Three posts reflecting on the journeys of growth, innovation
and culture-shift that our churches find themselves on...
1) GROWING PARADIGMS
When I began in ministry in the '80s it was all about church growth. Every church should grow, but management patterns were stifling growth.. Such was the received wisdom of the time. But with strategic structuring a church could grow from cell to a congregation with cells., then to a celebration with congregations and cells. Structuring for growth was the name of the game. Since that time I have been able to observe the growth and decline patterns of many churches and I have noticed that growth sometimes arises through surprising avenues.
In the book of Acts the church in Jerusalem was to become a power house of mission to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. To universalise, that growth was to arise in their locality, in their region, in surprising places and to the ends of the earth. And so it was. So it was too for the church at Antioch. Antioch, Asia Minor, Macedonia and Spain, all correlate respectively with locality, region, surprising places and the ends of the earth.
Sometimes the story of mission and growth follows a more circuitous route. If we consider the following schema:
A) Jerusalem / locality
B) Judea / region
C) Samaria / surprising places / unreached niche communities
D) Ends of the Earth / overseas missions...
I worked for a time jointly pioneering a pentecostal church in the south of England. It began as a local church, supporting missionaries overseas, but with negligible impact on its region and reaching no surprising demographics. It was an AD church. Then after 70 years of life, including a long period of decline, the remnant of a dozen or so attenders did something very bold and used their last remaining budget to employ a children's pastor. For them this was a surprising departure that resulted in the incursion of around 200 children from a totally unreached segment of the city. The growth of that church resulted in the offspringing of two other congregations, creating a more regional impact. It was a suprising trajectory, resulting in massive growth. It was certainly not a strategy. Our vision documents changed as the pathway revealed itself! It was borne simply of obedience to God's guidance and a following of the fruit. To summarise, New Life's sequence was ADCB.
Another church I pioneered began among a demographic not even on my agenda as I had envisioned the project. These were people not even in my own locality. Jesus Generation began with C. We didn't have local expressions in the network until we had been running for 6 years. CA. Then our original associates began migrating overseas. Spontaneously the stroy went to CAD. After 10 years we began associating with a wider network through the work of OIKOS, becoming regional leaders through that agency. So it was that our story was a sequence of CADB.
An excellent church that neighboured my first parish in London had a ministry focussed entirely on street people with addictions. They were a plant out of the USA. Their demographic was a surprising one and some of their workers - all converted and reformed addicts - sought them out from far afield. So they were a C+D+B+A model all rolled into one. And they excelled in the calling God had given them.
I tell these stories because all those churches grew. However growth was not their goal. It was simply the fruit of their obedience. They followed God's leading. They pursued avenues that resulted in fruit. They went where the harvest was.
For me this is another outworking of Jesus' teaching of "Seek first the kingdom of God..." There's the strategy. Now, we should certainly be ready to structure around the growth that fruit brings. And church growth theory does hold some helpful some helpful insights for that. But first and foremost I get the "fresh expressions" paradigm as expressed by Bishop Graham Cray when he says, "There is no method. The only method is to follow the Holy Spirit!"
2) SHIFTING CULTURE, CHANGING CHURCH
In the world of the church often like to think of ourselves as something of a counter-culture, somewhat removed in thinking and values from the culture of our surrounding society. And in many ways that is how it should be. But the truth may be more complex...
At various times through history shifts in secular culture have send Christian believers back to the Scriptures with altered questions. And having gone back to our sources we may then realise that within the fabric of our own Scriptures was plenty that might have pushed us in the churches to the spearhead of such changes. The abolition of slavery in the U.S.A. comes to mind. The empowering of women in leadership and ministry. My own book “Men Behaving Boldly” would be an example within the context of the men’s movement of the 90s.
For me personally, I found the insights of a landmark secular book on management to be a time bomb of implications for ministry and leadership in the churches. The book was “In Search of Excellence” by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman.
To whet your appetite for what's in the book, this 1980's book analysed the success of some outstanding U.S> companies and noted some recurrent features:
1) Reframing leadership - moving it from a model of top down issuing of orders, to a work of touring, befriending, listening, responding, encouraging and empowering.
2) Leadership through person to person relationship, not through meetings.
