beware the yeast of church growth ambitions

A friend and I went to a conference last weekend called “Organic Church Movements” in Long Beach, CA. We had a great time, we made new friends, and even connected with some old ones, which was a blast. It was great fun meeting people from all places on the journey of getting stripped down to the simplicity of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, each other, and being the church. People seemed to be there for many different reasons: some looking for the next trick to church growth, or feeling undone by God and seeking answers to big questions, or perhaps just curious. Everyone was finding acceptance. I wonder if one of the primary works of the Spirit at these events is to gather the most diverse group of Jesus followers I’ve ever seen under one roof and reveal his love and grace to them, and through them to one another.

I want to describe a primary impression I came away with, and to frame it up, bear in mind that I felt propelled to go around meeting lots of new people to seek out what God was doing in them. Every meal, every break time, every session, I’d be striking up conversations with someone new (or circling back to a few to see what clarity God may be giving them to their questions) and we’d ask each other a bunch of questions. One question I was asked several times was “how many groups meet in your area?” I found it interesting how convoluted my answer was:

“Well, there’s this group we gather with 2 or 3 times a month, and we’ve met another group north of us that has met regularly for awhile too. Some friends on Bainbridge Island did a couple gatherings, and that’s where we met a family from back on the Eastside, whom we see semi-regularly. Then they found out about the group up north, closer to their house, and this as worked out great for them. But we still see them now and then, along with one of the other families they meet with. The Bainbridge friends moved to Olympia, and we regularly hook up one way or another. They’ve met a couple other families in Olympia – we may see one of them next weekend – and they may begin gathering regularly with them and others in Olympia, but of course we’ll still see them, too. Let’s see, there’s a group of us guys that get together a couple times a month, and there’s a new friend who just recently came, and we think we’ll see him more often. He and his wife are part of a couple other families we know who are just beginning this detox journey, and they’ve started talking about some kind of regular gathering. But actually, they’ve been doing various meetings at one of their homes for some time, and in fact my wife has regularly met up with some of those ladies for years. And then there’s the web of friends that each of the other families in our regular gathering meet up with. A lot of them go back many years to one of the local churches, and then a small home gathering that was going for a few years after they left that church. This was all before we moved to the area 10 years ago. So while we’ve been meeting for about 6 years, many folks go back much farther than that…”

It’s a really messy answer! [In fact, a messy answer is now one of my first clues that there’s a problem with the question.] I shortened it up with each telling, but it made me realize how, as God is expanding his kingdom in our midst, it isn’t following nice, clean lines.

Apparently, clear relational boundaries among people, that define how they will relate as the church, is not a priority to God.

This doesn’t make it very easy for us to work it in the ways of church/business growth principles. But then, it’s not our business to work, now, is it?! It’s God’s business to grow, and our part is being a follower of Jesus.  I am now realizing how I’ve missed so much of what God was trying to do in and through my life for so many years because I was focused on the standard “grow the business” concepts for growing whatever ministry I was involved in.  More and more, I’m finding myself saying “beware the yeast of church growth ambitions” – numbers focus, neat packages, entreprenurial business energy, etc.  After so long at it, our church life is such a mixture of kingdoms, and I’m convinced we are just going to have to let God separate it all out for us, and it’s going to take some time. My children’s children will be light years ahead of us, and these present struggles will be child’s play to them, yet they will have their own dragons to slay. I only hope to make our progress solid so they can stand upon it rather than re-hash it.

Language is one of the challenging parts of this journey. The words I’ve used for decades don’t work, but I don’t have all the new ones yet that communicate the essence of what God is revealing to us – which we don’t understand fully anyway. And we’re seeing how important it is that we don’t try too hard at that, until the Lord brings clarity. So we stumble along, trying out new words for things, and the articulation is getting better with time.

One of the phrases I heard last weekend was how we get “re-calibrated” to Jesus on this journey. I like it. In other words, Jesus is the cornerstone of this house called his Church, and he never moves. In the hands of men, the house has been remodelled so many times that the structure has gotten pretty shakey, some parts are sagging and even caving in, and sometimes it can even be hard to tell what it used to look like or where the foundations are anymore.  The solution seems to be letting him have the wheel so he can help us rediscover Cornerstone, get ourselves realigned to it, and let the Master Builder do his job. We, his servants, are rediscovering our job again, too.

We simply cannot do this without knowing God’s voice. One of the easy traps we fall into is glomping on to some other voice than the Lords – what we can see and touch – for our instructions. We look to our intellect, do our bible analysis, draw conclusions from our “vast knowledge,” and set our course.  I’ve screwed up in these ways and so many more. I’m tired now! I’ve birthed a lot of Ishmaels. All I want to do now is hear God’s voice and follow. I don’t care if it seems insignificant in human terms. Like Jesus said in John 17, I want to be able to say to my Father in heaven, “I have glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do.” And I hope to hear him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Keep me there, Lord Jesus!

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