As I write I am sitting aboard the Spirit of Tasmania II after a whirlwind visit to Victoria to celebrate my daughter’s 22nd birthday.
We came across on Tuesday evening and spent much of Wednesday driving as we visited the Mornington Fusion centre where we had lived for five years before travelling up to Bendigo to be with Maddi.
Seeing my little girl now all grown up and returning to Victoria, where I led the Fusion team for five years put me in a reflective mode, particularly in light of what I have been thinking about as I prepare for Sunday.
There has been a lot written about the church and what it is, or what it isn’t and mostly people are responding to the institutions they have encountered.
One of the features of institutions is that they are built for permanence. They were initially established in response to an idea or vision someone had, and then they take on a life of their own, and sometimes the idea or vision can go missing but the institution trundles on.
In order to lead we need to take a look at the original visions or ideas that built our institutions. This is definitely true of the institutions of church.
It was fascinating and a little disturbing for me to uncover the original idea behind what many of us call church while I was in Canada. In the 1950’s Donald McGavran blended sociology and marketing principles with simple theology in a way that made sense to a lot of people. While very few people know his name, almost every modern church has been influenced by his “Church Growth” paradigm.
Bono sang, in the song “Cedars of Lebanon”:
Choose your enemies carefully ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friend
While Donald McGavran is not exactly my enemy, the paradigm he proposed definitely is because it produced institutions shaped by quite a different vision than I understand what the church is meant to be focussing on.
McGavran believed that the outcome the church should be seeking is growth by helping people become its “dependable members”. Because this was the focus, all of the energy and thinking was about how to reduce obstacles and increase the likelihood of this being achieved.
I don’t believe most church leaders even know where their ideas about church come from, but I can tell you that at least some have been deeply influenced by D. McG.
The problem with McGavran is that he puts the goal in the wrong place. Success isn’t a big church according to the Apostle Paul. Success is people becoming mature, finding their own unique calling, and being supported and equipped in that journey by the church. This is precisely what Paul means when he says;
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
For the Apostle Paul the church gathering was never the main game. The primary measure of success of the church was whether people were being freed into their unique “works of service” and being equipped to navigate the complex realities of life without being blown around by circumstance.
Some people with a high view of Pastors don’t like it, but I think Paul nails the role of church leadership when he dubs us ligaments:
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.(Ephesians 4:16)
Ligaments don’t carry life themselves in the same way blood vessels do. Their sole job is to connect the different bits to the body. So to develop Paul’s metaphor further, the job of church leaders is to connect people with Jesus and to connect them with each other, while providing the necessary attachments for them to fulfil their place in the body. That is what church leaders need to be working on.
Part of the reason the trip to Victoria has been so significant for me is that I can see how mature my daughter is becoming, and that is a great joy. Additionally, as I visited old friends and familiar places, memories from my time in Victoria came flooding back, I realised how much I personally had matured over the past decade. I loved my time leading the team there, however I feel like a very different person to the Matt Garvin who left Victoria in 2010.
I am glimpsing the importance of what Paul is talking about through his emphasis on personal maturity, particularly when you define it like he does. Paul defines maturity by saying what its not:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.
For Paul, maturity is the ability to be anchored and have your bearings no matter what external circumstances might look like. A mature person is free to make choices rather than have their choices made for them. The more mature you are, the freer you are.
While I know I’ve got a lot more growing up still to go, this trip showed me how far I have come, and made me more certain that I want to find a way to structure a church that helps people grow up.
I agree with Klyne Snodgrass, the author of the NIV Application Commentary who wrote about this passage of Ephesians:
Application of this passage requires nothing less than a reformation of Christianity. We have strayed from the gospel as surely as if we had sold indulgences. Our individualism, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and lack of integrity do not match the calling with which we were called. We have lost our sense of the body of Christ.
Snodgrass is right. We actually need a reformation of Christianity so our institutions better reflect the intention that was always meant to define them: the nurturing of mature Christ followers.
I’m not sure exactly how it is going to work out, but this is what I’m trying to help us do at Citywide.