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Piloting Your Church in Today's Fluid Culture
By LEONARD SWEET
David C. CookCopyright © 1999 Leonard Sweet
All rights reserved.
ORIENTING BY THE NORTH STAR: JESUS THE CHRIST
What! No star, and you are going out to sea? Marching, and you have no music? Traveling, and you have no book? What! No love, and you are going out to live?
—Ancient French Proverb
The first essential of navigation, and the place to start in map making, is establishing any position at any place that can be located at any time. We need a reference point that enables us to plot any position on the earth's surface in relation to the stars.
In the art of sailsmanship, that reference point is magnetic north, the "pole star" or North Star. Fixed in the firmament like no other star, the North Star gives sailors a sense of direction and becomes their sure and constant guide.
But notice two things about this reference point known as Polaris.
First, what is fixed is not the point of reference itself, but one's orientation toward that North Star. Wherever you are in the universe, that North Star may appear differently, but it's the same guiding star. The pole star never changes. What changes is one's personal coordinates and orientation toward the North Star.
Second, the earth's axis of rotation points differently toward Polaris at different points in history. First described by Newton, the "wobble" in the earth's orbit fractionally alters the alignment of the poles. Sometimes the earth's axis of rotation points within one degree of the star Polaris. Other times it is farther apart. What this all means is simple: Sometimes the North Star appears brighter in the heavens than at other times.
The value of a Jesuit education was summarized by one grateful student: "You showed us where north is."
What is our North Star, our fixing orientation?
Jesus of Nazareth is our North Star. The personal coordinates of Jesus, our "Morning Star," our "Day Star" (2 Peter 1:19), are what keep us on course. Jesus' last words to us were these: "I am ... the Morning Star" (Rev. 22:16). You can find them on the last page of every Bible.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Christianity is a relationship religion. The core relationship is a relationship with Christ. Everything depends on the administration and management of that relationship. However, some of us are more careful about maintaining and managing relationships with our pets than our relationships with Jesus, God-made flesh.
With a cosmos changing at the speed of light, there are no fixed horizons. With a fix on the Jesus horizon, we have steering points to guide us in ever-new destinations.
For the raindrop, joy is entering the river. —Greatest Urdu poet Ghalib Mirza Asadullah Khan
Lose sight of Christ, and a sailor on the sea of life quickly becomes lost. When Peter took his eyes off Christ, he sank (Matt. 14:30–31). When we live by grace, we walk on water. Else we sink ... in despair, in disease, in depression, in dread of the future.
Jesus and Today
French sociologist Jacques Ellul identifies three crowning achievements of the modern West: first, the emergence of a sense of self, resulting in the separation of the individual from the tribe, nature, or the cosmos; second, the development of the critical, scientific method; and third—most important—human freedom and individuality. Each one of these three, which provided dependable charts and fixed bearings for modern journeys, is up for grabs in today's world. To navigate under such fluid conditions makes the certainty of a fixed point in the heavens more important than ever before.
The greatest question of the New Testament is often said to be: "What do you think of Christ?" Or, in Jesus' own words: "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:29).
The closeness of identification between Jesus and the Christian community is more than metaphorical. Whenever John Wesley wrote in his journal, "I offered them Christ," he was saying, "I preached." Would that more churches had etched on their pulpits the words that admonish everyone who steps into the crow's nest of one West Virginia church: "Sir, we would see Jesus."
A biblical spirituality is relationship driven. It begins and ends with Jesus: does it sound like Jesus? see like Jesus? taste like Jesus? touch like Jesus? smell like Jesus? One of my favorite writers, the Canadian Robertson Davies, used to say that he read life and literature by the light of "a candle that is plainly marked 'Manufactured by C.G. Jung & Co., Zurich.'" But as Christians, we read life by the light of a star that shone brightly one dark night in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago and has lit up the skies ever since.
God lit up the skies more than two thousand years ago to show us how God can light up our skies today. Christians are people who live at the speed of light—the light of Jesus: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). Christ is being "formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). For the indwelling Christ to be formed in us does not mean that we abandon our own space. Rather, it means that the indwelling Christ makes us more like ourselves at the same time we become more like Christ.
Artist/visual allegorist Stanley Spencer one day asked Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate: "Do you know what good art is? It's just saying 'ta' to God." Good sailsmanship is saying "ta" to Jesus. It is navigating one's life by the North Star.
One of the key influences on my thinking has been that of the missiologist Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. He reminded us that the key focus of the church's mission is not the church but the world. In one of the memorial addresses at his funeral in 1998, it was noted that Newbigin knew everybody. He knew on a first-name basis all sorts of kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents, celebrities and zillionaires.
