How the Organized Church Changes, Part 3

We here continue Dave Thomas’s guest blog on the impact of business language on the nature of the church. Very significant stuff (Jon Paulien).

The second primary factor in organizational change has to do with what we call infrastructure. The kinds of infrastructure a church organization develops as it ages become major factors in determining what the future for an organization will be. It is not hard to figure out why and how infrastructure develops. As a movement catches on in the mind of the public, it grows. Early growth is often quite rapid with volunteers and informal conversation being the primary purveyors of mission. We downplay the power of informal communication far too much. It is one of the most effective means of communication available to humans. What we hear informally almost always trumps official word. This is one reason conspiracies and urban legends become so prevalent and powerful and resilient.

At some point, the movement becomes too large for the early, charismatic leaders to manage by themselves and the need to create some kind of structure becomes obvious and urgent. Those who are acquainted with Adventist history no doubt know of the great struggles the Adventist pioneers went through on this issue. Many strident speeches were made to the effect that any kind of organization would constitute “Babylon.” But something as simple as the ownership of property made resistance futile. The path to organization is easy to trace – the prosecution of mission requires vision which is broken down into strategy which is reduced to plans that get embedded in policy which then creates organizational structure and practice. And organizational practice pursued over time creates organizational culture and identity. By this process, organizations stabilize themselves, become predictable and efficient, and gain the real prospect of a successful future.

In the midst of all the exciting growth that makes the creation of structure necessary, something happens that goes largely unnoticed. Just as surely as the creation of infrastructure brings stability, it also initiates what theorists call “organizational entropy,” the technical name for the process that brings on the aging, disordering and sometimes death of a movement or organization. Speaking of infrastructure, theorist Jeffrey Saltzman says, “The purpose of these rules is to allow the organization to make decisions using standard operating procedures as a guideline and hence remove from the organization the need to think about the decisions being made.” (http://jeffreysaltzman.wordpress. com/2009/11/19/organization-entropy-2/) But, “removing the need to think about some decisions (this is what infrastructure does) carries with it an inherent risk, the risk of mediocrity or worse, the risk of extinction.” What is being alluded to here is that the early stages of organization are usually very beneficial to mission, producing benefits out of proportion to the resources invested. But in later stages of organizational life, infrastructure itself becomes problematic.

To be continued. . .

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 2

We here continue Dave Thomas’s guest blog on the impact of business language on the nature of the church. Very significant stuff (Jon Paulien).

Since the church is an organization, it is helpful to know that unconsidered organizational change is embedded within the nature of organizational structure itself. One of the best ways to understand this is to look through the eyes of organizational theorists, people “out there” who are fascinated with and study organizations, how they are born, grow, function, and finally die. One of the better-known conclusions of organizational theorists is the existence of a prevailing and all but inevitable “Organizational Life-cycle” – which all organizations pass through. Depending on which school of organizational theory you read, this life-cycle is said to have four or five stages. These begin with a Start-up or Entrepreneurial Stage, moving on through a Growth Stage that is often broken into two sub-stages – Early Growth which is often quite rapid, and Middle Growth where growth slows. The early stages are followed by a Mature Stagem where growth becomes very slow or stops altogether. The Mature Stage is followed by a Decline Stage which leads to the most critical stage, the Crisis Stage. The Crisis Stage may be followed by either renewal, or demise (see http://www.legacee.com/FastGrowth/OrgLifeCycle.html for more detail).

Organizations in the Mature Stage have a number of typical features. 1) Infrastructure is of enormous size to the point there is “a policy for everything.” 2) There are many employees whose entire focus is on tending infrastructure rather than front-line mission. 3) The treatment of employees is highly standardized with more interest in “fairness” than in “merit.” 4) Operations become regulated by policies more than by opportunities. 5) New hires are evaluated more on loyalty than on entrepreneurial spirit. 6) Employees gain more control over mission than volunteers. 7) A large proportion of resources are allocated to infrastructure in the place of mission. 8) There is little, if any, money devoted to new initiatives. Growth slows, then stops. By this time in the life cycle, all the infrastructure will have created such a great amount of inertia, it will be almost impossible for it to change, which sets things up for a likely crisis if change does indeed come to the marketplace.

In this life-cycle there are two critical elements that play a very big role in determining the direction of the organization. The first and most obvious one is the Crisis Stage where the way leaders approach and handle crises can lead to either organizational renewal or organizational decline and death. Organizations that have leaders who foresee crises and manage them well may renew themselves while those that have leaders who do not foresee or handle crises well go much more quickly toward demise.

Points of crisis are significant in the Organizational Life Cycle because, since they threaten organizational well-being or existence, they become the only times when any real prospect of significant change exists. It is simply the case that the more complex the infrastructure becomes, and the more success that can be looked back upon, the more difficult it is for an organization to adjust and change. This is because the stabilization brought about by the creation of infrastructure creates organizational inertia. And complex organizations develop so much inertia that the kind of change necessary to deal with an unanticipated future is simply too great.

