Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Identity versus Activity?

I’m reading Paul Borden’s “Direct Hit.”

At the same time, I am reading Phyllis Tickle’s “The Great Emergence.”

As a result, my brain is splitting in two.

As much power, depth, and theological complexity as there is from Phyllis Tickle, there is that much over-simplification, repetition, and business jargon from Paul Borden. I get the idea that Borden took a book on how to run a business and changed a few words around to make it sound more like a church book. I get the idea that Tickle is sharing wisdom about the identity of the Church that may very well have global implications.

I think the reason I have so much trouble with Borden, who I know is a very popular author and speaker in church leadership right now, is that his main thing is to take a single verse of Scripture – Matthew 28:19 – and turn it into the church’s business plan. For him, “make disciples” is the ecclesial equivalent of “sell as much as you can of product X.” Everything else that he writes comes from that premise. At least that’s how I see it.

Businesses sell as much as they can of product X in order to make a profit; churches make disciples in order to change our communities and our world. But can we really say that Christian discipleship is just a means to an end like that? I have always thought of discipleship as an individual’s identity upon accepting Christ into their life, not as a set of activities we do in order to attain a goal.

I understand that people like the idea of boiling life down to a series of action items we undertake in order to advance toward an objective (or hit a bull’s eye, if you prefer). The only problem with that is life itself; it happens to be a lot messier than that. Skubalon happens. And when we are exclusively task-oriented, spending all of our time talking about what the church does, we flounder when we find that we can’t do it.

It would be much better to talk about who the church is, to understand our identity as fully as we can. That way, when the messiness of normal life intrudes upon us, we can weather it and even flourish, secure in our identity as the church. When we define a church by what it does, we set it up for decline and eventual death, because there will be times when it cannot do what we have decided it should be doing.

Businesses define themselves by what they do. Starbucks sells coffee. Everything Starbucks does is geared toward selling coffee. If the coffee crop failed one year and there was no coffee available to sell (a horrifying thought, I know), the very identity of Starbucks would vanish. There is no way Starbucks can be faithful to being Starbucks minus the ability to sell coffee.

If churches define themselves by what they do, their identity is at risk when that activity is no longer possible, for whatever reason. So for example if a church is defined by worshiping a certain way, the identity of the church is threatened when it is no longer feasible to worship that way. Or if a church is defined by a particular mission focus, when that mission focus becomes impossible the very identity of the church is at risk.

If, on the other hand, a church would spend as much time praying and thinking together about identity as we tend to do now about activity, a new worship style or a different mission focus would be a very natural thing. Change in the church would be much easier to facilitate as a result, because activities would be almost interchangeable, and no threat at all to the core identity of the church.

Borden is all about change, and I like that. But he is clear about neither what we are changing from nor what he thinks we should change into. And I think that’s because all he has to base his thoughts on is that one-verse business plan – to make disciples. Making disciples very important for the church; it is what happens when a church is clear about its identity. But making disciples is not the church’s identity in and of itself.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

What the tree is is a fig tree. What the tree does is bear figs. The fig tree does not have to attend seminars on how to bear figs. New figs are the natural consequence of being a fig tree.

I simply think the church is overly anxious about what the church does and is not asking enough questions about who the church is. And ironically, if we were more certain about who the church is, a lot of the anxiety about what the church does would go away.

And even more ironically, if we were more certain about who the church is, that would be attractive to more and more people who may want to become a part of it, thus helping with the initial cause of all this anxiety in the first place!

P.S. This is one of my favorite topics, apparently.


Anonymous said...


Very interesting thoughts.

I'm at a bit of a loss to think of ways you might answer that "what the church is" question without talking about what it does.

I guess I'm stuck in an activity mindset.

Do you have any thoughts about what that identity might look like?

Andy B. said...

John - I don't mean "without" talking about what it does so much as "before" talking about what it does.
I would start with the body of Christ, which is a rich image with myriad of possibilities. Continuing incarnation, embodiment of the reign of God, family of God, community of disciples - any one of these would be fertile ground for reflection.

Patrick Moore said...

Andy, you get it. Thank you for articulating with words what many of us feel in our bones.

Kory Wilcox said...

Perfect! I sent you the link to the video before I read your reflections! How fitting!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Andy, for the initial post and the response.

Adam Caldwell said...

The church's primary being is doxological. Everything else is means to that end.

Matt said...

Well said Andy. I'll offer this. Fruit is the natural consequence of a healthy organism properly related to its environment. No workshops necessary.