This blog post comprises the conclusion to my first book, which shares the title with the blog. The chapter title is Shapes in the Mist. In this chapter, I look forward, sharing the direction I sense the Spirit leading. Because of the length of this writing, it will emerge as a five-part series describing elements of a healthy Christian community. It closes with some thoughts on the future of Mainline Denominations in America. Unless you are one of those who likes to read the last page of the book first, you may want to start here at the introduction.

I have been following Jesus for 30 years, stumbling along the faint path, trying to discern His will. Although I’ve called Christ my lord and savior since I was baptized, there was a 20-year gap between when I called Him savior and when I truly began to acknowledge Him as lord. For the last dozen years, as I’ve made a move to intentional discipleship, a picture of my life is coming into focus.

I’ve devoted countless hours to studying where the church is heading, and the factors that set apart thriving churches from those on plateau or dying. I’ve toured the country, consulting and speaking in churches, and over the past decade a picture has begun to form in my heart and mind of the Body of Christ that God is calling forth for a new century.

In this final chapter, I will explore what a church for a new century looks like. In many ways, building the future church really means reviving the first-century model of the church planted by the Spirit through the Apostles.

These five themes are characteristics of a healthy ancient/future church community:

Community built on trust, not fear

Community built on discipleship and mission

Community of transformed hearts and souls, growing mature in Christ

Community built on shared leadership

Community built on multiplication and sending

Conclusion: Circling the Drain, is your Church among the Walking Dead

As we explore the building blocks of a healthy Christian community, I encourage you to reflect on how well your church community embraces and lives out these characteristics.

A Community Built on Trust, Not Fear

Over the course of my business career, I learned that you can organize around two different orientations: fear or trust. My father built a business on fear and control. He learned management and leadership in the military, during World War II. Power was centralized and top-down. You didn’t ask questions of your superior; you just did what you were told.

TAKE A MOMENT  Is your work culture based on fear or trust? Why do fear-based cultures persist? How might increasing trust improve your bottom line?

Since my father second-guessed everyone, people soon learned not to make decisions on their own. Even his partner would defer. When mistakes were made, everyone tried to avoid blame. Because of my father’s temper, people grew reluctant to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. The rate of change in the ‘50s and ‘60s was slow enough that this management style wasn’t a fatal disease. But after my brother and I joined the company in the mid-1970s, we immediately began to chafe under this system. People were being asked to leave their brains at the door. Some churches are like that.

The problem with a system like this is it generates compliance, not enrollment. In fear-based cultures, people will do what is necessary to keep their jobs, but they’ll often express their dissatisfaction through passive-aggressive actions. This inhibits the accomplishment of the vision. As we began to grow the business, my brother and I worked to create a culture that would draw forth people’s best efforts, to get them fully enrolled in the vision.

TAKE A MOMENT   Are people in your work culture fully enrolled in a shared vision? Do you see passive-aggressive responses to change initiatives? How will you help people move past compliance?

After our father died, my brother and I began to transform our culture into one of participative management. We spent a decade working to transform the organization from a bureaucracy to a learning organization of empowered teams working to accomplish a shared vision.

In my EMBA program, I discovered the importance of trust in moving an organization beyond survival to success. I realized how the roots of a fear-based culture had held us back. During this time, 1996-1998, I was asked to step in and lead the old core business. I reorganized the business into customer-focused teams. We moved decision-making closer to the customer and began to empower our people.

I decided to run an experiment with my senior team, one in which I would intentionally demonstrate a high level of trust in my direct reports, and see what impact followed. Over six months, the performance of the team jumped significantly, as they responded to the confidence I showed in their abilities. I began to see the benefits of a trust-based culture. It took me more than 20 years in business to realize the incredible value of trust in an organization.

TAKE A MOMENT   Does your leadership/management style encourage trust? People cannot trust an organization; they can only trust a person. What steps could you take to increase trust in your circle of influence?

In the dozen years I have consulted with Lutheran churches, I find many of them have developed a culture of control that masks a fear of the unknown. Order is paramount. The problem is, the work of the Holy Spirit is messy and impossible to control. We spell things out in constitutions and bylaws to make sure people don’t stray from the accepted course. Instead of coaching, equipping, developing and sending people, we give them a rulebook. It's about orthodoxy and control. This model screams at people, “I don’t trust you.”

Most churches I’ve seen are organized as a democracy, a form of governance we’ve imported from our culture. Leaders are elected to council. Annual budgets are voted on by the people. Committees must approve every new idea. Sometimes it takes three levels of approval to get to a yes. At each level you can receive a no.

I have not seen one instance in the Old or New Testament where a majority came down on the side of what God wanted. How do we expect to find God’s will for our churches if every major initiative must have majority support?  It is rare indeed to find a Lutheran church that has trust, and not control, at its core. And I don’t think we Lutherans are alone in this. I think it holds true across many denominations. These churches are characterized by high control and low accountability.

TAKE A MOMENT   Does your church culture lean more on control or trust?

One problem I have with many evangelical churches is they still try to draw converts by fear: Turn or burn. Luther’s theology, on the other hand, focuses on the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10. It’s not an insurance policy against an eternity in Hell, but a passport to a better life now.

Without discipleship, evangelism, stewardship and social justice are often motivated by guilt. God looks more to motivation than to the specific act. Jesus honored the widow’s mite far more than the large contributions of the self-righteous Pharisees. When we embark on a discipleship journey, we begin to see that all we have is indeed a gift from God. We begin to grow a thankful heart. We soften to all the things God calls us to do. Our motivation is gratitude rather than guilt.

So, how do we build trust instead of fear and guilt in the Body of Christ?

The first building block is competency. Leaders, this requires an inward look. Are you demonstrating competency in everything you do? When you ignore problems and refuse to deal with conflict, people will soon begin to question whether you’re a capable leader. If they can’t trust you to get the job done, a culture of trust will never emerge.

The second building block is consistency. Consistency allows people to track our trajectory and anticipate where we’re headed. They know what to expect from us. I find many pastors are constantly on the lookout for new ideas. The problem is in the follow-through. Too often, before bringing a plan to fruition, the pastor is off onto the next great idea.

If I’m trying to anticipate where the leader is going and making an effort to move in that direction, a quick turn off the set course is very disconcerting. When the leader zigzags, the followers lose trust.

So, what happens to this control-based model of church in a new century? Plateau and decline. Very few control-based churches offer people a clear pathway to spiritual maturity. Discipleship is just about lost.

I led a workshop with mission developers from a Lutheran synod a few years ago. At one point, I asked the 20-plus participants to break out in groups of three and discuss the question, “By what means will you disciple people in your new church plant?”

I then asked them to share the ideas that surfaced with the whole group. There was not a cogent plan in the room. Here’s the problem. Jesus did not ask us to build churches. He asked us to make disciples. If we focus on making disciples, Jesus will build a church. We start churches and hope for discipleship, but it rarely happens.

TAKE A MOMENT  Is there a pathway to discipleship in your church? Are mature believers mentoring and discipling others? Who are the spiritual leaders of your community? Are they visible to the congregation? Are the formal leaders expected to model discipleship and spiritual leadership?

Find Part Two here: Community built on discipleship and mission

Community built on trust, not fear

Community of transformed hearts and souls, growing mature in Christ

Community built on shared leadership

Community built on multiplication and sending

Conclusion: Circling the Drain, is your Church among the Walking Dead