I received the following from “Bob” in my email. I thought I would address his question in a blog post.
Is there anything redeemable or doable to correct the lack of relational life in the “organized church?”
Well “Bob” (and anyone else that is asking), quite frankly the very core and nature of how the contemporary church is established to effectively work and perform week to week would have to be put on its head. The veritable “pyramid of power” would have to be turned upside down on its head, literally and figuratively, in order to begin the process of being a relational servanthood paradigm, that would express the mutual edification and expression and exchange of life and mission that was evident among Jesus and his disciples, and Paul and his mission team that established the Church and extended the Kingdom of God in the first century. Only with is one small step with gigantic consequences can the post-modern institutional church have any kind of meaningful and lasting change that would lead to ongoing reformation and transformation.
Regrettably the institution itself is set up to be self-perpetuating, in that, the bible colleges and seminaries are all set up to crank out year in and year out the “leaders of tomorrow” as it they were some kind of factory producing widgets for the marketplace. That is a core DNA and disconcerting structural defect to what is known as the “institutional church.” There are those, and I know many of them personally, who make or have made their living through “Christian academia” in the guise of “equipping the saints for the ministry” and “training Christian leaders.”
Paul mentored the same as Jesus mentored his disciples
Unfortunately when Paul spoke of mentoring leaders (check his mission trip chronology in the Book of Acts and his epistles for all the people he was living and ministering with), he did not have in mind what has become known as seminaries and bible colleges. No, he had something much more authentic and basic in mind when he stated what he did for the record. Paul was by far the most successful missionary and church planter not only in the Early Church, but I would even say easily so since that time. There have been great evangelists, and many successful missionaries, but all are pale in the shadow of what Paul accomplished. I believe everything Paul did was relational, and he patterned the relational paradigm after the pattern that Christ modelled with the disciples who became his apostles. Remember too, when you read about Paul in Galatians and his conversion, Paul mentioned some 14 years spent in Arabia, where he learned from the Lord directly, before he went and returned to Antioch or Jerusalem. Paul in doing this fulfilled the very words of Jesus, that not only he, but all of us, are to be convicted, converted, called, equipped, empowered and sent forth by the Holy Spirit.
This is not about being equipped by human institutions and man made teaching, or being called by men into ministry, and sent out by some ministry organization to do the work of the ministry. This is God’s work from the beginning to the end. Paul and all the other apostles demonstrated this and the evidence is set before us in the Scriptures and in recorded human history. What we choose to do with it, and how we apply these principles in our lives is up to us and has consequences. We currently have 1700 years of the consequences of following the teachings of men on what the Church and life and ministry in the Church looks like. It does not bear the look, feel, or the stamp of authority of what Jesus gave his apostles and Paul. Which do you think works best? Do see the effects of the consequences of what has evolved from the church as a human institution rather than divine? This divine model was the model if you will, or the ” relational ways and means of being prepared for the work of the ministry” by God in Jesus Christ himself. This is a radical departure from what goes on today in the name of preparing people for ministry.
Paul the apostle’s own mentoring experience was experiential with Jesus of Nazareth
Paul not only had this same experience as the other apostles, of being directly mentored by Jesus himself, Paul also did what Jesus told the apostles to do, everything Jesus modelled and did for the apostles, he encouraged them by his own ethic of, “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). This was a gentle pat on the back, an encouragement to do the same things with others. John Wimber taught this concept in this way, Jesus told his disciples, “Watch what I do. Then you do it and I will watch you do it. Then you can go and do it on your own. Teach others this same way.” Here are John Wimber’s own words describing the phenomenon:
Jesus’ method of instruction was the method of the day: rabbinic. A rabbi would minister, while his disciples watched; then they would minister with him watching. Next, they went out on short missions, reporting back for further instruction and correction from the master. After repeating this process for years, if the rabbi was convinced his disciples were formed in his way of life, he released his students to become rabbis and teach others by the same process.
