Preface: I wrote this condensation of the book for our church staff to engage. I thought it would potentially be helpful for a few others. That said, I don’t think you’re going to get a bunch of benefit out of the below without reading the book on your own. I highly recommend picking up a copy!
A friend and I resonated the other day with our dislike of most leadership books. Filled with cliche and flaky stories, we felt like we’d been robbed by the price of the book, lured into some kind of hope filled dream of “success.”
This is not one of those books.
Renovation of the Church has set something very valuable in front of us. It’s a story from two pastors about their experience of learning and trying to take a congregation to live in the kingdom of God realities today and not be consumed by consumer mentalities any longer. It’s a story of having a shaking experience, where the leaders realize they may have been missing something very important in their ministry of nurturing souls – the element of discipleship.
The book cites Dallas Willard often, perhaps even working off his book’s title Renovation of the Heart. Henri Nouwen shows up too, as well as Eugene Peterson. I cite these authors because they seem to be tremendous catalysts for helping the church at large reconsider the words already in our imaginations from the Gospels. Phrases like Kingdom of God, Discipleship, Eternal Life, Prayer, Presence, etc. have been mired and tossed aside while many have played with production, consumption, progress, relevancy, and performance. We’re seeing God’s hands here. We’re seeing a return to the ways of Jesus, a call back to the ways of disciple making that we buried underneath the illusive consumer market. As we continue to free the Gospel from being sold into a slavery of marketability, I think we’ll hear more stories like in Renovation of the Church.
Here’s a run down:
Forward: Dallas Willard writes, “The dynamics of outward success in a church are rooted in the motivational forces of the pastors and leaders. These have to change before anything else does. The pastors must themselves become disciples (in the New Testament sense)…” That’s a burly way to start a book. But, so true… So much of this boils down to a gut check in leadership – a simple question, wondering and listening to the call of our ministry. Are we here to generate a personal success story and leave a legacy of our own image or are we called to go and make disciples and blaze a trail decorated with a lot of felt-failure along the way?
Question: Where do we as leaders sense the calling of God? What does he desire for his people and world? How are we responding? Do we walk right along with the dynamics of outward success or are we going another way?
The Creation of the Monster. The story is about Oak Hills Church in Folsom, CA. The church starts off with passionate leadership and a big desire to take Jesus out into the world. A Willow Creek leadership experience catalyzes a desire to get serious about their call in a way that sends leadership into production mode. By mastering a production mode, they experience numerical success. However, they hear a dark moment of intended humor in a comment: “You know, we don’t even need God to do this.” The comment takes deep root and they realize, “When we structure a church around attracting people to cutting-edge, entertaining, interesting, inspirational and always growing services and ministries, there is simply no room for letting up. Once we have communicated to the masses that is they come to our church, they’ll be surprised, then we have this never-ending burden to surprise people every week.” Similarly, “…a growing and nagging realization that there simply was no way we could attend carefully to a rich and full life with God and still live at the pace we were living. In addition, we also began to grow increasingly uneasy that this model of doing church might be unhealthy for the people whose understanding of the Christian life was shaped by a church culture that treated them as religious consumers.” This sets the stage for the rest of the book.
Question: How have we made and fed a monster of Christian spirituality? (By monster, I mean played the game of catering to the market mentality and essentially selling some sensation of Jesus instead of nurturing a life of intentional discipleship.)
Deciding to Change. With the realizations in front of them, the pastors experience something within a retreat. They themselves notice an awareness, a need for God in their lives, a hunger and a thirst for a life with God that has more substance, depth, and reality as they looked at the Scriptures. Confronted by authors Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard, they collectively sense a need for change – to change from providing a religious product to pursuing an intentional path of spiritual formation, discipleship, and kingdom living.
A key paragraph: “Attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ.” You can sense the difficulty this staff had in coming to that realization. They were at this time a congregation of 1,700 people, sensing the outward sensation of success, and then they come to this…
Questions: How might more of us come to this Y in the road and make a decision that is for the kingdom and not for our own ambition, sensed outward success or other? What fuels this conviction and keeps you on the path?
The Keys to Transition. Basic questions surface: What is the good news? What is the kingdom of God? How to we live the Jesus Way (my paraphrase)? In the book, the authors come to a realization that everything needs to be reexamined under the light of being disciples and the availability of living in the kingdom of God right here, right now, and for all time as God’s kingdom continues to unfold in Jesus and renovate the entire world. These questions permeated the leaders’ hearts. They knew they needed to take a close look at themselves and learn or re-learn the rhythms of discipleship, paying attention to God, and nurturing a sense of this in their community of believers.
The transition was hard though. The congregation’s worship and ministry life was centered on two worship experiences, one a Sunday evening seeker service, the other a Thursday evening service engineered for things to go a bit deeper. As the questions above caused change in the hearts of the leaders, they realized they needed to change their services and essentially take everything to that “deeper” and more formative level. Parts of the congregation rebelled. Their product was no longer available, it seemed, so they checked out and went searching. Others felt betrayed. The once worshipping 1,700 dropped to 750 in a short amount of time. This caused transitions in staffing and finances. However, even with all this turmoil and pain, the leaders knew they were pursuing what was right, though the journey was pot-holed with doubts. They knew that the church (theirs and at-large) needed to take another look at discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership “tactics” and transition accordingly.
During this chapter, we read about various articles and citations that illustrate that smaller communities can be more formative and less preoccupied with market-spirituality. Though it was hard, the authors cite the very fact people left as an indication that the kingdom was taking root in front of them. They did not enjoy the exodus and wish all to stay and grow, but realized that they could not cater to a spiritual marketing mentality and to spiritual development at the same time. As a fact, they discerned that the two were destructive to one another.
Question: Do we feel a need for such a transition? Could we pull it off? Is there a way to make a transition like this and not lose so many people? If so, what? If not, what prevents that from happening?
Rethinking the Gospel. A chapter underscoring their journey of learning and re-learning what God is up to, calling us toward, and sending us to bring about – the Kingdom of God. Here they discover that the gospel is the invitation to come and live in God’s kingdom at this very moment by the grace of God in Jesus. The availability of the Kingdom has already begun. Naming Jesus as Lord is a today thing. I love how the authors cite the centrality of God in all this. It’s not about what they are doing but learning to see what God is doing and learning to walk to the rhythms and work that God is already causing. This has its clash though…
Question: How might we define or assume people to believe about the Kingdom of God and the Gospel? What have we been teaching? Do we agree with the paraphrase above?
Consumerism. A lot of books on spiritual renovation and discipleship take their shots at this word and lifestyle. These guys in their journey experience it too. Consumerism is an opposite of living in the Kingdom of God. An obsession with self and self-satisfaction deletes our capacity to become more fully human in the image of Christ. It runs the other direction, forging an image of glorified self. The authors wrestle, “The difficulty is that we live in a church culture where external success is self-justifying. If more people are coming to our church, this is obviously a sign of success, and God must be pleased. The throng of people coming into the church is decisive evidence that the kingdom of God is advancing, or so we believe. And if this belief is held by the church leadership, then we will be continuously tempted to pursue pragmatic methods to attract and retain people. The insidious thing about this, of course, is that these efforts are inextricably enmeshed with teaching them how to follow Christ. In other words, our attractional methods are not value neutral. We are training people as we attract them. (p.67)” “…we must become deeply convinced that this is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one who invited us to deny ourselves and lose our lives in order to find them. If we do nothing to confront this in our churches, we are merely putting a religious veneer over consumerism and nothing is changed. We offer no real, viable, attractive, alternative way of living. (p.68)” They also write a healthy response to a consumer sensation: “It’s perfectly fine to have opinions about all sorts of things. We all do. But perhaps we should not feel that our particular tastes and preferences should be catered to. After all, Jesus taught us to live well and be content even when we don’t get what we want.” (p. 69)
To close this chapter, they cite Eugene Peterson’s response to a consumer church mentality: “…this is not the way in which God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus and sets us on the way of Jesus’ salvation. This is not the way in which we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our sacrificed lives become available to others in justice and service. The cultivation of a consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, ‘deny yourself’ congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.”
Question: Have we catered to a consumer mentality and therefore clashed against Jesus’ call to ‘deny self?’ If so, how? Is it possible to still meet people where they’re at and provide appropriate ministries as well as be Kingdom focused? Is there a clash or not with that?
Setting Aside Ambition: The Necessary Groundwork to Change. In essence, “unbridled ambition is driven by the thirst to be ‘successful,’ which moves them away from the biblical call to faithfulness. (p. 75)” They also cite that ambition and consumerism work in a symbiotic relationship feeding and escalating one another. They write, “As a Christian leader who is motivated by personal ambition, I can appeal to the basic consumer tendencies of the people I desire to be a part of my church or ministry. If I do this well, I will be rewarded by their attendance, their support, and their allegiance, and my church or ministry will grow. Everybody is satisfied. Everybody gets what they want” (p. 79). The guys wrestle with ambition, citing that it’s good to have drive, but the force behind the drive is what needs to be in question. They mention that if there was ambition for the Kingdom of God and not for personal success we’d see a giving with reckless abandon and boundless energy toward things mostly unnoticed, that don’t bring us recognition, or that benefits our particular situation.
Question: Can we balance drive and ambition with humility and “behind the scenes” Kingdom work? Do we feel overdriven by ambition, like we have to make a name for ourselves and win at all costs? (What is a win?)
Co-Pastoring. …a simple chapter that tells the story about not having one person call all the shots as well as being shaped by the give and take of relationship.
Understanding the Church. “…we have to have a high theology of the church gathered. We have to believe in the mystery of what happens when God’s people come together to worship, prayer, receive the sacraments and love one another” (p. 109). In this chapter, we read about the transition from being an attractional to becoming a missional congregation. We read, “We were becoming suspicious of numerical growth as an infallible indicator of God’s endorsement and blessing. We considered the way we were doing church, not only the results we were seeing” (p. 100). The mission statement transformed from a phrase about attracting unchurched people toward a church experience to “to invite people to experience the reality of life in the kingdom of God.”
For their church, success needed redefined. “We concluded that faithfulness to the gospel might mean outward failure. The biblical story was filled with supporting evidence” (p. 103). That’s a hard thing to communicate and transition. People bring their own perceptions to the table and perceptions become “truths” to people and project whether they would like to or not like to participate in something. There is, like mentioned in the ambition chapter, a drive in many of us to be a part of a winning team. The perception of the win is what will drive our participation and motivation much of the time. So, again, what is a “win?”
Leadership, in the old way of operation for Oak Hills, needed a shift. It was a high energy, highly creative thing to be a part of before which was hard to sustain (though they still strive to be creative). As they shifted as a congregation, they become aware of gaping holes in their souls that were worn through all the output and little actual time in prayer and spiritually renovating practices.
Also sensed was the potential oversight of wanting all people to be spiritually mature. They discerned that a right view of the church was one that embraced a hodge podge of spiritual development. Not everyone would be really into spiritual growth at first and that needed to be ok. They did not want to create a sect but remain the church which is diverse in stages, personalities, and nationalities.
Questions: What, again, is a win? Are we able to embrace a wide variety of people at various spiritual stages and help them grow in Christlikeness?
Spiritual Formation: Do You Really Want to Be Healed? This chapter boils down to a person’s inner intent to pursue spiritual renovation. They slide more to our participation in the process of spiritual renovation than the role of the Spirit, but they also attempt to balance both sides: our intent, the Spirit’s empowerment.
The big question: Do you as a leader really want to be healed and formed in the likeness of Jesus? Do you as a congregational member want to be healed and formed in the likeness of Jesus? Often, our intent is lacking and we mosey through life as usual, side-stepping the call to follow Christ and practice methods that Jesus himself practiced and perhaps was formed by.
Question: Do you really want to be healed? What does healing look like? What does the image of Christ look like and how is it formed in you and the congregation?
Outreach. The trouble with much introspection is that you forget to look up once in awhile and see those around you. Of course, a healthy person sent out is one who can bring health and renovation to the world. Or, perhaps we also learn that in the process of being sent and being on the journey with Jesus to bring justice, mercy, peace, and hope to the world (that includes but is not exclusive to social justice) that is precisely when we experience healing.
Question: How do we balance a sense of “come and be healed” and “go and be healed?” How do we balance healing of individuals in our sanctuaries and small groups as well as take healing to the community? What does healing and outreach need to look like for our communities? World?
Worship. Quickly, worship shifted from product and seeker sensitivity to having a few more flavors of liturgical rhythm and depth.
Mistakes. Quickly, mistakes were made, mostly on the relational front and revealed character flaws and a lack of Christlike formation in leaders. Snaps were made, pride was expressed in how they’d respond to people, and people were hurt along the way. The authors would take that all back if possible, but today is only today.
How are we nurturing a sense of spiritual formation within our congregation – a sense of being formed to go form the world?
What does spiritual maturity look like and are we ready to embrace an intentional process that helps people experience the graces of God and become more like Christ right where they’re at (but perhaps not staying there)?
Do all of our communications streams, sermons, classes, and personal interactions have the flavor of Christ and the pursuit of spiritual renovation?
If someone were to ask us how they might follow Jesus with us, what would we say?
Finally, who am I and who are you in a discipling relationship with?