The #ReimagineFORUM Coaching Session with John Barcanic
• Ministry Coach • Church Leadership Development • Community Transformation •
The mission Jesus gave us more than 2,000 years ago—to make disciples of all nations—hasn’t changed. (Matthew 28:19-20) However, we must adjust our methods as the realities around us evolve. We no longer live in a feudal society in medieval Europe, so we don’t do ministry like they did hundreds of years ago. We also don’t live in 1950’s North America, so we shouldn’t do ministry as if we did.
Society in Europe and North America have radically changed in the short 50 years I’ve been alive. Today, for every 1 person who trusts in Christ for the first time, 4 people leave the faith. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the word; and the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians within 30 years. (Muslims are not the enemy of Christians, by the way, but I want my Muslim friends and neighbors to know the joy and peace of a relationship with Jesus Christ.) In addition, 67% of missionaries around the world now come from Africa, Asia, and South America. By 2050 that percentage will be 75%. Things are changing everywhere we look. We need to listen to how the Holy Spirit would have us join him to meet today’s issues, not yesterday’s.
Mark Twain said, “Change comes from the edges.” In other words, most transformation doesn’t come from the top down or the center out. The people at the center and at the top often have too much invested in the way things are now to be willing to embrace the risks involved. Long-term effectiveness necessitates adopting new ways of seeing our context, learning new skills and habits, seeking to understand those who aren’t like us, and—most difficult of all—sharing power with others .
A “reimagine-journey” assumes there will be change to the status quo. In our consulting at Intersekt, we often ask people to create a “stop/start/keep” list. Of everything we’re doing now, what should we stop doing? What new initiatives should we start doing? And what are we doing that is important and effective enough that we should keep doing it?
In the same way that it can be difficult to part with those super-comfortable sneakers that are falling apart, it can be hard to stop doing things that were fruitful in the past, but simply aren’t as effective as they used to be.
I agree, but …
I absolutely agree we live in a time of extraordinary change. I also believe these times call for a radical reimagining of how we do what we do, including traditions, programs, models, systems, and so on. But I also believe this is a tremendous opportunity for the Church and her leaders.
When Mordecai and Esther first heard about Haman’s plan to commit genocide against the Jews, they must have been terribly frightened. I’m sure they didn’t see this as an opportunity to join God in building the faith of his people for generations to come. And yet, that’s what it was. God used Esther “for such a time as this” to show his greatness and his great love for those he called to himself.
Extraordinary change is always accompanied by turmoil. The days we live in are no different. Many of the changes feel like threats. But, God is not threatened. He still sits comfortably on his throne (see Isaiah 6). He is looking for those he can send into the midst of the change and turmoil to accomplish his purposes, show forth his glory, strengthen the faith of his people, and love many to himself.
If I ask you to imagine an elephant, an image of an elephant immediately pops into your mind. This picture is based on your knowledge and experiences of elephants in the past. If I ask you to imagine a church, the picture in your head will similarly be based on your knowledge and experiences of the past.
To “reimagine” is to carefully examine the images we carry. Are elephants really small, prickly animals that curl into a ball for self-defense? Of course not. (And if that was the image in your head, please get yourself to the local zoo immediately.) Are elephants large, lumbering animals, with huge ears? Yes. Are they kind of dopey and not very smart? Actually, no. Elephants are incredibly intelligent. Reimagining means we adjust the image in our head to match the image in reality.
Reimagining church and ministry involves a few extra steps. It isn’t enough that our mental picture and the external reality match. We need to examine our mental image and compare it to what “could be.”
Starting with Scripture, we begin by asking ourselves why church and ministry even exist. We compare our experience with the experiences of those in the Bible. We look at how effective they were and how they bore fruit and ask hard questions about our own effectiveness and the fruitfulness of our own ministries.
We must allow ourselves to dream, unhindered by the little voice in our heads that says, “That’s not possible.” With God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26) Starting with the end in mind, we ask, “What would God’s people look like if Church and ministry were maximally effective. How would lost people respond? We paint mental pictures of the transformation God could bring to our friends, neighbors, communities, and ourselves.
Once we are convinced that the picture in our heads is as vibrant, colorful, and brilliant as the picture in the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), then, and only then, we ask ourselves what kind of relationships, resource sharing, loving, learning, practicing, and activities, will help us begin to realize that picture.
As we ask these questions, we must always, always, remember that the primary transformation is within ourselves. If we, as ministry leaders, are not being daily transformed more and more into the image of Christ, then how can we ever think we can lead others in that direction?
Oops. I guess I got a little ahead of myself by beginning to answer this question earlier. Leaders have a lot invested in the status quo. After all, they helped build it. To recognize the need for change and to be willing to tear down what they so carefully built with their own hands in order to facilitate that change takes an amazing amount of courage and humility. Pride will never allow us to be as effective as humility will.
