Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cars are for travel, not talking

Once upon a time we had a talking car. I hated that vehicle. I won’t give away the company—it’s in enough trouble already—but my hunch is the idea emerged when a few auto nerds had too much punch at a party. It’s one thing being trapped with a passenger who won’t hush up, but when it’s the automobile itself, that can drive you around the bend.

Come to think of it, the idea may have been a stroke of marketing genius. In the late ’80s, when music was all about the synthesizer, why not have cars that sounded the same? Perhaps this was simply cultural synthesis in its most logical form. In the age of the technological gimmick, that’s precisely what our family car was.

One of the neglected pieces of being the church in this post-Christian age is the way we design things. Over time, churches tend to add new layers and dimensions of structure that only end up frustrating, rather than liberating. In fact, some of our structures and levels of committee bureaucracies, although well intentioned, actually work to hinder being a mission-shaped people, rather than aiding it. Some believe the church should be structure-free, but I have yet to see a body that worked well without a skeleton.

That, however, is the least of most churches’ concerns. Many established congregations are over-endowed structurally. The majority of people-gifts and ministry time is expended in justifying and legitimizing how we “run” the church, as opposed to releasing people-gifts for Christ-centred ministry involvement with the whole of life. We spend a lot of time trying to get a car to talk and very little time just making it drive well.

When I finally had the chance—and money—to buy my own vehicle, I determined it would be as simple as possible. It would definitely not talk. A car is meant for transportation; I don’t need it to be my therapist.

Similarly, what might happen if we simplified our church structures with mobility and the forward movement of the kingdom of God as our prime values? Volunteers simply want their spiritual and natural gifts to be shared with purpose. To release our people, and thereby our churches, in this way, may I make some humble suggestions:
• First, ask committees to be leaders in mobilization of gifts and mission, rather than doers of deeds. Such teams should lead the church into effective ministry, not do ministry for the church.
• Second, simplify your bureaucracy as much as possible. Take a hard, honest evaluation of whether you are unnecessarily over-structured and then repent of it, simplify, and move on. Most structure that begins as a good idea is only “good” for so long and then needs to be rethought. That’s not bad, it’s called being awake to your context and the leading of the Spirit. Even Moses needed to be challenged on this when it came to leading well in a new day (Exodus 18).
• Third, design your structures with God’s glory and the good of people in mind. Over time, we can become slaves to our structures. We call that idolatry. We must design things with biblical wisdom in mind, recognizing that the “right” way to structure is not outlined in Scripture. If our structures do not empower God-glorifying service to people, then they’re probably about as helpful, not to mention as frustrating, as a talking car.