Thursday, November 19, 2009

May the Bride Not Lose Her Humanity as She Grows

This evening I went to a small restaurant selling local delights. The food was inexplicably good. The curry chicken was just nice, not too salty. The side dish of century egg with tofu was excellent. I don't think I was trying hard to eavesdrop, but in the small restaurant with only two occupied tables, it wasn't hard to hear the conversation 4 metres away.

Two men were talking about church. In slightly formal fashion, one was asking how the other was planning to take over a new cell group. "Multiplication" as they call it. The Senior one (not in terms of age but in terms of his position) started to throw some rather interesting questions at the other.

"Do you know what your skill is? Are you more of a leader or a follower?"
"Who in the group do you think you can groom?"
"Do you think X can help you?"
"What do you think is the purpose of multiplication?"
"What do you see your role as?"

As he continued asking, a little bit of nostalgia crept up my spine. After all, I've spent the last ten years in a 'growing' church. We were packed into small groups, called cell groups, told that evangelism and reaching out were key. Everything in the group setting had to be done well. If there was to be a worship session, the guitarist had to prepare well. Song sheets had to be prepared well, and if not, the whiteboard should be written on prior to the starting time so that we don't hold back anyone. The buzzword (or buzz phrase) was "excellence for God". So we tried our best. Even if you didn't feel particularly comfortable you had to try harder, have more faith and press on. All this was done in a bid to grow.

I can't help but correlate the two men's conversation to my own experience. There was a tinge of strategizing. There was a tinge of organizational propriety. We have to get it right and do it right.

As with all descriptions, they are a caricature and often one-sided, viewed from the lens of the author. So it is with my experience spending the last ten years in a cell church. Leaders had to be spiritual mentors, fathers, guides. Leaders had to set the example and spearhead growth. Regular trainings were held. Equipping sessions were organized.

After 4 years in University, I've learnt that ironically, people grow best when there is sincerity, transparency and humility - and not organizational excellence. (I don't say we cannot have organisational excellence. On the contrary I think it is important. But I think we miss the point if it becomes that all-consuming desire of ours - "Grow the Church! Grow the Church!" we may yearn.) As I struggled with sin on a personal front, I found it difficult to share it with people in the cell group. First and mainly because I was at those times, the "leader" - how could the figure fall? It would be disastrous. And even if saving face was pushed aside, confessing your sins to your "followers" would stumble them greatly. I shared this with a close friend who spent hours and hours throughout my Varsity days praying with me and crying with me. While men cry little (haha), he cried tears of empathy over my struggles.

Ironically, some of the most thought provoking conversations I've had on spirituality and things about life (and death) have been with a church friend, but never in church - always away from cell group time and in the privacy of long drives. This friend often tested the way we (the church and its leaders) did things and tested the ideology behind many of the things said and preached about. If there was anyone who sharpened my then shallow faith. It was this brother, outside of church.

I have nothing against the church. Yet, I wonder if the organizational look and form the church is taking is at all helping its people. More fundamentally, whether it is biblical. The community of the early church was certainly ad hoc. There was some semblance of an organization as they had apostles and elders and leaders, but the church grew organically, by their word and deed and not by great organization-growing skills. They split the work of feeding the poor and preaching the word between two groups of apostles, and also, split the type of work (whether coincidentally or not), Paul to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Still, I can't help but think the early church did not run on the same organizational structures we did, and more importantly did not rely on them as the cornerstone for growth.

We say that Jesus is Lord, we sing it loudly with neatly played rock music. We hear it preached over shiny pulpits and we leave to live it on nice carpets. The church of today (in modern Singapore) is well equipped and resourced. But resources aside, we must be very careful not to become an organization alone, instead of the body of Christ.

How much time do we spend on meetings and surveys in a bid to be organizationally better, sharper, more relevant, more appealing? How much time do our people spend in the coffeeshops, volunteering with the poor, understanding the plight of their fellow man? Do not the ways we spend our time and money speak boldly of what we think is important? If we organize the church so well that 20% of its people are focuses on mercy ministries, and 20% on music/worship and 20% on evangelism, etc. have we not compartmentalized the church in such a way that the gospel is presented in skewed forms? Every believer must be a worshipper, a giver or mercy, a person who lives the gospel. While God gives us gifts, different gifts, these are given for the benefit of the church, not for the efficient specialization of an organization. Sure, the lines are thin and the differentiating distinctiveness from compartmentalization is grey - yet, we need only ask ourselves where do our time and money go and we would more certainly have the answer.

An organization has further dangers. Efficient it may be, but getting work done is its purpose. If a church, as organization sees X as its goal, then everything must be aligned with it. There is no time for divergent views. No time for wastage. No time for people who can't align themselves with the system. Those who struggle or find it difficult to adhere to the programs and the plethora of activities become "problems". We need to sort that person out. We should pray for him or her, especially that they stop backsliding and become spiritual again. People start to become digits and mere statistics in the system.

Worst still, an organization may start to idol worship its leaders. "Everything rises and falls on leaders" so says John C Maxwell. Really? I recall somewhere that a wise Jewish anti-Christian leader in Acts commented that "If what they (the early apostles do) is not of God, they will fail." Is it not God who upholds his bride and washes her in His word till she is white as snow. No, everything does not rise and fall on leaders unless and until we deem it so. When we get used to seeing certain faces of people, we start to think that the stability, longevity and sustenance of the church depends on them. Jesus is not longer the source or wisdom, guidance, forgiveness and acceptance. Leaders are. What they say and do, how they "direct" (as the Senior in the restaurant told the other to learn to do more of) their "followers" is the last word on the issue.

I have visited several mega churches. Sadly, it is often these churches who have grown large (more than 1,500 as some benchmark) which prize themselves on such organizational know-how. Sure, I must admit that being organizationally excellent helps us as Christians do a lot better. It cuts away that slack mentality that the church will grow on its own. It makes us all involved. Organization may make us evaluate what we do and question our practices. Organization can bring certain blessings. But we must beware the trap of seeing the church only as that one prime organization which needs to grow and grow and grow.

In John Wesley's time, small groups were meant for deep confession and sharing of everyday life. They asked the very difficult questions of "when did you last sin?" and "when were you last tempted." Fellowship was the key because the Wesleys (Charles included) believed that it was through this that the sanctification of God took place. Faith and works flourished in the context of genuine, heart to heart conversations. Lives were open beyond the other. There was no agenda they needed to stick too, apart from holiness.

I once heard a Pastor say that a church should be no bigger than 500 people. I sniggered at it when I first heard it. He did say also that it was merely his opinion. But I have come to realize the beauty behind that statement. He said that this is the size to which the pastor can know his flock. But in addition to this, I think that smaller sized churches counteract the organizational ambition we might have to grow, grow and grow. A recourse to rigid rules never serve us well. 500 is not a magic number. But the idea is there.

Sometimes, we mistake growth and organizational excellence for maturity and vitality. It may end up being a shell for pure numbers and activity. Worst of all, the bigger we are as a church (organizationally), we may actually lose that unique personal touch and connection with each other. We can all choose to go to different services, do different specialized ministries and yet never ever really connect soul to soul. In that sense, while we may grow, we may yet lose our humanity.