Strategy? Or Manipulation?

I’ve been exploring questions of community and church.   Over the last week I’ve tried to adress two important questions connected to community.  Today, I’ll adress the third. 

That question is “What is the role of strategy in building community in the church?”

I think this question further breaks down into 2 questions, which I’ll adress seperately in this post:

A) Isn’t being strategic really being manipulative? 

B) How important is the specific strategy that Fellowship Church has chosen?

First question first:

I’m open to the possibility that being strategic could mean being manipulative.  It seems like there must be something about the point at which you’re decieving people is the point at which it becomes manipulative.

The thing I don’t quite get, though, is that somehow, the only people who have to justify themselves in this area are the people who talk and think about what they are going to do.  The bottom line is that everybody has a way of doing things. 

I hope you’ll forgive the fact that I’m doing the annoying church-y thing of starting each of these with the same letters.  But what it comes down to is this:

We can be stupid, we can be stubborn, or we can be strategic.  Perhaps I’m slanting each of these by my word choice.   Maybe it would be nicer if I said we can be random, we can be traditional, or we can have logical reasons for doing what we’re doing.  

Ultimately, though, we choose whether we’re going to be traditional, random, or have logical reasons.

And I would say if your randomness or if your tradition are getting you what you want, you ought to keep going in that direction.  My point is that this is still a decision.

People often say “I listen to the Holy Spirit.  That’s what guides me.  It’s not tradition.  It’s not randomness.  It’s not strategic thinking.”

I think this is true.  I think sometimes the church ought to make decisions that appear foolish.  I think that we ought to be open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

Here’s a problem, though, and I hope you’ll forgive me  if this sounds accusatory:

As a general rule, most people are very excited to ask others to submit to what they believe the Holy Spirit is prompting them to do.  Often times, the very people who believe  most in this idea are the least likely to submit when the Holy Spirit is telling some one us to do something.

In short, it seems to me that people who believe that the Holy Spirit frequently guides us in directions that aren’t strategic, often times these people believe the we ought to listen to these people, and not other people, about just what we ought to do. 

I’m so thankful that God is a God of order, logic, and rationality.  I am so very thankful that many times  the Holy Spirit’s promptings are justifiable in terms of logic and rationality. 

I would submit that The Holy Spirit’s promptings are cultivatived in a culture which is carefully exploring the rationale and reasons for what it does.

The other subquestion is: How important is Fellowship Church’s specific strategy?

Leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus is the point.  Community is the best way to get there.  We’re building community in the best way that we know how for the time and place we exist in.

A really great guy who attended our church was not attending a small group.  He said to somebody “Look, I’m not going to do something just because everybody else is.  My small group is this weekly gathering of men at Finders.  My small group is my friendship with Pastor Marty.  I don’t need to show up at the time I’m told and the place I’m told.”

He’s not wrong.   If he’s careful.

His argument isn’t altogether different from somebody who says “Look, I don’t need to go to church.  I can worship God in the forest, I should be worshipping him all the time, right?  Why limit myself to just once a week?”

My answer is that church doesn’t set an upper limit on worship– it sets a lower limit.  Similarly, small group doesn’t limit people into being in only one community.  But it does guarentee that the person is in atleast one community.

A person who thinks the forest is a better place to worship than church, he is likely to start with the best of intentions.  But I think it’s pretty easy for him to get off-track, and not worship at all.

And a person who isn’t intentional about community, I think it’s easy for him to drift from belonging to showing up to a group, to not showing up at all.

Our implementation of community is not perfect.  It’s somewhat relative to our culture.  But it is one valid way to reach the goal of community.  And the scary-dangerous things is that there are lots of imposters to community, lots of ways we can delude ourselves…

And while the specific form of community is a bit up-for-grabs, for my money, the goal of community in general is not up-for-grabs.  It is an essential.

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What’s the point of community?

Several times in the last couple weeks, I’ve been involved in a series of similiar conversations.  They were people who didn’t know each other very well, and for the most part, they were people unaware that I’d already had this conversation.

These conversations have lead me to thinking about the topic a bit.  And they’ve lead me to the realization that it’s worthwhile to post on the topic, as maybe other people are wondering about the same thing.  (And even if those people aren’t among the 3 people who actually read this blog, I can always cut and paste or link from this post in an email, or I can send them a link to this post.)

O.K.  Enough with the boring back story.  The conversations have been about community.  More specifically, the questions have boiled down to:

Is community a means to an end or is community an ends by itself?

and

Is being focused on creating community optional for the church, or is it mandatory?

and

Does being strategic mean that a church is being manipulative?

First question first:

In some of my earlier discussion, I told people that community is a means and an end.  I had some good reasons for saying this.  The point I was trying to get at was that even if we took away the positive benefits of community, community would still be worth doing.

