Planning and “Working the Plan”

The Texas Conference going through a revolution. Inasmuch as the revolution is based on a widespread failure to accomplish our basic mission (to make disciples), I offer my hearty support.

“What do you mean, ‘Failure to accomplish our basic mission?’ We have Sunday worship every Sunday. We have tons of Sunday school classes. We have meetings galore. What are you talking about?”

The Book of Discipline says our purpose is to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.” If this means simply “have [good] meetings,” we’re doing fine. But if it means to make people who are not disciples into people who are disciples – which seems to be the gist of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 – we’re not doing so hot.

In 2005 over 45% of churches in the Great Texas Annual Conference (“Great” isn’t actually part of our title, we just like to think it is) failed to record a single addition to their congregation by profession of faith. Bishop Huie thinks that’s not acceptable. Even more, she says on the floor of Conference that it’s not acceptable.

Thus the revolution.

Part of the revolution – a big part, just now getting under way – is a congregational transformation process. From what I’ve seen, the questions it makes us ask and the accountability it requires will be good for us.

But I’m cautious about parts of it. One thing in particular is that need to “make a plan” and then “work the plan.” I understand the point here. It’s often been said, “If you don’t aim at anything you’ll likely hit it.” We need to aim at reaching people for Jesus and diligently apply ourselves in carrying through with our mission.

Have you ever heard of a “God of the gaps” theory? It’s most frequently referenced in science. In contexts where some folks think science can explain everything and other folks think you need God to explain things (a frequent factor in discussions of origins), the God folks will work hard to find a gap in the scientists case. After finding a gap – an anomaly that the scientific theories fail to explain – the God folks will point at the gap and say, “See that gap? That’s God.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? But the scientists don’t sit there quietly and say, “Thanks for the help! I guess we can give up looking for an explanation.” Instead, they keep looking. To the chagrin of some of the God folks, some of their gaps have been filled in. Oops. No need for God there. Time to look for more gaps.

That’s what we mean when we talk about a “God of the gaps” approach.

When it comes to fulfilling our mission it sometimes feels like we’re being urged to eschew a “God of the gaps” approach. Study your situation. Make a plan. Work the plan. Be professional about it. Leave no gaps.

If we were merely a corporation or human organization the scientific approach (“eschew all gaps”) might be a fine idea. But when I read the bible I see God’s people continually faced with gaps. Not little dinky gaps either – big huge gaping gaps. And the gaps aren’t due to a lack of planning (“Can you imagine Jesus didn’t call a single disciple with an MBA from Rome U or Jerusalem Tech?”). God apparently likes gaps. God likes us to be in situations where we need him – where if he doesn’t come through we’re toast.

But we don’t like that. We like security. We like predictability. We like a plan with no gaps. No need for God. We can depend on ourselves (remember our motto, “If you want it done right do it yourself?”). We can depend on our pastors (assuming they’ve been to the right seminaries, the right workshops & trainings, and read the right books). We can depend on our lay people. But God, can we trust God? Surely the stakes are too big for us to trust God. Just think how it’ll sound when the DS comes calling and asks to see your plan. “The plan looks nice. Except for these gaps. Here, [the nicer ones will say] read this book. It’ll help you fill in those gaps.”

Am I worried that we’ll settle for the “scientific” approach rather than the “gaps” approach? Not yet. Just wary. In the meantime, I need to remember:

  1. It’s more about God than about me.
  2. We’re out to make disciples “of Jesus Christ” not “of the UMC.”
  3. God wants this more than I/we do.
  4. Gaps give God room to work.
  5. We’re going to have to pray our socks off.
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