Fear exacerbates the problem. In one sense, the enemy of a ministry that bears much fruit is a ministry that bears some fruit. It’s easy to abandon an idea that clearly isn’t working, but how do you give up on something that is working some? At least, better than the church down the road? Fear of what others will think, fear of the inevitable pushback from powerful people, fear of losing power, fear that the new thing won’t be as effective as the old thing, fear of failure, fear of monetary loss, and a hundred other well-founded fears, mean courage and faith are essential if we are to embark on a journey of reimagination. (At this point I will shamelessly plug my book, God Confidence: Cultivating Courageous Faith in Jesus Christ, as a way of moving beyond those fears.)
Opposition complicates everything. And opposition can come from surprising sources. Other leaders, elders, staff, influential members of the congregation or ministry, even friends and family members may advise us not to mess with success. The vast majority of people aren’t naturally inclined to change. They will fight it with varying degrees of ferociousness, but they will fight it.
Finally, lack of persistence will doom any change initiative before it has a chance to take its first breath. In the early days of a reimagine journey we stand high up on a mountain, look across to a higher mountain and say, “There. That is where God wants us to go.” Our minds are full of the images God has given us for the future. We see marriages healed, the lost found, the hungry fed, the poor empowered, and disciples growing in Christ and multiplying. Very quickly after starting our journey, however, we realize that our first steps do not take us higher to the next mountain, they take us down into the valley that separates the mountains. If we are to achieve the vision God has given us, we must be willing to journey all the way down to the lowest point of the valley before we begin to climb the mountain he’s promised us. Too many leaders, facing discouragement, disillusionment, and resistance in the valley, give up too soon. We must persist until we accomplish the goals God has given us, or until he clearly tells us we are to go another way.
If we are to be Scripture-fed, we must start with Scripture. If we are to be Spirit-led, we must also start with Scripture. While the Spirit may speak to us in many ways, the one way he has promised to speak most clearly is through his Word, the Bible.
Start by examining the various images and metaphors God uses to describe his people: temple, flock, body, family, and so on. As you dig in, don’t just look at the New Testament, but explore the ways God depicts his people in the Old Testament as well. Studying the construction of the tabernacle and the temple, for instance, can give insight to what God means when he says we are his temple and his dwelling place. The goal here is to get a fresh perspective on who we are, and why we exist as God’s people. We reimagine our purpose.
Next, take a look at the various commands God gives us. Ponder the “one anothers,” the variety of Old Testament laws that apply to interaction within the community and those that relate to the foreigners and sojourners. Consider the commands and admonitions Jesus gives about how his people should act. At this point, we are looking for new insight into our impact and what God wants us to do. We reimagine our mission.
Then, observe the variety of methods God uses to accomplish his purposes. How does he work through Joseph in Genesis, Moses in Exodus, Joshua, Samuel, David, and Solomon? How does he use Peter, Phillip, Stephen, and Paul? In this stage we want to gain a deeper understanding of how God works in the world. We reimagine our activities.
Finally, after synthesizing what you’ve discovered so far, begin to ask yourself the question, “What if we changed everything?” I’m not suggesting that you actually change everything, but starting here will keep you from prematurely closing off paths of thinking that might be valuable. Don’t allow yourself, or anyone else to say, “That’s not possible; we can’t do that; we shouldn’t try that; people won’t like that; it will never work.” Having re-imagined what’s possible, you can then choose from the great number of options to begin designing what you will actually do.
I don’t know there are a small group of people that can be pointed to as thought leaders at this time. This seems to be something God is slowly growing around the world from the grassroots up. Theory follows practice. As people are experimenting, thinking, implementing, others will come along and help coalesce their learning into articles, books, and resources that can be more easily shared. I believe we’re still fairly early on in this process.
Having said that, a few leaders to consider checking out: Tim Keller (timothykeller.com, redeemer.com, gospelinlife.com) brings a wealth of experience and theological solidity to the conversation. Alan Hirsch (alanhirsch.com) has a track record of asking good “why” questions and pointing us back to the New Testament experience for answers. I’ve recently been checking out what’s happening at dmmsfrontiermissions.com (dmmsfrontiermissions.com) as they encourage focusing on disciple making movements. Nik Ripken’s work has a way of stripping away the nonessentials.
Here are a few thoughts I’ve been noodling on recently. I’d love to hear what you think about them.
Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you know the beginning from the end. You know the season of history we are in right now. Nothing we face is a surprise to you. You have all the power in the universe at your disposal. And you have invited us to ask, seek, and knock, to pray for wisdom, to pray with audacity for what we need as we proclaim the gospel of your kingdom.
More than anything right now, I ask that you would unify your people. Jesus, you told us that it would be our love for one another that would show others that we are yours. I fear we are deeply divided over issues other than your cross. Help us, like Paul, to decide to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified, allowing nothing less to capture our vision and our energy. May we proclaim Christ boldly, humbly, courageously, lovingly, consistently … together. In the power of the name of Jesus, Amen.