But we’ve always done it this way!

By Kit Eglinton, Saltshakers

As a younger Christian I served with Open Doors in the Middle East which was an amazing privilege both to serve and engage with believers from cultures vastly different to my own. However my greatest surprise was to find how many evangelical Christians in countries like Syria, Egypt and Turkey had adopted a western church culture. For example at my first visit to a small evangelical fellowship I was astounded to see all the men had discarded their very practical daily clothing in favour of western suits and ties – in 40′ C. No wonder local Muslims viewed Christianity as a western religion. Where did they get the idea that to do church properly you have wear a suit and tie?  It is not my place to challenge anyone else’s ‘norms’ but it did and does make me think about my own. What do I consider to be necessary, what can be changed; why do I do what I do, and, by implication, expect others to do?

Which church do you go to?

This is a familiar question when meeting new believers. It’s one I find quite difficult to answer because I don’t have a one or two word answer. “We meet with a small group in various homes in a variety of settings” is rather confusing when the ‘norm’ is to be part of a recognised fellowship lead by a minister and probably part of a larger group or denomination. However I’m also surprised to find how many do ‘get it’ and either ‘are doing it’, ‘have done it’ or ‘would like to do do it’.

I’d like to emphasise that (unlike some of the authors I quote) I’m not trying to persuade anyone else to do what we are currently doing, as if mine was the only way, far from it. However I would like to challenge the assumption that there is no expression of ‘church’ other than that which we have become accustomed in the west, which I have come to refer to as ‘mainstream church’.

I believe that the ‘one size fits all’ assumption simply isn’t true, nor is it helpful for those who ‘don’t fit’; evidenced by the large numbers of believers leaving what they knew as church to experience her in alternative ways.

For my wife and I it wasn’t a deliberate decision, certainly we found ourselves increasingly less keen to get to Sunday meetings. My experience there seemed to have become less relevant to the other 6 days of the week – so we ‘went to church’ far less frequently than was expected. Interesting in his book Liquid Church, Pete Ward points out that one of the characteristics of mainstream church (what he calls ‘solid’ church) is that attendance at the main weekly service is the most important activity and is equated to faithfulness. For many years we have heard the statement that ‘Church isn’t a building it’s the people’ but in practice ‘church’, while no longer a building, has come to mean a meeting so we still ‘go to church’ rather than ‘be church’. The focus of most congregations still tends to be attendance at a weekly meeting.

Although our attendance on a Sunday became less frequent, we continued to serve in other ways, helping at a regular youth outreach event, ministering with ‘Healing on the Streets’ and our local ‘Healing Rooms’, We were relating with Christians from other fellowships based on the job to be done rather than church membership. Maybe we were seriously backsliding but the odd thing was that we had a genuine closeness with the Lord in prayer and worship.

I had noticed the tendency towards mild dissatisfaction a few years earlier while part of a small local fellowship. I sensed the Lord say that I was about to be asked to join the leadership team and that I was to agree (had he not done so I would have declined). Within a few weeks that had indeed happened and what followed were a fairly miserable couple of years for not only my wife and I but also the team as we tried to fulfil our duties as ‘square pegs in round holes’. During this time, although he knew nothing of these issues, a visiting speaker with a powerful prophetic gift (Buck Hudson) told me that I would have to choose between ‘local church’ and ‘para church’. This meant very little at the time but has explained much since.

Eventually my wife and I offered to step away from leadership, an offer which was accepted to everyone’s relief! ‘So what was all that about?’ I asked the Lord; the instant response was “Now you know what sort of leader you are not”. There was no condemnation is that reply, no sense that the leadership team model we had experienced was wrong, in fact it’s a far better model than the old ‘one man band’ many fellowships struggle under. I didn’t really understand but came to realise that to know what you’re not can be as releasing as knowing what you are; I knew I needed to explore the whole issue at a deeper level.

Around this time a group of us embarked on a local project to offer a week of children’s activities to local families involving a field, a tent plus a lot of mud and hard work. We discovered, as a group, the sheer pleasure of mutual submission and commitment. From inception, but not deliberately, there were no recognised leaders; individuals simply stood up to take responsibility as specific needs became apparent.  When the local authority needed a signature it was mine but I was far from the leader in any hierarchical sense; mutual submission was natural, in fact anything else would have jarred. Our planning meetings involved 90% prayer, praise and worship and 10% planning, a model which I pray I’ll never forget.

I thought I’d hit on the answer, that church leadership worked best when the whole congregation has ownership of decisions. This subject is more fully dealt with by minds better than mine, theologians such as Donald Guthrie who, concerning the early Church wrote:-

“The churches were living organisms rather than organisations.. When decisions were made, they were made by the whole company of believers, not simply the officials” (New Testament Theology p741)[i]

In his writing, Beresford Job [ii] deals with this issue in depth suggesting there is good scriptural evidence such as:-

Matt 18:17 ‘take it to the church’

Acts 15:22 ‘then the apostles and elders with the whole church decided..’

