Individual vs. Collective

Listening to Peter Harrison’s fifth Gifford Lecture as I drove to Marshall today, I heard his description of a shift from natural philosophy to science in the early modern period. Under the old paradigm (and I use Kuhn’s term intentionally), natural philosophy (what we would today call science) was done to bring about change in the individual. One learned about nature so as to conform oneself more fully and appropriately with it, to grow in moral character, to better oneself. Progress on this model was measured in individual terms.

In the early 17th century, a shift took place. Now progress began to be seen as cumulative, as encompassing all the changes that took place in humanity together. It was no longer an issue of MY getting closer to a goal (Christ-like-ness, say), but OUR knowing and understanding more. In one sense, it is a movement from the internal to the external.

A similar shift may be taking place in church leadership theory these days. I see it as I read Bishop Willimon’s book, Bishop. Once upon a time the effectiveness of pastoral leadership was measured in terms of what happened in the lives of congregants. Were they happy and holy? Were they growing in Christlikeness? Did love rule? Now effectiveness is measured in terms of growth. Are more people becoming Christians? Are more people engaging in ministry? Are people tithing and generous?

I’d rather not have to choose between the two, though I understand why Willimon and others are suggesting the shift. The old model of individual change toward Christlikeness has been so watered down that our only goal is niceness. (Check out Stanley Hauerwas’s autobiography, Hannah’s Child, if you want to see some illustrations of this.) In my assessment, this is not because individual holiness is a bad idea, but because we’ve shorn it of solid and substantive theological content. H. Richard Niebuhr summarized the loss pithily:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.

Deprived of substantial theological vision, we took as our goals tepid secular values like niceness and tolerance, poor substitutes for Christian virtues like love, patience and self-control.

So how ought we to measure pastoral (or church) effectiveness? Is it the individual or the collective? Do we look inside people or at institutional numbers?

I want to look inside. Any ministry, any church, that’s not leading to real life change in the direction of Jesus, is not a ministry worth keeping. But this inside work is not a work that is adequately described only in terms of what happens on the inside. There will be real world consequences for a soul renewed in the image of Jesus.

I also want to look outside. Any ministry, any church, that’s not drawing more people to faith in Jesus, is missing the boat. Jesus clearly says in scripture that he wants all people to come to him. He clearly teaches that our following him in the world has effects in the world. But this outside work is just as complicated and problematic as the inside work. If we take Jesus as our example of Christian leadership, we see a man who eventually developed a following of thousands – til he lost them all. His ministry elicited not only excitement and power, but fear and opposition. A truly healthy Jesus-style ministry today should expect nothing less.

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This entry was posted in church growth, Discipleship, Leadership, Spirituality, Theology, United Methodism, Will Willimon. Bookmark the permalink.

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