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Shaped by the Undetected

Today’s Friday…  a good time to collect thoughts from the work week; in a non-moonshine kind of way to do a little distilling.

I was reminded this week how we’re all shaped by unseen forces. Just as the wind breaks down rock, so too we can become broken down by a wind we call culture.

Robert Webber used to say, “The history of the church is a history of being shaped by culture. We speak of influencing the world for God. A realistic assessment of history shows the opposite is true.”

We need to be attentive to at least three culture-related realities:

  • Culture is pervasive. Wherever you go culture is all around you. You just can’t get away from culture – you’re immersed in some sort of culture.
  • Culture is persistent. Like water torture applying drop-by-drop pressure on its victim’s forehead, culture is always there sending an insidious and relentless message – drop by drop with a detectable spurt popping here and there. Ritual – traditional or contemporary – is one of the most unnoticed culprits lulling us into an unsettling satisfaction.
  • Culture is potent. Culture derives its power from more than a single source. In fact, you and I often contribute to  culture without even knowing it. We get on bandwagons, buy the latest tunes, and slip into the same speech idioms as those around us. We get caught up in group think – even though we purpose not to.

The surrounding culture seeps into our live’s uncaulked spiritual crevices and cracks. Then, just as freezing water expands inside seemingly impenetrable granite fissures breaking open what seemed secure, our own wisdom replaces real wisdom; our resolve is worn down and our hearts bust open as the surrounding culture’s cool invigorating waters insidiously seep in, cooling our to hearts to the warm touch of the Holy Spirit.

When change is in the air we seem even more susceptible to do it our way. I wish I could say this vulnerability was limited to life outside the church. I can’t.

You see. what I’ve just highlighted are cultural realities in many churches.  So much for being counter-cultural. In case you think these words apply only to the worshiping communities known for guitars, drums, and PowerPoint, traditionally-oriented communities suffer from the same tendencies to do the same-old-same-old.

Fortunately, a perfect time to caulk the door and window frames is when a faith community is contemplating change. That’s because part of good change process is to complete an objective and thorough inventory –  a no-makeup-show-the-warts cold, hard look in the mirror. Then, move forward with a fissure-less option; as you sing anew together “on Christ the Solid Rock we stand”.

Upon that Rock we are called to detect the undetectable and to live counter-cultural, abundant lives.

Cure for Church Politics – Part 3

Over the last few postings, I have identified two divisive consequences of seeing the church as a place for practicing politics:

  1. Political perspectives tend to segment the church communities along preference lines that become camps
  2. Leaders or laypeople that  foster politicized perspectives, whether consciously or unconsciously, inevitably end up deeply wounded themselves; often by their former so-called allies. These same individuals sometimes lose their faith in God and their focus on his purposes, often leave the church, seem perpetually jaded, and sometimes wear the scars of their own actions for a lifetime, as well as marks from others’ actions.

I’ve offered the thought that one’s perspective determines what possibilities one can imagine and what pathways one can identify.

New perspectives… new possibilities… new pathways; this entire progression can help us experience what Walter Brueggemann calls “God’s newness”. The newness progression moves us to a spiritual space and human place where we can understand and experience the Kingdom of God as God intends. But such an experience this requires us to choose the simple life of

None of these consequences is inevitable if we choose simplicity. As I write this posting, the most recent Canadian federal election is fresh in the minds of Canadians. For weeks attacks and counter-attacks, spin, rationalizations, and double-speak abounded. It is safe to say that many good people sometimes behaved poorly; including me and if you are in Canada, maybe even you. But, why is this so?

What makes good people say and do not-so-good things? Perhaps, poor perspectives.

Jesus prayer for unity was not an innovation within the Trinity. Oneness… unity… community are indisputable within our understanding of the Triune God. Yet, none of these realities can be experienced if we live apart from the requirements of Micah 6:8 (NLT).

O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

The ancient practices find their incarnational expression in Jesus’ communally-focused prayer in John 17:20-22 (NLT).

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one.”

The justice demonstrated in doing right… the vision of the merciful, loving God furiously pursuing His creation with redemptive power that is most forcefully expressed through mercy… and Truth most startlingly revealed in the humility of incomprehensible servanthood; these characteristics demonstrated in Christian community defy human explanations. When God’s people shed their pretences, lay down their ambitions, and pray humbly; then the glory that Jesus gave to us (God’s character) will enable us to be one and through this the world will believe God sent Jesus.

Political pondering and pandering inevitably smother attempts at justice, mercy, and truth; ultimately breeding divisions. But, unyielding justice, mercy, and truth call people to community where position and power have no place, breathing life into thirsty land. God-desired and God-inspired change happens naturally and honorably among such people and in such places – where divisions are not found.

A Political Jesus or Apolitical Jesus

Detour alert!!!

