Lead People from their Current Reality into Community & Mission
Thirty miles north of Dallas, you will find hundreds of acres once owned by my grandparents, who operated a dairy farm. My grandfather sold the property in the 1960s. When I was a kid, my father rented the land from the new owner for raising beef cattle. We also raised sheep, chickens, and even rabbits at one point of my childhood. We cultivated wheat, oats, and hay as well. Through my veins runs the dirt, sweat, and tears of generations of farmers.
I learned a lot on the farm. For one, I learned that it is hard work. While I'm not medically allergic to farm labor it sure felt like it. But there is another lesson that that shaped my imagination, one that applies to my work now as a pastor. I learned from my father that caring for animals begins by working with what you have, not what you wish you had.
What exactly does this mean, to work with what you have not what you wish you had? If you grew up on a farm, you know exactly what this means. Farmers have no time whatsoever to spend dreaming about what they wish they had. They specialize in dealing with reality. Even if they want to grow their farm to be different, they spend their time and effort working within their current reality to get it there. This is true whether one is working with animals or crops.
My father rented some land to raise hay for horses. In the first two or three years, we did not expect that land to produce good hay. Our first crops were used to feed cows, which can eat low quality hay in a way that horses cannot. After a year or two, we were able to cultivate hay of higher quality that we could sell to horse ranchers.
I think that pastoral leaders could learn a few things from farmers like my father. There is a tendency within church leadership circles to think about the church not in terms of reality, but in terms of what they wish the church was like. We assume the people we lead are in one place, when in reality their lives and the issues they face put them in quite a different place. So we develop visions, make plans, and implement strategies. With good intentions, we live in a dream world about what the church might look like. The church we dream about is of certain legitimate size, has an acceptable place to meet, and has an organization that keeps it running smoothly. To make this dream work, we try to fit people into our plans to live it out and make it a reality. Again, with good intentions and usually out of much prayer and devotion we develop these plans. But I do think we fail to actually meet people in their current reality. We assume that they are in a more spiritual and better place than they really are with the idea we can leverage this maturity to realize our dream of the ideal church.
Let me illustrate. When we think about starting small groups, pastors have often set goals for small group growth. Years ago, I remember a pastor putting a sign up in his worship center that read "2000 groups by 2000." He thought that would be motivating. Another pastor promoted a vision in his home country of Singapore of a small group on every floor of every apartment building. Now the rave is to promote a certain percentage of group participation. I know of churches that brag about 80% or 100% participation in small groups. Such talk is "pastor talk" not “people talk.” It does not meet people where they are. This has nothing to do with the realties that people face.
What does a single mom with five kids care about how many small groups are in her church? She might not even see the need to participate in a group. Or maybe the groups she has been a part of have not dealt with the realities that she faces. How about the over-worked man who is afraid of losing his job? Or the couple who is afraid that their kids might be on drugs? Or the widow who has given in to depression? Or even the faithful leader in the church who looks at such visions and goals and thinks, “Yikes! That sounds like a lot of work.”
As leaders, we are concerned about developing a church that works well. We want a church that closes the back door, does body ministry, and even grows through evangelism. These are great goals, but we need to think of them out of an awareness of the realities that people face, not out of the wish-based dreams of where we hope people are.
Most of the people in our culture (and a part of our churches) are shaped by the imagination of individualism and don't feel the need for relationships in the church. The way they do life is already full of so much busyness and people that the thought of joining a small group is not crucial to them and it certainly won’t fit into their current lifestyle. They might want a Bible study, but they don't feel the need for biblical community that would live in such a way that would make a difference in the world.
This means that we have to think in terms of creating group environments that take people from where they are in their current reality and move them deeper into new experiences of community and mission. People cannot be forced into a predetermined ideal of what small groups should be and do. They have to discover community and mission along the way. At the same time, we cannot just put them in groups that meet them where they are and leave them at that level.
This is the reason why I advocate a both/and strategy for groups. Most churches need both short-term small groups that set the bar low and missional communities that empower those who are ready to raise the bar to higher levels. Here is a link to a blog series on the Both/And Strategy.
(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of MissioRelate)
[Image courtesy of Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net]