24 Feb, 2022 A vocabulary we can agree upon for how unity works
- Three years after writing this book on the unity of the Church, the promised closing chapters are here.
- I pray they are ‘prophetic’ – in the sense of being a ‘now word’ for our nation’s pastors’ groups, in view of what our next steps might be in these times.
A vocabulary we can agree upon
As a closing chapter for the book I’m delighted to share an articulation that I was unable to pen when first writing this book because of a lack of a shared vocabulary for unity things amongst our nation’s churches.
The challenge came from the fact that our churches have historically talked very little about the dynamics of (united) Church leadership — as compared to (local) church leadership. Different church movements have also had different meanings for key ‘leadership’ words from the Scriptures — and some individuals have developed strong opinions on the meanings of specific words too.
As a closing chapter for the book I’m delighted to share an articulation that I was unable to pen when first writing this book because of a lack of a shared vocabulary for unity things amongst our nation’s churches. The challenge came from the fact that our churches have historically talked very little about the dynamics of (united) Church leadership — as compared to (local) church leadership. Different church movements have also had different meanings for key ‘leadership’ words from the Scriptures — and some individuals have developed strong opinions on the meanings of specific words too.
THREE QUESTIONS FOR PA STORS’ GROUPS
QUESTION 1. WHAT COULD WE DO TOGETHER THAT WE COULD NOT DO APART?
This has been considered already.
I suggest this is the main question, or ‘best starting question’.
However, there are times when the next two questions are also worthy of consideration.
QUESTION 2. WHAT COULD WE DO BETTER TOGETHER?
This is a far harder question because it requires Kingdom thinking.
Beyond mere generosity, I suggest that true ‘Kingdom thinking’ is about selfsacrifice.
For example, if one part of Christ’s body serves with another — who gets the credit? Joining with some other churches ‘for the greater good’ might even be to the detriment of one church’s independence and distinctiveness as a congregation. Will we do it? When, and why?
A simple story from a South Island church illustrates this principle well. Unable to get a breakthrough in growth, a small church decided to close its doors. In doing so, they agreed together to all attend another church. The reality — which I’m sure was not lost to them, was that there was actually no net loss in the Kingdom of God if they did this!
Arriving at their new church they found that the regular roles of rostering, welcoming, worship leading, giving sermons, mowing lawns, doing accounts and preparing cups of tea were all taken — so they ran the youth group and started a couple of outreach ministries. The closing of the ‘independent identity’ of their ‘church’ now not only meant no net loss for the Kingdom; it had produced net gain!
We are five years on from this now — and I’m told by a leader in that church that these people are still the key leaders and initiators in the outreach ministries of that local church.
“…but wait — there’s more!”
They still had a building. They offered its use to another church. Today that other church has grown — as has the church these people moved to join, and both churches are now embarking on building projects because they have both grown! So there is ‘net gain’ two times over!
When we partner with others behind a goal or endeavour we often sacrifice something. Sometimes what we sacrifice is who gets the credit — like when three churches get their youth to gather in one youth group, based in just one of the three churches. Sometimes, like in the above example, it is our very identity as a separate group. But of what importance is a local church’s name?
A congregation’s name and reputation in a community does have importance. The perception (‘brand identity’) people have of each local church does matter — because it is connected to the reputation of Jesus.
However, if we think it through, the separateness of each local church does not really matter. While there is nothing wrong with having different congregations — as they are like family units, their continued independence isn’t of high importance, as there is also only one Church in each city and town, right? This means the first question should be, “What is best for the Kingdom?”, not “What is best for my own local church?” This is why the second question of unity is so much harder than the first.
To put this differently, only two things really matter. People, and things that help people. A local congregation has value in as much as it is loving its people, while also helping other people. So, if we could achieve all this and more by uniting with others, that might be the right thing to do!
A hindrance to partnerships for some will relate to the heritage and history of their congregation. Shouldn’t we keep our local church alive “because it had an amazing call on it? We even ran a Sunday School of 300 back in the 1960s!” That story (history) is testimony, and it should be written down! Tell that story. Celebrate it. But the work of God in a prior era is no reason to maintain a work today. It is people, and things that help people, that matter. The question today is, how could I serve Jesus best today? This takes courageous leadership.
So question 1 is, What could we do together that we could not do apart?
