Learning from North Point, part 4

North Point and many other prominent Christians (John Maxwell, Bill Hybels, etc.) look to the secular world to learn about leadership. They find examples in business, politics and the military. The North Point book, 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, is rooted in a baseball metaphor. The thought is that the church is organization, and that although it may be different from other organizations in numerous ways, the likeness is sufficient for us to find models of organization and organizational leadership in effective organizations around us. If this thought it wrong, we might as well toss the book and move on to other things. I do recognize some challenges, however.

The biggest is whether we can do this and remain Christian? Or is it a defeat for the church, evidence that we’ve succumbed to the secular world? [If you want the short answer, skip to the final paragraph] Perhaps, some might suggest, we ought to just leave the particulars up to God. After all, the Christian faith is about mysteries – and mysteries cannot be understood, only experienced.

In the late 18th century William Carey, an English Baptist, observed that many people around the world had no way of hearing the good news of Jesus. At the same time he observed that Jesus had commanded the disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” Nothing controversial there – or so we think. In Carey’s day, however, there was a strong conviction that if God wanted the “heathen” to come to faith He’d do it Himself. It was presumptuous to think humans could have a role in such a work. Perhaps the first Apostles had such a command, but we today – especially a lowly shoemaker like Carey – are not apostles. Responding to such non-missional attitudes, Carey wrote a short booklet, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.

The idiom of “using means” isn’t commonly used today. In the history of missions that follow, “using means” amounted to (a) identifying the need, (b) thinking about how to meet it, and (c) doing something about it. In Carey’s case, he observed people in India who did not know about Jesus. Consulting the New Testament model of Paul’s missionary journeys, Carey decided that the way to meet this need would be for someone to go to India and share the gospel with the people. Acting on this theory, Carey moved his family to India and spent his life translating the bible and presenting the gospel to the people of India.

Most churches today at least tacitly accept Carey’s argument. They send missionaries to the ends of the earth as a reasoned act of obedience to Jesus command to make disciples. Of course it might be argued that this is just an expression of what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma,” the rationalizing of an enterprise after the founder leaves the scene. Jesus has left the scene, his (charismatic) apostles are also long gone. We don’t have the Spirit the same we they did, so we need to depend on “using means” to accomplish what they did through “charisma” alone.

In what follows, I’m going to try to make a case for learning from non-church organizations and leaders. My case (much abbreviated) will have two prongs, one defensive the other offensive.

Is it a defeat for the church to look to the secular world to learn leadership? I think it can be, but it need not be. First, I confess that in my preaching and teaching I maintain a conviction that the Fall and the sin that comes from it are very real. Sin has infected every dimension of our lives. Because of sin we experience four broken relationships that encompass all of life. Sin alienates us from God, from each other, from ourselves and from Creation. All humans experience this brokenness in variety of ways. Because sin and its effects pervade all of life, this brokenness infiltrates not only our lives, but also our institutions, ranging from the family to the business to the State. As I read church history I even notice that the church – God’s own people – has, as an organization, incorporated this brokenness into its very life.

Second, learning from the world around us is nothing new for Christians. Very early on the church looked to Caesar and his empire as they organized the church. After the church was legalized they looked to Caesar’s methods of hierarchy and command and control and often brought them wholesale into the church. Many of our churches are still based on that top-down management style of so-called benevolent paternalism that Caesar claimed.  So in the first case, the choice appears not to be whether we learn from the world but whether we continue learning from the world or simply baptize what our forebears in the faith learned centuries ago as the true organizational principles. We look at the Amish and wonder why they choose 17th century technology as the proper model. We rarely look at ourselves and wonder why 4th or 12th or 18th century organizational styles and leadership practices are the way to go. [After all, many still think the best musical styles for Christians originated centuries ago, and that anything devised since is a perversion. Others think that if Latin was good enough for a millennium of church life, it’s still good enough for today. I’ve even heard ignorant folk suggest that since the KJV was good enough for Jesus, surely it’s good enough for us.] Perhaps in each case of learning fro the world the church is simply applying the Augustinian principle of “plundering the Egyptians.”

Surely we can make mistakes. We don’t have to look far in church history to find occasions when the church copied a destructive model or learned a leadership style that deviated from the teachings of Jesus. When we spend more effort looking at the world than looking at Jesus, we will likely err.

Might it be that we get our ends (the “What”) from Jesus and the means (the “How”) from the world? Picking up the example from Carey and his recovery of the Great Commission, we might say that the “What”  – “Make Disciples of all nations” – is provided by Jesus. In fact, the world would really rather we simply mind our own business and not both making disciples. Be tolerant, live and let live, they tell us. We could then adapt some means (methods) – some “Hows” – from the world. These might include Sunday school classes, bible translations, Evangelistic meetings, books and tracts, TV and radio broadcasts, material inducement (bribes), bait and switch (“Having problems in life? Want to take care of all your problems and become prosperous along the way? Come join our church!”), or force (“If you become a follower of Jesus we won’t kill you/raise your taxes, etc.”).

