Whether we realize it or not, all of us are leading in a multiplicity of ways all the time and while we may lead well verbally, our actions and posture may be saying something else! Leading well is as much an art form as it's models and strategies. One such example of this is how we handle obstacles, difficult people or daunting trends. How we respond to them can either launch us into innovation or leave us hunkering down in a wine press!
There is no shortage of doomsday prophets proclaiming woe to Church. Yes, there are some legitimate challenges facing the Church, but we are talking about the same thing Jesus Himself declared "the gates of Hell would not overcome"! So embedded in each challenge are opportunities for innovation, creativity, connection and renewed life!
Here are 5 challenges facing the leaders of Christian communities and some of the opportunities within them:
People in General
There is a fairly popular saying among pastors that while humorous, reveals a bit (okay - a lot!) of truth. The saying goes “Leading a Church would be awesome if it weren't for the people". The truth is, as a leader, we deal with all sorts of people in a variety of situations and this often reveals the “bad and the ugly” in people. The reality is, working with people is difficult - the complexity of interpersonal relations is a breeding ground for disputes and pettiness.
While people are in fact a source of stress and challenge, I am encouraged to consider the incarnation - the idea that God meets us where we are at - yet while we were still sinners... This will help us to remember that while the Church is meant to be a loving reflection of the Kingdom, we are also on a journey of becoming - becoming communities of love and becoming people of love. The process is facilitated in the context of community - a place where we are safe, accepted while we all deal with the issues of our personal and corporate life together. This can be incredibly messy! However, this perspective will help us approach our communities with more realistic expectations.
Being a pastor is about being faithful to that which you are called and the quality of response to that call. You are responsible to the people you serve to that end. The challenge is to resist the temptation of feeling responsible for the people. Responsible for people's behavior and choices - healthy or otherwise. Taking on the responsibility that rightly belongs to those you serve will stunt their growth, frustrate you, burn you out and set you up for a nasty co-dependency in your communities, which will never find you on the winning end!
The opportunity is for our communities to grow up while we are realistic about the journey. It also affords us the opportunity to learn to love and care for those we serve without feeling personally responsible for their decisions, even their decision to not grow in Christ. You will be amazed how your stress level will diminish significantly, your passion for ministry will be renewed and a revitalized, and increased creativity and innovation when you release people from your expectations, release yourself from the burden of false responsibility and simply love them where they are at!
People are busy!
This is a reality of life in 2017. Life is often lived at a frenetic pace and balancing life, family, home - work all week, get kids to activities, manage the home, fall into bed and up early to start all over again - is a significant challenge. The weekend hits and it's the opportunity to take care of the household chores that had to wait all week. Yah - we get it! It’s busy!
It is my conviction, that if the greatest social issue in the New Testament was widows and orphans, the greatest social issue today is a deep sense of loneliness. Busy should not be interpreted as a cure for this loneliness. This loneliness does not relent with activity but with a genuine community where we can connect in meaningful ways with other people - in ways that we can be known as we truly are, and still feel safe and accepted.
The key opportunity for us is to facilitate quality contexts that facilitate this kind of connection with each other. It is time to abandon the industrial revolution approach to ministry where efficiency is king, to the kinds of programs which are respectful of people's lives, the time they have available and that is deliberate at addressing the loneliness issue in people's lives. These programs will tend to be simple and more accommodating.
While fewer in number, new programs are scheduled at times and locales which work for people in the lives they live. These programs will not only seek to impart information and experience but foster healthy relationships that epitomize Kingdom community - this is more a process of gardening than engineering.
Moreover, this is an opportunity to help people learn to cultivate meaning and deeper relationship with Jesus, and an invitation into something bigger than themselves, into a community, based upon love. A community where each person is responsible not only for themselves but to others in the community. Healthy leadership will understand this is a process and will commit to a healthy leadership of serving, will watch out for legalism, exclusivity, and protectionism, and look to facilitate healthy open ways of relating to each other.
People are sophisticated consumers.
Our culture has produced proficient and somewhat discerning consumers. They are typically marketing - hype savvy folks who are becoming more discerning because they are having to learn in this economic climate that they can’t have it all. People are also coming to realize that most of today's "product offerings" are deep in promise and shallow on delivering.
