Posts Tagged ‘Body of Christ’

Church does not often like to compare itself to other societal organizations.  We declare theologically that we are the Body of Christ drawn together by Christ‘s call upon our life and the striving of our shared ministry.    While the Body of Christ is a  this is surely what we hope to be, I contend that we must also acknowledge that we are an organized group of people by virtue of culture, denomination (or lack of it) and our context.  For this reason, the rigor of Complexity Perspectives in Innovation and Social Change is worth the church’s time and review.

A challenging work, the book provides a look at organizational life from some of the keenest scientific minds.  These authors are actively bridging the gap between biology and sociology.  The importance of this bridge is that historically, sociology has rested upon the research and assumptions of Darwin’s biological research.   Lauding Darwin they note that his work allowed  scientists to “parallel evolutionary research:  laboratory scientists explored the genetic basis of variation mechanisms, while field researchers investigated the past history and present operational changes through selection.” (18)     Most exciting to me is that authors of Complexity Perspectives are also critiquing Darwin’s work which has now become orthodoxy for so many.

Their critique is a splicing of variation at the molecular level from selection at the sociological level.  They splice variation and selection as they detail the rise of dog breeding.  Breeding on the one hand is a manipulation of the genetic of dogs.  On the other hand, there is a culture and a context that rises up in the “dog fancying” culture that has nothing to do with genetics but everything to do with interpretation and information sharing.   That is, dog breeders began to make decisions about what was preferred among genetic variations.   “They were less interested in producing dogs well-adapted to hunting than in satisfying the growing demand for household pets, and so they selected for features that appealed to the non-sporting dog-loving public: “cute”, human-like facial features and a glamorous full coat.”

Leaving many important details out of their first chapter, suffice it to say that I believe that Complexity Perspectives.  Has great relevance for the church will may also rest upon assumptions of organizational development theory that in turn rest on Darwinian orthodoxy that has collapsed the biological and sociological.  The most powerful example may be found in copious Google images charting a congregation’s (or another organization’s) “life cycle” beginning with birth moving through a prime toward an ultimate death.    Such biological assessment of the church has contributed to a bias toward new church development or revitalization as resuscitation.    Both these models are becoming increasingly difficult for the church.  New Church development is difficult because of economy and increasing religious competition.  Revitalization is difficult because it is understood as  reversal of the life cycle process.

Complexity Perspectives offers another way to view organizational vitality when they draw you and I into the dog breeding metaphor. The vitality of organized life is not just at the molecular, genetic, biological level.  There is something unique about the sociological life that is under-addressed by Darwin and by the church.  That is a flow of information and communication that allows organized groups to invent tools, understanding and ascribe meaning to those inventions .  These inventions can then present new challenges that then require new tools, understanding and most importantly a new ascription of meaning.

It seems to me that the church of a living God  is evolving but those of us that manage the church are using outdated tools, understandings and meaning to try to manage the evolution.   We are not actively participating in the sociological selection process of adapting tools, understanding and meaning.  (Even secular organizations do this better than us)  What is worse, we refuse to be as nimble as Jesus was in the realm of investigating sociological context.    Issues of membership, tradition and finances are just some of the subjects that I hope to approach with the help of editors, David Lane, Sander van der Leeuw, Denise Pumain and Geoffrey West.


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 Almost 3 years after it is published, in the new year,  I will begin a review of a book Complexity Perspectives in Innovation and Social Change, editors David Lane, Sander van der Leeuw, Denise Pumain, Geoffrey West.  I first learned of this book by listening to a master’s class interview with Geoffrey West on the website www.edge.org devoted to multidisciplinary conversation among innovative scholars and scientists.

The book argues that innovation (the way that invention spreads through a population) is the driver behind urbanization.  My goal is to make this book applicable to the church which has, since the time of Jesus, been dealing with social change.

Today,  the church, it seems, can easily become a reactionary institution.  This is quite ironic given the progressive pictures of Jesus in our new testament scriptures and the progressive images of God in the Hebrew scriptures.   Fundamentally the church confesses a faith in a  living God with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Once organized we understand ourselves to be part of  a larger vitality.  Individual members become part of the Body of Christ.

In this critique I will be assuming that the church has a great deal to do with the urban environment that the editors have collected in this book.  Further, I will be assuming that the vitality of a localized congregation is found in its ability to innovate in response to its environment and its tradition.   I am sure I am not alone in this second assumption.  However, the challenge for the local congregation is the how-to of innovation and what are the necessary elements for innovation to flow through a congregation.

