The Biggest Elephant – Challenges Yes – Excuses No

It’s more missionaries we need, without more missionaries we will lose”

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In my previous post on the ‘Biggest Elephant’ topic I mentioned a number of characteristics of the Australian church (discussed more fully in the ‘Something Completely Different’ booklet) which are to various degrees causative factors in the Church’s chronic lack of missional fruit. I characterised these as the ‘Elephants’ in the rather overcrowded ‘Missions Operations Room’ because they are largely ignored and/or little discussed systemic contributors to the long standing Missional Malaise in the Australian Church.

These ‘Elephants’ include issues such as persisting with the standard, long-failing ‘SIC’ church model as the platform for mission. ‘SIC’ being an acronym for Sunday-Centric, In- Drag (into Sunday services), Christendom-Form (the same centuries old basic form of church); the ‘Dead Hand of Apathy’ of most congregations; the use of 90% plus of available church resources for maintenance of the standard church rather than mission; the lack of Cultural Intelligence in developing missional strategies; the repeated use of ‘Square Wheel’ outreach activities and many more.   

The argument here is that if these systemic issues continue to be ignored and unaddressed, as they generally are, they will perpetuate the entrenched missional failure. That means a continuation of the longstanding decline in Church memberships and attendances and, most importantly, the Desalination process (the thinning of the SALT of Matthew 5:13) that is rapidly reducing Gospel influence in society, now little more than a fading echo.

There is also however, in addition to what might be called the ‘lesser Elephants’ mentioned above, another what might be called the ‘Biggest Elephant’, namely that of Leadership. It is the intention of this series of Posts to focus attention on this Leadership Elephant, one that generally continues to be steadfastly ignored.

I have described the issue of Leadership as the ‘Biggest Elephant’ in the Missions Operations Room. This is because it the role of leadership to address and remove the many other missional roadblocks, the ‘lesser Elephants’, that contribute to the general and longstanding failure of the traditional church to be effetive in mission.

This post seeks to address the issues relating to Leadership as it exists in the current ‘SIC’ church paradigm.

Challenges Leaders Face

Having spent three decades leading standard local church congregations I do not write as someone looking from the outside. Rather I have personally faced, and can empathize with, all the challenges which are the common experience of those responsible for leading such churches, particularly if they seek to bring about substantive change for the sake of greater missional effect.

It is important to look at some of these challenges before moving on in later posts to other aspects of the ‘Biggest Elephant’.

Christianity-Lite

One major difficulty that church leaders face is that they have to create enthusiasm for local mission in congregations that contain a large proportion of ‘Christianity-Lite’ members.  Christianity-Lite is a ‘Me-Church’ faith where the church ‘exists for ME’, to provide the religious and social services I and MY family perceive WE need, when, where and how WE want them. That is, it is a consumerist faith, one where if a church fails to meet MY current requirements, I’ll move on to the next church that does. Such ‘faith’ has no real interest in being involved in local Mission, whatever the leadership says.

The ‘Dead Hand of Apathy’

In such congregations Christianity-Lite manifests as one of the ‘lesser Elephants’, namely the ‘Dead Hand of Apathy’. In the event that the Leader pushes the missional dimension of the church to the extent that Jesus exhorted, with its requirements for sacrifice, discomfort, inconvenience and self denial, most Christianity-Lite members will be at best apathetic, some will actively oppose. Others if pushed too far will just move to another church that doesn’t challenge them too much with this ‘Mission thing’, and where they can remain ‘religiously comfortable’. All of this can create extreme stress for the church leadership, and certainly does not drive mission.

Opposition

Strong opposition to leaders, both passive and active, by the people of God is not of course a new phenomenon, for we see it as far back as the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus 16:2,3. Not long after God had miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt the Israelites complained about the leaders, Moses and Aaron, who were leading them on God’s mission to the promised land. Their complaint was that it was all too hard, for they alleged that following Moses would mean they would starve to death, and that it would be better if they returned to Egypt where they claimed they would at least have enough food to eat.

In a majority of congregations today, there is commonly an entrenched resistance to change and an expectation that the leadership will ‘run the show’ largely as it has always been done. Woe betide any minister that seeks to be missionally creative if that involves congregational sacrifice, substantive change or discomfort.

Tom Frame sums up the issue in ‘Losing My Religion’ when he writes-

“the culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australia does not . . . oblige (people) to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort.”

Such opposition creates high stress levels for church leaders, seriously diminishes missional effectiveness, if not nullifying it completely, and is difficult to overcome.

