My one-and-only personal experience of mountain biking came in the middle of a family outing to the Rocky Mountains. Not far from the place where we were staying, a ski lift was transporting warm weather visitors to the top of an Alpine ridge where, for a couple of bucks, anybody could rent a mountain bike and go zooming down the hill.
Our then eleven-year-old son Jeff and I were the only “takers” for this new experience. Together we hopped on the chairlift and began the 12-minute ascent to the top. We hadn’t gone very far when Jeff turned to me and asked what turned out to be a crucial question: “Dad, when was the last time you rode a bike?” To be honest, I had no idea when I had last gotten on a bicycle. From my vantage point on the ski lift, however, I could see parents and kids of all ages biking down the mountain. How hard could this be?
The helpful young lady at the rental counter fitted me for a bike and a helmet. She then gave me a quick tour of the gears on my handlebars. I was floored to learn that there were twenty-one different speeds. “Dad,” whispered Jeff, whose embarrassment about being seen with me in public was steadily growing, “everybody knows that.” The rental agent concluded by emphasizing, “Here are your two hot gears, for those moments when you really want to pick up speed.” Great. We’ll keep that in mind. Off we went on our cycling odyssey.
I had already identified the bike trail that seemed custom-made for us. It was called “Cinch”: four-and-a-half miles of twists and turns through towering pines and quaking aspens. I pedaled once, just to get started . . . and that was the last time I needed to pedal my bike for four-and-a-half miles. Gravity took hold of us and yanked us down the mountain.
Most of the way I was scared to death. I squeezed the brakes so tightly that my hands began to ache. In fact we stopped a few times on the trail just to give them a rest. I was so nervous about losing control and launching myself over some hundred-foot precipice—and hoping that at least they’d spell my first name with two on the memorial plaque—that I literally ended up hurting myself in my attempt to slow the pace.
Not everybody who rides mountain bikes has my kind of experience. Every now and then, as I squeezed the brakes harder to maintain control, we would hear other bikers coming up behind us. “Coming left!” they would shout, and before I even had time to react they were flying past us in a blur, then down around the next corner and gone. I couldn’t believe it. Their bikes were identical to mine. What did they have that I didn’t have? They had trust. They had learned that their bikes were perfectly capable of handling mountain trails at great speed. So was my bike. I just never let go of the brakes.
If the love of Jesus Christ has found a home within our hearts, then we are the carriers of an awesome power that is simply waiting to be unleashed. From all eternity God has chosen to grow his kingdom through us. And it’s unstoppable. It is stronger than the force of gravity. How do we know this? Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches” (Mt 13:31,32).
But somehow, instead of marveling at the ways that God’s life is capable of exceeding all our limitations, we have managed to find the brakes. We’re even willing to hurt ourselves—to hold ourselves back—instead of trusting that God wants to transform us into people who are just like Jesus of Nazareth, and to use our lips and our hands and our availability to produce other disciples.
I should know. In 1983 I was called to be the organizing pastor of a new congregation on the suburban fringe of Indianapolis. In my mind I cherished a sincere but poorly focused desire to “do church” a different way—to help generate new strategies for recruiting and releasing committed followers of Jesus. It didn’t take me long, however, to find the brakes.
At the end of year four, by God’s grace, a few dozen pioneers had grown into a flock of three hundred. Along the way, however, our attention had become increasingly riveted to the ABCs of congregational life—attendance, building, and cash. How many people are on site, and is that number increasing? Is there room for everyone to park, and when can we upgrade our nursery facilities? What was last month’s bottom line, and will we have the money to pay next month’s bills? Without even noticing it we were paying more attention to structure than vitality. Our lip service to “releasing God’s transforming power” had become swamped by our let’s-keep-theplace-under-our-control behaviors.
We instinctively began to keep score on the basis of externals— the institutional surface of the Body of Christ—and awarded ourselves high marks for our apparent health. The ABC church is alive and well in the United States—if we can bring ourselves to use the words “alive” and “well.” It’s safe to say that a large majority of Protestant congregations have made attendance, building, and cash—as opposed to Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 to be and to make disciples—their organizational bottom line. Without question, effective institutional management honors God. Every gathering of Christians, large or small, has to manage an appropriate agenda of “business.” But business is not why we are in business. Some of the fiercest blasts in Scripture are reserved for those who would hold back the rush of God’s Spirit for the sake of polishing the organizational apple.
As I pondered the ease with which we turned our attention to church management, I found myself captivated by Ezekiel, an Old Testament prophet who was handed one of the most depressing of job assignments. The bulk of his public ministry required him to be the bearer of bad news. He groaned, ranted, and even mimed a series of sermonic vignettes that declared the wide gulf between God and the people of Israel. After nearly three dozen chapters, however, the tone of Ezekiel’s book suddenly softens. It’s as if we’ve caught sight of the first crocus of spring poking its head above the snow.