I hope to discover important questions and learn as I blog about this book.

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The Barna Group‘s latest research reveal indicates that most Americans want a customized religious experiencehttp://www.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2011-09-13-If-World-War-IIera-warbler-Kate_ST_U.htm   The research, as summarized in the USA Today article,  suggests that Americans shop for their religious believes like accessories to the self.  That is, Leslie’s religion reflects her preferences and is absent of the convictions or statements that make her uncomfortable.  For example, the article cites that there is an increased belief among individuals in Jesus as their personal savior as well as the conviction that they are going to heaven however none have attended church in the last 6 months other than for a special event such as wedding or funeral.

While their contribution to the conversation is helpful, it may be true that the Barna research is playing a tired chord within an over-played song.  That chord is that people are mindless without the church; clergy have lost their persuasive abilities and that the church is fractured because of both the previous points.    What if the chord was transposed just a note or two higher?   It might sound like this, people are still striving to be found faithful in an increasingly complex world;  Clergy have never been persuasive apart from their care to people by which their study of the gospel is fully informed; and the church has never been of one mind or expression about anything.  Such a higher note might allow us to honor gospel fundamentals without grasping at trendy straws in order to solve what is uncomfortable about the church’s life.  After all being the church means being fundamentally uncomfortable.

Quite contrary to Barna’s concerns, religious experience is fundamentally customized (that is the essence of believing in a personal God).   Customization is not something that people do artificially because clergy and the church have lost control.

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we believe in the aggregate of experience that informs the entire Body of Christ.  So, my customized religious experience is put alongside others who have a distinct customized experience.  If there is the right spirit between us, I am interested not only in my experience but in the experience of my fellow worshiper and church-goer.  The shared life, then is a creative mix of the customized.

Research like Barna’s is the most recent arrival  in a long line of laments that mainline Christianity is on the way down and out.  This anxious cry is becoming increasingly impotent.  This is the cry that would have us all trying harder to keep up with insatiable expectations for the church.  Some of our expectations for Christianity in the United Stated of American cannot be satisfied.  We expect more and more.   Increasing demands include more attendance, more income, more members, more successful programs.    Perhaps these insatiable demands are what drive people from organized religion to find some relief.  It seems to me that there is a natural ebb and flow in the organized life of the church.   If we are truly in an ebb, perhaps it is a good time to dig down and serve those gathered with greater personal attention to their customized experience so that it can inform our shared life in creative ways that contribute to the next flow from an abundant God.

After all the fundamental expectation for Christ‘s church is not just rapid appeal and growth.  There is also the relational work that serves as scaffolding to the Body of Christ.  In this relational work, we taken on tough questions as we figure out the customized experience of “the other” person….specifically the person who seems miles from our own experience.    This work is not for those who believe they are going to heaven because they prefer to….this is the work of those who are wondering, hoping and working ….doubting that their customized faith is all there is.     This has always been the work of an inner circle of customized individuals who prepare to interact intensely with God’s wider world.

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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I have just filled out my year-end reports for the my denomination and I cannot help but feel like we have fallen a bit short in the denominational goals of who we should be as a congregation after the  completion of the paperwork.

Mainline congregations receive a lot of criticism.  They are either not growing fast enough, not generous enough, nor diverse enough or not creative enough.  When things are really bad, they are not harmonious enough.  I wonder if our expectations of congregations are a not a bit out of whack.  It seems that expectations pile up like sedimentary layers of soil.  I have a suspicion that our expectations are not only weighty but also not fully unrealized.   When assessing congregations, one needs greater attention to subtlety that can make all the difference in understanding the quality of the shared life of a localized Body of Christ.  In fact, I want to suggest that growth, generosity and diversity are all related to the harmony at work in a congregation.  But I need to take a minute to be more specific about what I mean by harmony.

The term harmony derives from the Greek ἁρμονία (harmonia) meaning “joint, agreement, concord”,from the verb ἁρμόζω (harmozo), “to fit together, to join”.  The Ancient Greek culture used  the term to define a combination of contrasted elements for example a higher and lower note.

While the result of harmony is a pleasant sound…the function of harmony is to work among contrasting elements.  Bill Bishop, in his book The Big Sort details the move in our country to have people increasingly sorted into like-minded groups that can easily identified and mapped.   I think part of this cultural tendency is what has the Presbyterian Church worried that we are too homogenous or complacent.  There is perhaps a very real temptation to sort ourselves because we presume that if we are among like-minded people we will find ourselves in a more harmonious situation.  Others argue to the contrary, saying that the result is no so much harmony as it is malaise or insularity.  But harmony might mean more than just being like-minded.