Community creates authenticity.  It calls members out to hold each other accountabality.   Feeling a sense of community leads collections of people to be more effective as they reach out to the world around them.  Being in a community is the best place to take care of people.  Belonging to a community is the best way to learn biblical truth.

But even if none of those things were true, community would still be worth pursuing.  Because of this, it originally seemed to me that we don’t just “do” community as a means, we also seek it out as an end.  But as I’ve reflected on this, I decided that this isn’t quite right.

At Fellowship Church, we express our ultimate goal as “To lead people in a growing relationship with Christ.”

If somebody could wave some evil magic wand, and make it so that community did not lead to this growing relationship, then we would have to give up on community.  Even if community continued to do all those other things.

Leading people into a growing relationship with Christ is the end.  Community isn’t. 

The other two questions are so intimately connected to this one.  Because if we realize that community is a means to the end of relationship with Christ, the follow-up questions become: “Are there other ways to reach this end?”  And this question is really the same thing as  “Is being focused on creating community optional for the church, or is it mandatory?”  The next natural follow up becomes “Should this community just be allowed to pop up naturally or should we plan for it?”  This question, really, is the same thing as “Does being strategic mean that a church is being manipulative?”

So, in the next couple days I’ll be getting to those questions.  Stay tuned.

A new Covenant (but not The New Covenant)

I am convinced that our covenants (written agreements) for our small groups will become more powerful and meaninful if we allow the groups themselves to write them, within certain guidelines.

Until now, we’ve all signed the same piece of paper.  That covenant wasn’t bad.  But it wasn’t a unique expression of who the group was or what they wanted to do.  I’d like the groups to have this.

Marty (see his link in the Blogroll) and I have formulated this plan.  The first step I’ve begun:

I started with the four defining values of our small groups (Authenticity, Transformation, Outward-Reaching, Multiplication).  I’ve attempted a definition of each one, and then I’ve attempted to nail down how these definitions play out in real life.

This is no small task.  It’s important foundations for the next step.  So it’s important to me that I get this right.  That’s part of why I’m posting it here.

I’m particularly interested in feedback from folks who are currently connected to a small group (whether this small group is at FC or elsewhere)  What do you think of the definitions and  examples beneath each definition?  Is there anything that should be changed, added, or deleted?  What should we do to make the covenants more powerful and personal?  Is there anything else we should be considering?

At any rate, the document is below.  Please, pretty pretty please, let me know what you think!

Authenticity: We are engaged in transparent, supportive, and loving relationships with other members of the group and the church.
Questions: What should we commit to in order to grow these relationships?
A) Regular attendance

B) Respectful actions

C) Accountabality
 

Transformation: We are commited to seeking out Christ and conforming ourselves to his image. 
Question: What should we commit to in order to maximize our growth in Christ?

A) Regular prayer for each other.

B) Submission to the needs of the group.

C) Application of Biblical principles.
 

Outward Reaching: We will work to bring about the Kingdom of God.
Question: What should we do? 
How much should we do it?

A) Social justice

B) Evangelism

C) Formal service projects

D) Informal, spontaneous help
 

Multiplication: We are committed to growing small groups through out New Englad.
Question: What steps can we take toward multiplying?

A) Shared leadership to develop gifts

B) Apprentice others in things we do within the group

C) Seek out to be apprenticed by someone else.

D) Participate in multiplying groups.

Deitrich Bonhoefer on community

“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

I found this quote on another blog and it really struck me.  (Can anybody help me out on the ettiquette in a case like this?  Should I have asked permission to “steal” the quote they found?)

Bonhoefer either wrote or was trasnlated in a manner that was a bit provocative.  But his words are incredibly important, both to me in my role as small groups guy and for people participating in Christian communities.

Just recently I was in a discussion about walking a balance between not wanting to meddle to much into the natural, organic existence of relationships.  The more structure and support I create the more artificial the relationships become.  In Bonhoefer’s words, the more visionary I am the more we lose authenticity.
There is relevance for the billions of people on planet Earth who are not involved in small group ministries, here.  It’s so easy for us to long for different sorts of relationships.   To look at the people we are “stuck” with (whether this is by accident of birth, location, past decisions, or knuckleheaded small group directors) and wish they were different.

I find it a bit ironic: Bonhoefer was one of the few Protestants who spoke out against the Nazis.  This lead to his death.  If Christians had acted more like a real community and stepped up with him, perhaps things would have turned out differently. 

Why should we reach out?

This posting will probably make more sense if you begin with yesterday’s post: What is it to reach out.

The next question I wanted to explore was “Why should we be outward reaching people?”