But the only name he ever dropped was the name of Jesus.
Jesus and Values
As pioneers on an earlier trek westward came to appreciate and articulate, today's explorers need to choose carefully the star to which they hitch their wagons. In the economic world, the guiding star is becoming EPIC values rather than profits. An approach to business that is values-driven and service-oriented rather than profit-driven and owner-oriented is perhaps the most significant stars-in-its-eyes transformation in twentieth- and twenty-first-century management.
I visited my friend today. He's eighty-five and travels light, a wise and wonderful man. We spoke of many things, small talk and big talk, and then he said, "Yes, for most of our comings and goings maps are O.K., but for the Big Trip we still follow the Star!"
—Poet/seminary professor Gerhard Frost
In the global world of business, the most distinguishing quality of a leader has become the ability to lead through values. Value setting has replaced goal setting as the primary task of leadership. Swiss organizational consultant Peter Koenig argues that the issue is not whether values-driven business is profitable. In fact, values and profits don't necessarily go together. The issue is whether values are being followed for their own sake: "The only motive deserving of the name 'values driven' is one where the values are being expressed simply for their own sake—as a matter of radical principle." Koenig reminds us that the charters of incorporation were given to businesses because they existed "for the common good" and were trusted to act in the interests of "the common good."
What is due north for values-driven entrepreneurs? When James F. Keenan shoots for the stars, he finds four cardinal virtues: justice, fidelity, self-care, and prudence. Another management theorist has compiled another top ten value skills list: "honesty," "integrity," "commitment," "loyalty," "fairness," "concern for others," "respect," "obedience to the law," "pursuit of excellence," and "personal accountability."
In many ways the values-oriented revolution of the 1990s has been but another attempt to restate the classic Christian virtues embodied by Jesus and embedded in his life—faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, fidelity, self-care—in more contemporary form. Some books don't even bother separating out the principles of Christ from the person of Jesus. For example, see Jesus CEO by Laurie Beth Jones and Jesus on Leadership by C. Gene Wilkes.
Values for values' sake? What about Jesus for Jesus' sake? All of us are "on the way." Christians are people who follow the "Living Way" of Jesus the Christ. Our star is the Star of Bethlehem. We journey the ways The Way went and cherish the ways The Way cherished.
Guiding by the Star
People often ask megachurch pastor Mike Slaughter what he's going to do next, where he sees himself in five or ten years. Mike responds that if he is in charge of his own life, he knows the answer to that question. But if God is in charge of his life, he has no idea how to answer that question.
Leaders help people ask questions like: Who is in control of your life? Who's piloting your ship? Are you at the helm, or is God? Are you going your own way, or going God's way?
Jesus, Savior, pilot me Over life's tempestuous sea; Unknown waves before me roll, Hiding rock and treacherous shoal; Chart and compass come from Thee: Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
—Edward Hopper, 1871
Christian leaders are not customer-centric but Christo-centric. Their focus is not "what the customer wants," but "what Christ wants." They look to Christ themselves, to help others find Christ in their own lives, to help the word made flesh be made fresh again. Missional art #1 is the ability to help people understand that the fullness of truth is not propositions or principles. The fullness of truth is Christ.
Christ is in the Church in the same way as the sun is before our eyes. We see the same sun as our fathers saw, and yet we understand it in a much more magnificent way.
—Teilhard de Chardin
Disciples of Jesus begin faith's journey with Christ as a fixed reference point. But two points are needed if there is to be true fixity of faith: space and time. The North Star tells us where we are in the space of the soul. But time as well as space is necessary to accurately calculate longitude. Hence the chronometer of history and culture.
The chronometer—the ship's clock—was one of the most important instruments onboard ship. Often actual diamonds were used to jewel its mechanisms, so special was it. Only one or two sailors would have the key to open its lock and adjust it. Today one of those early chronometers can command six figures.
What made the chronometer so special? The only way navigators could tell longitude was by looking at the time. Today's leader must ask the question "What time is it?" while being guided by the North Star. The difference between finding your way in life and losing your way is often a matter of a few degrees of longitude. When the longitudinal questions of time are asked alongside the directional questions of space, two things become clear about Jesus the Christ, two things that parallel the two things we noted earlier about the North Star.
The way is often rough for a pilgrim and hard going, but pilgrims must keep going resolutely and courageously. They are lost if they stop looking for the right way to reach their destination. But there is one who is on the lookout to guide us; it is the Son of God, who is the way, the truth and the life.
