established based on the departed leader’s purpose, vision, and values. If these are rigorously maintained, it is believed, then the same Spirit-empowered results that were evident in the leader’s life will continue through the institution. Many ministries and denominations originated in just this way--with success defined not merely by faithfulness but by longevity.
But what we often fail to see is that the Spirit was not unleashed in the leader’s life because he or she had the right values or employed the right strategy. The “fire of God,” as Dallas Willard calls it, was in their soul because of their intense love of Jesus Christ. Rather than focusing on reproducing a leader’s methodology by constructing an institution, we ought to focus on reproducing his or her devotion to God—but that is a far more challenging task. As Willard writes, “One cannot write a recipe for this, for it is a highly personal matter, permitting of much individual variation and freedom. It also is dependent upon grace—that is, upon God acting in our lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own.”
This is what highly institutional consumer Christianity fails to grasp. It reduces ministry to a predictable machine where the right input results in the desired output, and then invites religious consumers to engage the test-engineered institution for their spiritual nourishment. It is also the assumption behind a good number of the ministry books, conferences, and resources we produce every year. But I don’t believe the Spirit of God is laying dormant waiting for the institutional church to compose the right BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) so he can be unleashed the way a pagan god is conjured by an incantation. God is a person, not a force. And his Spirit does not empower programs or inhabit institutions but people who were created in God’s image to be the vessels of his glory.
As I stated in part one, this does not mean structures and organizations are evil. It simple means that institutional structures should exist to support the Spirit-filled people so they can advance the mission of God through human relationships. It’s not about either people or the institution, but about getting the order right. The institution exists to resource the people. People do not exist to resource the institution.
My Honda Civic serves as a helpful metaphor. Decades ago Honda began using an engineering philosophy referred to as “man-max, machine-min.” The idea was to design cars by allocating maximum space for the human occupants and minimal space for the mechanical components. It sounds intuitive, but in the 1970s—the age of gas-guzzling land yachts—it was a radical approach for an automaker. Since then the notion of ergonomics and user-friendly technology has become pervasive.
What if we approached our mission with a similar philosophy: “man-max, institution-min”? This is not an anti-institutional philosophy of ministry any more than Honda is an anti-mechanical car manufacturer. It simply recognizes that people are both the instruments and objects of God’s mission in the world. Human beings are the vessels of his Spirit, not organizations or institutions. This would mean asking new questions when the church (the community of believers) seeks to advance the mission of the Gospel:
Not: How do we grow the institution?
But: How do we grow people?
Not: How do we motivate people to serve in the church/institution?
But: How do we equip people and release them to serve outside the church/institution?
Not: How do we convince more people to come?
But: How do we inspire more people to go?
Not: How many programs can the church start?
But: How many programs have other churches started that we can help support?
Not: How many people have a committed relationship with our institution?
But: How many people have a committed relationship with another brother or sister in Christ?
Not: How do we make people dependent on the institution for their growth?
But: How do we equip people to grow independent of the institution?
Not: How much revenue can the institution generate?
But: How much revenue can the institution give away?
Not: How many buildings, pastors, and programs are necessary for the institution to have maximum exposure in the community?
But: How few buildings, pastors, and programs are necessary for God’s people to have time and energy to engage the community?
How these questions are answered will vary from place to place and church to church. How the Spirit of God leads one community of believer to engage the mission will look different than another. I’m not attempting to prescribe a single institutional model as normative for all. What I’m trying to do is challenge the assumptions behind the pervasive belief that sees institutions rather than people as the vessels and instruments of God’s power in the world. Learning to think “man-max, institution-min” may be the first step toward becoming a truly missional, rather than institutional, community.
March 12, 2008