Sunday, April 27, 2008

Caught Inside a Seminar with a Consultant Man Again!

Today I experienced one of the most challenging, annoying, and disturbing seminars in a very long time. Firstly, with more than five decades of church life under my belt, there are few fads that have not ended up costing me time and money for some class or seminar someplace. In the 60s it was the charismatic renewal, in the 70s church growth. Spiritual gifts followed and then leadership and vision seminars. Lately, we have seen a spate of conferences dealing with the emerging church and ministry to postmoderns.

I have sat through more than enough sessions on “reaching the unreached,” becoming “seeker sensitive,” pioneering a contemporary service, and the like. Today was no different. With words like “missional community,” moving from an “attraction model to an incarnational model,” “apostolic leadership,” and a small rucksack full of specialty vocabulary, it felt like being force fed a year’s worth of Leadership Net material through a fire hose.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not immune to the appeal of this kind of material. Indeed, a quest to master this arcane literature led me to complete a masters degree in organizational management at a secular business school during the mid-90s. My more than 500 page thesis surveyed virtually every bit of leadership material then extant as well as conducting some major social science research on correlations between pastoral leadership style and ministerial effectiveness. However, I have come to believe that just as the CEO model for the pastor has proven disastrously unhelpful, so will this newest fad.

During the sessions today some familiar themes were sounded: replacing “church growth” with a vision for kingdom growth; developing disciples instead of members; encouraging a new apostolic leadership; moving away from a program centered preoccupation to focusing on spiritual formation; and shifting from planning to preparing for a challenging and uncertain world.

What I appreciated was the encouragement for church leaders to think “outside the box” and to find creative ways to impact their communities for Christ and to encourage their people to do the same. Some of the ideas mentioned were positively genius! Also, the humorous delivery and relentless teasing made the time pass quickly.

However, when we move beyond these helpful pointers, there was much that was disturbing in the day. With clear echoes of Barna and Viola, the speaker constantly carped on the superiority of missional communities and house churches as an answer to “Constantinian” Christianity. Evidently practically everything wrong with Christianity today could be solved by promoting missional communities, house churches, and “missionaries” doing intentional outreach in apartment buildings and labs instead of being part of a traditional church. Much as I felt when reading Barna’s Revolution, my mind kept wondering if this speaker was not working over much hard to justify the fact that he evidently does not like going to church and left the pastorate for the peripatetic role of seminar speaker and consultant.

In the estimation of some of the architects of what’s next, the church of the future will be multiform. Mega churches or “big box churches” will not fade away since there will always be “somebody” who likes that sort of thing. But, one gets the impression that the real action will be had in the trenches where the truly committed eschew conventional church involvement in favor of so-called pre-contstantinian “market place” Christianity without buildings, liturgy, or programs.

Rather than being a “project manager,” “cruise ship director,” or other demeaning description of contemporary pastors, spiritually alive folks will devote themselves to the kind of house church structures that are so in vogue in the minds of progressive church consultants today. And, even if these missional communities do not involve themselves in corporate worship, that is no great loss. Our leader explained that he has been to a lot of church worship services and “they ain’t so good.” He assured us that you “won’t be hurt” by missing weekly worship. As for the biblical admonition to "forsake not the assembling of yourselves together," that will take place in the various ad hoc missional activities that people "feel led" to engage in throughout their communities.

A more disturbing casualty of this churchless utopia would seem to be the Bible. The Corinthians did not have a Bible to read, preachers to sermonize, or programs to sign up for, we were told. Yet, they were able to experience a vital spiritual dynamic. They simply followed the mystical leading of the Holy Spirit.Church history instructs us at this point. I wonder if the seminar speaker ever heard of the Zwickau prophets, early 16th century Anabaptist enthusiasts opposed forcefully by Luther.

“What is the use,” said they, “of clinging so closely to the Bible? The Bible! always the Bible! Can the Bible preach to us? Is it sufficient for our instruction? If God had designed to instruct us by a book, would he not have sent us a Bible from heaven? It is by the Spirit alone that we can be enlightened. God himself speaks to us. God himself reveals to us what we should do, and what we should preach.”

Even Luther’s dear colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, “lost himself in the clouds of a confused mysticism and spiritualism, and appealed, like the Zwickau Prophets, to immediate inspirations.” Luther wryly observed of his friend: "He has swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all."

An evangelicalism untethered from the Word will soon dissipate into little more than social good works or theological irrelevance. And, if history teaches us anything, it demonstrates that diminishing the Word of God always leads to a denial of other core beliefs. Disciples of Christ without a church where the Word is faithfully preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is exercised are much like fish out of water. And, they will end up with the same fate.

