If this, then that…

Pioneer sociologist of religion Max Weber wrote about the routinization of charisma in religious groups. A movement would start, led by a charismatic figure. Once the charismatic figure either passed beyond charisma or left the scene, the movement needed to find a way to keep going without the high energy provided by the charisma. The primary way this was done was by establishing routines and procedures to approximate the same results achieved by charisma. Routinization was a form of rationalization, an attempt to understand the charismatic moment, break it down into its constituent parts, and make it transferable to other times and places.

Routinizing charisma is an application of technological thinking: If I do X, Y will happen. If I want Y to happen, then I will commit myself to doing X. The presupposition underlying this way of thinking is that result/state Y is simple enough to be clearly influenced by my doing X, that producing result/state Y is within my power. Current church growth and leadership theories depend on this kind of reasoning. Consider a couple examples.

  1. In only a few years Adam Hamilton has led the Church of the Resurrection to become one of the largest and most dynamic churches in United Methodism. He has done an impressive job of not merely attracting people from other churches, but winning people who did not previously attend any church. As with many who are successful in their field of endeavor, Hamilton has started writing books telling the rest of how to do what he did. In Leading Beyond the Church Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched, Hamilton describes what he did. Though full of many good ideas, I see two main factors behind his success. (1) He was the right person in the right place at the right time; (2) He worked, really, really hard. As to (1), we pastors can’t do much about that. As to (2), we can choose to put in the 60-80 hours a week it looks like Hamilton did. Aside from questions of health, is this technique, or is this just work?
  2. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life is sweeping the nation. Churches of all denominations are using it in 40 Days of Purpose campaigns. In the campaign training material, leaders are admonished over and over again (paraphrased): “Think exponentially. If you’re thinking (tempted?) to start 5 small groups, do 50 instead. Doing the campaign will raise your attendance, your professions of faith, and your membership. Just look how well it works at Saddleback church!” I’m not one of those who thinks Rick Warren is the devil incarnate or that The Purpose Driven Life is an evil book. I think that for the most part it is quite good and useful – though I can tell it is written by a Southern Baptist with Calvinist leanings (no surprise whatever). But again, how much of their success is due to (1) Right person, right place, right time; and (2) Working really, really hard? As to (1), There is nearly infinitely more growth capacity in Southern California than in my town of 4500. As to (2), I know that Warren, like Hamilton at COR, has worked really hard.

The theories of routinization I see at work in Hamilton and Warren (and numerous others) have some weaknesses.

First, in a general sense, they abstract from particular settings to provide principles for universal life. This is completely natural. We do it all the time. It’s called learning from experience. We only have to run into so many particular brick walls to learn that it’s not a pleasant experience. But people and human organization are more complex than brick walls. While we find many commonalities, we also find many differences.

Second, both Hamilton and Warren are church planters. They have been central definers of the church DNA since the beginning. Every church I’ve pastored, however, has the added complexity of a history – of multiple pastors and lay leaders. When you have a new pastor coming every 2-5 years for 150 years, each with a different emphasis, each with a different vision for ministry, it’s not too surprising that our people are either relativists (regarding ministry theories) or fighters (“my way is the right way!”).

Third, and following closely on the heels of my first two observations, the kind of fruit/health/growth people like Hamilton and Warren talk about takes time. Warren didn’t start at ground zero, do a 40 Days campaign and end up with 25,000 people. Warren is right that the Bible depicts significant things happening in 40 day periods. It also shows significant things happening in 40 year periods.

A final observation, still rooted in their tendency to abstract: I think Hamilton, Warren et al., sell themselves short (in an attempt to sell their ideas). From what I’ve seen, most of these leaders are dedicated servants of God who are filled with the Holy Spirit, called to a particular ministry – and blessed in visible ways. In other words, God was necessary – and so was their obedience.

Now I’m going to practice a little abstraction. When we consider the methodological literature of the church growth movement – and the methodological content of much of the preaching in their churches (“How to have a godly/happy family,” “Twenty Steps to Peace with God,” “Seven Principles for Healthy Relationships” – you’ve seen them, I’m sure), I understand what I’m seeing to be instances akin to the Wisdom Literature (think Proverbs) in the Bible. As many have observed (C.S. Lewis in the Abolition of Man is one example), much of this wisdom appears similar to that found in other religious and philosophical traditions. What makes the biblical tradition of wisdom different? Biblical wisdom (at its best) is parasitic on on the narrative of God’s action. Such and such actions are wise precisely because of who God is, who we are in relation to God, and where we now stand in relation to God’s continuing action. Once we see this relation to the narrative – in both its universal and local aspects – we can make sense of some of the conflicts we see in Scriptural wisdom. “Answer a fool according to his folly; Don’t answer a fool according to his folly.” Knowing the abstract principles of wisdom is very good; but what does Proverbs say about the beginning of wisdom? It lies in the fear of the Lord – a healthy ongoing relationship with God. I believe it works the same way with church leadership. Many of the books and principles out there are good (some are just a way for the authors to earn a living), but the starting place is an ongoing healthy relationship with God.

A Christian answer to Weber: Routinization may be useful, but we can’t do without the Charisma (which happens to be drawn from the Greek word for “grace.”)

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