We’ve been considering…

Cost #1 – Divided churches, fractured communities.

Cause of #1 – Politics… (see comments in previous posting)

Cure B – Achieve sound, sensible, scriptural perspectives.

We need sound, sensible, scriptural perspectives to counter politicizing Christian communities of faith: denominations, local congregations, youth groups, choirs, para-church organizations, or any other type of Christian community.

Not everyone would agree with me that politics are a bad thing in church. A friend mentioned a seminary prof who taught that the Apostle Paul was political. She also asked me about the highly-regarded book, The Politics of Jesus. The title of John Howard Yoder’s might seem like a repudiation of my apolitical Jesus. But, wait.

Yoder’s book doesn’t counter my position; we’re aligned. Just a quick scan of Yoder’s chapter titles points us to a Jesus who, by my definition, was completely apolitical:

  1. The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic
  2. The Kingdom Coming
  3. The Implications of the Jubilee
  4. God Will Fight for Us
  5. The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance
  6. Trial Balance
  7. The Disciple of Christ and the Way of Jesus
  8. Christ and Power
  9. Revolutionary Subordination
  10. Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State
  11. Justification by Grace through Faith
  12. The War of the Lamb

Yoder states clearly:

There is often an [emotion or social] appeal to Jesus as a revolutionary and political figure; yet this appeal is a slogan-like formal one. It is not linked to a substantial concern for the kind of politics Jesus incarnated.

This is the point.

If we equate being political with being wise – fine. Without a doubt, Jesus knew the people and situations in which he moved. He knew what was happening. As Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz would say, Jesus understood the importance of the “view from the balcony”. No one was wiser than Jesus!

But, the current Western understanding of politics is:

  • the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing policy, especially to garner control
  • the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over people
  • competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government), and
  • political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices…

Unless we resist this current Western praxes we will continually experience damaging divisions within Christian communities. We won’t find a Jesus in the Scriptures or any other reliable historical source who engaged in the type of politics that are so prevalent among Christian communities; for there was no guile in him whose greatest political statement was to hang on a cross.

I don’t conceive of a political Jesus, nor do I believe that the One who came to serve would beckon his disciples to seek political mastery in the Western 21st Century context.

Now, I will try to avoid interjections and consider three more reasons why perspective matters in the Kingdom of God: justice, vision, and truth…in the next posting.

Cure for Church Politics – Part 2

Cost #1 – Divided churches, fractured communities.

Cause of #1 – Politics… (see comments in previous posting)

Cure B – Achieve sound, sensible, scriptural perspectives.

For many years, (pre-Internet) I wrote business articles under the masthead Perspective on Performance. In my business consulting firm, our progressive claim has been:

New Perspectives, New Possibilities, New Pathways.

Merriam-Webster offers at least four relevant definitions for the noun perspective:

  1. The capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance
  2. A visible scene; especially : one giving a distinctive impression of distance
  3. A mental view or prospect
  4. The appearance to the eye [even the mind’s eye] of objects in respect to their relative distance and positions.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perspective?show=1&t=1304883951

Take your choice. One friend of mine often says, “Perspective is everything!” I say, “Perspective determines perception, which shapes a person’s perceptions, which affect one’s views and understanding of the world.” It’s not a stretch to say that perspective is determinative of how we ‘live and move and have our being’.

Perspective matters. But, why does perspective matter in a discussion about worthy change and church politics? There are several reasons why perspective is so important in the Kingdom of God:

  1. If you see your local church or ministry as a place for politics, you are more likely to see it as a place of hierarchy, positioning, and taking sides. In contrast, an apolitical perspective enables you to experience church in community, where you and others submit one to another. Politically-minded people experience events as winning or losing; where people stand still to fight over turf for position. An apolitical understanding permits sacrificial serving where people move safely together into God’s newness – even when the new can be frightening.
  2. Political environments threaten and almost always damage leaders – even when the political environment is nurtured and managed by the leader(s). I can’t count the number of times I have observed the most politically-minded and so-called adept political Christians being the most deeply wounded when strife breaks out. Sometimes the fatal wound isn’t immediate, but it seems almost inevitable.

Winston Churchill famously said, “People cannot rise above the level of their leaders any more than water can rise above its source.” Distracted or damaged leaders can’t lead their people effectively.

God may call someone into politics and political leadership, but he doesn’t calls leaders to be political in the sense we’ve been considering the word. Too much is at stake.

In the next posting, we’ll consider three more reasons why perspective matters in the Kingdom of God – the impact of perspective on justice, vision, and truth.

Cure for Church Politics – Part 1

If you’ve been reading my last few postings, you’ve likely noticed the pattern I intend to apply in examining nine costs of change. Cost. Cause. Cure.

Cost #1 – Divided churches, fractured communities.

