Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Ministry Models--Jailbreaker's Take

Some good discussion is brewing in Jailer’s thought-provoking piece, “Ministry Models: Evolutionary and Revolutionary.” Since Jailer referred to me a couple of times in his comments, I thought I better jump into the discussion as well and feed the fire.

I’ve discovered that there’s nothing like living in the “rocky soils” of the world to get a person thinking about the deeply rooted assumptions they hold about life and ministry. Though few will ever have a chance to spend a couple of decades outside their own culture, perhaps the following might pass for a close second.

Imagine a time in America when we enter an age where, just as Jesus predicted, God’s people are hunted down and killed. No more First Amendment Clause to protect our right to freely gather and worship as we please; no more tax-exempt status for church property or Christian organization budgets; no more “full-time” Christian workers receiving a salary for their labor; in short, no more tolerance for God’s people and a great increase in hostility toward us.

God forbid that a time like that should come upon us anytime soon, but if and when it does, will the church as we Americans know it today be able to exist in that environment? What will a “legitimate” church look like to us when religious freedom is gone? Though it may still be a long way off for us in America, it’s a reality in many nations around the world right now, and it's forcing us to take a step back and examine some of our deeply rooted assumptions about ministry in the light of Scripture.

Simply put, if the church (and our mission) cannot be imagined apart from programs, memberships, formal meetings, professional clergy, expository preaching, elaborate organizational structures, and even fundraising and facilities, than the people of Iran and North Korea are truly without hope.

Though that’s the “revolutionary” perspective, it doesn’t make the evolutionary perspective any less valid. That’s the beauty of the body of Christ. We see things through different lenses but the body of Christ is big enough for both.


  1. What immediately comes to mind upon reading this, Jailbreaker, is that what is often called the "invisible church" is primarily a spiritual entity (it's all believers); while the "visible church" is a physical, cultural, and socio-economic as well as spiritual entity. It exists within a societal context. For this reason, we have to be careful about the search for the "return to the 1st century church", an errand with real limitations and questionable biblical mandate. Rather, we should be interested in the church that loves/glorifies God, reaches the lost, makes disciples, etc. Structure is inevitable (even the 1st century church had structure), and the optimal structure will vary within the societal context. No one size fits all.

  2. Well said, Jailer. Visible vs. Invisible is one way to describe it, another might be church from a "kingdom perspective" vs. church from an "organizational perspective.

    So, for example, when the claim is made that not everyone in the church is a believer, is that statement coming from a kingdom perspective or an organizational perspective?

    Whether it's the momentum of church history or merely our own ethnocentrism, our tendency is to see things more from an organizational (Big "O") perspective, rather than a kingdom perspective and that probably won't change much without a good reason (i.e. taking the Gospel to Iran, etc).

  3. Reminds me of the good old days in the discussion of form versus function (sniff! oh, the nostalgia attacks!). Today I was discussing the issues of tradition without meaning - the context was Jesus statement to the woman at the well about worshiping God in spirit and in truth (John 4). I asked my students why they stood during worship time at chapel? None of them really had any scriptural defense to why that was an appropriate way to worship. And, of course, this old man can remember when no one stood (and no one knew why, either). I think when we have established traditions without a clear biblical mandate for them we end up just like my students. We build forms that no longer have functions that we are aware of. When this happens, it is time to ask ourselves if the tradition has any value in helping us to worship in spirit and in truth. If it does, keep it. If it doesn't, it should evolve into another form. Not that we have forms for their own sake, but those that do exist are both consistent with the biblical models of worship (or evangelism, or whatever else we are investigating). Revolutionary change, however, implies a major shift in our thinking and may involve the wholesale jettisoning of most of the forms we rely on. For example, I think of the original work of the Salvation Army in urban areas in England during the Second Industrial Revolution. Churches were not keeping pace with the growth of cities. Working class men and women weren't attending the middle class established churches so General William Booth changed the paradigm of ministry in the cities (to include the music associated with it!) Revolutionary change is necessary when we think about cross-cultural ministry too. Our old models of evangelism and discipleship often need to be abandoned as we understand our tendency to look at Jesus through the lens of American culture (I think of Jim Peterson's books). I am discovering that revolutionary change is necessary among young people. According to Josh McDowell (The Last Christian Generation) the model of program driven youth ministry must give way to a process driven ministry. Instead of a focus on involving young people in programs they must be engaged in personal confrontation with Jesus Christ Himself as they discover His word and how to live in the power of His Spirit. One youth pastor wrote to Josh stating that after years of ministry he was realizing that the cultural assumptions that he was bringing to ministry no longer communicated in ways that the youth understood. What he meant by sin, judgment, tolerance, the Spirit, Satan, salvation, etc. did not mean the same things to the young people in his church. I am seeing this myself. There is plenty of knowledge, but many of my students have little understanding of how to apply that knowledge to be Christ's disciples.