           

            Jesus tells us that being outward reaching is the most important thing we can do. 

“You are the salt of the Earth.  But what good is salt if it loses flavor?…You are the light of the world like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see.  Don’t hide your light under a basket!  Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all.  In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly father.” Mathew 5 13-16

            What’s the point of salt that doesn’t taste like anything?

            What’s the point of a light that you can’t see?

            There is none.

            What’s the point of following Christ and hiding it?

            There is none.

            The reason that we should shine is so that people will notice God and thank him for our kindness. 

            It’s easy to look at these stories and call them figurative.  We’re not salt.  We’re not lights.  Sometimes Jesus overstates the case to make a point: it’s a device called hyperbole.  Are the above claim hyperbolic?

            One way to notice when Jesus is being hyperbolic is to ask if we can take the passage literally.  Clearly we’re not lights or salt.  So perhaps we’ll wonder about this, and just take it all as a suggestion that we reach out… Jesus politely requesting that we reach out when it’s convenient for us to. 

            If this sentiment were never revisited in scripture, it would be fair enough to fail to take it literally.  However, the gospels do circle back to this idea, repeatedly.  Let’s take a look at one example:

            “Then the king will say to those on the right, ‘ come you who are blessed by my father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you fed me.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you invited me into your home.  I was naked and you gave me clothes.  I was sick and you cared for me.  I was in prison and you visited me. 

            Then the righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you?  Or thirsty and give you something to drink?  Or a stranger and show you hospitality?  Or naked and give you clothing?  When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will tell them, “I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”

(Mathew 26 34-40)

            There’s not so much wiggle room here.  There’s no good reason to take this as a metaphor.  We’re not pretending to be salt.  We’re not imagining that we’re light.

            We’re confronted with a very basic question:

            What have we done, today, for the prisoner, for the naked, for the starving.

            Jesus could have used figurative language.  He could have said “It’s like mistreating me when you mistreat them.”  He could have said “abusing me is similar to mistreating them.”  He certainly knew how to say “Don’t mistreat them any more than you mistreat me.”

            But he didn’t.

            He said mistreating them IS mistreating him.

            This leads me to ask a very hard question to myself, and to you.

            The question I have to ask is this: How have we been treating Jesus?  The powerless, the naked, the hungry, the lost… These people are Jesus among us.  How have we been treating him? 

            There is this image that haunts me.

            The image is that I might come to this place, and sing, and pray, and raise my hands to my creator.  I might fill my heart with so much love for him that I feel transported.

            And then the sermon ends… and I go about my daily life. And this Jesus that I love so much is all around me but I’m too foolish to see it.  I am haunted that I might promise my love on Sundays to him, and then neglect and abuse him for the next six days, until the next Sunday, when I start the whole cycle of abuse again.

            It’s interesting to notice something about the passage: the people who are reaching out, they don’t do it because they know Jesus is the least among them.  They are as surprised as the people who’d been mistreating the poor and oppressed that Jesus was in those that they fed, clothed, visited.

            They weren’t looking for heavenly frequent flyer points.  They aren’t motivated out of a desire to score brownie points from Jesus.  They just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

            We’re considering the question right now “Why should we reach out?”

            Here’s the really short answer: Because Jesus told us to.

            And here’s a slightly longer answer: Because Jesus, somehow, is in those who we reach out to.  And Jesus is in us when others reach out to us.

What is it to reach out?

I want to start with a confession today.

I don’t like infants.

They’re smelly and boring and annoying.  I don’t find them cute, I think they all look the same, and if I’ve ever told you otherwise about your own kid, I was lying.

It’s not their fault.  I’m sure I was atleast as smelly, boring, and annoying as the babies I see today.  But that doesn’t mean I enjoy them.  I love my own kids.  I loved them even as infants.  But to be really honest, it wasn’t my favorite time with any of them.

However, if you give ’em a bunch of months, give me a few crazy toddlers… those I enjoy.  I love how they run everywhere.  I love how they develop there little personalities and agendas.  I love how they are so passionate.

I started thinking about it, and I decided that really, my favorite thing about toddlers, the thing I enjoy about them so much more than babies… is that toddlers are outward reaching.

I have two particular things in mind when I say that toddlers are outward reaching.  And they are two of my favorite things about toddlers. 

First, toddlers reach out for help and support and protection.  They hold it their grubby, pudgy little arms.   They don’t just want to be picked up.  There whole world depends on being picked up.  And really, who can resist that?

But atleast as cool is when a toddler reaches out to share.  Maybe it’s one of those little crackers that was nasty even before they drooled all over it.  The last thing in the world you want to do is eat something like that, when a toddler holds it out to you.  But it’s so kind and perfect, how can you not, at least pretend, to take the kid up on her offer?

