Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mary as a "Church Growth" Model

As an Anglican Christian (or "British Orthodox" as my friend Johnny Simmons puts it), I maintain a position on certain matters firmly in the middle-ground of historic Church debate. Regarding the nature of the Sacraments, particularly the elements of communion, the Roman Catholics have asserted the "real presence" of Christ in them with Transubstantiation, while the Baptists have asserted the "real absence" of Christ from them with "memorialism." The Anglican position has been to declare them both falling victim to the folly of over-explaining what remains a mystery. Likewise, regarding authority in the Church, the RCC has over-emphasized papacy and church canons to a place arguably equal to the Holy Scriptures. On the other end, Baptist tradition has over-individualized the Faith by suggesting anyone owning a Bible is as authoritative as anyone else. The Anglican view is to see the Scriptures as supreme and uniquely authoritative, yet interpreted within the context of a faithful episcopate; a middle ground.

In addition, another "middle ground" taken by Anglican tradition is a view of Mary, the "theotokos" (the "God-bearer"), the mother of Jesus. From an Anglican view, the RCC takes the veneration of Mary to an unhealthy level, elevating her to co-redeemer, ongoingly influential with the Savior, worthy recipient of the prayers of the devout. The Baptist tradition however, at least in the American Evangelical strain, is to avoid her veneration at all. On the contrary, often Baptists will consciously avoid any hint of reverence regarding Mary because of fears it can appear "Catholic." The Anglican view does not suffer these fears though, for the Church of the 1st millennium venerated the memory and example of Mary without the imbalance that Rome would later fall into.

It is no small matter to remember the Saints like a tribal custom of venerating the ancestors. In fact, many cultures that revere their ancestors consider their lives and examples of such import as to see them as living concurrently with the living. Archaeologists frequently find burial of these ancestors below the floor of the house because the living wanted to keep the honored dead nearby. The Church knows much of this custom, with burial crypts often located under the floor of historic churches, or at least nearby in the courtyard. "Tribal Christianity" has been among those cultures keeping the ancestors of the Faith ("Saints") front of mind in this manner, and among those Saints few can be more relevant - apart from Christ himself - than Mary, the mother of Jesus. For this reason, her life is rightly examined for examples of how the Church is to operate; chief among them being "His mother told the servants, 'Whatever he tells you, do it'" (John 2:5), when she articulated the Church's timeless message to the world.

While there are many ways that Mary, the mother of Jesus, serves as an example to the Church and to believers everywhere, her life also offers a paradigm of "church growth" in the midst of a world full of corporate fads and business seminar models imposed upon the Bride of Christ. Since first entering Bible college over twenty years ago, I've spent my time since then in and around church ministry paying close attention to the trends and directions churches take in the ever-present pressure to grow their ministry, extend their influence and establish systematic methods for perpetual expansion. In other words, I've been an attentive student of the "church growth" models, paradigms and plans that have been fed churches of varying sizes, ages and demographics. Over these 20 years I've observed that most attempts to grow "a church" are based on corporate business models that, when applied to a church, rob it of essential characteristics of the Body (as described in New Testament texts, usually containing a "one another" phrase). Instead, churches grow most legitimately when they mirror the example of Mary. I'll offer a summary of this below and flesh it out after...

Mary was a young woman "betrothed" (sort of like "engaged" but more serious than our culture treats it) to Joseph. By all Gospel accounts she was a virgin, having engaged in no activity from which she could expect to become pregnant. Nevertheless, on a particular occasion an angel shows up and tells her - a faithful Jewish maiden - that due to no effort of hers, she's going to have a child - a son, to be specific. It seems God has caused new life to spontaneously grow within her, so that from her, no thanks to her, God's chief new work will be born. None of the cause is attributable to Mary, other than her faithfulness as a Jewish woman at the time. She had not prayed to get pregnant, as in the case of Hannah in 1 Samuel. She had not planned for it, for indeed the angel's announcement was a surprise. She had not worked toward it, for Matthew is specific that this was BEFORE she and Joseph "came together" (Matt 1:18). She's called "the virgin Mary" and Jesus is referred to as "born of a virgin" because this is well-establish tradition in Scripture.

Let us now consider the physiology of a young woman. When she becomes pregnant, she grows and expands. Her body swells and it is clear she is "with child," but this is for the specific purpose of growing an entire other person waiting to leave it in a few months. Can we be frank? When a woman grows and expands like that, and it is NOT because another person is soon to be born, we call that "getting fat." Mary was NOT about to expand and grow due to obesity. She WAS expanding and growing because from her would be born the Son of God, the Messiah, the unique work of God into the world, Emmanuel..."God with us." Mary's "growth" was not attributable to her activity, planning or preparation. It was all a work of God who had designated her from which to birth his Work.

Most "church growth" models are interested in growing "a church" more than "The Church." Lacking a strong Ecclesiology, they default to business paradigms most familiar to their Evangelical elder boards stacked with corporate middle-managers and executives. The marriage of north American Evangelicalism and a free-market economy is on full display when church consultants advise pastors to "structure for growth," develop your "5 to 10 year plan," consider locations and buildings as transient, develop strategic processes and "remain visionary." The advice typically resembles something similar to the following plan:
  • examine the congregational makeup (demographics, distance, etc.)
  • determine the congregational values (actual vs aspirational)
  • formulate the congregational mission that will most likely affect ministry success
  • articulate the congregational vision to be pursued into the future
  • plan and execute the congregational strategy for realizing the vision by pursuing the mission
The congregational elders love it because it so resembles the process whereby their respective businesses have achieved success in the marketplace. The consultants love it because it appeals both to the church and corporate marketplaces. Because of the cross-pollenizing that naturally occurs between pastors and corporate peers, it appears a "win-win" all around (homage to Stephen Covey). Businesses do well following the principles outlined in advanced strategic planning, but do churches do just as well? Is all growth for a church positive when they strive for it as businesses do?