Process theology makes a significant to contribution to the understanding of harmony.  Honoring the etymology (or origin) of the word harmony, process theologian, John Cobb Jr.  explains harmony within the larger idea of beauty. “When we describe objects as beautiful, we usually mean that they participate in a certain harmony of proportions and relations .  Colors and shapes or sounds are so related with one another that each contributes to the whole in such a way that the whole in turn accentuates its parts.” (A Christian Natural Theology, 2nd ed.:  Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John Cobb, Jr., 57).

With a process understanding of harmony, the goal is no longer to be more like each other but rather to live as a whole so that each of our parts is accentuated.  In ordinary congregational life, this can be realized in a number of ways:

  • When there is a building campaign it is not the goal to get all the congregations to give the same amount.  It is not even the goal to have each of them give a same percentage of their incomes.  Rather the goal is provide a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone can say that they have been stewards of the project.
  • When congregation members disagree there is not a move to coerce people to shared opinion, rather there is a venue for diverse opinions to be heard within the whole.
  • When members join the church they do not adhere themselves to a set model of “doing church” or its programs.  Rather the church or local congregation asks itself, “Who will we now become because this new and unique individual has joined us?”

Interestingly, as much as process theology values the highlighting of the parts it also notes the fragility of the whole.  In order for harmony to be sustained over time,”…elements [of the whole] must not clash so strongly that discord outweighs harmony.” (Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition, 64).  Harmony is tenuous and subtle.   Even if the very meaning of the word harmony might support the theology that each of us are precious and loved uniquely by God, I suspect that harmony itself would be criticized as insular.

So what is it that we expect of our congregations?  Do we expect that within the congregation we will present the world and thus assume that the world should be us?   (A bit of an extreme statement, I admit).  So, shall we humbly honor who we are within the constraints of our harmony and allow that harmony to have its full effect upon our growth, generosity and creativity.     Year end reports to a denomination seem incomplete without some specific and knowledgeable appreciation for subtly unique congregational life on which we have just gone into great detail.

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In the chapter entitled:  “Do Corporations Serve the Human Family”, from the book Progressive Christians Speak, Progressive Christians United ask the reader to consider the history of corporations rising out of trade and the industrial revolution.  That history reveals a rise of mechanization and technology and the temptation to understand organized human beings as part of a machine.  The authors note that corporations have major stakeholders as well as stockholders.  Stake holders include stockholders, managers, employees, customers, suppliers neighbors and society as a whole.  This understanding has emerged in Europe and Japan as stakeholder capitalism.  Stakeholder capitalism thrives where strong unions are informing and challenging corporations.  In the last quarter century, unions have been powerfully diminished in America.  This diminishment as coporation grow have given rise to another type of capitalism in America….stockholder capitalism wherein the goal is to realize a profit for those who invest in the company and those who hold shares.  The authors suggest that humanity can experience a better quality of life if there is a stakeholder capitalism at work.  So that entities like, Planet Earth, the poor and destitute; humanity as a whole are also stakeholders in the corporations activities.  Thus the success of the corporation is determined by its ability to consider all the stakeholders as it does its work.

The authors encourage the reader to take action through their congregations and adult education programs;  as consumers and stockholders attending to humane and environmental practices and policies;  and as citizens whose voice and vote and influence government. 

My particular interest is in the church as an organization itself.   For as an organization local churches can be tempted toward a more corporate model.  In fact this is the nickname for our largest churches.  Here growth /expansion have been primary energies if not primary goals.  Forfeited or at least under attended are the congregations that do not promise growth or expansion.  Clergy will declare that they have “done all they could do” or need to “move on” for their career or call.  This, in itself,  is permissible partly because America’s corporate mentality has the ability to infect clergy’s perception of their call to ministry.  I heard recently that within the call process, a minister declined further conversation with a church because of its mortgage.  While there may have been other reasons, not wanting to tackle the mortgage may be likened to a CEO who does not believe the situation is profitable enough to invest his or her energy.