Being outward reaching is what I’m focused on today.  It’s an incredibly important thing.  It’s of course much bigger than those two acts of a toddler.  It’s so important that we’ve identified it as one of the core values of small groups at Fellowship Church.  (http://fellowshipholden.com/)

          

            There are three  specific questions I’m interested in exploring “What is it to be outward reaching?”  “Why should we be outward reaching?”  and “How do we do it?” 

            In this post, I’m going to explore the first question,   “What is it to be outward reaching?”  In the next few days I’ll post some thoughts about the other two questions. 

            Let’s go back to our toddler friends.  They reach out for those two reasons… Either to show love to somebody, like sharing that chewed up cracker, or to get love from somebody, like holding out those arms to be held.

            It’s interesting to me that when we talk about reaching out, it’s so easy to focus on the first.  It’s so easy to think that reaching out means fixing people, helping them, allowing God to use us to bless them.

            I don’t want to downplay this aspect of it.  It’s huge. 

            But what would happen if we all reached out only in this way?  What would happen if we were so busy initiating acts of love that  nobody ever accepted these acts?  Can you imagine a preschool full of screaming kids, all trying to share the food in their own hands, not willing to slow down and sample the food from the others?  Nobody would get anything.

            Jesus was the ultimate servant.  But you know what?  He allowed others to bless him.  He is served by the love and devotion of many.  They cheer and bow down as he enters Juraselum.  He is anointed with expensive perfumes, and his feet are washed with tears.  His feet are washed with tears. 

            What is to be outward reaching?  It’s to give and to receive.  It’s to exhale and to inhale.  It’s too allow God to use us to bless others and to accept God’s blessings through others.

            Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Some of us are not very good at recieiving kindness.  Some of us are not very good at enacting kindness.  Most of us struggle with both.

            It’s pretty straight foreward why it’s hard to give.  Selfishness is a pretty self explanatory thing.  For us to give something to others, we have to give up that thing ourselves.

            I have to tell you that I have been the reciepient of outrageous acts of kindness within the small groups I have been a part of.   Probably, if some kind of tally were kept, I’ve received more than I’ve given.  I’m not proud of that.

            In fact, there is something horrifying about it.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  There have been time that the love of my brothers and sisters in Christ has been all that has kept me trudging through the day.

            But being in a position where I need to accept that which I haven’t earned… there is something horrible about this.   We live in a world which has labored very hard at setting up systems where we get exactly what we deserve.  It’s an insult to our most basic sensibilities to be given that which we didn’t earn.

            Even when we need it.

            Especially when we need it.

           

            I have received such kindness from my small groups.  I have been so grateful and at the same time, really struggled.  I think we all do.  In my calmer moments, I see what amazing training this is.

            The greatest gift, the most undeserved thing, is God’s love for me, his creation of me, his eternal assurances to me.  And it has been so important that I learn to accept the acts of love from the people around me that I don’t deserve, because it helps me to begin to wrap my brain around the enormity of God’s great acts of love, acts that I deserve even less.

            What is it to be outward reaching?

          To be outward reaching is to practice recievng God’s love and encarnating God’s love.  This answer to the question only begins to answer the next question: Why should we be outward reaching.  I’ll post on that some time soon.

 

The Biblical Meaning of Community

One of the sweeping themes through the whole of the bible is the idea of God moving people into communities where they will bless others and others will be blessed by them.

I’m contemplating this truth as I get ready to go to church.  I am the small groups director for my church.  (Fellowship Church in Holden Massachusett.) and will be speaking for a few minutes during the services today.   The observation above is something I want to share with everybody. 

It begins with the trinity.  Perfect community between Jesus, God the father, and the Holy Spirit.  But they/he began the act of creation; a community was made.

Adam and Eve were offered perfect community.  They were exiled from this community because of the danger they posed to themselves.

Generations later, Abram leaves his safe and comfortable community.  When the community of travelers grows too large to be a healthy community Abram and Lot split.  Abram/Abraham’s story is really one about the community of his immediate family, about whether it should be kept together in all its dysfunctionalities; members are exiled and called back.  Who will continue as leader of this community is a huge theme.

Fast foreward some: Joseph is exiled from his community, which is unhealthy.  He creates a community for himself in Egypyt.  His brothers are eventually pulled into it, and presumably healed through it.  This community is so succesful that it poses a threat to the Egyptian power structure and is enslaved.

A member of the enslaved community (the Hebrews) leads them out of Egypt.  God gives them pretty specific expectations about how to be a healthy community.  He breaks them up into tribes, clans, and families, so that the social unit is small enough to work as a functional community.

More later on the country of Israel, Judah, and the New Testament…