1 Cor 5:4 where expelling the immoral brother seems to be the responsibility of the church, not a few leaders.

However, although various groups have tried to recover this model over the ages, I felt that this was not a complete picture. This dawned on me during that same tent project when a group from Teen Challenge came to lead an outreach service in the tent. Teen Challenge work with men and women who struggle with addiction and I realised quickly that their model of leadership is quite executive in style (submission works from the leadership ‘down’) with firm structure and clear boundaries; which of course makes good sense when trying to recapture a life ravaged by addiction and the resulting chaos. Compared to this our core team had been Christians for years so the model for us might not work so well in other settings.  Jesus can and does build His Church, His way, maybe we just need to trust Him to do this, sometimes using an old model, in other cases doing something completely new. One size does not fit all contexts, but I was discovering why I don’t fit in some. I have no desire to criticise mainstream church, I just find it is freeing to discover a different way and also that there are many deeply committed Christians also finding a place where they do fit.

Interestingly current research shows that many of the vast numbers of those leaving church are not leaving through loss of faith but actually feel frustrated with church and often can’t express why. The issue is so common that researches have dubbed them the ‘Dones’ – not done with Jesus but done with church as they knew it. That’s an important distinction because the Church is wonderful, it’s for the Church that Jesus is coming back, sometimes described in scripture as his Bride; he will never give up on her and nor will we. The problem arises when we assume that Church has to look a certain way just because we have always done it this way since Constantine. Does it have to look like men sweating in suits in 40’C? or is there another way. What is the irreducible minimum, how much of what I had become used to done just because our ancestors did it that way. I relish the security of tradition, providing it’s good and still helpful. There is a story of a young mum who cooked her first roast, a leg of lamb. She did it as her mother had demonstrated and cut the joint in half before putting into the oven. She wondered why this was the ‘right’ way to roast a leg of lamb and eventually discovered the reason was that her great-great grandmother had to cook with a tiny oven which wouldn’t accommodate a whole joint; I wonder if things have changed?

I found that I was not alone in hungering for other expressions of Church. Mulling this over with a dear brother from those days in the Middle East it was suggested I look up Wayne Jacobsen who left mainstream church leadership many years ago to explore other ways of connecting with others and communicating Jesus. In doing so I discovered that if I was going nuts then at least there were a lot of us.

A couple of years back the church at Willow Creek in the USA took the brave step of cmmissioning an in-depth study of their congregations. It found that 25% of the hundreds interviewed considered their faith walk to have ‘stalled’ or felt ‘stifled’. 10% were considered Christ-centred, active evangelists, volunteers and donors to the church yet were dissatisfied. “In fact…the higher the level of engagement, the more likely it is that satisfaction with the church will be lukewarm”. [iii]

The survey also found that many “seem to want a personal growth coach or spiritual mentor.” So, far from rebellion or lack of commitment, these believers seem to be seeking a deeper place of growth and accountability.

One of the reasons for this malaise cited by others such as Christian Smith is the very existence of a clergy led, top down executive leadership style which stifles growth.

The clergy profession is fundamentally self-defeating. Its stated purpose is to nurture spiritual maturity in the church- a valuable goal. In actuality however it accomplishes the opposite by nurturing a permanent dependence of the laity on the clergy. Clergy become to their congregations like parents whose children never grow up, like therapists whose clients never become healed, like teachers whose students never graduate [iv]

I’m sure this would never be the intentions of any clergy I have known but has still been the experience of many.

Frank Viola explores alternatives with the simple tool of perceiving leadership as a verb not a position, we Pastor because we are filled with God’s Spirit, not because we’ve been ordained into the ‘office’ of ‘Pastor’.

The ability to wield power or impose one’s will on others does not characterise biblical leadership. Leadership is characterised by the ability to weld the church together to reach undivided judgements on critical affairs. Any person who does this at a given time is leading at that moment. All in all the New Testament knows nothing of an authoritative mode of leadership. Nor does it know a leaderless egalitarianism. It rejects both hierarchical structures as well as rugged individualism.[v]

This issue is also addressed by Graham Cooke:

There are many perceptions of accountability in the wider Body of Christ. Most of these seem to encompass the notion that people need to be governed in the process of developing righteousness. The idea that we need to be in a partnership where one individual (or group) have the power to call the shots over another does not originate in heaven. It’s largely a worldly construct with some bible verses tacked on….

People do not require oversight to teach them not to sin; that can only arise out of their love and passion for the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful by-product of a devoted, loving relationship with the Father. People need oversight to empower them to love righteousness and adore freedom….