Despite the reality of such congregational opposition however, it does not provide leaders with an excuse. It doesn’t let leaders off the hook anymore than God did Moses as the case of the ‘water from the Rock’ incident (Numbers 20:12) illustrates.

The Futile Grind

I do not makes these comments without great sympathy for those leading congregations, quite the contrary in fact, for I have personally fully experienced the enormous challenges that leading a local church presents. This is part of the reason for my desire that leaders are released, ‘Unbound’, from the ‘weekly grind’ of ‘making (SIC) church happen’ for largely mission-apathetic congregations, and that they be set free to use their gifts, abilities and resources in much more Kingdom-fruitful ways. For the reality is that the ‘weekly grind’ in missional terms is largely futile, as all the statistics on church attendance and membership have been screaming out for over 20 years.

Some will argue that, while it is not very missionally effective, the ‘SIC’ church model does provide a nurturing environment for members, declining in numbers though they be, and to an extent this is true. However, the question should be asked, but almost never is, as to why this, for many decades-long, ‘nurture’ does not produce more Christians who are actually obedient to Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples’? Is there something wrong with the ‘nurture’?

The ‘Model T’ Ford

Another factor that creates extreme difficulty for any leader wishing to produce greater missional fruit is the fact that the ‘SIC’ model of church they are expected to run is singularly ill designed for the task of mission in contemporary western society. The leader’s task in such a situation can be likened to someone who has been selected and trained to drive and maintain a ‘Model T Ford’ when the challenge of our time is to drive a space vehicle suitable for ‘Mission’ Pluto. This is because the current standard form of church developed in, and was designed for, the maintenance of Christian congregations in a 16th and 17th century Christendom culture

  • That was largely ethnically and linguistically homogenous.
  • Where the majority ‘went to church’. This would have included no doubt many non-Christians, and so there was no need for ‘Outreach’ activities.
  • Where all had a biblical world view (even if sub-consciously).
  • Where the church was the centre and integrating hub of community life.
  • Where everybody worked locally, and not at all on Sundays.
  • Where church structures and ministries were constructed not for mission but for the maintenance of existing Christian congregations.
  • Where ‘Change’ was so slow as to be imperceptible.

and which was never designed for the 21st century missional challenge we face. Fundamentally, shocking to many tough this amy be, it is simply the wrong model.

This makes the challenge faced by Leaders, even those that do have missional abilities and passions, extemely difficult, a difficulty that verges on the impossible.

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Leadership of the standard church model, in terms of increasing missional fruit, faces significant challenges. Firstly, congregations are highly resistant to change, and apathetic to mission; secondly, radical change is required to the current model and leaders are mostly unwilling to pay the cost of driving such change; thirdly, they are severely handicapped by the fact that the church model is simply the wrong one, ill designed for the task of 21st century local mission; fourthly, the training church leaders receive means that rarely are they equipped for very the different approach to mission required for today’s neo-pagan western society.

Despite the above, it must be said that, even while being sympathetically aware of these challenges, such awareness is not going to solve the problem of decades old church decline and missional ineffectiveness. Further, these challenges cannot be used as an excuse for failing to address and overcome the range of ‘lesser Elephants’ that obstruct or even block effective mission. The task of overcoming this lies firmly and squarely in the lap of the ‘Biggest Elephant’ in the mission operations room, namely Leadership. Sadly however, this is extremely rarely addressed.

It is beyond argument that the very future of Kingdom-building Gospel mission in Australia depends on leaders who, in the face of inevitable opposition, will lead cohorts of those Christians who are willing to go on what might be described as ‘Jungle Mission’ (something we will address in a future post) which is admittedly extremely hard.

Any hope of reversing the decades old trends of church decline and consequential Gospel ‘Desalination’ will not be achieved by the ‘SIC’ platform for local mission. They can only be overcome by creating missional vehicles that are ‘Something Completely Different. I call this ‘Quantum Mission’ because it requires a ‘quantum leap’ from existing approaches to mission, in terms of both missional thinking and strategy. Sadly however, many conversations with church leaders over many years indicates that very few existing leaders seem capable of, or are interested in, being the missionaries that Gospel mission in Australia requires- that is people selected and trained to be Missionary Leaders.

Challenges and ‘Lesser Elephants’ there are aplenty, but excuses they cannot be. For excuses do not solve the missional Crisis. Only addressing the long ignored issue of the ‘Biggest Elephant’ can do that, with new selection and training processes that will produce new Missionary Leaders, who can take the ‘Quantum Leap’ in thinking required to develop new missional vehicles for ‘Quantum Mission’.

To be continued . . . . . .

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