Question 2 is, What could we do better together? Here is question three.
QUESTION 3. WHAT COULD WE BE TOGETHER THAT WE COULD NOT BE APART?
With thanks to a friend for this articulation — the third question is a rephrasing of the first. What could we be together that we could not be apart? The answer is, ‘The creators of an environment, or culture, from which our members could become united!’
We could become the facilitators of united efforts amongst our members that go well beyond our own abilities or capacity as local church leaders!
As a statement, unity is not only for pastors; it’s for the Church. Unity is also not measured only by what the pastors do or facilitate together. It’s measured by the ability of Christians everywhere to work together when it counts. What I believe lies in front of us is a change in perspective through which we realise it’s time ‘to give unity back to our members’!
To illustrate: What is the role of a local pastor? Is it to be the CEO who knows about everything happening in that church to lead and manage it — or is it more about creating an environment out of which our members could be empowered and released to be all they could be for the Lord?
Most would agree it is the latter — in which case this is likewise the role of pastors’ together in a city or town! Our greatest function as a pastors’ group isn’t in what we lead as a group, but in what we enable our members to achieve through their efforts and unity. Our role is to create the environment out of which they are released to unite together and innovate in their service to the Lord!
This highlights an important point regarding capacity, which we will come back to shortly. But first — boundaries.
BOUNDAR IES FOR UNITED FUNCTION
I suspect one of the reasons many city and town pastors’ groups historically reduced their purpose to ‘just relationship’ was because of bad experiences when people did bring agendas into the room. Because we had never (or rarely) discussed a framework for how we might discern what agendas should be in the room, nor the principles by which they would be managed, we were stuck. When agendas entered the room — they took over. People promoted their pet projects or initiatives — and the relational needs of the pastors stopped being met. Boundaries were broken, and trust undermined.
The attendance began to decline as a result, until the group finally decided, ‘No more agendas!’ Two years later the attendance was back up again — and so the cycle would repeat. Many in ministry for a few decades will be able to attest to the reality of this cycle.
What may have been missing was boundaries suiting this level of united function! I suspect we hadn’t yet sufficiently recognised the differences that exist between local church leadership and united Church leadership, and the principles and boundaries by which the latter works. Because these differences were not articulated, we had no framework together for the conversation, or for managing the challenges.
BOUNDARY #1. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH INDEPENDENCE
If our starting question is, ‘What could we do together that we could not do apart?’, this immediately implies that there is nothing wrong with doing things apart.
Imagine a large church in a city independently running a city-wide event. They don’t consult other churches. They don’t invite ideas. They don’t invite participation. They don’t even invite donations. Instead, ‘all by themselves’ they get Council permission, invite guests, arrange facilities, venues and promotions — and then run it and pay for it. All we have to do is turn up with our friends and we find we’re at an excellently run city-level programme that represents Christ well. So, are they independent in a way that is wrong?
I’ve illustrated likewise when speaking on this topic by referring to a TV outreach programme run out of one of our larger New Zealand churches. The programme is brilliant! It relates very well to non-believers. A programme like that could be a Church ministry run by a group of people from various churches — but in this case it’s run and funded by one larger church. We thank God!
Boundary 1: There is nothing wrong with independence. We don’t need unity for unity’s sake! Nor do we even all need to be together in one place!
BOUNDARY #2. WE DON’T ALL HAVE TO
My easiest starting illustration is from a part of our own work — because to illustrate from someone else’s work might be misunderstood. Do all churches have to help with the current annual ‘Hope Project’ national delivery of booklets to letterboxes? This certainly needs volunteers, right?
No, all churches don’t have to help!
In fact, none have to!
None have to help financially either!
By being clear on these boundaries, we’ve been able to work with emotional freedom ourselves — while also enabling the freedom of others from any feeling of obligation coming from ourselves.
To push the illustration further, what if all the pastors in a city or town didn’t want to help? This is a real scenario, so you know. I suggest the onus is back upon our teams to go to God about that, because God never made us the boss of any other person or church. God can make a way — and in these situations he has! This is about healthy boundaries!
The same value (or boundary) applies to every other initiative that desires to see churches working together. None have to participate — and none should be judged for not participating!
