In praise of patience

I blogged last week about the need to create cultures not strategy in the church. One of the problems with creating cultures is the time it takes. We live in a world that gives the impression it’s instant, where a million search results are just a click away, where we can instantly download something, or instantly see someone half a world away. And all of that creates the illusion that we live in an instant world. It also fuels an expectation that everything will be, or should be, instant. We want silver bullets. We want the immediate. We don’t want slow and steady we want it right now. Change should be quick and easy just like a search engine result.

But God didn’t make an instant world. Behind the instant facade we create there is the world God made which is not instant. Where things take time, where there are steady seasons and repeated rhythms and patient patterns. Where crops grow slowly and trees take seasons of care and growth before they produce fruit. Where children still – despite our best efforts – take years to reach maturity. Where actually trying to speed things up creates problems. When Jesus uses illustrations he does so from the natural world with all it’s rhythms. When Paul talks of growth it is of fruit which takes seasons to grow, or maturity which takes years to attain.

And yet so often our strategies in the church and in ministry are about the short term, our instant wants, needs, and action plans. What do I need to do now? What are the short term goals? What are the measurable results I want to see and how quickly do I want to see them? How can I assess and evaluate that performance and make tweaks so it is better, faster, more productive? But if we want to create healthy cultures in the church we need to take time to sow healthy habits which, over time, will form healthy growing cultures. Leaders need to invest in long term fruit and we can’t do that if pastors and elders only serve for 3-7 years. We can’t do that unless we develop healthy habits that over time become ingrained and create a culture. We can’t do that unless we allow the deep heart work of repentance and change to take place instead of opting for the shortcut of behaviour change or guilt induced activity.

Pastoring and leading is all about patience. Not patience as an excuse to do little, or change little, or dial down the call to repent. But patience that recognises real heart change is hard and takes time, it is not instant, it is not linear, it can’t be projected and plotted and so on. It is about sowing, tending, waiting, praying and reaping a harvest. Patience is needed to create the habits and culture in which people can flourish in their love for Jesus and his word applied to one another’s lives.

We will never create Godly cultures of love that lead to heart change and healthy growth which flow from the gospel until we liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the instant and the immediate.

That is not a call to be visionless, or to give up on strategy. But our question needs to be ‘What is God’s strategy and his timetable for his church?’ and are we prepared to patiently work and rest to inculcate those habits and patterns while we wait for that?

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Create cultures not strategies

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” so said Peter Drucker, apparently.

It’s true.  Whatever our strategy is, no matter how strong it is, no matter how well discussed and diagrammed it is, it’s effectiveness depends on the culture of the organisation with that strategy. Put simply the culture of a church or organisation is where our strategy either stands up or falls flat on its face.

For example, as churches and church plants we can have all the cleverly strategized plans we like for reaching the lost.  But unless our heart as a church, unless our culture loves the lost in a way that engages with them, evangelism will always feel like hard work.  It will always be something we have to create an impetus for, or guilty people into doing, rather than being something that naturally flows out of the overflow of the love of Jesus we experience.

It’s equally true of everything we do in the church, be it pastoral care, Bible teaching, training, discipling and so on.  We can have all the carefully crafted, colour coded, and laminated strategic plans for those things we want but we need to create a culture where those things happen or it will never happen consistently.  And creating culture is not done in a moment, it is done in a thousand moments, it’s not done in the planning meeting but in the everyday grind of the reality of life together.  It is not the result of one conversation but every conversation.  It’s not something you create instantly but cumulatively through prayer and time studying and applying the Bible together and building each other up. Culture is the result of the gospel being at work in us and through us bearing fruit.

And here’s the scariest part it can be so easily lost.  Cultures drift.  We see that in the letters to the churches in the New Testament.  We see it in the people of Israel in the pages of the Old Testament.   What was a healthy culture that ministered out of an overflow of God’s love and mercy in obedience and service can so easily become a functional yet heartless going through the motions.

Culture is hard to create and easy to lose.  But culture is what counts in the church.  The long slow obedience of faithfully teaching God’s word, praying for people, pastoring them, discipling them, guarding them, over time creates a God loving and glorifying culture that in turn overflows into a people loving and serving community. But that’s not short term, talking strategy may give us a buzz, it may make us feel productive, but long term it is culture that eats strategy for breakfast. And culture is not about what you say but about what you are, it’s not about what you plan but what you do. Culture creates instincts whereas strategies create targets. Culture is the product of our everyday choices and actions to follow Jesus and love God and one another as we see Jesus and become transformed more and more into his likeness.

Accountability: necessary or a poor substitute?

OK it’s time to sharpen the knives and light to fire as we approach this sacred cow, either for it or for me depending on your reaction.

I’ve heard a lot, and read a lot, about the importance of accountability. About our need for an accountability partner who helps us in the battle with sin. And I can see the wisdom for that, it stops us hiding, it recognises the reality of ongoing battle with sin. But here’s my concern with this, we are masters as defaulting to programmes and structures rather than living open lives and developing deep friendships in community. We’re masters at taking a good idea in scripture and trying to codify it so it becomes less than it should be. We’re almost pre-programmed to avoid honesty and instead reveal a little bit of ourselves at a time to some but all of it to no one. So should everyone be accountable to someone? Does everyone need to have an accountability partner? Or is there something different, something better?

I’m not trying to be difficult but I am slightly concerned with where this trend seems to take us in terms of friendship and the church. In many circles the idea of accountability seems to involve a 1-2-1 relationship where you give someone authority to keep you accountable, or where you may share that accountability between the two of you. I have no doubt that sometimes these relationships are helpful and tremendously fruitful. But I also have no doubt that sometimes they’re not.

We are avid mask wearers. We are adept at chamleonising (I know it’s not a real word but work with me here!). We love to fit in, to blend in. We’re very good at hiding behind things, we have been ever since Adam and Eve first hide from God and each other. We do it naturally because we want to be liked, to be accepted, because we are made to seek out love and welcome and like everything else we have a fallen tendency to seek the right thing in the wrong place or way.

Accountability can be helpful for some in ameliorating that tendency. It can be helpful in providing someone safe to talk honestly with about struggles as they learn to trust and open up to others. But I worry about the tendency to make what is good for some necessary for all. For many a wider community of disciple making disciples is much better. It is after all what a church should be, a place where we speak the truth in love to each other – that truth being the gospel with it’s naming of sin and call to repentance and pointing us to Jesus by grace. It’s constant teaching that weekly, and more than weekly, shows us Jesus again and again and again, not spectacularly but faithfully, and which seeks to apply that to one another lives.

What if, for some, an accountability relationship is forestalling fully taking part in that sort of church. What if it is becoming the place I’m honest so that the rest of the time I can keep the mask in place. I’m not calling for spiritual, emotional and confessional incontinence in the church, but for the church to be a community that is so grounded in the gospel that we can be honest and share our struggles and our joy in grace discovered again. Where we are sharing with one another the encouragements of our life lived in Christ, as well as the struggles, and not just in ones and twos but in the wider church – after all largely the church seems to be on a starvation diet of encouragement.

Accountability can be helpful. It is necessary for all of us but maybe not in the formalised, 1-2-1, way we so often think of it. What if our current way of doing it is no longer helping but hindering?