It Just Is Not Working

by Cal LeMon

Even after we have given it our best, we discover that an expression of ministry is just not working. Whether the ministry is the Wednesday evening fellowship supper, the Friday morning men’s prayer breakfast, or the semi-annual missions convention, the chairs are empty. Or, those who do populate the room give clear messages their bodies are here, but their brains and spirits are nestled in some nonecclesiastical cave.

When something we planned does not work, our knee-jerk response is to blame the consumer. “The world has polluted their minds and they have no interest in the things of God.” Or, “These people would rather watch reruns of Friends than spend an hour on their knees.”

I am convinced the consumers (the people who populate our pews) are not the problem. Actually, there is no problem; rather, there is a challenge for our Fellowship.

Specifically, the church has missed what most corporations know: The consumer is not always right. But, the consumer is the only option for growth.

When the church is not growing, and even regressing, I suggest there are three assumptions about organizational growth the body of Christ may want to review. They are systemic thinking, task theology, and a commitment to creativity.

When It Is Not Working … Check the Systems

Systemic thinking begins with this question: What are we rewarding that is not adding to our bottom line? Now, attach to that question this basic behavioral assumption: We only repeat behavior that is rewarded. Let me start with this last statement.

Do you overeat when you know what you are wedging into your mouth is not good for your body or you will later (about 3 a.m.) regret? Five pieces of pizza before bed on a Sunday night or three Krispy Kreme originals before a staff meeting on Monday morning may not be the best choice. We know that. But we continue to repeat the behavior because of something called mouth-feel. Mouth-feel — satisfying the sensation of taste — lasts only for seconds, but our hippocampus, nestled neatly inside our neocortex, remembers the sugar, texture, and aroma. So, we go back, regrettably, for seconds … and thirds … and. …

Put this factual assumption about repeating rewarded behavior together with systems in your expression of the body of Christ. The best way to understand the power of systems in our churches and institutions is to review an excerpt from The Fifth Discipline by Dr. Peter Senge: “Business and other human endeavors are also systems. They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other. Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change.”

Every congregation, college, and missionary location has its own internal culture. They have protected that culture for years by insisting the culture is sacra sancta. The aphorism, “Sorry, but that is not the way we do it here,” protects organizations from dealing with change. If we can fence off the systems that have always worked for us then we will remain safe.

Safety is the ultimate goal of all organizations. We want the predictability of doing again what we did yesterday. There is no angst, stress, or need for Tums when we eliminate surprises. Even though we continue offering ministry that does not produce results, we keep repeating the system because it makes us feel safe.

If the historic schedule of worship services is not effective in attracting inquiring new believers, why continue opening the doors to an empty parking lot? If the annual congregational business meeting has become the depository for 12 months of unresolved conflict and misunderstanding, why do we grit our teeth, plaster on a shallow smile, and memorize Robert’s Rules of Order?

We need to bury systems that are not productive. Systems are not holy writ; they are often indolent searches for personal and organizational safety.

Our Task Is Task Theology

When faced with the reality of invisible fabrics of interrelated actions (systems), the church should probably take a tour of ancient Athens, Greece, with the apostle Paul as a guide.

Christians, like all humans, get uptight when anyone suggests fooling around with the systems. Christians, unlike other humans, march through their lives keeping cadence to a different drummer. Here is where task theology makes an appearance.

One of my seminary professors, William Lane, Ph.D., (coauthor of The New Testament Speaks), introduced me years ago to task theology through the biblical illustration of the apostle Paul addressing unbelievers on Mars Hill while looking over the Areopagus (Acts 17:22–34).

There are three components of the apostle’s proclamation to this erudite audience: (1) the agenda, (2) the language, and (3) the message.

The premise of task theology is this: Agenda and language are always in flux because the audience is always changing. The message never changes. Mars Hill is an apt illustration of the apostle Paul’s willingness to change systems.

While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive in Athens, the apostle moved out of the confines of the synagogue and wandered into the marketplace of spirituality by kicking around in the Areopagus (verses 16–21). If you went to Athens today and visited the Parthenon on the Acropolis and looked down toward the northeast, you would see a vast area that in the first century was carpeted with idols.

Notice how the environment dictated the agenda for Paul’s mini-sermon. The apostle Paul got their attention by talking about the Athenian preoccupation with transcendent deity, and there was no better place than the Areopagus.

In task theology, the church today needs to ask itself, What are the profound issues our community is discussing right now, and what is the response from God’s Word?

The entree for the gospel has always been served up on the platter of pain. Our Lord cruised through Galilee, meeting and touching people at the point of their need. The agenda for the good news is always episodic and constantly changing.

Second, the language is also in flux. Notice the specificity of the apostle Paul’s discourse on Mars Hill. He used technical language that included, “very religious,” “an altar,” “with this inscription.” The apostle got their attention by speaking their language.

If you regularly cross into foreign cultures, you know the power of knowing and accurately using a foreign language. You have seen the attention, engagement, and eyes twinkling with delight when you speak the language of your listener.

So, what is the language of today? The new thesaurus of the 21st century includes “bailout,” “personal responsibility,” “bytes,” “underwater mortgage,” “transparency,” “iPod,” “working ’til you die,” and “recession-proof.”

A pew will not become the weekly address for a nap if you apply the Word of God — with specific language — to the tactile tabs of the mind. And, the language will be constantly changing.

Third, and most important to our Fellowship, we do not mess with the message. The apostle Paul’s other shoe falls on Mars Hill: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (verse 23).

For the apostle, there was no tinkering with truth. With unabashed resolve and clarity, Paul outlined the promise and requirement for personal salvation. Sure, some of the Epicurean and Stoic devotees refused to move from their long-held systems, but there were converts (verse 34) — Dionysius, a card-carrying member of the Areopagus, and Damaris.

When It Does Not Work … It Is Time for the Work of the Spirit

This last component of task theology is where we are most secure. We know the message and have exquisite models of dynamic preaching on how to deliver the good news. Where the church has not always been adept is the willingness and ability to constantly adapt the agenda and language to the pew. Adaptation will require innovation.

Have you noticed we have come full circle? When what we are doing to build the kingdom of God is not working, our fallback position is to blame the world. Where we may have missed the will of God is in our refusal to admit there are invisible systems in our expressions of the body of Christ that have, in effect, become sacred. What is sacred is often code for safe.

When we become honest enough to admit to ourselves there has been no growth, no engagement, or no vision, the church needs to reclaim the divine attribute of creativity.

Here is a working definition to consider: “Creativity is the ability to look at the same thing as everyone else and see something different.”

As people of the Spirit, this final point should be our forte. The practice of creativity is not the property of Apple Computer or Research in Motion. The Holy Spirit has woven creativity into the fabric of the Pentecostal experience.

The Holy Spirit’s role in Creation was to hover over the waters, sculpting a wet glob of clay into paradise. The Day of Pentecost was another stage for the breath of God to silently roar into our human hearts. The work of the Holy Spirit is always new and renewing.

So, the next time you and those who share your ministry lament, “You know what, this just is not working,” smile, laugh, and throw a party, because the Holy Spirit now has some serious wet clay for the Potter’s hands.