We want leaders who see something in us of real value and who can inspire us into becoming that person.” [vi]

Sadly much (though not all) of the leadership I’ve experienced, while giving lip service to servant leadership, actually communicated a different message -‘I have a vision (from God) and I need you to fit into it and help me fulfil it’.

An increasing number of believers, passionately in love with Jesus, yet finding themselves outside ‘mainstream church’ are often accused of lacking commitment or avoiding accountability. Having been in this position for a number of years now we find the opposite is true; what I was seeking was a deeper commitment and genuine accountability. I have no desire to be accountable to someone who doesn’t really know me, has their own agenda, who wants my accountability to serve their own purposes.

There are leaders out there who are decisive, commanding and effective, but I would not trust them with my life. There are some who are friendly but not relational, so it is hard to confide in them. We want leaders who see something in us of real value and who can inspire into becoming that person.” [vii]

But I do want such a relationship with people who genuinely love one another, who want to see people as Father sees them, who want to help them in the process that Jesus started. I’ve spent too many years as a square peg in a round hole! I want to help others fulfil their own calling, to discover who they really are in God and not what I think they should be. I’m discovering that’s the sort of leader I want to become.

The Church desperately needs the sort of leaders which Jesus described in Matthew 20:25-28

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I have previously read this as criticising overbearing leadership without noticing ‘exercising authority over’ is also condemned. As Paul said, recorded in  2Cor 13:10

…the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

and in Philppians 2:7-8 describes how Jesus

emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Gayle Erwin lists some leadership qualities ‘Jesus style’; as a servant

not lording over others (exercising authority over), leads by example, humble, as a child, as the younger, as the least, as the last, with no force etc [viii]

A few quotes from Ron Jones speaking in 2016:

“We’ve got to get out of an earth based Christianity, we’ve got to get out of a, and I love his church, we’ve got to get out of a church based paradigm that says come serve our vision and forget your own destiny and build us. The reality of a true five-fold minister is someone who is more interested in your destiny than their own…

True leadership empowers others to be who they are called to be. …

Kingdom leadership takes you into the realm of who you are called to be…

If we are in leadership our job is to facilitate the destiny of others…

It’s time we stopped building ministries and started building people.”

We have had a good example of the effect a change of leadership style can have during the Rugby 6 Nations (2016). The England team had performed really badly during the previous World Cup under a tight, top lead regime but a change of team coach seemed to have changed defeat to impressive victory using virtually the same players, seemingly by a simple change in leadership philosophy which enabled the team to play to their strengths, not necessarily the ‘vision’ of the coach. [ix]

Size Matters

Though I have been exploring leadership models they are not the only issues which jarred, at heart I’ve always longed for genuine, intimate fellowship with other believers. The problem I found with ‘mainstream church’ was that much of what we did actually militated against it. A meeting focussed system, whilst enabling corporate worship and a certain style of teaching, did little to engender deep relationships or in my case, much learning. One of my least favourite times were the few minutes grabbed after a ‘service’ where we tried to catch up with our friends whilst trying to make newcomers welcome. The result for me was mostly quite shallow. I found that mid-week groups were better but because they were usually focussed towards study of some kind, albeit very useful but not great at creating an environment where we could build honesty and safety, leading to the healthy vulnerability essential in my view for healthy discipleship. Maybe the early church had a more useful model, meeting in smaller groups to do business with God and each other.

Currently our family meet regularly with a growing network of believers from different backgrounds and in various contexts, eager to love and grow in Jesus, to share him and to serve the wider church where possible. One size does not fit all, ours is not the ‘right’ way either but it is as valid as any other expression of church.

[i]     Donald Guthrie New Testament Theology p741

[ii]    Beresford Job Biblical Church

[iii]   http://www.christiancoachingcenter.org/index.php/russ-rainey/coachingchu…

[iv]   Christian Smith Church without clergy” Voices in the Widerness Nov/Fec 1988

[v]    Frank Viola Reimagining Church David C Cook 2008

[vi]   (Graham Cooke Prophetic Wisdom 2010

[vii]  Graham Cooke Prophetic Wisdom 2010

[viii] Gayle Erwin The Jesus Style Yahshua Publishing 2002

[ix]   As word comes out about how at ease England are in their own company – little things, like how they can have a couple of beers and how James Haskell and Billy Vunipola now talk about, you know, stuff – it does suggest that life may have been a little stifled under the old regime. This may be unfair on Stuart Lancaster, but putting a lid on excess was very much part of his early brief and perhaps he couldn’t stop pressing down. Or maybe all the questions about Sam Burgess – should he play, where might he play, how would he play? – were the whispers that made it seem like here was a camp that dared not speak its mind. Rugby, unless you want to lob something politically incorrect the way of your opposite number, is not a game best played sotto voce The Guardian 19/3/2016