  4. Enjoyed your thoughts, Chief......wish I had a teacher like you when I was growing up. As the old saying goes "a good teacher puts a student in a situation that he can't get out of without thinking."

    Your comment on form vs. function is so appropriate in this discussion. If we could better distinguish between the two we probably wouldn't have nearly the conflict we do when it comes to change in the body of Christ.

    Too often we take what Romans 14 refers to as disputable matters and make them into absolutes. The function is absolute, the form is open for discussion.

  5. As far as the "something is wrong" with the church. Have you read Rob Bell's latest book "Jesus came to save Christians, a manifesto for the church in exile." I'm still digesting it, but would recommend it. One of his propositions is that the church in America is too focused on trying to effect change through the political/world establishments rather than through individuals as Christ demonstrated.

  6. Bill - interesting comment on how to effect change. Since my gifts skew more towards administration rather than one-on-one discpleship, I naturally gravitate more towards programs. While programs can be important towards helping people make the individual connections crucial to spreading the gospel, I do agree that they should be supportive in nature, rather than the focus.

  7. Thus the revolutionary's biggest hurdle: replace the broken system with ... what? The tendency is to point towards an Acts 2 utopia and say everything was better when there was no discernable organization. Perhaps this was right, but it was also very transitory, and history is littered with idealistic revolutions (whether secular like the French Revolution, or religious like the Anabaptists) whose efforts failed when the vacuum left by the elimination of structure resulted in authoritarian figures moving in to fill it. Or, less spectacularly, unable to articulate a sustainable vision, they just fade away.

  8. I understand what you're saying, Jailer, but it's not so much about replacing a broken system with a new "system" as much as it is about allowing a "new" expression of the body of Christ to emerge.

    Clearly Jesus was not out to replace the broken system of the Jews with a new system, He was out to replace the old covenant with a new covenant. Living out the implications of the new covenant is our main focus, not fixing a broken system.

    Furthermore, there is no "system" in rocky soil nations like Iran and North Korea, but there is an expression of the body of Christ and that can grow and expand without introducing a "system."

  9. Jailbreaker -- yet, Jesus did set up a new system. He trained new leaders and sent them on a new mission. They, in turn, set up a new church structure that was appropriate and flexible enough to meet the needs of the day and culture. Scribes and teachers of the Law were replaced by first apostles, then elders and deacons. There was a council in Jerusalem with authority to rule on matters of doctrine as they applied to various local bodies. Missionaries exercised oversight over the local church bodies.
    I think we're talking past one another to a point when we talk about Iran/N.Korea/etc. And again, I agree that one size doesn't fit all. But there has always been a system, whether it was installed or evolved.

  10. That all depends on how one defines "system" and, as the chief pointed out, whether one is talking about form or function. Most see church and define it along the line of forms, not functions, and this is a crucial obstacle that prevents us from seeing it from a kingdom perspective.

    There's no doubt that Jesus and the early church leaders set up clear "functions" (including leadership functions) in the body of Christ but I would take issue with the idea that Jesus and the early church leaders set up a "system" (and especially not the system we see in wide use today).

    That's why thinking about it in terms of Iran, North Korea, or a complete loss of religious freedom in America is very helpful in clarifying the issue. The forms that exist today cannot exist in these environments but the functions most certainly can. Organization with a little "o" is essential; organization with a Big "O" doesn't stand a chance.

    So I will say it again, if the spread of the Gospel in places like Iran or North Korea depends on the Big "O" then the people of those nations are truly without hope. The beautiful thing about the Gospel is that it is able to function and flourish whether the Big "O" is in place or not because the Holy Spirit is the one responsible for building His church not our systems (Big "O").

    The question then is how do we envision "church" if the Big "O" doesn't exist in a particular region? The answer to that question will hopefully drive us back to the scriptures for fresh insight as we learn to stop looking at the church through the Big "O" lens and start looking at it from a kingdom perspective.

