WHO is more important than ANYTHING ELSE.
January 2 – Session One
“I think everybody’s here,” the consultant said. “Let’s get started.” He took a sip from the big mug of coffee; another pot was brewing. The people came to the tables and sat, carrying their own coffee.
The room was not fancy enough to be called a fellowship hall. It was a meeting room, one of two rooms in this small, rural church; the other was the sanctuary. A row of the standard kitchen appliances, sink, stove, refrigerator, went along one wall, where the countertop was filled with cookies and goodies – rural churches know how to be hospitable – and a tray of china cups for coffee.
Four tables were set up in the center of the meeting room. Standard, 3 foot wide by six feet long tables with metal legs and white molded plastic tops. They were set in a rectangle with an open aisle separating them about 2 feet wide; the open space made the shape of a cross. On each table were two sheets of letter size paper. One held the name of one of the four churches present and the other was a giant letter. If the tables where a clock, the open spaces would be at 12, 3, 6, and 9, and the letters, counterclockwise from the bottom right-hand corner were F, I, S, H.
Probably an acronym, Bob thought. I’ll bet this guy loves acronyms.
“Let’s get started,” the consultant repeated. “It’s time.” It was 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, the first Sunday of the new year. He sat at a fifth table across the base of the clock, at 6 pm. Arranged in a neat row in front of him were a small laptop computer, a pen resting on a single sheet of paper, and to the right a stack of manila folders; you could see a ribbon of color between the edges, indicating that each folder held papers of different colors. Handouts, Bob thought; this guy loves handouts.
The people sat down at the tables identified by their church. The consultant passed around the first handout. At the top was printed a prayer. “The first and most important thing to understand is that WHO is more important than ANYTHING ELSE. Let’s pray the Centering Prayer together,” the consultant suggested. Bob looked down at the handout and joined in.
The Centering Prayer: Lord Jesus, today I am far less than the person I want to be or can be with your help. I ask today that you would be more and more the center of my life. Guide me to all that is good, cleanse me from all that is not. Teach me Your ways and form in me Your nature. Help me to serve you IN FLOW as I am gifted. Help me to notice my neighbor and work through me to redeem my neighborhood. I am a sinner; please be my Shepherd, my Savior, and my Lord. Amen.
“I bring you greetings from our superintendent, Dinah Hughes, and I’m thankful to her for getting us together today. My name is David Logan and I’ve been a pastor in our denomination for 39 years; I’ll be serving as your convenor and consultant this year for our time together. There are three of you here today from four churches in our district. Twelve of us in all. What is your understanding of why you are here today? Let’s start with the F table.” He looked at Bob.
“I’m Bob Sherman, from Antioch Chapel. I’m here with my wife Eden and our friend Carla Chase.”
“Why is Antioch Chapel here, Bob?” the consultant asked.
“We think we are just fine,” Bob said. “But we were invited here because other people think we are a dying church.” Other heads nodded. “I don’t think we are,” he said bluntly.
“I don’t either,” the consultant said.
“You disagree with the superintendent then?” Bob said.
“No,” the consultant said. “But I disagree with the terminology. What you’ve been told is based on bad science, false information and misguided perceptions. When you look at your situation with better science, correct information and true perceptions, you won’t call yourself a dying church either.” He looked at the next table, labeled with the letter “I”.
“I’m Jack Bennett from Grace Church, here with my son in law Kieren and our friend Libby Emmet.”
“Why is Grace Church here, Jack?” the consultant asked.
Jack laughed. “I agree with Bob,” he said. “We’ve been told that we are dying. But the attitude isn’t very Christian in our case. The implication is that we are in the way of progress. As if we’ve outlived our usefulness. We are a burden. We have outlived our purpose. We’ve even been called a hospice church, as if we need to be comforted or even assisted toward our demise.”
“That makes you a little angry, to be treated like that?” the consultant asked.
“You’re damn right,” Jack said. He looked around at the others. “I am angry about it. It’s not Christian. We got a letter telling us to be here. Our pastor is retiring in six months. Who knows what sort of pastor will be sent to us if we don’t do what we are told? And what do you have to say about that?”
“Same answer,” the consultant said. “Bad science, false information and misguided perceptions.” He looked at the “S” table.
“I’m Quick Gardner, here with my wife Rachel and our friend Phoebe Sage.” The tall man smiled. “It’s a nickname from playing basketball in high school. We’re from New Hope.”
“Why is New Hope Church here, Quick?” the consultant asked.
“We’re a part of the three-point charge, sharing a full-time pastor. We also got the dreaded you need to think about your future brochure from our superintendent. The two larger churches think that our involvement is holding them back. We don’t agree, but a new pastoral arrangement is likely this July. We may not have a pastor at all, just a layperson.”
“How do you feel about that?” the consultant asked.
“It depends on the person,” Quick said. “Everything depends on the pastor. He can sabotage a church or lead a church to a better version of itself. There’s a lot of less than competent pastors looking for employment, and we hope that we are not a consolation prize.”
The consultant nodded. “You feel very vulnerable. That makes sense. Are you willing to accept anyone they send you?”
Quick spread his hands. “What choice do we have? We don’t get to choose our own pastor from candidates we find ourselves.”
“Would you have a problem with a woman pastor?” the consultant asked.
“We would not have a problem with a pastor who did the work and did it well, man or woman or alien from outer space. But if they send us a bad match, it could close our church.”
The people around the table nodded.
“We’ve also been labeled as a hospice church,” Quick said. “But with potential.”
“What’s the potential, Quick?” the consultant asked.
“We only have six people attending worship. 8:30 am. But we’re the only church in a village of 250. And we run a Sunday School after worship that draws 25 young children.”