The bottom line is - 'what you win them with is what you have to keep them with' - if you win them with entertainment and a good show, you have to keep them with it. This requires money and people to keep the show going. As recent research reveals, this style of ministry consumes more life (money, volunteers, etc.) than it produces. It also reinforces the consumerism within the church - a relationship of quid pro quo - what have you done for me recently? This inherently leads to spectators not necessarily participants or community. This will continue to drive Pastors to make sure they have the "best show" in town.
Stepping off the hamster wheel will help you re-position your ministry into niche's where folks who are looking for a deeper relationship with God, community, and meaning are gathering, and allow you to allocate your resources in more effective ways that will gain momentum naturally instead of you having to keep the plates spinning. Look for simple and meaningful ways to engage people in ways in which they can personally invest. As a sense of authentic, healthy community is cultivated, a sense of belonging, healthy ownership and fidelity will emerge. The measure of success changes from quantity to quality, and more meaningful engagement with God, each other and ourselves. This engages people in ways the "big show" cannot.
We live in an information age and we have access to information like no other time in history. Where in the past the elite would control the flow of information / knowledge, now that knowledge can be gained very easily from many sources. Educational systems are awakening to this reality and many are re-tooling the way in which they view education. Not just to impart information but the quality and kinds of information that are best suited to the learning needs of the culture. In addition, there is a growing emphasis on critical thinking - this serves to help students learn how to evaluate the information they have at their fingertips.
This is a wonderful opportunity for us in Church communities. While foundational information will continue to be important, we need to help people to see the significance and relevance of faith in their real life today. Not shrinking back from science, psychology, social science or playing on the peripheries of politics and social issues but equipping the folks we serve to evaluate information in light of faith. If in fact, our faith is true (I believe it to be so), then we really don’t have anything to be afraid of. The cultivation of Kingdom values for this end is key and then facilitate people learning to apply these values. Learning to be comfortable with apparent paradoxes but having healthy, intelligent and faithful reasons for believing and acting the way they do. A little reminder: these have to be rooted in reality or they will crash and burn the first time they collide with the real world they live in!
Propositional knowledge can puff up and experiential knowledge can blow up! The kinds of ways we know something needs to be balanced. We need both revelation and illumination, and our teaching cannot be isolated from real life experience.
Suspicion of Institution and formalized structures.
It is growing at an alarming rate. People are becoming disillusioned by institutional forms of almost anything - education, government and yes, church. The reality is, institution will always draw life to its centre and the health of the institution usually trumps the needs of the people. The institutions established by people to serve life, without exception, ends up being the largest consumer of life. Being aware of this fact will help us mitigate the consequences of this.
The church is not on the decline, rather the ways people are doing church are changing. The transition to non-traditional forms of church is gaining momentum - not shrinking - the challenge is the traditional ways of measuring and identifying are simply not applicable to what is happening. Regardless, there are a number of opportunities in this trend to reach and resource people for healthy faith even if the relationships manifest are not traditional.
A few tweaks can also go a long way to addressing some of the key issues and spur some exciting and meaningful ministry. Understanding what exactly people are reacting to and looking for will provide wonderful opportunities for dialogue, to address people concerns and facilitate better, healthier communication. More over, it will help you minister to those who may be searching for Church next in your midst. Heavy handed, authority grabs, accusations, labels, and assumptions will only re-enforce their critique.
Solid opportunities in the midst of
Very real challenges for the Church now but are opportunities for Church Next. Opportunities for creativity, innovation, deeper reach into society and greater impact! This is not for the faint of heart and will require a re-examination of core values and an honest assessment of how we express these values. This will go a long way in helping us to determine how best to position our ministries to achieve our goals. We need to be courageous to examine our goals - most specifically our unstated goals, how we measure success in the Kingdom. Our structures cannot be static and must change to serve life, to serve the people we serve. We will not succeed with a ‘business as usual’ approach to church and the need for new, responsive structures for community, discipleship, mission and leadership will no longer be able to attract, force, coerce, entice people to shape their lives around the efficient operation of our programs. The opportunity to recapture the apostolic nature of the Church and re-tool our structures and mindsets will go a long way to meet and meaningfully engage people where they are at, in real life. The challenges facing the church are real but the opportunities these challenges present are truly exciting.