 Assessing the church as a corporation may be, simultaneously, a serious impediment and a necessary evil in order to experience the church as the Body of Christ.  It may be a necessary evil because as the authors of Progressive Christian United note, corporations have at least four strengths that might be summarized as an ability to organize work, raise capital, think at a global level and transcend prejudice.  Congregations need clergy and leaders to attend to their life toward , at least, these very ends.  I believe every congregation can be affected in order to be better organized.  However, all organizational efforts must be reinforced by relational glue.  Assessing the church as a corporation has also served as an impediment as clergy live and move and make a living within the churches.  The temptation is to move on and up the ladder.   Congregations cannot survive this corporate type temptation.  Their need is for residential pastors who have the patience and long term interest for congregational redevelopment and restructuring.  They need pastors who have the relational fortitude to bury the beloved and welcome the stranger into a congregation continually over time.  The corporate idea that excellent CEOs are the heads of the largest companies is not a helpful idea for the church but it is pervasive.  There is an assumption that the best preachers, writers and administrators among pastors are in the largest congregations.  EVERY Congregations hold a promise to be the thinking, praying, community building, missional entities of our nation. If we succumb to a corporate model where the smallest are left to atrophy and die we may be left with terrific gaps of under-served communities in our nation where thinking, praying, community building…is compromised or absent.  All size congregations are stakeholders in the Kingdom.

I have a hunch that clergy do not want to be CEOs.  Some if not all of us must function like them but the corporate model alone does not help the human family nor the congregational family.  When the corporate model is balanced by pastors that are wiser than stockholder CEOS and take up stakeholding,  relational inspired leadership open to all types of congregations….then there an ability for God’s church to be a well-represented Kingdom Corporation.

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You say tomato, I say tomahto.  You say Potato, I say potahto. 

Congregations. Change. Redevelopment. Transformation. Leadership.  When congregations want to experience change in order to redevelop and transform their ministries, they often look to their leaders or to their next leader in order to innovate and persuade toward the change.  Leaders buy right in because they are are searching for congregations in which to exercise their pastoral leadership and experience effectiveness.  As pastoral leaders and congregations court one another in the call process, I can imagine that they brainstorm with one another about what is possible for the local ministry.  Perhaps they feel the Spirit as they brainstorm and dream.  With the sense that the Spirit has blessed their courtship, the pastoral leader and congregation discern a call and their partnership begins without more specific language. 

What follows are the challenges of translating the pastor’s language to the congregation’s language and vice versa as they implement what they have dreamed about.  Experts in psychology and counseling understand that as individuals communicate, what they mean and how they are understood can be two very different things.   For example, author  Gary Chapman has written books on The Five Languages of Love  in order to guide couples through the challenges of understanding each other more accurately. 

Congregations and pastors have an interpretive tool at their disposal when they intentionally assess the extent of redevelopment that may be required in a congregation.  With the help of a discerning Presbytery, a congregation and pastor in the courtship phase of conversation can look specifically at the areas in the congregation’s life that are in need of redevelopment.  For example, is redevelopment needed in Sunday School, in worship, in staff development, in stewardship, in rapport with the community, or in programming for the membership? The more areas identified the higher the stakes.  The higher the stakes the more important it is to assist pastors and congregations from the brainstorming phase to intentional discussions about style and goal setting for ministry.

Organizational Development expert Warner W. Burke, author of Organizational change:  Theory and Practice,  makes a distinction between evolutionary and revolutionary change.  Revolutionary change is characterized by quick changes to structure and parts in order to get a rapid result.  Evolutionary change is characterized by slower changes that alternates between changes to the structure of ministry and attending to the effects of those structural changes on relationships.  There is an irony involved.  I believe that the more areas that need redevelopment the more the pastors and congregations may brainstorm in a revolutionary style.  However, once they are on the ground, the congregation finds the revolutionary style impacts their relationships.  They call for more pastoral attention and less change.  Pastors’ may feel frustrated that their change efforts are so ill received.  They declare in frustration that the congregation does not really want to change.  The truth of the matter is that the revolutionary style may be much better suited when redevelopment is only needed in a few areas.  

The revolutionary model of leadership is critically important to new church development where new community and relationships are a part of the equation.  However, in urban, rural and suburban areas of redevelopment, where relationships can be longstanding a more evolutionary model is more likely to  sustain the entire Body of Chirst (structure and relationships).  While the revolutionary model is much sexier then the evolutionary model, Organizational Development experts remind us that when reconfiguring an existing organization, the evolutionary model provides the most resilient results. 

How we help congregations and pastors have these sorts of specific conversations may determine the vitality of the Presbyterian Church USA as it both launches novel Christian communities as well as revitalizing its existing communities. 

Do you have experience with redevelopment?  Does the premise of this blog fit with your experience?  I would welcome your feedback.

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