Boundary breaking in relation to this second boundary is where I suggest we have most often failed. Imagine a promotion of a proposed united effort to a group of pastors that incorrectly implies that everyone ‘should’. Some agree to participate — while others don’t. Those who don’t participate feel pressure is being put on them to do so. Words carry an innuendo that criticises them for their ‘lack of unity’ with others. There is coercion!
When well-meaning people believe their thing is God’s thing, they can inadvertently assume this means it should be everyone’s thing. The tone of their words implies this. This is boundary-breaking. It betrays trust, and trust is foundational!
For a challenging example, consider a combined church prayer gathering is proposed. There is possibly nothing simpler and more compelling that we could be united in. I personally love these things too — but I suggest that it remains that churches do not have to unite in these. Remember, unity isn’t uniformity!
To illustrate, consider the prayer style of these gatherings. Sometimes it is that of the more ‘vibrant churches’ — leaving those with a more traditional faith-style not feeling so comfortable. (Imagine the lights, the high volume that causes some old people to go outside during the worship in song, the enthusiastic yelling of praise to God, and everyone shouting out their prayers at once). Those churches then sometimes say the others should ‘get past the style differences’. There is some truth to this — and that is what makes it a dangerous argument because, ‘We don’t all have to!’
For a contrast, if the more traditional churches were organising the combined prayer gathering instead of the ‘more lively’ ones, and the prayer style was more formal and ‘subdued’, I wonder if the members of all those other ‘more lively’ churches really would attend, and keep attending. (Imagine a liturgical prayer service if that helps.) This isn’t about right and wrong. Style differences exist — and ‘we don’t all have to!’
Consider this: We are united without ever meeting because we love the same God, read the same Bible, and are serving on the same mission! An approach to unity that is based in some idea that we’re all supposed to come together in one place isn’t what unity is about.
God’s Spirit can give his people the wisdom needed to work in unity in a city or nation — and all without any big gatherings in the picture!
Unity isn’t uniformity! We can be united without ever meeting. We can also work in unity in specific ways, and with great effect, all as the result of sensible strategies and simple communication lines — without ever meeting!
BOUNDARY #3. LEADERS ARE DISCERNED, NOT APPOINTED
Without use of Biblical terms, I suggest the principle for united Church leadership is that God raises up different people at different times for different things. The key here, as detailed earlier in this book, is that there is a difference in the way leadership works in a local church (small ‘c’), as compared to in the united Church (capital ‘C’).
The Book of Judges was the illustration earlier discussed. They had authority to appoint leaders in their tribes, and later in their cities. They did not, however, have authority to appoint a king. Only God would raise up a leader for the nation — when he wanted to. The onus was then upon the people to discern this, and God didn’t always raise up the kind of people they expected (Ehud, Jephthah, Deborah, Samson, Gideon)!
People will rise to serve in various areas because they feel compelled to — and some of these will do so irrespective of whether they get paid or recognised. We need eyes to notice, and then to discern, and then to support if we feel God is up to something.
It is also possible that some might discern favour on one person, while others feel to support someone else. This could be God’s purpose, rallying enough support to each, to enable what they have initiated.
This is how God works, and also how he could enables multiple citywide and national endeavours to come about and thrive at once!
God raises different people up at different times for different things!
Remember — we love the same God, read the same Bible, and serve on the same mission. Unity isn’t uniformity. We are united without even meeting!
There is nothing wrong with independence.
We don’t all have to.
Leadership is discerned, not appointed. …and this is important because, ironically, without these good boundaries, the efforts of those who are pursuing unity can be the undoing of it!
SO, HOW MANY DO WE NEED TO GATHER TOGETHERFOR A THING?
I suggest the answer is ‘enough’! This is a simple, but important, understanding. I am yet to discover any combined church effort in a place that really did need everyone to unite together. Most united things only require a small portion of our people — and if we can really grasp this, a revelation awaits us regarding our capacity!
Meanwhile, it remains a temptation for all who promote an idea in the unity space to infer that ‘everyone needs to come together’. Let’s be aware of this, because everyone doesn’t have to!
A FRAMEWORK FOR ASSESSING A UNITED VISION
To bring simple application to these boundaries for enabling united function, I see two key dynamics in connection with things that seem to gain favour with many pastors’ groups:
(i) The approach was non-coercive and open-handed
Because involvement is requested not demanded, boundaries respected, and approaches empowering, no one feels manipulated or coerced, there is no reaction against the idea — which means the idea gets considered.
