Done with fixing the church.

Church is the gift of a community of Christians in which we rehearse and orient ourselves in the practice of resurrection. It is never an abstraction, never anonymous, never a problem to be fixed, never a romantic ideal to be fantasized. (emphasis mine)

I pray that these two sentences will forever change my ministry. They are from the pen of Eugene H. Peterson, found on the next to last page of his book Practice Resurrection: a Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.

Through the words of New Testament scripture–particularly in the second chapter of Acts–I believe the Spirit gifted me with a sense of what the Church is supposed to be. I can’t necessarily articulate it in a clear and compelling manner,  so I prefer to speak of “sense” rather than “vision.”  Semantics perhaps. But this sense has been strong in me for 20 years and has become as comfortable as my marriage. I can’t imagine life without it. (A fitting analogy, according to Apostle Paul!)

But after reading those two sentences from Peterson’s book, I am struck by the realization that I may well have fallen into the trap of a romanticized hammer&nailsideal…meaning my concept of what is perfect, but not likely to become a reality this side of the Second Coming of Christ. And in so doing, I’ve been tempted into seeing the church as a problem that needs fixing and myself as one whom God has ordained to fix it.

In the previous chapter, Peterson has much to say about relationship to and within the church. I commend it to your reading, but for the purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that it’s all about relationship–relationships of trust and adoration with God, relationships of righteousness and love with one another (p. 238). The kind of relationship that is not abstract, that does not objectify others. The kind of relationship that understands that my maturation in Christ is inextricably linked to the maturation of those with whom I am in community. I can’t reach maturity on my own, and neither can anyone else in the church. God has graciously given us the gift of each other, that we might share this journey to maturity in Christ. I am to share the gifts I am given in order that we grow together, rather than using those gifts with the intention of fixing, of creating my romanticized ideal of  the church.

Ephesians 4 paints the picture, and it is truly the Spirit-inspired vision.

A new thing, part III

Next question: So what?

(In order to follow, you need to have read part I and part II.)

It’s time we help folks move from looking at ministry as their avocation–something they do in their discretionary time–to looking at their life in terms of vocation.

Back to Wikipedia again: Christian vocation includes the use of one’s gifts in their profession, family life, church and civic commitments for the sake of the greater common good.

What happens when we guide someone through a discovery process designed to help them look at the whole of their life, rather than just how their spiritual gifts apply to ministry in and/or through our church? What if we encourage them to apply what they learned through that discovery process to their 8-5 job, their family life, their friendships, their neighborhood… to their 24/7 life? Our questions might be…

“How do you see your spiritual gift of mercy applied in your workplace?” rather than “Would you like to exercise your gift of mercy by helping with the church’s benevolence ministry?”

“I see you are using your experience of God healing your marriage as you listen to your manicurist share her frustration with her own marriage,” instead of, “Would you like to teach a marriage enrichment class for the church on Wednesday nights?”

Do you see the difference? If we shift our paradigm away from task-based ministry in the church toward equipping people to see the whole of their lives as ministry–as vocation–what effect might that have? Would the church become the diaspora (the church dispersed) at least as often as she is the ecclesia (the church gathered). Would the gospel spread more effectively? Would people’s lives be more holistic and less fractured if we stop compartmentalizing ministry? Would we hear less, “I just don’t have time for ministry!”?

In my experience, the majority of church members don’t see their lives in terms of Christian vocation. They consider themselves Christians because they believe in Christ and they go to church regularly. What a shallow view of the life hidden in Christ! But if we show them how to intentionally apply their unique vocation in their every day living, wouldn’t that lead to spiritual formation* at its best?

The last thing I want to say about this (well, for now!) is that the equipping processes we use may not really need to change much. It’s the context in which we preach, teach, and lead those processes that needs to change. To approach equipping in the context of true vocation, however, will require that we let go of our need to fill ministry slots–no matter how thoughtfully and effectively we think we are doing it–in order to gain the attention and trust of those we lead. In the end, however, I think it will be much easier to get the “ministry tasks” done as each individual discovers their unique vocation in the whole of life (which includes church!) and delights in fulfilling their role when the body of Christ gathers.

*Spiritual formation: the process of being conformed to the likeness of Christ for the sake of others.  -Dr. Robert Mulholland (emphasis mine)

A new thing, part II

The new most important word in my equipping vocabulary:

vocation

Are you thinking, “yeah, yeah, yeah…heard that before?” Well, bear with me, OK? (If you are just tuning in, you may want to read my last post.

Wikipedia defines vocation as “a term for an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which he or she is suited, trained, or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated in Christianity.” Since the early 1900’s, it has evolved to also mean “the notion of using our talents and capabilities to good-effect in choosing and enjoying a career.”

Wikipedia defines avocation as “an activity that one engages in as a hobby outside one’s main occupation.” It goes on to talk about people whose professions are the means by which they make their living, but whose true passions lie in the activities outside their workplace.

If you are a pastor, you are most likely going to associate to vocation with your “call” to ordained ministry. If you are a layperson, you probably think of vocation as your 8-5 job, or the means by which you earn a living. What’s more, laypeople tend to treat their ministry as an avocation.Why? Because church leaders often do.

We (church leaders) approach equipping as a program. We encourage gifts discovery as the means by which we help people connect to ministry. But it’s task-based…a serving opportunity, we call it. As I said in my last post, it may be a more thoughtful approach, but it’s still slot-filling.

I think it’s time for a paradigm change. I think it’s time we stop thinking of the church functionally and think ontologically. In a recent blog post, W. David Phillips writes,

Ontology has to do with being. An ontological understanding of church has to do with what it is, not what it does. And what it is is far wider, deeper, higher than anything it does, or anything we can take charge of or manipulate.

In their book The Equipping Pastor R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins point out that, “in Pauline thought, Christ does not use his body to get his work done on earth, as attractive as this idea might be.” They clarify that the body does serve God in the world, but emphasize that “God is as concerned about being as God is with doing.”1

Parker J. Palmer says, “Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”2

This speaks again to the ontological rather than functional nature of the church. God’s covenant with us is a covenant of being, not primarily a contract for doing. God invites us first and foremost to be his people, and then to share in his project on earth.

I’m not done yet…there’s more, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you if my musings thus far have stirred up anything within you!

 

1R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor (Betheesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 1993), 105.

2Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, (San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10.