Christ used the same training method with his disciples. Christ, the teacher, formed his disciples in his way of life, passing on his character. Faith, hope, love, joy, peace, and so on were the goals of his training. Performing signs and wonders – casting out demons, healing the sick, and even walking on water – were avenues through which the disciples learned more about God’s nature. The disciples understood and accepted what Jesus expected of them. We never read of them objecting to being asked to do the works of Jesus, only of their sense of personal inadequacy in performing his commands.
Being around someone who performs a certain ministry skill successfully (or demonstrates personal maturity) is the best way to learn to do it (or be it) yourself.
~ John Wimber
Paul modelled this very kind of ministry on his church planting missionary journeys that are recorded in the book of acts. The timeline for the missionary trips vary, but the shortest length of stay was several weeks up to a couple of years. Paul came and established communities of faith that were rooted in relationships, first a relationship between himself and God, and then relationship between God and those who had come to faith in Christ. He walked with them, and taught them how to live a life dedicated to God and a life of obedience to God. He taught them to obey God, and to search the scriptures and to wait on God and to listen to the Holy Spirit and do what the Spirit said to do. Having given them these instructions and having modelled them for them, he set them free to journey with God on a lifelong pilgrimage of faith and action, dependence up God, and relational community with the people they engaged in. This is the most basic concept of what it is to be a “disciple of Christ” and to live a life that honors God.
The problem is still the same problem that has faced all God chasers since creation.
The problem has always been the same problem. When God revealed himself to Adam and Eve and all the patriarchs in the book of Genesis, he revealed himself as a relational being and as one who wanted to be in ongoing communion with his creation, with humanity. Sin coming into the world made it a problem and challenge to engage in meaningful relationship and community, and whenever people have felt a distance from God, a sense of alienation, and we have that in our own day, it has not gone away, people turn to “religion” and “forms of religion” where they try to appease their understanding of God by doing acts of devotion and obedience to what they understand to be “righteous” deeds and actions, and try to follow what they understand to be the “rules of required conduct.” So the rules of religion come to replace the principles of relationship between a divine being and his creation. This is what “organized religion” keeps alive, no matter how hard God himself tries to kill the beast of religion in us!
Changing the whole foundation of how a church community organizes itself and gathers, meets, and experiences life in Christ in community is just way too much for most churches to take on. But there is one hope, of bringing more relational interaction and meaningful authentic connection between believers and those exploring the Christian faith. On a personal note, if there had been even meaningful opportunities to gather relationally at some of the churches I was attending over the last few years, without the “stuff of religion” being part of it, I would likely have stayed there longer. However my own experience catapulted me right out of the whole Christian religion box altogether.
So, to answer Bob more directly, what can a current post-modern Christian church community do to be more relational? We need “religion-less relationships.”
- Every facet of the church ministry, public, and private, needs to be relationally engaging. This means that everything everyone that claims to be a part of this Christian community needs to engage authentically, plan and make room for face to face interaction and connection. Make all the communication as engaging and non-threatening as possible, and encourage different people within the congregation to be “face to face” with people during the public church ministry time. It is never about the “ministry of the few over the many.” It is about the “visibility of the few to the many to create more openness and connection possibilities.”
- Face to face interaction means exactly that, face to face. Don’t hide behind social media or phone calls or emails. Those things are merely the means of making your arrangement to connect face to face. They are not a substitute for connecting face to face.
- Interaction should not be for ministry, but for authentic connection. Let’s be honest, when you have connected in the past in Christian churches, it has always been centered in ministry. The small group meeting was to study a book of the Bible, the pastor’s sermon, or a book study of some author’s best-selling book. I am talking about face to face encounter just for the sake of friendship and belonging, human contact and interaction. Gather to share a meal. Gather to go to a movie. Gather to meet in the park for a walk or a hike. Gather at the local coffee shop and just hang out together.