In 37:1–3, Ezekiel receives an unforgettable vision:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the whole valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Confronted with a vast skeletal heap—the pathetic, unburied remains of who knows how many people—Ezekiel has no answer. He feels helpless. The situation appears hopeless. “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know,” he sighs. It would take a miracle to bring life and hope to this valley of death. The prime business of God, however, is imparting life and hope.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. (Ez 37:4–7)
When God’s word is spoken, reality is transformed. “And God said . . .” and there were photons and cumulonimbus clouds and wildebeests and slime molds and burr oaks. Dry bones are no match for the word of the Lord. It’s worth noting that in Hebrew the word for “word” is debar. In English there are a variety of prefixes that negate the meaning of a word—“non,” “in,” and “un,” for example.
One Hebrew way of achieving negation is to affix the letter “m” to the beginning of a word. When “m” is added to debar the result is midbar—the Hebrew word for “wilderness.” According to the biblical mindset a wilderness is a “wordless place”—any site where there has been no transforming word from the Lord, a place where all hope has dried up.
Tens of thousands of American congregations have the feel of spiritual midbars. There may be a cherished memory of the last time God’s transforming word was heard—a past event or a joyful season or a distinguished pastorate—but a present sense of expectation that God is about to do something new has all but disappeared.
Numerous churches that were launched with a compelling future orientation are now looking backwards, hoping against hope that a past golden age might somehow be recreated.
In Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, God speaks about the future. What follows is the celebrated Stephen King-like scene of acres of dry bones clattering together. Tendons and flesh come next, and skeletons progressively morph into figures that give the impression of human life. But note Ezekiel’s important observation: “But there was no breath in them.” In this wilderness experience, form precedes life. Structure arrives before vitality.
Again, I can certainly relate. With all my heart I believe God spoke our congregation into existence. Almost overnight we became an ecclesiastical Big Top sheltering dozens of smaller organizations— circles, committees, and coffee klatches. Structures almost magically appeared. But the breath of God was a good deal harder to find. Our passion for making disciples was a sideshow effort at best. Because we had no vision larger than being a top-drawer ABC church, our benchmarks for success became the acceleration of attendance, success in the next building campaign, and financial black ink.
Aside from a preoccupation with management issues, the ABC church generally exhibits four other characteristics that nearly always prove to be disciple-making liabilities. The first is a tendency to look for programmatic solutions to problems, challenges, and opportunities. Is there a new package on the market in the area of stewardship? What techniques are working for reaching out to disenchanted members? Has anyone come up with a fresh curriculum for training deacons? How about a 3-day seminar that will be our booster shot for evangelism? The only less effective strategy than scrambling for a new ministry kit may be summarized by the letters RLYP: Run Last Year’s Program.
Programs are poor substitutes for vision, and completely unacceptable as any Christian group’s reason for existence. God’s will cannot be discerned from a resource catalogue or downloaded from a one-size-fits-all package.
A second standard feature of the ABC church is the tendency to rely on hard work as the way to go forward. If the program isn’t producing, we’ll step up our efforts. If the goals aren’t being realized, our leaders will simply have to keep a few more balls in the air. Classically, North American congregations have relied on a single individual to generate church-wide progress in bringing people to maturity in Christ. That person is the pastor.
For roughly 300 years, Protestant pastors have been charged with the spiritual development of everyone within the church’s reach—a mission to be accomplished through preaching, teaching, worship leadership, counseling, direction of appropriate boards and committees, home visitation, correspondence, administration, janitorial duties, praying at civic functions, and whatever other “hats” might be required apparel at a particular church. The ultimate issue therefore becomes: How can we expose a maximum number of people to the work of our pastor, so that he or she can work a maximum amount of spiritual magic?
Early in the history of our congregation I succumbed to this grocery list of expectations. At root was a powerful element of pride. After all, wouldn’t our church be impoverished by the absence of my remarkable gifts and insights, served up regularly seven days a week? Determined that I would never have to answer to the name “Reverend Slacker,” I found myself pedaling my inner bicycle faster and faster just to stay even with the demands of a growing congregation.
The costs were high. As a young Christian I had been thrilled every time I had heard others share something of their personal spiritual journeys. My heart had practically jumped. Several years into the rigors of church planting, however, I felt more like the mythological figure Sisyphus, pushing the rock toward the top of the hill again and again, knowing that it would inevitably roll all the way back down to the bottom, initiating another Sunday-to-Sunday cycle of total effort. At that point, when I heard someone speak of a spiritual breakthrough, my heart monitor was flat-lined.
