Friday, April 24, 2009

What the Bishop Said, Part 2: Relationships over Programs and Structures

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, I'm exploring four "core values" offered by my Bishop Peter Rogness, to lift up the ways I see them align with a house church expression. Peter's first value is this:

Relationships are more life-giving than programs or structures.

It's tempting just to write QED and move on to the next post, but I'll expound a bit anyway.

He's absolutely right of course. Relationships must have primacy over programs and structures, and the latter should be evaluated on the basis of how they contribute to the former. Sort of a "Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath" kind of thing (Mark 2:27). I'm convinced we desperately need to make the changes that would reflect having relationships as a real priority.

So, how do we act on this value?

In conventional congregations, it's going to be tough sledding. Most of our resources there are invested in large group activities that are inherently less able to nurture relationships, Sunday morning worship being the most prominent example. (I've written more about this fundamental mis-alignment here.) Programs and structures are already in place - dare I say entrenched - and institutional inertia is a hard force to overcome. Not to mention the chronic challenge of funding even when we're not in a historic recession. But this re-prioritization is important work and it needs to be done. At a minimum, there needs to be an emphasis on nurturing small groups or perhaps "counting conversations" as Reggie McNeal has suggested. Kudos to Peter for putting relationships at the top of his list.

But there is another option: start fresh. Start new communities that are centered on the primacy of relationships from the outset and let them generate the programs and structures they need to support that kind of life. New communities, where the small group is the primary expression rather than a programmatic add-on. In a word, house churches.

It's not an either/or situation. I do not believe we should abandon conventional churches rather than take on the hard work of re-aligning their priorities. But I do believe we should add another strategy, and invest at least some of our time, energy and funding in an approach that's naturally aligned with the primacy and priority of relationships.

If we want to take Peter seriously, and I believe we should, I think that's what we'll need to do.


Brian said...

Good thoughts Tim. Though I wonder if many of our denominational leaders are thinking such thoughts as your bishop. I think most mainline denominations have veered way off into the irrelevant doldrums of institutional drift yet still believe that mere top down command & control can bring vital forward change to the landscape of Christian expressions in the West. But kudos to someone within the power structures of his denomination giving voice to the primary importance of relationship & outreach/Missio Dei (and I fully agree with you that simple/organic/house churches must embrace their more conventional denominational brothers & sisters; doing their best to resist anger & attitudes of arrogance or repudiation).

But with that said I'm not so sure many people inside church buildings or w/n the crumbling Corpus Christianum know much about relationship as commitment or that relationship entails an ethos of sacrifice. It seems that many Christians opt toward relationship as mere convenience rather than as an expression of faith; buying into the cheapened notion that love is merely a feeling & not much else beyond that. Many Christians have not yet learned to love into relationships when it is inconvenient to them. That is, our beliefs have not yet reached our hands & our feet despite the constant sermonizing on love of one's neighbor.

I'm convinced that if current Christians begin to love in their relationships with an ethos of commitment, sacrifice, & a bold disposition toward forgiveness (living into a robust Christology) than "repairing the breach" may indeed work at a denominational level. That is, if Lutherans around the country began 'loving their neighbor' consistently, concretely, & authentically than a renaissance in Lutheranism may occur. But I don't think Lutherans or in my case, Presbyterians, will be out pulling weeds for their sick neighbor tomorrow or next month until that becomes the absolute top institutional priority.

And is that at all possible?

Just think if one of the many Presbyterian denominations sold all of their property world-wide in order to make the dispersal of clean-water technology to all corners of the world their institutional goal of tangibly "loving one's neighbor" how much it could mobilize a denominational tribe of people in putting their best practices & talents to the service of the Kingdom of God. Certainly a number of people would leave their Presbyterian church for sure because they want their building, their pulpit, & their organ - BUT it would certainly captivate the imagination, dreams, & work ethic of young & old alike across the globe. Suddenly to be Presbyterian doesn't mean being old and on some irrelevant committee anymore . . . It now means to be a people on a mission giving water to people everywhere in the name of Jesus. Watch the denominational resurgence happen overnight. If Lutherans did that as a tangible expression of love of neighbor in the name of Jesus I'd become a Lutheran within the hour despite our nominal doctrinal differences because Lutherans are putting their money where their mouth is. That's when being a Lutheran or a Presbyterian becomes an asset - not as an asset unto itself but an asset to the world (and don't mishear me, I like most Lutherans I meet).

But this is not bound to happen any time soon because big bureaucratic institutions (be they GM or the PCUSA) get caught up in scheming to save the brand name while ironically the very salvation of the institution hinges on whether or not the institution is willing to sacrifice some irrelevant departments in order to provide that which the world truly needs. GM - better cars. PCUSA - faith in action.

Sorry for the long comment - but your posts triggered some thoughts that have been stirring up inside me as of late. Keep up the work Tim. I enjoy reading your posts. Shalom.

Feral Pastor said...

Thanks for all your thoughts, Brian! There's so much I'd like to follow-up on but I'll try to limit myself to two for now. (I expect I'll return to your thoughts in later posts in the series as well.)

Your vision of a denomination sacrificing it's assets for the sake of water for others is inspiring. It's similar to a dream I've had, that each denomination might simply pick a struggling country and make a ten year commitment to direct a full tithe of their income to the welfare of that country's people in the name of Jesus. And in addition, they would encourage all of their congregations and members to follow suit, investing any way they can in blessing the people of the selected country. Then after ten years, pick another "neighbor" to bless and invite the people of the first to join you in that work. Maybe I'll explore that dream in another post.

But for this one, with it's focus on relationships, I want to lift up one thing you said which I think is key:

"...relationship as commitment (that) entails an ethos of sacrifice."

I think you've hooked a mighty big fish there.

The real goal is not relationships per se, but relationships like that. Relationships of Christlike love: love characterized by sacrifice.

If we don't build those kinds of relationships, it won't matter much whether the people gather in houses or cathedrals. If we're unwilling to sacrifice, we're unlikely to accomplish much in outreach or to repair much of the breach.

And if relationships are not a top priority in the first place, small wonder then that sacrificial love seems so rare, even in the church. So it is the right place to start.

But in those relationships, people need to learn to love like Jesus loves. And I often get the sense that so few people seem to love that way because so few people actually feel loved. "We love because he first loved us" John tells us. And we believe he really does love us, yet we rarely see love shown in the same way by us. Where's the disconnect? I think for many, and many days myself included, they simply don't experience the love that's there.

How do we deal with that?

One thing's for sure, it won't be through programs and structures.

It's got to be done in relationships.