See, Know & Serve The People Within Your Reach

October 4th, 2013

The transition between Christendom and post-Christendom is still unfolding at different speeds, with unique twists, in diverse contexts. Some regions and publics are transitioning faster and some slower. Each culture experiences special and often unexpected implications. This is why standardizing ministry practices, or replicating “best practices” from one church to another, has been so unsuccessful in growing God’s mission.

Christian leaders often talk about the gap between “church” and “culture.” We imagine two ships passing in the night. “Church” is one ship, and “culture” is the other. It’s not that simple! A more accurate metaphor is that even in the crowded shipping lanes of the emerging post-Christendom world, when religions of all kinds are carrying exotic cargos to foreign destinations, flotillas of churches are managing to pass hundreds of microcultures without even getting into hailing distance of one another.

The great debate in this transition period has been between relevancy and integrity. The debate has unfolded as if these represented two extremes of a polarity. It assumes that those who try to be relevant must necessarily sacrifice integrity, and those who try to preserve integrity inevitably sacrifice relevance. Church leaders scramble to find the right balance. Chaos ensues.

Starting with the apostolic experience of the “Mission to the Gentiles,” and repeated often in the history of missionary churches, we see that relevance and integrity are not either/or choices. It is possible to be both relevant and faithful to the integrity of Christian faith and the import of Christian practice. How is this possible?

First, it is possible to be both relevant and faithful because the Holy Spirit simultaneously employs and shatters all cultural forms. God can use anything—literally anything—as a vehicle for the Gospel. However, God will not allow anything—literally anything—to usurp the preeminence of the Gospel.

This means that God can use any cultural form for hospitality, worship, education, small groups, and outreach. God can use any cultural form of property, symbolism, or technology; or any cultural form of financial management, fund-raising, or administration; or any cultural form of communication. God can also use any individual, shaped by any cultural experience, to lead any church, in any context. God can use anything!

On the other hand, this also means that God will shatter, break, discard, and throw out any cultural form that attempts to supplant the gospel as the raison d’être (reason for being) of a church. There can be no sacred forms. There can be no sacred food groups to serve in hospitality; no sacred music, musical instruments, artistic expressions, languages, or ceremonies; no sacred programs, curricula, or educational methodologies; no sacred locations, properties, or technologies; no sacred stewardship strategies and administrative structures; no sacred communication vehicles. Not even the leader can be “sacred” in himself or herself. Nothing is sacred by God. If a cultural form mediates the incarnation of God, well and good; if it overtly or even inadvertently claims to be God, it will be rejected.

The test of this principle has often been worship. Christian leaders in the transition time from Christendom to post-Christendom have hotly debated (and occasionally resorted to fisticuffs), arguing about “good worship.” The ancients would remind us that the only good worship is worship that reveals God incarnate. If it does that, it’s good . . . even if it entails rap music and holy laughter. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not only inappropriate but sinful . . . even if it entails plainsong and expository preaching.

Among the majority of Christian churches in the world, the real test of this principle is Eucharist or Mass. Debates rage in the period of transition between east and west, young and old, innovators and classicists, cathedrals and battlefields over the relevance and integrityof Holy Communion. The ancients would remind us that the essence of Eucharist is the regular experience of the real presence of Christ. If Christ is really with us, exactly how that came about doesn’t really matter.

Usually, when I say things like that, alarms ring and stress increases among the audience. Surely I must be implying that old traditions and beloved practices are obsolete! Yet if you listen carefully, I am saying nothing of the kind. If any given practice of Holy Communion works, by all means keep doing it! If a particular public experiences the real presence of Christ in some traditional way, praise the Lord! I am also saying that what works for one public, in one context, at one time, may not work for another public, in another context, at another time. Even the public that once was blessed with the real presence of Christ may change over time and urgently need to experience Christ in fresh ways.

And the publics are changing! Populations are migrating. Communities are evolving. Lifestyle segments are diversifying. If you blink, it’s different.

It is possible to be both relevant and faithful because we now have more objective ways to track the changing expectations of the publics surrounding a church. The apostles and their mission teams relied on their personal intuition to figure out what would work best in order to bless the Philippians, the Ephesians, the Romans, the Iberians, and eventually the Nova Scotians, the Iowans, and the San Franciscans. That worked, partly because they were good listeners and keen observers, but mainly because life spans were shorter and most people stayed put. The same intuition today leads only to personal bias. It spawns hidden agendas, subtle manipulations, and ideological crusades. It tempts controlling and charismatic individuals to shape the church around themselves.

Today we have sophisticated, and remarkably accurate, demographic research methodologies with which to understand publics and target missions. We can explore in detail more than seventy distinct lifestyle segments in the United States and Canada alone, and many more distinct groups in Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. The data in this information age are accumulating exponentially and systematically. Computers not only enhance our intuition but also challenge our preconceptions and critique our motivations. Christian leaders can now design mission, and if asked why they choose one tactic over another, the response does not have to be “Trust me!” Individual intuition is grounded in objective research.

This does not mean that intuition is unimportant. Even when all the data have been collected and sifted, there is no substitute for listening and observing in the mission field. Much qualitative data will only be gathered in person and interpreted through experience. The very filters we use to sift and interpret information (including the filters I describe here) are going to evolve and change.

Research and development is not a “plug and play” process. It is not automated. The human factor and the Spirit factor are still there. Church leaders cannot just run the computer, print out a report, implement a program, and watch the church grow or the mission field change without once leaving the office, kneeling in prayer, or breaking a sweat.

Nevertheless, strategic planning today is a great deal more objective than it was for the ancients. We don’t need to just rely on the opinion of the most charismatic leader, hunker down for weeks of church council discussions, close our eyes and hope for the best, or even open our eyes and fear the worst. We have information. We have methods to retrieve and sort that information. We have objective ways to make strategic plans, manage risk, learn from failures, and never give up trying to bless the explosion of diversity that is the way of our world.

Excerpted from: See, Know & Serve The People Within Your Reach by Thomas G. Bandy. Copyright © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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