September 19, 2011
Skye Jethani: Recipe for Church-365 (Part 1)
What if a church embraced the idea of institutional impermanence?
A few weeks ago I had lunch with Darren Whitehead from Willow Creek. Darren is a great bloke (I can say that because he’s an Aussie), and we talked candidly about our experiences in the church, in leadership, and the way we see church adapting to the shifting culture. Toward the end of our lunch he asked me if I’d ever considering working on a church staff again. “I’ve learned never to say never,” I replied, “but it would have to be a very different kind of church.”
“Like what?” he asked. I rattled off some half-baked answer, but his question has lingered in my mind. What kind of church would I want to help lead?
As I’ve ruminated on that question, I’ve gone back and read a number of articles, blog posts, and editorials I’ve written in the past few years–pieces about the church’s narrow definition of mission, the tendency to over-institutionalize church, the false-belief that perpetuity equal success, rediscovering a theology of vocation, and the danger of making mission an idol at the expense of communion with God.
With all of these ingredients now in the mixing bowl of my mind, I’ve decided to give a more than half-baked answer to Darren’s question. What follows is not a complete recipe but an experiment. It’s my way of welcoming other cooks into my mental kitchen. I want your thoughts and feedback. Am I on to something, or am I completely out to lunch? And please don’t take these ideas as a criticism of other models of church. God has used, and will continue to use, many different churches to accomplish his purposes.
I am calling this experiment Church365, and so far I've outlined 5 ingredients. Here's the first:
Ingredient One: Institutional Impermanence
Elsewhere I’ve written about the “perpetuity problem”–the belief that if something lasts it’s a success. This cultural bias leads us to believe that an institution must endure, and too often churches allow this assumption to dictate decisions that may be contrary to the Spirit’s leading and unhelpful to God’s mission.
Similarly, some church leaders can fall into the trap of believing their calling is to perpetuate a 501c3 organization we call “the church,” rather than to empower and equip the people of God (a.k.a., the church) to bless the world. Originally we established buildings, budgets, staffs, structures, and programs to serve and empower people, but somehow the tail starts wagging the dog and people come to serve and empower the organization.
But how do we avoid this trap? Some believe the answer is to jettison the organization altogether. The organic church movement rejects these structures as a hindrance to mission and authentic community. But I don’t fully subscribe to this belief. I think structure is important, and depending on one’s setting a building, or programs, or staff may be entirely prudent. But how do we properly employ organizational structure while avoiding the slippery slope into institutionalism?
My time last year with Bob Goff gave me an idea. Bob is utterly crazy, wonderful, and inspiring. He told me about the difficulty early in his legal career of practicing law while keeping his family his priority. When it proved impossible, Bob quit the firm he had been working for and started is own. But he knew the danger. Law firms, like churches, feel the insatiable need to expand institutionally. And before long he would exist to serve his firm rather than his family. His solution? Shut down the firm every year.
Everyone at Bob’s firm understands that at the end of each year the organization will close up shop. Bob then decides whether or not he wants to keep the firm going. If he does, and there is no guarantee, he literally gets down on one knee and proposes to each of his employees by saying, “Will you practice law with me for one more year?” Like Bob, they are each free to say yes or no. This one-year-at-a-time approach keeps the perpetuity problem in check.
What if a church operated that way? What if leaders gathered to prayerfully discern whether it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to them to continue the church for one more year? If the answer is yes, then they commit to one another for another 365 days. If the answer is no, they celebrate what God has done, reallocate people and resources, and anticipate a new call trusting the mission will continue even if this organization does not.
This 365-days-at-a-time approach would put significant boundaries in place to keep organizational creep from occurring. It’s pretty hard to secure a mortgage, incur debt, or rehab a facility in one year. And good luck hiring a large number of full-time employees when job security isn’t part of the package. But this approach also honors the Holy Spirit by holding our institutional structures with open hands, knowing that when the wind of the Spirit shifts we are ready and willing to shift with it. And this model honors church members by keeping them from becoming too dependent, both temporally and spiritually, upon the institution. It forces everyone to remember that church structures are a transient means to an end, not an end in themselves.
But what about those good and necessary programs and structures that require a more permanent organization? I’m thinking about church-based community programs, shelters, food banks, etc. I’ll address some in later posts, but if God does lead some within the church to begin these kinds of programs they can be launched as independent 501c3 organizations linked to, but not technically part of, the church.
Another objection I've heard is that institutional impermanence will fuel church-shopping and perpetuate the lack of commitment that plagues Christian communities. But I'm not sure that's the case. After all, it's entirely possible that a Church365 could exist for 20 or more years...if leaders discern that's God's leading. They just wouldn't assume this is God's will.
Stay tuned for ingredient two of Skye's recipe for Church365