Consultants always come with a brief case overflowing with ideas. But, any idea broker who dismisses the church of Jesus Christ as a "constantinian" error, depreciates the importance of Christian corporate worship, and uses immediacy of divine direction as an argument to dispense with the preached Word of God will not lead to a strengthening of God's kingdom or his church. No matter how humorous the delivery or winsome the personality, snarky put downs and non-stop examples of church problems do not a change agent make.

Frighteningly, this man is widely published, highly regarded, teaches D.Min. courses at my alma mater, and consults with several of the major evangelical denominations and many of the para-church agencies out there today.

My lingering questions at the end of the day: Why would church leaders pay outrageous sums of money to listen to this nonsense? And, if they did actually take the advice to heart, how well would most churches respond to proposals to eliminate buildings, stated worship services, and the like? Finally, what would prompt pastors to bring their lay leaders to a conference in order to be told by a man who no longers participates in an organzied church how to dispense with organized churches? I can only assume that the sponsors of this event either did not know what the speaker believed or thought that the listeners would simply go for the atmospherics and the show and ignore the actual advice.


mark lambert said...

Hi Dennis,

It was good to talk with you briefly in the courtyard yesterday. I too was not sure where Reggie was really heading with so much over the top hyperbole disparaging to the traditional/program driven church. On the other hand I felt much was said that will give our TM conversations about vision, direction, leadership formation and spiritual power within our churches a push.

I would like to meet with you at Atherton to get the official nickel tour we've talked about as well as take you to lunch for a conversation about where theological education in regard to pastoral leadership development is headed in the future. Raising up and preparing pastoral leaders for the church of tomorrow must become high on our TM agenda in these days. I'd like to pick your brain, brother!

What kind of dates do you have available in the second half of May?

Mark Lamber

Bob Wilson said...


Your discomfort reminded me of mine at the address we discussed in 2006. My take here is too second hand since I've missed every invite to hear Reggie.

But since 40 years of seminars also took a toll on me, I tend to sympathize, and agree with your warning that losing the corporate life of the church could ultimately weaken God's kingdom.

As one who finds Constantine more problematic, many "themes" you cited do sound more Biblical to me than much CEO and "church growth" talk I endured. My gullibility may lie in my being less satisfied with traditional approaches (reformed or otherwise).

Mark's inquiry about conversations and how to develop leaders is a profound one. As Dave implied, I wonder if a felt need for real change kindles our receptivity.

Dennis E. McFadden said...


Maybe I was to unclear. Obviously I affirm spiritual formation over "church growth." My beef was with the idea that a "church consultant" would charge thousands of dollars to say: sell your buildings, skip stated worship, and just hang out at Starbucks (one of his examples). It is a little bit like paying a doctor to tell you to quit going to doctors.

Bob Wilson said...

Thanks, I did and do sympathize with your central objection and the price of such "wisdom." It's easy to critique the church if we're someone who doesn't carry responsibility for one.

I hope Mark is right if he's implying that we rigid literalists may be reacting to grossly provocative Starbucksian hyperbole that everyone assumed would be demythologized. Even in that best case scenario I too would rather assume a speaker is telling me what he literally advocates.

Dennis E. McFadden said...


I would have felt better if he at least belonged to a church! Here is a guy who has given up on the institutional church lecturing pastors and lay leaders on how to "do church."

Laura said...

If it's any consolation, not all emerging church folks are anti-institutional church. I've just finished my ThM thesis on emerging church ecclesiology (looking at 7 specific ECs), so I know of at least 7 :-)...actually, many ECs are quite organized (even "institutional): they preach sermons, have leaders, etc.

On another front, I'm in the midst of a wee bit of research on Frank Viola's so-called "organic church"--no leaders, no pastors, no order of service. He does criticize many of the just-gather-at-Starbucks folks, though.

Anyhow, I'm rambling a bit...

(btw, if you'd like to peruse a copy of the thesis, I have a pdf of the 143 page wonder)

revdrron said...

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again.

Jerry Graham said...

My two cents...
One thing I have noticed about spititually sound, alive growning (not just in numbers) churches is the necessity of two components no matter what form they take-
One: a small group type place to be intimate, transparent and accountable, and a large group celebration for worship (for lack of a better word) and fellowship. OKAY okay you got me there are things I'm missing that function within the two but you get the general idea. Love and marriage go to gether like a horse and carriage. Let me tell you brother, you can't have one without the other....