When at home I tortured myself by thinking, “I ought to be out making calls right now. What kind of pastor am I?” When out making calls I couldn’t help but think, “I ought to be home right now. What kind of husband and father am I?” Guilt became a 24/7 traveling companion. I was exhausted. Drop-in guests became interruptions.
I frequently wondered how I would get through the next week’s obligations. Mostly I yearned to run away, or to live out my fantasy of sleeping for three days straight.
On the outside I faked my way through my required church relationships, saving my major letdowns for those at home. It occurred to me that I was metaphorically living out one of those black-and-white science fiction films from the 1950s, The Incredible Shrinking Man. In the movie a man is exposed to a cloud of radiation, whereupon he immediately becomes a smaller and smaller version of himself. Doctors and scientists are powerless to arrest his shrinking. Ultimately he takes up residence in his daughter’s dollhouse.
The most familiar and friendly aspects of his home become threatening. Finally he tumbles down the basement stairs, wages war with a common house spider, and . . . well, you can catch the ending yourself sometime late at night on cable.
What was happening to me? I was the man with the Incredible Shrinking Heart. My heart for God, for ministry, and for my wife Mary Sue and our four children was progressively getting smaller. The familiar surroundings of my own home actually became threatening, since walking through my own door reminded me that I wasn’t being the person God had called me to be. “Can’t you see how hard I’m trying?” I would snap.
In a perverse way I took heart from the fact that historically a number of Christian leaders have struggled with less-than-ideal marriages. I wondered if marital tension might be a necessary price to pay for doing work in the kingdom. John Wesley’s wife allegedly once rode up on a horse behind his open-air audience and shouted, “Don’t listen to this man! He’s out of his mind!” About the time Mary Sue started taking horse-riding lessons I became more than a little worried. But what could I do? God was multiplying the attendance, building, and cash of our congregation. Surely it would be immoral to slow our momentum just because I couldn’t keep up.
Two major Hollywood productions featuring volcanic eruptions were released within a few months of each other in the mid 1990s. The movies Volcano and Dante’s Peak have some intriguing similarities. Both feature a rugged male lead, a renegade whose instincts outshine the combined wisdom of those around him. Both these heroes report to bosses who play things safe, reject their sage advice, and thereby end up putting people in harm’s way. In each case the hero makes brilliant decisions on the run that deliver others from peril. Most intriguing of all, however, is the fact that as each movie opens, the lead actor/savior is on vacation. Naturally each man materializes at the office and assumes the mantle of leadership from admiring coworkers just in time to save the day.
Far too many church leaders are convinced that their absence from the front lines of ministry for any period longer than three days will automatically trigger a flow of lava. How can an indispensable person justify a vacation, anyway? My domestic world finally imploded on a day that I was running off to lead a weekend retreat. I remember standing on our stairs, holding a pile of papers under my left arm. Mary Sue was standing at the top of the stairs over a pile of laundry. We were yelling at each other in frustration and rage. I was conscious of the fact that the children could hear us. We were yelling at each other because our worlds had grown so far apart. Emotionally we had taken our hearts off the table of our marriage. I knew I had to do something. I had to make a point. Assertively I took a step up the stairs and growled something like, “I just want to know one thing: What happened to the beautiful woman I married?” With calmness and coldness Mary Sue lowered her voice and said, in effect, “Oh, that woman. She died. But you were very busy at church and you didn’t see it happen.”
In anguish I walked to our front closet and ripped my jacket off its hanger—in the process dislodging and shattering a Christmas ornament that I had inherited from my grandparents. The most valued things in my life were breaking up. Who could ever put them back together?
God could. Over time God presented to Mary Sue and me the opportunity to heal our marriage. On the other side of some excellent counseling, the support of our small group, and a thousand small acts to put our hearts back on the table, we reclaimed the dream of being a couple who can know and experience the love of God together.
It took crises in my personal and public worlds to convince me that the call to make disciples is not a clergy-dependent exercise. First I had to reject the assumption—all too common in the mind of the program-oriented church leader—that if I should step back from my manic pace of life, the kingdom of God would be just one day away from collapse. A healthy rethinking of my approach to ministry also required a proposal to our board shortly after our church’s fifth birthday.
“With your approval,” I said, “I’d like to try something different. I’d like to stop attempting to touch every activity in this church. I’d like to challenge the idea that somehow I’m the only player on the team who can carry the ball. What if we gave some of our lay leaders the training they needed and turned them loose in their own areas of ministry?” They had never heard me say this before.
How would they respond to a pastoral request to step back from ministry?
The board members nodded, smiled, and said, “Why don’t we start immediately?” Frankly it was unnerving to discover that my noninvolvement was welcomed as such an asset. They were, in fact, right on target. The members of our congregation felt freer and more valued as they were entrusted, in my absence, to invest in ministries and relationships that mattered. Without realizing where we would end up, our church had taken a vital step toward achieving a disciple-making environment. We had agreed that it wasn’t crucial for everything to cross my desk.