(ii) The goal was sensible
What is proposed meets a need, and in a sensible way. It is useful, simple and empowering.
Sometimes a proposed goal isn’t sensible or considered necessary in the way a person is suggesting — so churches don’t support it. There can be many factors behind this.
Sometimes the approach of a person proposing a collaborative effort is coercive, maybe pursuing uniformity — so churches walk away. If we respect healthy boundaries, and take care with our words, it pulls people together.
In summary of boundaries, it is of note that emotionally healthy people gravitate toward emotionally healthy environments.
As we increase the emotional health of our unity, through an active pursuit of healthy boundaries together, levels of participation with united things will increase!
NEW LENS #1: THE CAPACITY OF OUR MEMBERS WHEN TOGETHER
How much might the members of our churches be capable of beyond what they already give in our local churches?
The capacity God’s people have for bringing leadership to Kingdom things is probably far, far greater than all the leadership effort currently exhibited by
God’s people in recognised positions and roles inside our various congregations. To put that differently, there might be more Kingdom-leadership potential sitting in the memberships of our local churches than there is involved in the leadership teams of our local churches!
What if we could release more of our members to their thing, and their ministry — in collaboration with others? New innovation ‘for the city’ is the answer!
The current annual Hope Project booklet delivery at Easter is a useful starting illustration. 8 years ago many pastors’ groups did not consider a volunteer delivery possible. Today a national volunteer delivery is being achieved each year, and we’re all discovering together that it’s simpler than we first realised. A city of 130 churches like Tauranga might have 34,000 eligible letterboxes for the booklets. We now know this only needs about 150 volunteers. If 15 churches are involved, that’s only 8 to 10 volunteers per church. 10 volunteers is not even everyone in one church small group! So, do all the churches really need to unite for this? If we have united hearts, and some communication lines amongst us, what is our capacity really?
CAP (Christians Against Poverty) Debt Centres have spread nationally. These are run by people who are good at math — and good with people. These people aren’t always from the same local church. This is the body of Christ ‘working as one’ — and the pastor doesn’t have to be busied by these Debt Centres. Competent members can run them!
Pregnancy Choice Centres (or similar) are now spreading in our nation too. These are supported by people who have a passion to support young mums and their families through pregnancies where they can. Take a few people from a few churches, and it’s done! (Pastors can facilitate the connections between their members, but don’t need to be busied by these).
Te Hāhi is a ministry maybe similar to victim support (for a simple way of explaining it). This is now spreading from city to city, usually run by people with a heart for social justice and a desire to help people in their moment of need. Again, if 5 or 8 churches are involved, it’s actually only about 5 people from each of those churches who are involved. This is a remarkable illustration of our capacity when working together — because this ministry takes a lot of effort. However, it doesn’t need busy pastors. There are people in our churches with a heart for social justice, who consider the opportunity to help people in their moment of need a privilege!
Then consider various types of Chaplaincy. How much capacity is not yet tapped for this within our congregations — in service to schools, work places, rest homes, prisons and more? Bible in Schools (now called Launchpad) is a united effort — and it’s amazing to think of the numbers of teachers who have been going into schools right across the nation in service to this vision! These volunteer teachers also connect stories about Jesus with more people than many churches do — which is worthy of our notice. What is encouraging and needs noting is that these teachers are our people — and it only takes a few of them working together to connect with every school!
Then consider combined youth group events, combined food banks or op shops, counselling centres, combined Alpha courses or marriage courses or parenting courses, and more — run as the result of people from different churches coming together to serve in their areas of specialised interest or gifting.
Now imagine if all the above were happening in every city and town. Would the pastors’ group be overwhelmed? My suggestion is that these things are possible, concurrently, in many places — and no one need be overwhelmed!
If we only function with the resources of one congregation, the limits of what we can do are very different to what is possible when we view ourselves together. If we also limit our capacity to what our pastors can personally lead — it will be considerably limited. However, if we can release the leadership capacity of our members, we’ll quickly see that we have more capacity than we realised!
