My wife is very health conscious and buys groceries at places that sell organic food. I found out quickly that organic groceries go bad more quickly than those that contain artificial preservatives. Is that true for all things organic, even churches? Will our movement eventually die? Is there an expiration date for organic church?
Christianity Today's Mark Galli wrote an article in his online SoulWork column last week titled "Long Live Organic Church!" In it he expresses some admiration but also concern for the wellbeing of some of the thought leaders of the organic church movement. And he worries that the bitter disappointment of seeing the inevitable failure of our movement may cause us to become bitter and fall out of service.
The concerns he expresses are not just valid; they are haunting realizations I have lived with for over a decade. Sustainability, longevity, and the threat of institutionalization are all subjects I have thought about considerably. On the other hand, holding unreal expectations and the disillusionment that can result has not ever been a concern of mine.
What is success?
I do not live for success but to follow Christ every day. If, when my life ends, I have only a handful of followers of Jesus that can carry on his work, I will not be ashamed to meet my Lord. Reading 2 Timothy 4, Paul was in much the same place, but he said he finished the course and kept the faith. He also transformed the world! He planted seeds that bore fruit for generations to come. There were some things put in place that would bring lasting change throughout the centuries. There were other things that lasted only a generation or two. I think that is the way of true awakenings. Some new ideas stick forever, others only for a time.
My mentor, Bob Logan, has said, "Success is finding out what God wants you to do and doing it." I think that is really the truth. As long as there is a living and loving God, this success is available to us all.
I have held firmly to a quote from the late missiologist Ralph Winter: "Risk is not to be evaluated in terms of the probability of success, but in terms of the value of the goal."
Can we change the world?
We are to make disciples of all the nations to the ends of the earth. In doing so, Paul and his associates turned the whole world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Is transformation of society the true mark of a movement? Yes, I think it is. As I have said to many who question our legitimacy, it will not be contemporary experts and critics who will give us our validity, but future historians. I often think of future historians and their perspective when I look at things; it helps to gain a bigger and broader perspective of the here and now.
If we truly saturate our society with vital followers of Christ capable of making disciples, the world will change. I believe that simply connecting God's children to their spiritual Father in such a way that they listen to his voice and courageously follow his lead will transform society in broader, more holistic, and longer lasting ways than anything else we try.
The change, however, will not be for every generation. In fact, it could very well be that our most serious problems are caused by thinking the decisions we make today will be permanent. We end up establishing methods without the people hearing from God themselves and making their own choices. The result is a lifeless religious institution.
Can we change the future?
Homer Simpson once said, "I guess people never really change; or, they quickly change and then quickly change back again." In a real sense, all transformation is only momentary. There is a reason for this: We are called to live in the moment. Love is the fulfillment of all righteousness and it is always a choice. We are to love God with our whole being … every day. Who you are is really a lifetime of decisions made in specific moments, which make up the person you see in the mirror. God wants us to choose him every moment of every day, not just once at a middle-school retreat campfire.
Each generation must face its own tests and make its own choices. Our children do not become Christians because we choose to follow Christ, but because they do. If they are only living out the choices of their parents, their faith is not true and will remain fruitless religious conformity. This is also true for religious organizations.
What can we leave behind for future generations?
- An example. I have learned much by studying the lives of people like Paul, Count Zinzendorf, John Wesley, and Watchman Nee. Perhaps our grandchildren can study our lives and learn something to apply to their own generation. Hopefully, they won't mindlessly do what we did any more than selling tickets to a seat in the pew will work for me like it did for Wesley. The process of contextualizing truth for a new generation is dynamic and produces more than better methods. It results in more enlightened leaders as well.
- Written enlightenment. Many today cite a book written almost a century ago by Anglican missionary Roland Allen: Missionary Methods: St Paul's or Ours? When I write, I think first about the immediate impact upon a leader today, but I also wonder what relevance the book will have 75 years from now. I probably don't hit the second target very often (the first target is also debatable), but I do aim for it. We all stand on the broad shoulders of previous generations.
- Changes in cultural values and laws. Sometimes the work of a few becomes a legacy to the many. Where once slavery was the norm, today it is seen as an abomination because a few people (like Wilberforce and the Quakers) instigated a movement. Some changes in values do shape future culture. Our legacy can be more than a street named after us, or a lecture hall on some college in the Midwest.
All of these changes can be lasting and inform the future, but nonetheless the leaders of the future will have to face their own tests and make their own choices.
Neil Cole is executive director of Church Multiplication Associates and author of Organic Church, Organic Leadership, Search & Rescue, Cultivating a Life for God and the forthcoming Church 3.0.
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