In The Great Giveaway, David Fitch summarizes the primary question that drives most local churches from an organizational perspective:
“How can we best organize to produce the largest amount of decision and the best quality of services for Christian growth most economically and efficiently to the largest number in this geographical location?”
He states there are two powerful forces that compel the modern church to ask this question. First, he states that evangelicals are individualists. Salvation is the result of an individual decision. Holiness is an individual pursuit. Worship is an individual experience. He states:
“As a result the church becomes a place where saved private individuals come to be ‘fed’ intellectually, to serve out of their personal duty to Christ, to get in touch with an individual experience of worship, and to pool their resources as individuals to further the mission of getting the gospel out to more individuals.”
The second force is the business-oriented forms of organization the modern church embraces. This compels the local church to become an organization catering to the religious needs of individuals in the most efficient, effective and economical way possible.
Reading Fitch brought back some memories. One memory stands out as a watershed experience for me. I was on a personal retreat, praying, studying and reflecting on how to be and make better disciples. I was a professional pastor at the time, so much of the personal retreat was spent trying to construct an organizational approach to spiritual formation. Believe me, I had the best intentions. I really wanted to help as many people as possible within our church to become authentic disciples of Jesus. But underlying my best intentions was the bottom-line organizational approach articulated by Fitch in the question above. How could I organize our church’s resources to produce the largest amount of services to impact the largest amount of people in the most efficient and economical process?
It was during that time of thinking that I sensed God speak to me. I felt him say, “Authentic disciples are not mass-produced. They’re handcrafted.” At that moment I set aside my organizational diagrams and strategies and set out on a new course of exploring spiritual formation within a community rather than within an organization.
Years later, I am confident that I heard from God that day. Sure, a certain level of effective discipleship can be obtained from an organizational approach. I do not deny that. But for me, there is something lacking. I prefer the “messiness” and “ineffectiveness” of community-oriented discipleship over the organizational approach.
My wife, Debbie, has become a living metaphor of the difference between the two approaches.
Debbie is a mom of four kids and also works part-time in a daycare. She lives both in the realm of organic community (mom of four) and structured organization (daycare). She also has a nurturing heart toward children. Any child that comes near her is going to be the beneficiary of her compassionate and loving heart. But there is a significant difference between her ability to nurture within the confines of the daycare and within the relationships of our family. You will probably never find Debbie up in the wee hours of the morning caring for a sick and feverish child from the daycare. But she will do it, without thinking, for one of our children. You will probably never find Debbie taking a child from the daycare on a family vacation. But we plan our family vacations around our children.
It’s not because Debbie doesn’t care about the children in the daycare. I watch her ache over the future of the children from the daycare. I watch her agonize over how to best discipline and nurture those same children. I watch her strategize and try to determine the best approach to provide the best service for these kids. She cares for them. And she’s able to witness some significant changes. She watches kids who normally bully the other kids and disrespect the daycare workers show significant turnarounds in their behavior. She has won the hearts of many of the children.
But none of those children will demonstrate the kind of formation that our four children will experience. None of those children will have memories of mom holding their hair out of their faces and rubbing their backs while they vomit into the toilet at 2 in the morning. None of those children will have memories of being read to on car rides from Robert Louis Stevenson in a Scottish accent or from Genesis. None of those children will hear the sound advice of engaging in friendships and dating with fidelity. None of those children will have memories of mom listening, crying or lecturing on how to live life as a good, caring and compassionate follower of Jesus. It’s in the messiness and ineffectiveness of a community, like a family, that real formation takes place. And when you look closely at our kids, you won’t find the cookie-cutter perfection and the “Made in Taiwan” label of mass production. Rather, you’ll discover the unique blends of grace and blemish of being handcrafted — the true signature of the love, the sweat, and the tears of an artist. And most importantly, you’ll see Debbie looking out through their eyes.