There is no “code to 21st Century Ministry” but there are practices rooted in our great tradition. The leaders we need contribute to forming a people who embrace the story of God’s agency and the Spirit’s re-weaving in the places where they live amidst the great unraveling. This has been as true for the 5th as the 21st century. It is about “seeing” in all the coming apart of our systems and institutions this other, one true story that gives us back our purpose. In the work of joining with God in our communities, we find hope. We will see where Christ is making all things new. God loves this world and will not let it go to hell. Christ is making all things new and the Spirit is gestating this in our neighbourhoods. The Spirit didn’t shut down in COVID but continues the work of renewing all things – right where we live. In joining with what God is doing, we will find ourselves participating in a community no longer focused on its own survival but celebrating that God is making all things new. Here is the source of our hope.
Hope is not found in trying to manage systems never designed for this unraveling. We’re inundated with proposals for fixing and managing our congregations. But this is about making adjustments to existing forms of church life and it’s wearing us out! It’s why we have little bandwidth. Over these months, many of us have grown resistant to sellers-of-projects-to-fix-our-problems, to the proffers of the “codes” that will make it all work again. We are overwhelmed with the issues before us. We need to step back, to press pause in order to see another way of guiding our people. My suspicion is that a lot of our people would give a sigh of relief to hear this.
The question that is continually asked is: How? How can we discover this different way of leading? How do we re-root our congregations in this incredible story of God’s acting and making all things new? Amidst congregations fearfully managing their way back to normal, what would this stepping back look like? To start getting at this, we turn to how Jesus addressed the unraveling of his own society as illustrated in a passage that has become central to our work: Luke 10:1-12.
Luke 10: 1-12 doesn’t provide a complete picture of how to discover a new way of leading but it does give us some important elements in terms of where we can start. Jesus sends 72 unnamed followers into situations not dissimilar to our own but he doesn’t send them to fix the situation on the ground. Rome was in town demanding obedience. Religious leaders were telling people how they needed to be “discipled” by following their steps. The people of Galilee had seen the unraveling of their world after Rome arrived. Indeed, when Luke wrote his Gospel, it was post AD 70. Far more than unraveling, Jerusalem was gone, the Temple destroyed and, therefore, the primary institutions of Judaism were torn asunder. People struggled to square the circle of being occupied with the religious leaders’ promises of deliverance. Now they were confronted with the eradication of their primary institutions. Travelling thought leaders (our social media gurus) had gone from village to village offering, for a price, “one more thing”, the “code” to make sense of it all. They then moved off to the next town. People had become resistant.
Jesus gave the 72 a different way of responding. They were to go into a town to dwell there (go and stay in one place and not move around). They were to take nothing with them so that they would have to become dependent on the hospitality of the people and learn how to join with their economy. They were to do this by joining a household. This would have involved taking the time to become part of their work rhythms (a labourer deserves to be paid) and communing at the common table. Jesus told them to become guests and, then, partners rather than experts and managers.
In the crisis that overcame Judaism after 70 AD, another way of being God’s people had to be found. There was no longer the possibility of the priestly classes coming up with methods of fixing and adjusting to the catastrophe. There would be no cracking the code of 1st century priestly ministry. This is where we find ourselves at this moment. Our “temples” have not been destroyed but we are standing on the edge of the implosion of denominational systems and a congregational model that shaped the 20th century and created the clergy class we have today. The reason leaders are worn out and have little bandwidth is because they’re trying to breathe life into this system that cannot engage the great unraveling before us. Another way of being God’s people is needed. This other way, which Jesus points to in Luke 10, has been lost in the frenzied need to manage congregations and make them work again. If we are to discover this other way, we are going to need to find, first of all, ways of stepping back from all our managing and trying to fix.
A sign of this stepping back is seen among some leaders who, after these long, disruptive months, are beginning to realize that the unraveling is far bigger than COVID. They sense that it is a more pervasive undoing of the institutions and narratives that have shaped the West since at least the 60s. This kind of change cannot be managed within our inherited systems nor is there some magical key, or code, that, gnostic-like, fixes everything. One suspects our people already know this in their bones. As leaders, we need breathing space to take in and comprehend what is happening before jumping on another bandwagon. Bandwidth comes from stepping back to see the bigger picture in order to reflect on this other way Jesus is showing us.