Where there is no prophetic vision the people are discouraged.
The popular definition of insanity is “doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.” Now, psychologists would tell us that isn’t the proper definition of insanity, and they would be right. But it is CRAZY to think that we can keep on doing the same old things the same old way time after time and expect something to change or to anticipate something being different than it already is.
Systems theory argues that everything we participate in is a system: a family unit, a company, a club or team—anything made up of two or more people or parts. Everything is interdependent and interrelated. And a system is perfectly designed to get the results you are getting.
- If your company isn’t producing a profit … it is perfectly designed to underachieve.
- If your family seems like it never sits down together and never communicates about life, everyone is pulled in a thousand directions … it is perfectly designed, by our actions and activities, for those results.
- Your car makes a weird grinding noise every time it changes gears … something in that system is wonky. (A now we’ve hit the extent of my mechanical knowledge.)
- Alternatively, if your business is thriving or your civic organization is accomplishing its goals easily and effortlessly … it is designed, in terms of leadership and organization and assignment of responsibilities, for the results you are achieving.
And if you want to change a system, you have to change something about the way it relates and interacts with the other parts.
But that is difficult, because it requires change … and change is difficult … and our system is already perfectly designed for the results it is getting. And we can’t keep doing the same old things expecting different results; something’s gotta change.
It is easy to see those problems from the outside looking in. With discerning eyes it can even be easy to see that from within the system itself. Understanding is one thing, but enacting change is something else entirely.
I want you to think about a ministry within your church that continues to run but isn’t producing the results you would like. Chances are, your church has a few; most churches of any given age do. Someone started that ministry with a specific vision, purpose, and mission in mind: this is going to meet a specific need toward which we feel God calling us. For a time, it is life-giving. It is ministering to where people are, connecting them to God, bringing hope and life. But over time the needs change … but the church doesn’t. The ministry has people who have bought into it and made it their own; it is their expression of church life and their way of exercising their gifts. It becomes entrenched—it is part of our identity—even if it doesn’t work. Instead of honoring the ways in which it blessed the church and the kingdom, letting the ministry go, and seeking a new way of connecting, our tendency is to cling ever more tightly. Even though the ministry begins to lag and waver, we throw ourselves into it more and more, thinking that it is just waning enthusiasm.
We have lots of ways of saying it:
- “Sister So-and-So started that ministry back in _____, and the church really loves it.”
- “No, we still have ____ number of people who participate in it; I think it is still doing great!”
- “My ______ became a Christian because of that ministry, and it would be a shame to let it go.”
- “Sure, it’s not performing like it used to, but it still works. And you know what they say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
But we are reminded: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18, KJV). I actually love the wording in the Good News Version: “the people decay.” And when the ministry continues to exist simply because “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” then we might have lost the point.
As churches continue to decline in the West and fail to reach their neighbors, we have to ask some tough questions. You see, systems are perfectly designed for the results they are getting. And if we want different results, it is crazy to think we can keep on doing the “same ole same ole,” the “old tried-and-true,” and get different results. You don’t change the gospel, but you might have to change the ways in which you connect with your intended audience.
But here’s where it gets even trickier. It takes someone with a “prophetic vision” to end a ministry in such a way that you can leverage it for greater benefit. Killing a ministry is tough, but it is easier to kill a ministry outright than it is to springboard that momentum into something else. That doesn’t mean more programming, per se; replacing VBS with a children’s carnival might be even less kingdom-oriented than continuing a failing system. Instead, it requires a leader or group of leaders who are connecting with God, listening for God’s prompting, and looking for where they see God already at work around them. In my next post (June 2018) I will talk about how we can begin to discern and chart a new path forward.
But here’s something I need to remind myself.
It is easy to be critical; it is difficult to be prophetic. It is easy to tell people what’s wrong, but as leaders we are called to partner with our congregations in order to discover a new way forward. Change requires not just pointing out problems, but prophetically listening and looking for what else God has in store.
I’ll be honest … it is easier for me to do nothing and let the system run. And it is easier for me to throw up my hands in frustration rather than look at how we work together toward a unique solution. Maintaining the status quo is always easier than rolling up my sleeves and inviting people to do the hard work of casting a new vision. But God doesn’t call us to whine; God calls us to lead.
Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.