Cause of #1 – Politics… most Christians are sadly familiar with the expression church politics; highlighting the oxymoronic character political Christianity! If you draw several inferences from the adjective oxymoronic that’s fine, for what two words could be any more contradictory or incongruous? What intelligent mind could perceive the two words together as desirable; for who has ever known the political Christ?

Some time ago I sat in on a meeting with a minister who actually identified one of his core strengths as his political acumen. This pastor asserted that among his greatest contributions to his congregation was his ability to “manage the politics of the church”! Once I realized he was serious, I needed to check to ensure my mouth wasn’t gaping open in disbelief. In the secular arena ‘political acumen’ is often regarded as a core competency. But, managing the politics of the church is incompatible with the redemptive, renewing, regenerative character of Christ. And, the church is Christ’s!

Cure ASee Christian politics for what they really are.

To quote Paul, “Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!” If you think I am too liberal in applying Paul’s remarks to this situation, remember that in I Corinthians 11:22b Paul was speaking about division in the church. The division he addressed was caused by some people being treated one way while others were treated differently; a common outcome of politicized environments.

Turf wars – battles over preferences – jockeying for positions, recognition, and influence; all these and more are breeding grounds for gathering people to one side or another, resulting in divisions within the body of Christ. None of these behaviors is worthy of Christ’s name or worthy conduct in the pursuit of even the noblest change.

Politics in a church is corrosive to its fabric and blight upon its reputation. Christ demands more; and we must be better.

When we find politics in church, it’s time for a reality check!

God’s expectations of us will never be antithetical to God’s calling of us. God-inspired, God-directed change will never require Christians to adopt the ungodly practice of politicizing life in a Christian community.

Cause of Cost #1 – Church Politics

According to Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary – a basic dictionary intended for people whose native language is not English – the noun ‘cure’ has several possible meanings:

  • Something that stops a disease and makes someone [or a community] healthy again
  • Something that ends a problem or improves a bad situation
  • The act of making someone [or a community] healthy again after an illness.

Source: http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/cure

As we consider the costs of poor change praxes, we’ll also consider some of the associated causes and how to cure them. Get rid of the causes; get rid of the costs.

Cost #1: Division

Division is not an inevitable cost of change, although it often seems to be. Division in Christian communities is the derivative of divisive actions by Christians. Of course, few people would be objective, bold, or forthright enough to acknowledge their own actions as being divisive. It’s tough to acknowledge openly that one’s own actions or intentions are to divide and conquer when Christ prayed for his followers to be united and submit to one to another. So, in Christian communities, as in many social settings, we apply civilized, socially-acceptable labels on inappropriate behaviors.

Cause #1: Politics

Rather than call another person divisive, we describe the person as political. Some even casually describe reprehensible behaviors blandly as “church politics”! This is absurd.

Over the next couple of postings we’ll consider why people feel a need to be political, which invariably results in creating turf wars and divisions. We’ll examine how political behavior is antithetical to Christ’s character and causes. We’ll consider how to shed such ignoble behavior and put on the character of the One whom we seek to follow.

1st Cost of Poorly Processed Change

For centuries Christian ministries have suffered from poor understanding of change and lack of ability to process transitions. Today, the costs of change in the Church remain unabated. In my opinion, there is no more important challenge for the church than to improve its change praxes.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll suggest nine of costs the Christian faith pays for dealing with change poorly. We’ll also explore what can be done to reduce the price people and parishes pay whenever a Christian community considers or processes change.

Cost #1: Change has been divisive rather than unifying; hurtful rather than healing.

The Christian church steps daily into a hurting world that is eager for hope, unity, love, and understanding. Pop songs and contemporary culture decries war, hate, and injustice. Big issues need to be addressed; yet, the church fiddles while the world burns.

Why is division so costly?

Jesus’ incredibly intimate prayer to the Father (John 17:18-23 NLT) still echoes through the ages.

“Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

God calls us to bring healing and wholeness to a broken world. He calls us to be redemptive in all our thoughts and actions. That redemptive work must begin inside our communities before we can expect to propose a message of redemption, hope, justice, and love to others outside the Church. How can we guide others to the Redeemer, who prayed so passionately for unity among his followers, when we are so divided ourselves? How can we proclaim the Good News of eternity with any credibility if our behavior speaks the bad news of divisions in the here and now?

Numerous Christian communities continue experience hurtful divisions in spite of being called to journey together. Christians end up assaulting each other in assorted ways through squabbles over traditions, trappings, and trivia. Leaders feel beaten up and don’t lead. Followers feel frustrated and won’t follow. Endless lists of war-worn, wounded Christian soldiers record the cost and carnage of division among Christians. To make matters worse, sometimes when people confess their vulnerability and need for rest, some Christians seem to believe the answer is to shoot the wounded.