This brings us to the third counterproductive tendency of churches with ABC priorities: Far from being challenged and empowered to do great things for God, rank-and-file church members are chiefly expected to be compliant. In his book The Fifth Discipline, leadership guru Peter Senge describes the multiple levels of personal ownership that are on display in most organizations. Generally only a few members can be said to be fully committed—that is, wholeheartedly sold out to the vision and ideals of the key leaders. All others in the organization align themselves consciously or unconsciously along a descending scale of compliance. In the average church, for example, we are likely to encounter each of the following levels of “buy-in”:
Joyful compliance. “I admire our church’s leaders and I will gladly follow them, even if I don’t always understand their decisions.”
Formal compliance: “Since I’m a member here it’s my duty to be a good soldier and do what the leaders expect.”
Grudging compliance: “Do I really have to do this?”
Noncompliance: “I’ll follow my own path on this issue, thank you.”
Malicious compliance: “Sure, I’ll do their stupid program— just to prove how wrong they are.”
Apathy: “What’s for lunch?”
(Currency Doubleday, 1990, pp. 219–220)
In a program-based congregation there is a hope (usually a futile one) that large numbers of individuals will magically choose to be fully committed to the mission of the church. More realistically, pastors of ABC churches settle for a situation in which a majority of church attenders consent to be at least formally compliant—that is, in exchange for less than passionate devotion to Christ they will not rock the organizational boat. What are the dual norms for such a culture? Uninspired leadership and spiritual mediocrity rule the day.
Pastors who picture themselves as solo shepherds tend to become wrapped up in addressing a set of questions about their own performance: How am I coming across? Am I keeping it all together?
Does the flock appreciate my care? Such leaders are far less committed to helping ordinary people grow into spiritual champions. Discipling relationships are unfortunately seen as dependent on the pastor’s touch. There is little or no vision that individual Christians ought to be learning discipling skills in such a way that they can pass the baton of imitating Jesus to someone else—apart from the pastor’s active intervention. As long as church leaders are blind to the power of investing in self-replicating relationships among lay people, and limit their flocks’ potential for spiritual growth according to their own calendars and biological frailties, those congregations will make little progress toward fulfilling the Great Commission.
A fourth characteristic of the ABC-oriented church is the overt or implied use of control. Only a few individuals are granted permission to do ministry. “No” is heard more often than “Yes.” When it’s time to make decisions, only a few opinions are considered valid.
Trust is extended to a handful of people, but not to just anyone.
That would be risky, chaotic, and…well…inappropriate.
What would happen if McDonald’s ran its franchises like the average local church? A skillful but frazzled manager would be seen throughout the day taking orders, making change, salting the French fries, and assembling Big Macs—all while six other employees behind the counter stood off to one side, applauding politely and gushing, “I’m so impressed with the way you spread the special sauce. I could never do that. And the deft way you put those ketchup packets in the bag. You’ve had training. You’ve been to hamburger seminary.”
McDonald’s wisely made a different management decision and thereby pioneered a global food industry. Even though there are burger geniuses and market specialists within the corporation, they are rarely seen by the public. When you and I approach the counter we are most often met by teenagers earning a minimum wage. Early on, McDonald’s chose to entrust its future to the success of recruiting, training, coaching, and releasing ordinary people to carry out its most essential task: serving customers in such a way that they will want to return to McDonald’s next week. In contrast, few congregations have concluded that their own members are worthy of such trust or are equal to the task of being the prime transmitters of God’s good news to the next generation.
ABC churches, in summary, are more preoccupied with structural issues than with spiritual vitality; tend to seek programmatic solutions to problems; rely on the gifts, energy, and overfunctioning of one or just a few key leaders; value an environment of command and control more than giving permission; and expect little more than compliance from church attenders instead of world-changing personal transformation. Such congregations are certainly capable of achieving stated goals. They can grow in numbers, provide and maintain an appropriate facility, and meet financial obligations.
The dirty secret of the ABC church, however, is that its goals are far below the bar that is set in Scripture. It is disturbingly easy to make progress on the scales of attendance, building, and cash even while failing to sustain significant conversation with God or enjoying redemptive relationships with people. The program-based church may at times look great on paper. Its spiritual development, nevertheless, has been arrested halfway through Ezekiel’s vision.
God’s call isn’t merely that we assume appropriate forms, but that we become alive in the fullest sense of the word—filled and refilled with the Spirit of God, and therefore passionate about filling the world with lifelong learners of Jesus Christ. Consider the second part of Ezekiel’s experience in the dry valley:
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them:‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live…’” (Ez 37:9–14).