There are already a million of them out there, each with their own “sure-fire” tactics on “fixing the church.” And here’s one more. So, why should you read this particular book on congregational change? And beyond just the reading of it, why should you gather a team together, study this book together for a year or more, possibly face the wrath of those members with high investment in the status quo, and maybe even turn your congregation upside down as a result of your time? Hard to rationalize, isn’t it?
The only reason even worth mentioning would be that I believe God calls us to do so. Most of the time we start with trying to make the church more successful without defining what success actually is. We ask business leaders, authors, politicians, and sometimes even pastors; but I don’t believe we’ve seriously asked God. I mean, actually, seriously asked God what it means to be a successful church.
But that’s my opinion. OK, it’s an opinion based on years of work, study, discussion, trial and error, prayer, and education. But it’s still an opinion. And I’ll admit a failed one at that. I don’t have answers. I don’t know the “right” way to be the church. So I’m writing this in the hopes you’ll help make God’s purpose for the church clearer for all of us. Like they sing in that spunky little Disney movie, High School Musical, “We’re all in this together” (I promise, that’s the only time I’ll refer to that—and not because I may have just broken a copyright law by reproducing a part of the song without express permission). We’ve got a long way to go, and we need each other as different parts of the body of Christ to make the whole picture of who we are and what we’re about clearer. Are you sold yet? Let me explain a little further.
As the church, we operate under some assumed truths. Several of them, actually. Because most of these “truths” are accepted by virtually everyone in our culture, they go unchallenged. They are acknowledged as truth and therefore are not given a second thought. And that’s fine in many cases. We can’t take time debating each nuance of daily life; we’d never get beyond that or accomplish anything. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if we questioned the assumption of a red light meaning “stop”? If we questioned whether clothing should be worn in public? Because we all assume the same thing, we don’t need to go to extraordinary measures to make sure that the plane is actually going to San Francisco just because the sign at the airport gate says so. Fortunately, there are some things we are generally pretty safe assuming within our culture and even across cultures. There are a lot of things that allow us to function together because we don’t have to be questioning them all the time.
Of course it makes sense that we have operating assumptions, starting points, places of common agreement so we can live and move together as a culture. But let’s be clear, these agreed upon starting points—these assumed truths—are actually based on common beliefs rather than actual reality. Just because everyone agrees on something doesn’t make it absolute truth. If everyone agrees to operate under some common operating assumptions, then they are not necessarily blanket truths; they are culturally agreed upon starting points. Let’s call them that.
Lesslie Newbigin, missiologist and English missionary to India, writes about these cultural places of common agreement. He says that there are those things that are so widely accepted as truth that we feel safe basing other truths on them. In our culture today, he gives the example of the scientific method as one of these starting points. We all know that if something can be proven by this methodology, we can safely assume it to be truth. Though I won’t go into it here (because it takes him quite a long time to explain it—and I had to read it a bunch of times to get it clear in my own head), Newbigin makes the case that even scientific method is based on beliefs and assumptions that, themselves, are not proven.
But once in a while there needs to be some questioning. Sometimes, there are assumptions which need to be challenged in order to rethink the purpose behind those assumed truths. That’s how innovation happens. New ideas can emerge when things taken for granted as true are lifted up and examined. Not much more than a century ago, virtually everyone accepted the truth that candlelight was the only way to light our homes—there was no other option. It wasn’t until that assumed truth was challenged by Thomas Edison (and others) that the reality of incandescent lighting came about in 1879.
Accepted truths have been challenged in theology as well. In the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei’s support of Copernicanism rubbed everyone the wrong way, because virtually all philosophers, theologians, and astronomers agreed as truth that the Earth is at the center of the universe. After 1610, when he began publicly advocating the heliocentric view which placed the sun at the center of the universe, he met with bitter opposition from pretty much every expert, who eventually denounced him to the Roman Inquisition early in 1615. In February 1616, the Church condemned heliocentrism as “false and contrary to Scripture”, and Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it, which he promised to do. When he later defended his views in his 1632 work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, he was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Wow. That’s what can happen when you challenge assumed truths.
But sometimes the assumed realities need questioning. In the church, we’ve operated with some of the same starting points and common agreements for so long that we no longer question them. They have become assumed truths. We rarely wonder about them anymore. And we’ve come to operate under them as if they were absolute.
One of these assumed truths—and one of the two that forms the basis of this particular work for congregations—relates to the measure of church success. The other, very related to it, deals with the goal of autonomy. In this writing I hope, in part, to question and expose those assumed truths as myths. But more importantly, I hope to help congregations operate more clearly from God’s call instead of culturally and ecclesiologically (fancy word for how the church functions) accepted mythological truths.
Because my work in this writing challenges some of the very basic assumptions we make about our existence as church, any congregational changes that result will be deep, and therefore probably slow ones. This is no quick-fix book! So don’t worry if it takes time.
Transparency and trust are key as you walk through these chapters. Start by making sure you have approval from your governing body, being clear about why you’re utilizing this book and what you hope to achieve. As you go through it, make sure you are open about the process. Look for ways to involve as many congregational members as you can along the way. Share your work and your findings thoroughly each step of the journey. Over-communicating your discoveries will become a key factor in your progress.
Because this writing challenges some assumed truths about the church, it can make people uncomfortable. It might make you uncomfortable—or angry, or confused, or disgusted, or whatever. You may toss this work out with last night’s potato peelings and used coffee grounds, figuring it’s almost worth that much. Obviously I hope you don’t. If nothing else, I hope you consider the possibilities presented here. Our participation in the reign of God is at stake. Yeah, I think it’s that important. But don’t take my word for it; consider it for yourself. Get your congregational leadership (or judicatory leadership) on board, get a team of five or six committed people together, and take some time with this. Just because there are some operating points for the church that most everyone agrees on doesn’t mean we can’t (or shouldn’t) question them. Or at least talk about them. So be part of the conversation. Seek the direction, movement, and breath of the Holy Spirit. Then decide for yourself.