The world looks on and wonders who or what we serve; as the conduct of Christ’s people frustrates the purposes of Christ’s Kingdom.

Have mercy on us O Lord.

Dichotomous Responses to Change

Almost all change experts state – or at least imply – that the challenges experienced in change initiatives are less about contemplated change, but people. In Black and Gregersen’s very helpful book, It Starts With One, the authors state “…the key to successful change is not systems, such as information, pay, or communications, but at the core it’s people.”

I have noticed an unfortunate dichotomy in people’s responses to change.

  1. Most people demonstrate some resistance to change; some seem intransigent and unwilling to consider even sensible and compelling changes. As though air-locked into past paradigms, they are unwilling, maybe unable to see realities emerging right all around them.
  2. Other people, usually fewer in number, seem set on change for the sake of change. These people can be overly zealous advocates, demonstrating little willingness to invest the necessary time to evaluate objectively and thoroughly what should be changed, how change should be processed, and what consequences might follow.

Almost by default the second group, the change advocates, are labelled as so preoccupied with change that they care little about the consequences of change. Yet, in my work within churches I have discovered that neither of these polarized groups pays sufficient attention to the consequences of their own opinions. Zeal for change and resistance to change both carry consequences.

Over the coming days, I intend to share nine consequences encountered by people when church leaders and other dominant voices in congregations and Christian organizations adopt either of the dichotomous positions. When either option is adopted change issues are polarized rather than processed; debate rather than dialogue prevails.

Massive Volumes of Change

In the previous posting I introduced the notion of a perfect storm of change.

In order to comprehend the implications of this perfect change storm we must ask ourselves how each of these three factors (i.e., volume, speed, and unpredictability or complexity) contributes to this perfect storm.

The volume (amount) of change has grown and will continue to increase. According to Dean Anderson and Linda Ackerman Anderson (Beyond Change Management: Advanced Strategies for Today’s Transformational Leaders), “We can expect more change to occur in our lifetimes than has occurred since the beginning of civilization….”

Add to this the notion (mentioned earlier in January) that change changes change. And while we are becoming equipped to generate more change, we are not being enabled to process change well or at all.

Consider the function of the latest electronic aids, which now seem to be released monthly if not more frequently. Each new device is designed to increase the throughput (i.e., the amount of material, data, etc., that enters and goes through something such as a machine or system in a given period of time). We can send and receive more information without possessing any better ability to process or understand the information.

Each new innovation is not only the product of change, but often is designed to be the producer of change by enabling users to increase their capacity to send and receive more information to more people – increasingly in one-to-many scenarios. Even when observe a couple, whether friends or lovers, sitting in a coffee shop, we frequently observe the intrusive presence of communication devices essentially bringing others – even strangers – into the couple’s interaction. One-on-one is being replaced in our society with one-to-many. Privacy and intimacy are being sacrificed while generating emotional isolation.

In my experience in business, one-to-one systems are frequently viewed as archaic and deficient. The goal is one-to-many, scalable, asynchronous systems. Technology leaders literally don’t want system to wait for information. As one writer puts it “Asynchronous execution avoids this bottleneck (emphasis added). You are essentially saying, ‘I know this function call is going to take a great deal of time, but my program doesn’t want to wait around while it executes’.”

Caution – if you think we’re dealing with massive volumes of change currently, just wait a year… or a month or a week or a minute. Into the world of rampant, relentless, restless change, the Master speaks and says, “‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.’ He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone.” (Mark 6:31-32 NLT)

Change’s Perfect Storm

By definition a ‘perfect storm is “a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors.”

Change experts alert us to three critical change factors in our times. Dean Anderson and Linda Ackerman Anderson, Beyond Change Management: Advanced Strategies for Today’s Transformational Leaders (The Practicing Organization Development Series, ed. William J. Rothwell, Roland Sullivan, and Kristine Quade. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2001), believe “the size, speed, and unpredictability of change are greater than ever before… [change] is only going to get more daunting.”

The convergence of these three factors places contemporary society in the midst of a situation that we may rightly label ‘change’s perfect storm’ – a change storm of staggering proportion and power.

In order to comprehend the implications of this change storm we’ll pause to consider how each of these three factors contributes to this perfect storm of change: the volume of change, the rate of change, and the complexity of change.

Awesome and daunting to us and over our heads? Yes it can be; but all of the things are under Christ’s feet. Consider the assurance of Scripture, ”

Change, just like everything else in life, under Jesus’ domain. The Scriptures confirm, “God has put all things under his authority. (Of course, when it says ‘all things are under his authority,’ that does not include God himself, who gave Christ his authority.) Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.” (1 Cor 15:27-28 NLT)

In the turbulence of change, rest in the knowledge that all things are under the feet of the one who gave himself for the ransom of many.

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