I think this bumper sticker offers insight into why so many churches are stuck on a plateau or in decline. Because if God is only the co-pilot, then we are still driving the bus, controlling the trajectory, making sure we are going where we want to go.
Whose Church Is it, Anyway?
There is an inflection point in the continuum of the Christian walk. As we walk deeper into the scriptures, into prayer and meditation, into the marks of discipleship, we gain more and more insight into the mind of Christ. There is a point of maturity in the Christian walk when one realizes, "It's not about me, it's not about what I want, not about what makes me comfortable. It's about God. This is not my church, it’s God’s church." Too often, people see spirituality as a place, the sanctuary on Sunday morning, not as a journey that goes on every day, in every place we inhabit, our work, our homes, our relationships, our community.
The Illusion of Keeping People Happy
Sadly, many churches persist in the folly of trying to please everyone. It's an impossible task, leading to simmering conflict with no real way to express or deal with it. In such places, the preferred mode of dealing with conflict is to avoid it, to sweep it under the rug. In reality, no one ends up satisfied in such a church, because we all have our own wants, our likes and dislikes. Whether it is worship style, how often communion is offered, who visits in the hospital, or whether to allow the youth group to hold a car wash, we can find ways to disagree. When a church organizes itself around people’s wants (as opposed to their needs), a consumer church emerges.
Bill Easum likes to say that in the absence of clarity of mission, vision and values, churches operate in a fog. And in a fog, you will always have foghorns, people who will sound off when you veer from what they consider the right path. Easum says it only takes two or three foghorns, or one on staff, to lock up a church and keep it from moving forward in a healthy manner. Without a clear vision establishing boundaries, any direction is OK. Without such a framework, the good people of Christ wander off in all directions. Moving forward in any particular direction is like herding cats.
How Do We Choose Our Church Leaders?
Several years ago, after I had created much pain in the wake of my attempts (as a layman without support from the pulpit) to create transformation in my mid-sized church, I attended another Easum workshop. I asked him this question: “Where does transformation start? I’m pretty sure I started in the wrong place.” Bill told me something I have shared with every church I have consulted with, “Transformation starts with spiritual leadership; it’s the only place it can start.”
Most churches I’ve consulted with don’t have any written expectations that would guide the selection of the church council. Sure, there are procedures describing nominating committees and such, but not a set of norms and expectations for leaders. The counsel I give is that nominating committees should follow one principle: Seek leaders, those whose advice others listen to and will follow, but only those who are growing spiritually and willing to personally commit to the marks of discipleship.
First Multiply Disciples, Then Multiply Leaders, Then Multiply Churches
I heard this simple but profound statement at an Exponential church planting conference. I had never thought of it like this before. Once I heard it, I wondered why it wasn't more obvious to me. When we skip the step of making disciples and begin by multiplying leaders, what is the result? We end up with a membership church, not a discipleship community. And if the formal leadership--the council--is not personally engaged in growing their relationship with God through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, reading the Bible, and living out life in a small group, how can we expect them to hear the still, small voice of God and act accordingly?
So even if the pastor casts a Spirit-led vision, will it resonate with the lay leaders if they are not in close touch with the Spirit themselves? How long will pastors continue to cast a vision of discipleship if it doesn’t move the lay leaders? You can preach discipleship week after week from the pulpit, but if the lay leaders aren’t buying it, the rest of the congregation is off the hook. We churchgoers sit out in the pews saying to ourselves, “When the leaders start showing they are serious about this discipleship stuff, then maybe I’ll listen.” In his book Transitioning, Dan Southerland wrote, “If you think you are leading, look around and see if anyone is following. If not, you’re just taking a walk in the woods.”
Dan also illustrates the danger of getting too far ahead of the flock. “The difference between a leader and a martyr is two steps,” he says. “A leader stays one step ahead of the people. A martyr gets three steps ahead and gets shot in the back.” So, if the pastor is unable to influence the council leadership to commit to discipleship, moving too far down that road alone is risky business.
When we choose discipleship, we turn over the wheel to God. The calling on my life took 25 years to emerge. I felt God calling me to something more in life soon after I was baptized in my late twenties. But I didn't spend much time in prayer or the word, so the call never became clear. After I sold my business and moved into my decompression phase, I journeyed deeper into prayer and meditation. I had spent some years clarifying my gifts, my values, and where my experiences were leading. I began to pray this prayer, “God, if you have a plan for my life, you must have given me the gifts, passions and life experiences to carry it forward. So, what are you trying to call forth from my gifts and experiences?”
As I began praying that prayer, shapes began to form in the mist. They were not distinct, and I could not even see how the shapes related to each other. “Is this it, God, is this the path?” I’d ask, and hear nothing. Not until I took a step forward towards the shapes in the mist did I get confirmation I was on the right path.
As I moved towards the shapes, more clarity appeared, and after some time, even the relationships between the shapes started to become clear. It was like working a jigsaw puzzle. At first there are all these shapes, and they are not connected. As you begin to work the puzzle, slowly a full picture emerges, not all at one time, but piece by piece. That’s what my life has been like with God as the pilot (not that I don’t grab the wheel from time to time).
Now I’m beginning to understand the scripture that says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” And my life has been more rewarding than anything I ever experienced in my successful career, living in the peace of Christ, even during the dark times when the storm winds blow.
So, leaders, if you want to move beyond a membership church, if you want to move off the plateau, the work starts within the hearts and minds of you and your fellow leaders. To quote Gandhi, “We must be the change we seek.” It’s always easy to look outside ourselves for the problem. It’s the changing neighborhood, the declining population, or any of a thousand different excuses. The real solution lies within, listening deeply for the still, small voice of God, awakening our souls to a spiritual journey, and yes, letting go of the wheel, and letting God be the pilot.