3) Giving teams the freedom to the creative freedom to assess and address the needs they identify within the mission of the company
4) Allowing the interface with those we are trying to reach determine our systems and policies
5) Cultiavting a culture of story-telling to shape a culture that then generates the same kind of innovation that first spawned the company's mission.
6) Embracing of creative input and innovation from every level of organisation
7) Allowing people to work to their areas of strength and serve the greater purpose of the company with the gift of their special aptitudes
8) Holding together on few central values and embrace the dynamic of “adhocracy” on issues of method, system and delivery
Through the years since reading the book, these prinicples have increasingly impacted my own approach to mission and ministry. I can also see that many of these themes are key markers of the “great emergence” and the spectrum of "fresh expressions" now proliferating on the landscape of kingdom activity. Perhaps those parallels may be newer examples of lessons learnt in wider social shifts sending us back to Scripture to be "semper reformanda" - once again, re-reformed by the light of God's word!
As Christian believers responding to wider culture shifts, of course we are not simply to be the tail wagged by the dog. I believe that the word of God enables us to discern the good from the bad, to reject the bad and cling to what is good.
To me these kinds of shift in views of management, distilled by the research of Peters and Waterman speak to the vision of “an army of ordinary people” - a picture painted by the Apostle Peter’s words about the priesthood and prophet-hood of all believers in I Peter 2 and Acts 2. As ever the word of God allows us to survey all sorts of shifts and changes and to discern what in the world God is doing, and then do all we can to get on board and run with it! I wonder is there a culture-shift or a book that has done this for you?
3) INNOVATORS INNOVATE
What is the integrity of using your denominational position to engage in patterns of ministry not authorised by your denomination? If you feel called to new patterns of ministry wouldn’t it be more honourable to do it from the outside? ...
A spiritual father-figure and mentor to me - Bishop David Pytches
Many, many years ago in a country far away…I was privileged to become a Christian and begin growing in the faith under the ministry of David Pytches. Anyone who knows his voice will understand why it was his ministry which sowed the seeds of my love for good liturgy. When I read the prefaces to Morning Prayer or read the words of some of blessings in the Anglican Prayer Book I still seem to hear the words in DP’s voice!
I was priviledged to share part of the journey of St Andrews Chorleywood during the 80s and early 90s at a time when that church was pushing the envelope in all sorts of creative ways. During that period DP was significant in discerning my own call to the ministry and as I wrestled with questions of why the Lord would want me - at that time - to be serving him within the eccentric confines of Anglicanism, it was to David that I went with some of my questions.
I remember DP explaining that if a church becomes large enough and financially important within a Diocese it finds it has greater liberty in initiating experiment of all kinds. One question that exercised me as an earnest young church-man was this one: “What is the integrity of ‘pushing the envelope’? What is the integrity of using your position to engage in patterns of ministry not authorised by your denomination? If you feel called to new patterns of ministry wouldn’t it be more honorable to do it from the outside?"
“Pushing the Envelope” - image copyright franceskeevilart
I hope I asked the question more graciously than that, but that was the gist of my question. I can’t claim to quote verbatim - though I have pretty good verbal recall. I simply want to share how I remember the answer. At the time I was not sure if I agreed with his answer. Twenty-five years on I see the importance of what he told me.
“Innovators innovate. You must steward any advantage you have to bringing positive change to your denomination. Historically change comes when innovators innovate. They experiment with new things and some of the new things take off with God’s blessing. The institution then has to decide what to do about it. They can throw you out or they can find protocols, and ways to endorse and replicate what you have pioneered. Historically change does not come from people who will not do anything until there is a denominational protocal for it. If you have any advantage it behoves you to innovate - for the sake of God’s kingdom and for the sake of your denomination.”
I find that good advice. To take the broad view we must be willing to follow God’s leading and allow our denominational structures to decide what badge they wish to accord our work - heterodox or orthodox - good practice or bad. Some times a pioneer will develop a pattern which it may take the mainstream two generations to call “good practice”. Think about Cranmer, Benedict of Nursia, William Booth.
Thomas Cranmer - endorsed, martyred, then re-endorsed!
The way denominations use the language of “fresh expressions” can sometimes fudge important issues. But I welcome the adoption of such language because it invites people to innovate. I hope it represents a desire not to censure experiments simply because they transgress current protocols. If you’re working in a denomination I would encourage you to take that view and steward all the advantage you have - for the sake of your denomination - and for the sake of the Kingdom.