The consultant nodded. “How do you feel about that?” he asked.
“Not so good. Abraham argued with God about sparing Sodom and Gomorrah if there were ten righteous men. Here we have six people trying to serve God. I won’t claim that we are righteous, but what we were told was as if we six had no importance or value at all. Only those children matter to the bureaucrat who lectured us. His tone was as if they stopped coming, we’d be shut down in a minute.” He snapped his fingers.
“Not much with people skills, was he?” the consultant smiled.
Quick grinned and shook his head. “We pay our bills. We pay our denominational apportionments. We pay our pastor. None of that seems to matter. Only the people who don’t come to church seem to matter.”
“Do you feel as if there is some discrimination against small churches?” the consultant asked the room. Heads nodded around the circle. “Same response on my part: that’s bad science, false information and misguided perceptions.” He looked to the next table.
“The three of us are from the Trinity Charge, one from each church. I’m Vera Mitchell from Trinity Church.”
“I’m Winnifred Kennedy from Prairie Temple; please call me Winnie.”
“And I’m Ysabella Cortez from Chapel Grove Church.”
The three looked at each other. Ysabella spoke up. “We also got the thinking about our future brochure. Together our three churches share a part-time pastor, and it looks like that arrangement isn’t going to be able to continue. We’ve been working together since I was a child – more than 50 years. Our pastor’s ready for another placement for a lot of reasons and we have no idea what they are going to do to the charge.”
“Our superintendent is as nice as she can be, and we like her. But we don’t feel in control of our future,” Winnie said.
“Or safe,” Vera said. “We’ve been warned that changes are going to come. We don’t know what those changes are. Or how we will cope.”
“Helping you to know what to do to cope with your reality is why we are here. What is needed most, however, is a change in your perspective.,” the consultant said. “A change in perspective changes everything. From one point of view, the four churches here today have all kinds of problems and death is imminent; these are the people who think strategy is important. Anybody here follow sports on television?” he asked the room.
Several lifted their hands. “In the interviews with coaches, before and after the game, do they talk about strategy or about their players?”
“Players,” Quick said clearly. Others nodded.
“Exactly, David said. “WHO is more important than ANYTHING ELSE. It is players that win the game, not the strategy, because you have to have the players to execute any strategy. The focus of the coach is always on the team and the players on the team. That’s why the people who focus first on strategy are always wrong; their players can’t fulfill the strategy they invent. Second, what’s more important – the star player or the whole team?”
“The star,” one said.
“The team,” several others said.
“Both,” David said. “For the star to be the star, they need the support of the team. Now, who is the star player for your church? Three of you are here from each church as the representative leaders of that church. I’d like you to point at the star player.”
The groups of three looked at each other and eventually all hands were pointing to one person of the three.
David nodded. “And that’s the problem. From another point of view, you have only one problem and it is simple to fix. If you don’t understand that Jesus is the star, that Jesus is the most necessary player in your church, that Jesus is the Lord of your church, your church is going to die just like everything else that God created is meant to die. Please open your Bibles to Luke 6:46.”
“Here’s the main problem with your church and every church – Jesus nailed it,” David said. “Luke 6:46 Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
“I don’t understand,” Bob said.
“It’s very simple,” David said. “If Jesus is the star then you will do what Jesus said to do. If Jesus is the star, then doing what Jesus said to do will enable Jesus to do what is best in the local church. Instead of helping Jesus to work effectively in the local church, we are undermining the ability of Jesus to work in our local church by ignoring the foundation upon which the church is built. As the hymn says, the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Jesus needs to become Lord of the church. And Lord of the people of the church. Let’s read the verse in context so that you can understand the foundation.”
“Luke 6:47 Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
“The reason that churches are declining,” David said firmly, “is always, always, always because Jesus Christ is not in the proper place of being the Lord of the church and the people are not doing what Jesus Christ told them to do.”
“I can’t believe that that’s true in every case,” Bob said.
“Maybe not in every case from our point of view,” David said. “But from my perspective, this principle provides a simple answer to our problem. The cure is to begin to do what Jesus said as our highest priority.”
“So when you ask Who is more important? you mean that who is Jesus Christ?” Quick asked.
“Exactly,” David said. “But I also mean that the who that is the team will always support the star player. This means that Jesus needs to be the Lord of the team. So we start with the leadership,” David said and pointed to those around the circle. “Is Jesus Christ the Lord and are you doing what Jesus Christ told you to do? And then we need to change our understanding of the team. The team is not just the leaders down on the field playing the game of church while everyone else is watching from the stands. That’s a recipe for a dying church! Every follower of Jesus Christ is on the team. They are not meant to be spectators but followers. Not fans but followers.”
“What did Jesus say we should do, then?” Bob asked.
“The best answer,” David said, “is the one given by missionaries who were a part of the church planting movement also known as CPM. When they are asked a question about the Bible the missionary responds by saying “I’m not exactly certain. Why don’t we read it together until we find the answer?” Then they start with Matthew chapter one, verse 1 and read through the New Testament until The Bible gives the answer to the question. In this fashion both persons read The Bible rather than 1 person giving the answers.
Quick looked at his watch and raised his eyebrows. “I don’t think we have time to do that today!”
“And that’s the point David said. “It will take a lifetime, so we had better start immediately.” He shrugged. “Since we only have a short time together today I will do this the wrong way and supply you with the answers from my perspective. If we read the Bible together you get a different perspective then if I simply give you mine without you participating in the process.”
David looked around the table. “Let’s look at 4 cornerstones of what I think are the foundation of an effective, living church where Jesus Christ is Lord.”