  11. I agree it depends on semantics. You and I are trying to solve slightly different problems, I think, because I know from past conversations that our views closer together than this makes it appear.
    My emphasis is on avoiding the temptation to merely deconstruct without any kind of positive way forward. Whether you call it a system or functions or whatever, there will be a "something" to replace whatever you have now. The church will be organized somehow. People will all "be together in one place" from time to time. In my mind, that's called a "meeting". The meeting will take place because someone decided to call it. That person is, at least for that purpose, the "leader" ("It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers ..." Eph 4:11). They will agree to certain foundational truths, and methods and practices will emerge, either by design or by default. Controversies and heresies will eventually emerge and will have to be refuted in some way (e.g., the council at Jerusalem to deal with the Antioch controversy). Etc., etc.
    So yes, from a kingdom perspective by all means. But may we stipulate that when dealing with communities of any size, organization of some sort is inevitable, and must in some way be either formally or informally accepted?
    Oh, and this is fun. :)

  12. This is indeed fun, Jailer, and yes we are closer in thought than it may sound to those "listening in!" Hopefully others will join in!

    You're right, organization of some kind is essential and your point is well taken. Let me make one last comment that will hopefully bring this back full circle to the original topic of evolutionary and revolutionary models.

    From the revolutionary perspective, it's not a matter of "deconstructing" what exists (though admittedly some do think that way) as much as it is a matter of finding new pathways for the Gospel and new expressions of body life for those who have never been a part of our Christian “system” (particularly for those in rocky soil nations).

    Clearly, we're in the middle of yet another major paradigm shift in church history and the “positive way forward,” as you put it, is regrettably going to be a bit messy.

    George Barna, in his thought provoking book “Revolution” states the following: “The revolution is not about eliminating, dismissing, or disparaging the local [institutional] church…. The core issue isn’t whether or not one is involved in a local [institutional] church, but whether or not one is connected to the body.... The revolution is about recognizing that we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the church.”

    He goes on to say that his research shows that about 30% of “true” believers in America are already functioning as a body outside our current institutions (particularly amongst home schoolers). Clearly God is at work in a way that most of us are completely unaware, not to mention being totally out of our control.

    The so-called evolutionary model and the so-called revolutionary model both play key roles in advancing God’s kingdom. We need both expressions and which side of the fence we sit will no doubt be determined by God's calling in our lives.

    (btw, for an interesting read on "Churchless Christianity" in India, check out this link:

  13. As an aside, Jailbreaker, I think your inclusion of North Korea in the "rocky soil" category may be inapt. The problem in N. Korea is likely not the soil (if the stunning success of the gospel in South Korea is any indication), but rather access to the soil.

  14. Yes, what God has done in South Korea is nothing less than amazing. Access is definitely an issue for North Korea, but it's only an issue of access for the Big "O" not for the people of God who are already in place.

    In that sense, it's rocky soil because they (the N. Korean believers) have a hostile regime trying to snuff them out and their view of advancing the kingdom and building the church is going to be very different from ours in the West.

    As you may recall, China was in a similar situation until we started hearing reports in the 70's of the amazing work that God was doing behind "closed doors" through the believers that were already in place (in spite of the fact that the Big "O" was not allowed access).

  15. I think the book "A Secular Faith" (a gimic title, meaning "a faith for this age") by Darryl Hart is useful in understanding the ways our culture and our faith get all mixed up together, and the way that, out of that, our culture hijacks, or at least greatly compromises our faith.
    I did find myself appalled that Jailbreaker should have lumped "expository preaching" and "professional clergy" in with other, non-essential aspects of church organization: There wasn't much 1st amendment protection for the 1st century church, but that didn't stop Paul from writing 1 Timothy 5:17-18 ("The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages.'"). Perhaps it's just the temptation to which Jailer referred - and said he acknowledged - of being "judgmental" toward the church here, because of his experience in a really hard mission field.

  16. Mike, I'm sorry you were appalled that I included "expository preaching" and "professional clergy" in my list. Let me assure you that it was not for judgmental reasons that I included them.

    "Preaching" is an essential "function" that, as you pointed out, is clearly Biblical, however, the "form" that preaching takes is another matter entirely.

    In other words, the "function" of "preaching" can and must be expected to exist in the rocky soil nations, but to suggest that a particular form of preaching (i.e. expository) is mandated in scripture and therefore must exist in every "legitimate" church would be a real stretch. "Preaching" then, is a non-negotiable absolute from Scripture (that could take on a variety of forms), "expository preaching" is not.

    The same goes with professional clergy. The "function" of leadership is clearly mandated in Scriptures, but the "form" it takes is another matter entirely. There simply is no "professional" clergy amongst believers in Iran and North Korea but there is leadership.

    Hope that helps clear things up a bit, but if you have any more thoughts I'd be happy to dialouge with you further.


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