Well maybe that strategy doesn’t work so well after all. While the first few methods seem fairly harmless, the latter strike us as antithetical to the character of Jesus. So while we may legitimately (so it appears) take some methods from the world, we cannot do so indiscriminately. At the same time, I believe that not only will the ends we pursue be drawn from Jesus, but also the foundational methods we rely on to achieve them. The first of these methods is fairly easily understood but strongly resists the routinizing we prefer in our search for principles. Jesus’ first method of pursuing his ends was to seek the Father and then obey him. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? A second method, however, one that seems to have resulted from the first is suffering. Through obedience to the Father his pursuit of our salvation led to his death on the cross. Over and over again throughout scripture – from Jesus’ own “Take up your cross and follow me” – the message is that the suffering of the righteous is, strangely enough, God’s way of winning the world.

How does this help us in our quest to discern first, if we can learn from the world, and, secondly, how we can learn from it? Here’s a suggestion. Whatever we adopt from the world must fit within the story of Jesus, a story of the Son of God motivated by love, who came to live as one of us, listened to and obeyed the Father at every turn, and suffered and died for the sins of the world. If what we learn fits with that story, then were doing ok. It maybe that the church will, on occasion, adopt a practice that seems to fit the story of Jesus. Later, however, as the church does what it has learned from the world, it comes to be seen that the method doesn’t fit with the way of Jesus. At that point the church – if healthy (listening and obeying, that is) – will repent and drop the method. I realize this is vastly oversimplified. Not only do we have methods, but we have methods of doing methods ad infinitum. At no time will the church be able to sit back and relax, thinking its work of discernment is done.

Consideration of the story of Jesus leads to the final defensive point I’ll make and also to my offensive case. Remember my claim that sin causes brokenness in four kinds of relationships? Likewise, the salvation Jesus brings offers healing and deliverance in each of these areas. Jesus died and rose not merely so I could have a renewed and restored relationship with God, but also such relationships with others, myself and all of creation. Because salvation – like sin – goes beyond the individual, the sacred-secular dichotomy is not as absolute as we sometimes think. Partly because some Christians work in the world (in my church the vast majority of members are employed outside the church), Christians have infiltrated the secular. While on occasion this might work to the detriment of the Christian, surely sometimes it works to the benefit of the secular – of the organizations in which they find themselves. It is also possible that on occasion a non-Christian may – knowingly or unknowingly – be attracted to Jesus and learn from Him. His ways do, after all, depict how life is best to be lived. So when we learn from the world, we are not learning from institutions that are completely free of grace or the work of God.

At the least, I hope my defensive case has inclined you to believe that learning from the world (or, more accurately, from non-church institutions) need not be an evil. What about the positive case? Just because it need not be bad, ought we to do it? My offensive case will be much briefer.

Let’s pick up the story of Jesus again, this time looking backwards to the beginning – the very beginning. In the beginning God created some humans. He put them in a perfect environment and appointed them stewards over creation. This work – this ruling over creation – is a significant aspect, I believe, of their being created in God’s image. As beings created in the image of God, humans were made with creativity. God delighted not only in creating things, but in creating mini-creators. Though our powers are immensely less than God’s – no creatio ex nihilo for us – our creativity is still a significant part of us. The advent of sin did not remove our creativity but warped it, leading us to habitually use it in harmful and destructive ways. We don’t have to look far – either in history or in the world around us – to see the death and destruction wrought by human creativity. This creativity is creativity not submitted to God and his purposes. But need it be that way?

John Wesley claimed that because of the Atonement – the work of Jesus – we do not live in a state of nature, a state devoid of grace. Because of God’s Prevenient Grace not all human creativity echoes death. Some, in fact, hauntingly points us to God. Even more, as people turn to Jesus and begin to experience his salvation, their creative powers are employed in new ways, ways directly subservient to God. I propose that our learning of leadership fits within these parameters. As we “use means” in the leadership of our churches – that is (a) identify problems; (b) think of solutions; (c) pursue those solutions – we are using our God-given and Jesus-redeemed creativity. While God can create from nothing, we can’t – we can only use the materials we find at hand, in this case, non-church organizational practices. As a sculptor fashions a statue from a piece of marble, we fashion a practice from the materials we find in the world around us. Instead of chisels and hammers we use prayer, study, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines, but it is creativity nonetheless.

So – may we learn from the world? Yes, but it’s hard work to do it well. But most things in life that are worth while are that way.

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