We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, November 22, 2013

Church Renewal as Jargon

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich offers churches and pastors a five point program for moving forward.  In his first point, he states, "First, don’t expect to find a single answer that’s applicable everywhere. Be an entrepreneur, in the way Jesus was an entrepreneur, namely, adapting to the context; having a fervent vision but flexible methods; focusing on outcomes (transformed lives), not consistency of practice; working outside institutions; being a disruptive force."

For those of us laboring in the field, this type of trendy injunction is worse that worthless.  We already know our situation is unique and have found out that a goodly portion of the church renewal literature is based on case studies that don't fit our own situation very well.  So, we're supposed to be an "entrepreneur" like Jesus?  If we stick to the Google definition of the word, "entrepreneur" means, "a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so." OK, we more or less get what that means, but strictly speaking churches aren't businesses and pastors aren't in business.  We don't have an easily measured (or even measurable) bottom line, and it is not at all clear what a "normal risk" in church settings might be esp. when we have already been reminded that there is no such thing as a "normal" situation.  They are all unique.  Any pastor who has served in more than one congregation learns through trial and error that risky behavior in one church is hardly noticed in another—and there are no "normal" risks because all are uniquely risky.

So, yes, we have to adapt to each context, be flexible, and pay attention to what works.  That is called living and while entirely true doesn't help an individual church governing board or pastor figure out what to actually do to address the situation in which they find themselves.  These are just nice words that don't take us anywhere, and we esp. should be warned by fact that the Wikipedia article on "entrepreneurship" refers to it as a "buzz word" that has become recently popular.

Associating Jesus with entrepreneurship, furthermore, is silly and profoundly not helpful.  Jesus was not an entrepreneur.  He was a first century Jewish prophet.  He is for Christians the Christ, the messiah.  He didn't run a 21st century business.  He didn't even have an organization.  And of course he adapted to his context.  He was born into it, ate it, spoke it, lived it, and shared its values and ways.  The vast majority of us learn to adapt to our birth culture, and impressive numbers of people learn to adapt to a second culture.  The process is called socialization.

Ehrich's closing advice, namely that we work outside of institutions as a disruptive force, is particularly ill-advised.  Pastors are called by an institution to both serve and exercise leadership within the institution.  They are paid as members of the institution's staff.  In mainline churches, the challenge pastors face is that they are working within an institution and must.  As for being a "disruptive force," that is a dangerous piece of advice that any wise, experienced pastor or other church leader will treat with deserved suspicion.  There are times when a good leader challenges the flock and, perhaps, disrupts the normal routine.  In the great majority of circumstances and in the daily life of a congregation, however, the goal of all church leaders is to build up the community of faith, nurture it, encourage it to greater health, and provide support for its members.  In particular, pastors and other church leaders are not prophets in the Old Testament sense of the role.  Sometimes they have to behave prophetically, but not as a steady day-in-day-out way of leading.  Engaging in conflict, which is what "being a disruptive force" means, is always a tricky and dangerous thing.  It happens and can't be avoided sometimes, but as a steady diet is unhealthy and destructive.

In short, this first item in Ehrich's agenda is unhelpful and ill-advised.  It sounds profound, superficially, but in truth it is just so much jargon.  That is one of the problems with the literature on church renewal.  It is filled to over-flowing with advice that sounds profound but isn't really anything more than jargon in search of profundity.