How could we begin to release the people in our churches with ‘specialist’ interests to unite together more for our city? The starting key is our enabling of information and communication lines! We share vision — and this is why the managerial practices discussed in Chapters 12 and 14 are so vital! The leadership approaches shared are important — becaues they will be catalytic! Right now, as an encouragement, we are seeing many of the above ministries coming about in many places concurrently. This is an evidence of the amazing job many of our pastors are doing in building a united perspective in their people. They are informing their members of things that are happening or possible in their cities, and then releasing them to unite together in their various areas of interest and influence. This is releasing an otherwise untapped capacity!
NEW LENS #2: THE POTENTIAL OF ‘IN UNISON’ APPROACHES TO UNITY
If releasing members to unite is one approach to releasing more of our capacity, another is what I call ‘in unison’ approaches to unity.
Habits create culture. So what if 1000 or more pastors were to unite in certain habits — with the goal of generating a national effect or change? This is a specific area of our work, with ongoing encouragements related to about 15 such habits currently in play, with an estimated 200 to 1500 churches applying each habit their own way. (None are accountable to us in any of their applications).
For example, to see Christians engaging more in witness, and with public issues, what if we all preached an annual sermon series on ‘The Conversational Skills of Jesus’ — or similar. If messages were reinforced through small groups, we’d have tens of thousands (and then possibly hundreds of thousands) finding new confidence and wisdom to engage in conversations like Jesus, and even in hostile environments! Various key leaders would, in time, become passionate about this matter also — and then promote it on their various other platforms. We could build a culture amongst us of wise and proactive conversational engagement. This would make a difference — and has been significantly achieved in recent years, even though many are not aware it is happening, as a united effort. Hundreds of leaders (and more) are intentionally engaged in their own way, each being entirely self-motivated — but all pointing in the same direction!
What if, in view of public media bias, pastors not only connected their members with access to a balance of information so they could consider two sides of a matter (like e-updates from Family First, NZ Christian Network and others), but also preached three times annually on a current issue? Many apparently don’t do this yet. Some topics would admittedly need preaching with care. (The ‘conversational skills for hostile environments’ mentioned earlier might be wise for use in the pulpit in some cases.) However, we really could build a culture amongst ourselves in which our members seek out truth, and then engage wisely — because they are both informed and conversationally equipped! This is significant — and 1500 pastors embracing habits like these in a small nation like New Zealand could enable changes that are felt nationally!
The point is that, without need for uniformity or anything ‘big’, and without need for any extra programmes, we can achieve national objectives together by simply working ‘in unison’ toward common goals!
Our capacity — if we have communication lines amongst us that connect us with habits or ideas that are sensible, meaningful and realistic for the goal, is truly enormous!!!
Unity is for God’s people, and church leaders have a role to play.
Pastors’ groups are unavoidably a central ‘communications hub’ for the wider work of God’s Church in each city and town. Yet, the key isn’t in pastors being busy. It is instead in what they can enable together that they could not enable apart!
I pray that the thoughts and strategic keys in these pages will bring freedom, and prove to be catalytic.
May we ‘stand firm in one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel…’
READ THE PRIOR CHAPTER, ‘Principles for managing agenda in pastors’ groups’ HERE
For other articles by Dave on the same topic of Church unity
2022 – A vocabulary we can agree on (This one is a particularly important FOUNDATION if coherent national discussions on unity are to one day take place)
2020 – It’s time to take responsibility to educate our own children and youth again (On united direction and strategy – for city change)
2020 – A need for new media platforms – not more voices (How do we address the increasingly left-leaning and also anti-faith bias of public media?)
2020 – A vision for national Church unity (What might REALISTICALLY be within our reach to achiEve – if we merely thought differently?)
2019 – ‘In One Spirit’ – The purpose of the book (Written at the time of the book launch and press release)
2019 – United we stand (A blog just prior to the release of the above book, ‘In One Spirit’)
DAVE MANN. Dave is a networker and creative communicator with a vision to see an understanding of the Christian faith continuing and also being valued in the public square in Aotearoa-New Zealand. He has innovated numerous conversational resources for churches, and has coordinated various national nationwide multimedia Easter efforts purposed to open up conversations between church and non-church people about the Christian faith, with stories about the specifically Christian origins of many of our nation’s most treasured values intentionally included. Dave is the Producer of the ‘Chronicles of Paki’ illustrated NZ history series created for educational purposes, and the author of various other books and booklets including “Because we care”, “That Leaders might last” and “The Elephant in the Room”. Married to Heather, they have four boys and reside in Tauranga, New Zealand.