Often, after I've done talks on Faithful Presence at a conference, I'm confronted with the question, "How do I lead my church into this?"
Pastors often say to me, "'Faithful presence' all sounds wonderful and everything, but where do I start? How do we reshape expectations?" Church planters are frustrated they cannot convince people that church is not a set of programs for individuals to maximize their own lives. Mega church pastors find it hard to imagine change this significant for their churches.
Leaders of existing churches often try to lead change by turning the direction of the whole church in one fell swoop. Preach a series of sermons. Launch a home bible study for every small group in the church. Create a curriculum that leads home gatherings into the disciplines we must do to become this new thing. Church planters want to do the same thing, only on a smaller scale.
The emphasis behind all these strategies is this: if I can just get the cognitive content into the brains of my parishioners, the proposed change will happen from there.
Although these strategies might accomplish some good, I suggest that rarely does significant change happen these ways. If by "change," you are talking about fine tuning an already existing ethos in an existing culture and simply organizing it better, then cognitive content can work. I take what Rick Warren did with "Purpose Driven Life" as a good example of this. Purpose Driven Life organized an already individualist, high achiever population of Orange County, CA into a church and organized and directed those impulses towards God in a way which fit within the culture.
But what Faithful Presence presents is a significant culture shift in most churches. It asks a church to move from "programs" to "places" where we cultivate "practices" to live in, discern, and participate in His "presence." We're shifting from church as a set of programs that each person/family can pick and choose to fit into their already busy life, to church as a way of life lived in all the places of our lives.
'Faithful Presence' moves us from programs to places, practices & presence.CLICK TO TWEETIn order for this to happen, our people need to see and discern God at work in places other than the church building. This is a major paradigm shift for many Christians. Therefore mere cognitive material, a brilliantly written book, or even more study guides simply cannot make such change happen. It must be lived.
Instead of Fell Swoops
Pastors: Do not try to turn a gigantic air craft carrier around all in one fell swoop.
Church-planters: Forget trying to convince a new excited group of people in a community to think about church differently.
Instead, do it! Start with twelve people.
Make a pitch to people (over a local cup of coffee) asking them to come to dinner once a week and share life together. Show them how to tend to the presence of Christ here among us as we sit around the table every week.
Open space for tending to one another and what God is doing among us and in us and around us. Discern the presence of God around that table! Cultivate listening to each other, trusting each other, and praying for one another and our neighbors and our neighborhoods.
It may take a while—a year or more for people to commit. It may take at least a year for people to trust and share life. But once this space is truly opened up, miracles will happen, and lives will be transformed.
Out of this, the word begins to spread in your congregation. "What's happening over at so-and-so's house?" Meanwhile, you have equipped these people to be present to other people and situations in the neighborhood.
I call this the "Start with Twelve Strategy."
It's a veritable fact of sociology: If you start with a crowd (50-100 people in church planting), you can build a bigger crowd with surprising speed. (Most mega churches start with at least 50-100 people from another church).
But because the 50-100 people bring with them already firmly ensconced expectations of what "church" will be, the results you achieve will most probably be more of the same—church as they already know it.
Revolutions start in smaller intimate groups where people are present with each other. The conversations germinate something new and contextual. It takes longer. But it develops something truly interwoven and sustainable.
If we seek not to replicate more of the same, but to truly engage our changing context, we must go the way of Jesus in leading churches and church planting.
With church-planting, revitalizing churches in decline, or shifting the ethos of a mega church to engage a culture that no longer "comes to church," I propose the "Start with Twelve Strategy." Even if it's just you!! Cultivate a conversation around a weekly meal, pray together listening for the Spirit in our midst, begin to train a small group in a mutual way of life where we spend most of our time in the daily rhythms of our neighborhood context, and allow the Spirit to slowly ferment something new.
This will take longer.
This will take many cups of coffee, calling people into this new exciting life together. But when you find twelve who are willing to submit to Jesus as Lord in this context, a truly beautiful manifestation of the Kingdom can erupt (eventually). At the outset, this will not generate a buzz of excitement that a larger crowd does. But if cultivated well and consistently, I suggest it promises something new springing forth that no one could have predicted.
Jesus started with twelve. He did not try to change the entire nation of Israel (or what was left of it) all by himself. He didn't try to turn that whole ship in one life time. Instead he started with twelve, strategically, to bring about the massive change—extending God's mission into the whole world through the church. He calls us to do more of the same.
What do you think? How have you experienced this dynamic? Why do we rarely try this in church turnarounds?
David Fitch is B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary Chicago, IL. You can find more of his writing at http://www.missioalliance.org/