Remember, Mary was not planning to "grow," nor was she doing anything to cause it. It was an act of God. She was simply being faithful, and God decided the timing. If a church experiences spontaneous growth, due to no effort of its own, this may be Providential timing to expand "The Church" by starting a whole new Body. Otherwise, bodies are designed to be a certain size, and beyond that they are unhealthy. Most "church growth" models, by applying business growth paradigms to an organic entity are simply a "weight gain program" (as opposed to a weight loss program). Somehow, having a fat, sedentary, "expanding" body is a mark of success. In some societies this is actually the case. The fat chieftain's obesity is a sign of the abundance supposedly enjoyed by community. Is that the type of "body" that a church should really pursue?

Not to dive too deeply into a fitness analogy, but we know that when bodies become too obese they lose much of the abilities that a "normal body" is supposed to have in terms of running, jumping, climbing, digestion, health, circulation, etc. My experience has been that churches can grow too big, to expansive, too "obese" to perform those tasks that the New Testament describes for a local church body. Churches in the New Testament, particularly those to whom is addressed the Pauline epistles, are normal sized "bodies," fit and able to perform all the "one another" admonitions...having the "body" of a normal sized Galilean woman (a.k.a. Mary). If they expand due to a spontaneous decision of God, then it's to send out people and start a new church, not just get fatter, bigger, larger.

In twenty years I have witnessed churches grow and lose their capability to "be a church" in the process because of numerical "obesity." I've witnessed other churches TRY to grow in the same manner, only to die off because people perceived this move toward business models and decide they'd rather go to a "church" down the road than become part of a corporate flow chart. I've also witnessed churches remain faithfully the same size, and IF they experienced any growth, it was Providential for them to "birth" some new work out from them (a new church, sending out missionaries, training new clergy and sending them out). In this the last category was following the example of Mary, though without calling it that.

Corporate growth models are fully appropriate for businesses, but when applied to churches they have a negative effect often not perceived by those elated by the expansion of the enterprise. After all, in a culture where success is always interpreted as "Divine blessing," success is seldom scrutinized as to whether we succeeded at the right things. Particularly in relationship to the Body of Christ, it's frequently true to "climb the corporate ladder, only to discover it was leaning against the wrong wall." If there is ANY business model than can be applied to churches, it should be noted that under the "Starbucks model," the Church overtook the Roman Empire  - the most powerful regime in the world for it's time. Under the "Walmart model," however, Evangelicalism in North America has been a "flash in the pan," experiencing rapid decline after a relatively short period of cultural dominance.

A church is a "body," not a business; and like a body, it's designed to be a certain size, with certain capabilities that require a certain size. The Church conquered the Roman Empire by making many such bodies, not by making any of them in particular obese symbols of abundance. A church is a body, and even resembles a "body" in the young, Galilean, Jewish woman sense. If, for reasons which seem good to him, God causes her to expand, it is with the intent to "birth" some new work (a church, a missionary, a minister). If she is "pregnant" with new life, then that church must plan to "birth" that new work by training those families they will send out as a new church, training the missionaries they will send out into a new culture, or training those clergy they will send to lead a new congregation. But they are content that they are the size of a normal body, and should not expand beyond it otherwise.

Let's talk real numbers... with 100, or 120+/- (150 maximum) members (accounting for seasonal attendees), a church is a "normal sized body," able to operate in a manner described in Pauline Epistles. At this size a pastor is still a pastor; able to know names, be present in peoples' lives and keep the pastoral connection to people without the need to delegate pastoral duties to other staff. I once had "church growth" professor suggest that visitation was no place for a pastor, but instead that should be assigned a staff member or volunteer so that the "senior pastor" is free to focus on vision-casting and strategic planning; that a congregation should not get tied down to a building because it restricts the possibility for growth; that worship processes should remain fluid, and be regularly evaluated for widest appeal; and that supposedly everything "but sound doctrine" was "on the table" for a church dedicated to strategic growth planning. When I asked him, "What about developing a sense of 'scared space' for the congregation in a building through reverential architecture?" His response..."Sacred space? Where do you see THAT in the Bible?" This prof, who had little to no sense of sacred space, sacred times, sacred offices, sacred objects or sacred rites was a church growth and strategic planning professor, author and consultant whose influence has been widely felt in Evangelicalism. His advice fit well in the halls of Dallas Theological Seminary, but is wholly out of place in an Anglican context, or any other church wanting to resemble the triumphant Church of the 1st millennium.

A healthy, local church should strive to resemble Mary, the mother of Jesus. It remains faithful as a local body, not planning to grow by any effort of it's own. However, should God decide that it begins to swell, it is in preparation for "birthing" new life, a new ministry, a new minister. In this way, "The Church" grows even though "a church" does not. "Purpose-Driven" churches, strategic planning churches, seeker-friendly churches, "cell group" churches...all are striving to be the fat chieftain, symbolizing abundance. They no longer fit among the warriors, the maidens or the sages. They are the "fat man" sitting at the far end of the smoke-filled tent. That's what "strategic growth" churches are working to resemble, not Mary. Instead Mary, the "God-bearer," gives us an example for growing The Church that local churches should learn from.

No comments: