I’m at Simpsonwood Retreat Center this week for a conference on “church planting” and church revitalization. So far, I’ve learned a few interesting things, including how to access a free online resource that offers exhaustive demographic information on local populations for all churches within the North Georgia Conference. A friend of mine led a discussion about her experience starting an innovative storefront church in an affluent Atlanta area that offers high-church liturgy mixed with a jazz brunch. Her words inspired me to reflect more seriously on what successful evangelism looks like in our culture.
What bothers me, however, is the continued emphasis on having a “vision” for one’s church, and implementing the vision through various leadership principles that have been lifted from any number of corporate best-sellers and then “christianized.” Even if the principles themselves are good (and many are, if a little common-sensical), they feel kind of shallow. It doesn’t help that the conference’s theme verse (Proverbs 29:18, from the KJV: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”) is better translated, “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).
I can only imagine how different the conference would seem if they substituted the word “prophecy” for “vision” in all of these talks. You might think we’d become Pentecostals!
If you want to get theological, a conference like this is in danger of a kind of Pelagianism that overemphasizes what we pastors need to do in order to be successful—never mind that we’re only successful as the Holy Spirit does through us and our congregations. (We could actually stand to be a little more charismatic in that regard… I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the Holy Spirit all week.) Instead of focusing almost exclusively on what we pastors must do, why not also focus on what we pastors must be?
I know enough about what’s in my own heart to imagine that most of my fellow clergy struggle with some of the basics. Here are some of them: Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Praying and developing habits of disciplined Christian living. Loving the people Jesus has put under our care. Being responsive to the Holy Spirit. Being faithful to our calling. Being humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers. Being free from anxiety. Not taking ourselves too seriously.
When I shared some of these thoughts with a conference speaker, he said, “I assume I’m talking to a group of clergy who already get that. Are you saying I should have offered an altar call?”
He was joking. I think.
The point is, I’m all for disciple-making. I feel convicted that I have more work to do in the area of evangelism and in leading my congregation in that area. But disciple-making is a two-way street. Even as we make disciples, let’s not forget that we ourselves must continually be made into disciples. Unless we’ve already “gone onto perfection” (and I don’t know anyone who has), we’re all works in progress.
I don’t know how many clergy are in the North Georgia Conference. Many hundreds, at least. Can you imagine all of those women and men on their knees every morning in prayer, reading scripture, seeking God’s guidance and direction, trying their best to discern God’s will and be obedient to Jesus?
I bet that would make as positive an impact for the kingdom as any 22-step plan!
Regardless, we need to trust in the Lord, knowing that, ultimately, the only true measure of success is Christ saying to us on the Last Day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”