- Change your mindset and let it be driven by a desire to connect with people. If we are to put people first, as Jesus said, to love God and love people, then that means putting people first, and you should be intentional that when you are trying to connect with people, it is a sincere connection to just be with people.
- All the other “stuff” that usually becomes important, comes through the relationship being first and foremost. When you prioritize just putting people and friendship first, all the other stuff just seems to happen organically, all on its own. Don’t push it. Go with it. Just watch how God weaves your friendship with the hearts of people. It is always best to have no agenda but the agenda of I want to be a better friend to this person. That should be what drives you in your desire to connect with people.
- Some people are desirous of connecting with other people, and need to be encouraged to connect through different social contexts that are provided through the local congregation. I heard one man say that his church has no programs and that it is up to people to reach out to each other and connect. That is pretty intimidating even to people who don’t have a problem mixing in a social context. When you presume that people will connect just because you tell them to when they gather as a larger church gathering, and you don’t offer the means of doing so, like providing a reading club, or a study group, or a men’s group, or a ladies group, or a youth group, and you just presume people will just randomly grab a coffee and chit chat on a Sunday and start connecting, that is what I call the sin of presumption. To me there is nothing worse than saying your church family is relational and you do little to nothing to put the means of actually meeting and interacting at a safe level of encounter through a book club or other meaningful regular event, then you are just asking for your church community to become a group of cliques that meet within four walls, where those outsiders trying to connect are left on their own, like a survivor of the Titanic in the frozen waters seeing a bunch of circling sharks in the water. Church communities need some ministries that meet outside of Sunday and in people’s homes. Without it, you lose people.
- Encourage your leaders and key people in the congregation to invite others and new people to social gatherings for a meal and to get to know people. I went to a church picnic where there were a couple hundred people there. Three people spoke to me. The pastor. A person that I was in line with for my hamburger and hot dog. A person that I had to get by to get to the beach. No one came to my family or I other than the pastor where we were seated for our meal. So meaningful engagement works better when others in the congregation take it upon themselves to face to face invite people to come out and hang out. Another church always posted opportunities to meet and connect in the bulletin, and in public announcement, but those same people did not actually go up to people to face to face interact and invite them to come. It is the face to face interaction that makes the invitation real and authentic and worth taking the risk. If you don’t put your own skin in the game to meaningfully interact with people in the church gathering, why should anyone respond to a generic, vanilla invite? They can just as well just say, “That’s nice,” and then go home. They were not invited personally. They were invited with a generic “everyone come, you are all invited” approach. People need and people want the personal touch, the personal interaction, the sense that they are actually wanted and needed. Without it people just go home, and some may come back, and some may just decide to stay away. A lot of it depends on the face to face interaction and relational opportunities to connect.
- Establish and promote teaching and workshops on building relationships. Do not limit yourself to what the “Bible says” about relationships. One of the axioms of the Reformation was that “all truth is God’s truth” and you will find all this “truth” in all kinds of places and settings. When it comes to developing strong relationships, dealing with conflict and conflict resolution, communication, and all kinds of psychological and social sciences resources, there is a wide array of it available in our communities at large. Do not be hesitant to tap into local college, university, or community programs to get people exposed to resources that will educate, motivate and help in developing long lasting “face to face” relationships.
When it comes to making any kind of “church experience” better, I welcome the opportunity to advance the importance of face to face interaction and real life experience, and to leave the “Christianese” and language and phenomenon of religion in the trash bin.
After that first face to face contact…
If you want to provide a change of what has become the readily available status quo fare of “church life” in post-modern North America, then you need to embrace making your local congregation more relational and engaging and provide a steady diet of face to face interaction. Without it, your church will become a clique with visitors leaving as quickly as they came. Face to face engagement and actual contact right up front, gets it all started moving in the right direction, but you have to put things in place to keep it moving and to build on that first impression.
Samuel M. Buick
Disciples Are Trained Not Born (John Wimber)