Sighting Jesus in Every Culture
First, Jesus the Christ remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. But our experiences of Christ depend on our personal and cultural coordinates. Jesus is not an alien force, a nonnative source, or an import that comes into a culture. Jesus is an indigenous illumination of what is already there.
Some years ago, the distinguished southern churchman and theologian Albert Mollegen was lecturing to a group of laypeople in Virginia on the topic of "Revelation." It was loaded with technical distinctions and sophisticated analysis. At the end, the professor entertained questions from the audience, and a bewildered and slightly defeated woman arose and said, "Dr. Mollegen, how does God speak to you?" The great man thought about that for a moment, and then abandoned his professorial demeanor. "In English, ma'am. With a Tidewater accent."
Jesus transcends every known culture. God comes to the Chinese in a Chinese accent. Jesus appears to the African in a Swahili cadence. Jesus appears to the American Indian in a Shoshone beat. Jesus appears to a West Virginian in an Appalachian accent. All cultures share in the pre-Incarnation mystery. Even the culture of first-century Palestine couldn't contain but one look at Jesus—there is not a single story of Jesus, but four basic stories, with multiple stories within those stories.
When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended, he became the exalted Christ, a universalized presence and power. He did not take his Jewishness with him into heaven. In the garden with Mary, Jesus says "touch me not" or "do not hold on to me" (John 20:17). In other words, Mary, I'm not what I used to be. Things are different now. Or in Paul's way of putting it to the church at Corinth: "Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more" (2 Cor. 5:16 KJV).
"You accept the historical existence of Jesus?"
"Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life."
—Interview with Albert Einstein in The Saturday Evening Post (1929)
Letting Jesus Shine
Second, as we spin on our Google Earth axis, Jesus is shining brighter and brighter. Christianity may appear to be dying in the West, but interest in Jesus has never been higher in the West and Christianity is rising in the East and the South.
People today are antireligious but deeply spiritual. Twenty-first-century culture is filled with day trippers asking for direction, some with feet on the ground, others stuck in the mud, still others with heads in the clouds—but all scouring the horizon for hope, wonder, genuineness, and a way out of their mazes of aimless living.
Say "I'm a Christian" to these pilgrims, and they flee for their lives. Say "I'm a disciple of Jesus," and they gather round to hear more. People have stars in their eyes about Jesus and the stomach for a fight about Christianity. The "global boom" in books about Jesus, with an average of four new books coming out every single day, attests to the brightness of this one star in the postmodern firmament. Worldwide, more than sixty-six thousand books have been written about Jesus, claims missiologist David Barrett. The quest for the historical Jesus has never been more frenzied. Even in a roundabout way the irreverent and highly modern "Jesus Seminar" and "The Da Vinci Code" frenzies are backhanded compliments to this obsession with Jesus.
I will not doubt, though all my ships at sea Come drifting home with broken masts and sails; I shall believe the Hand which never fails. And, though I weep because those sails are battered, Still will I cry, while my best hopes lie shattered, "I trust in Thee!"
—Ella Wheeler Wilcox
When too many people picture "Christians," the image that comes to mind is not a good one. It used to be that negative images of Christians featured people who couldn't dance, drink, smoke, gamble (as a kid I never could find those prohibitions in the Bible). Negative images of Christians today are of people who are mean, judgmental, hysterical, homophobic, condemn people to hell, and want to leave everyone not like them behind.
A friend of mine, who is an outspoken supporter of a certain political candidate, tells of receiving scores of hate e-mails, many from acquaintances who profess to be devout Christians. They either write abusive letters themselves or forward invective messages they have received from other individuals or religious groups. One message discounted the candidate's Christian faith because the candidate's social and political stands didn't fit within the mold of the writer's beliefs. Another correspondent went so far as to suggest that the candidate might very well match the description of the Antichrist as found in the book of Revelation.
When did this happen? When did Christians become some of the world's greatest haters? When did Christianity lose that over-the-top love and under-the-bridge hope for which the early Christians were most famous? What happened to "They'll know we are Christians by our love"? Why do today's Christians love so badly?
"Wait a minute," you say. "That's an isolated case. Every religious tradition has its negative, lunatic fringe. No religious tradition can be judged by its worst expressions." You're absolutely correct. In fact, the founder of Methodism John Wesley said back in the eighteenth century that the "grand stumbling block" to the credibility of the gospel was "the lives of Christians."
Excerpted from AQUACHURCH 2.0 by LEONARD SWEET. Copyright © 1999 Leonard Sweet. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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