I went into last Sunday’s church gathering with skepticism. My skepticism went up when they said we were going to watch a prerecorded message from a Willow Creek “Leadership Summit.” The speaker said that you can compare two churches with exactly the same worship, message and programs, and find that one church “has it” but the other doesn’t. My skepticism went on full alert when the speaker said he would tell us what “it” is, especially because he has written a book about “it.”
He said, “I don’t know.”
At this, I sat up and began to take notice.
Much to my surprise, he described ways that getting caught up in church ministry can cause you to lose “it.” He spoke of not copying what you see in any other church because what you can see is not “it.” He spoke of the need for failure because if you want different results, you’ll have to do what is not being done. He spoke of focus and choosing what not to do. And he spoke of following your passions.
So I asked myself, what are the things I am passionate about in a faith community? Off the top of my head, I came up with:
Musical worship. Doesn’t sound very “organic, small church” does it? But I find there is something mystical about honestly interacting with God through music in a large group. Honest, mystical, passionate and loud. I used to hear Vineyard pastors say that most North American churches are doing “Vineyard-style” worship these days. Clearly these pastors have never been to these other churches, because they’re dead wrong. To the extent of my abilities, I bring it. And Chris Tomlin makes me gag.
Small groups as the key. The key to what? Just about everything, because I see relationships as the core operating principle of the kingdom. Evangelism? Discipling? Caring? It’s all relational, so for crying out loud, build it on relationship. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on the task, because deep relationship is born out of enduring difficulties together while pursuing a common purpose. But if you do not create a relational culture where both who you are and how you are affects what I do, your results will be shallow and short-lived.
Reaching out to those who are not interested in church. If you build it, they won’t come. So is God not at work among them? Do we just wait for them to “get it” and come to us? If we follow a God who did not wait for us to come to him, that is not a viable option. We may find our efforts to be irrelevant to God’s ongoing work — or worse, actually leading his followers away from his work. Orienting your community around mission is scary, because it forces you to wrestle with two big questions: “Are we focused on the right things?” and “What is the gospel of the kingdom, anyway?” Some church people take offense at even asking those questions. Do you have the guts to politely ask them to leave?
As I list my passions, I realize I am doing exactly NONE of them in the context of our church. I have spent two years expressing my views and trying to lead out, with nothing to show for it but frustration. I have heard powerful messages, often a whole series, and was active in a church-wide initiative to reinvent itself. These only made my frustration worse, because hope for change was declared, then either snatched away, or left to wither and be forgotten.
So I am done trying to be a prophetic voice in the Journey. I’m not throwing a passive-aggressive tantrum, just trying to be pragmatic, because my input makes no difference.
Saddest of all, the people we became close to — leaders seeking change, artists, and those with prophetic imagination — either left on their own, or if they were on staff were fired and then left. Kay & I spent years building a new network of friends. Now almost all of them are gone. Having the church announce “new, exciting” things which “we’ve never done before” and will be “huge” or “intense” only increases our loneliness by communicating that the Journey is about flashy events, not meaningful relationships.
That said, I have made it through a long season of feeling abandoned by God, and am once again able to “tune in” to his presence. I sense that God’s greatest work is not what he does through me, but what he does in me. Rather than being admired (or loathed) for the way I lead worship, I am ignored as I wrap cables and put away the audio gear, and this has been an opportunity to learn the ups & downs of humility. The “it” message helped remind me to return to the thing I first discovered about faith: God has a genuine and deep love for me. With that as a fresh starting point, the future looks beautiful.