In the business world, there are two elements that affect how crisis is dealt with, 1) shareholders who may take precipitous action if they become unhappy, and 2) the existence of outside predators looking for the chance to take over. Pressure from these two entities makes the prospect of change quite high. By contrast, in church organizations, these two elements are missing. There are no predatory outsiders looking to take over and the average member is too remote from organizational power to force change. In consequence, change in churches can only be brought about by those who are in leadership positions. The prospect of such people making significant change is very small indeed because organizations tend to promote those who are most loyal to the organization, and churches easily sanctify their structures if they have been successful. Those in power tend to be the ones who benefit most from the status quo. For these reasons, churches are more likely to fade away than agree to change.

To be continued. . .

How the Organized Church Changes

I apologize for the two-week gap in blog postings. It has been a really distracting time for me.

In November of 2014 at a meeting of the Adventist Society for Religious Study, I heard a paper from Dave Thomas, Dean of the Religion Department at Walla Walla University. The title of the paper was “From ‘Ekklesia’ to Something Else.” Ekklesia is the NT Greek word for “church” meaning those who are “called out” from the world by the gospel to form communities of believers. In this paper he explores some of the trends in Adventist organization that affect its options for the future. I thought the paper was so significant that I asked Dave’s permission to publish it as a guest blog on my site, which permission he graciously granted. What follows is a series of blogs sharing Thomas’ paper with some edits on my part to conform to the style of a blog (including the title I chose). From here on until completion the words are primarily those of Dave Thomas. I have made some alterations to explain or replace technical terms for clarity to a non-specialist audience.

In this paper I (Dave Thomas) wish to reflect on the church as organization. In particular, I wish to reflect on how church as organization may, for reasons that will be explained here, experience an unconsidered or non-deliberate change in its own ecclesiology (doctrine of “the church”) effectively moving it away from the concept of church-as-a-community-of-believers to something else. For those whose view of church is formed by the scriptural idea of a community of called-out believers, this would be an unhappy eventuality indeed.

I was first alerted to this prospect of an unconsidered change in church organizations through a comment made by Katie Funk Wiebe (”The Christian Leader,” Christianity Today, volume 33, number 17, August 1989). She wrote, “I sense that we are allowing business terms to creep into our language. . . I am convinced that because language shapes our thinking and actions, we change the nature of the church and its leadership if we substitute business language for ‘body’ language. An organism quickly becomes an organization if it is thought about that way.” This statement struck me with force. Could it really be that a change in language use could result in a change in theological perception that, because language shapes our thinking and actions, the use of “business language” rather than “body language” could actually result in a shift in the church’s self-perception, effectively changing a living organism into a mere “organization?” This disturbance of my thought equilibrium sent me on a search, the reflective results of which I want to share with you in a series of blogs here.

To be continued. . .

The Implications of the Cross, Conclusion

A second difference the cross makes is, at first glance, the very opposite of the first. We all have a fundamental need to value ourselves and to be valued by others. But how can we value ourselves when we recognize that the seeds of evil are within? It seems that the better we know ourselves the more we will dislike ourselves and the worse we will feel. How can we elevate our sense of self-worth without escaping from the dark realities within? That’s where the cross comes in.
How much is a human being worth? It depends on the context. If they were to melt me down into the chemicals of which my body is made, I understand I would be worth about twenty or twenty-five dollars. But the average American is valued by his or her employer at a much higher level than that, something like $50,000 dollars a year. But suppose you were a great basketball player like Kobe Bryant. Suddenly your value jumps to tens of millions of dollars a year. And if you were the nerdy designer of the software the majority of the people the world use, you would be valued at tens of billions of dollars (Bill Gates)!
You see, we are valued in terms of what others see in us. But according to the Bible human value is infinitely higher than the value we assign to each other. According to the Bible, Jesus was worth the whole universe (He made it), yet He knows all about us and loves us as we are. When He died on the cross, He established the value of the human person. When the Creator of the universe and everyone in it (including all the great athletes and movie stars that people often worship) decides to die for you and me, it places an infinite value on our lives. And since the resurrected Jesus will never die again, my value is secure in him as long as I live .
So the cross provides a true and stable sense of value. This is what makes the story of a particular Friday in Jerusalem so very special. The cross is not just an atrocity. It is about God’s willingness to take on human flesh and reveal Himself where we are. It is about the value that the human race has in the eyes of God. It provides hope for a better world. How?
The best hope for a troubled world is an authentic walk with God that not only takes the evil within ourselves seriously but also sees in others the value that God sees in them. If every one of us is flawed yet valuable, all other seekers after God become potential allies in the battle to create a kinder and gentler world. Armed with a clear picture of reality and a sense of our value, we can become change agents in the world. Once we know the right question, it is obvious that “Jesus is the answer.”

The Implications of the Cross

This blog stands by itself, but can also be read as the conclusion of the previous blogs in this series on the problem of evil in the world. What was the cross all about in God’s purpose? What difference did it make? I’d like to highlight two things. First, the cross changes the way we look at our personal lives, particularly our mistakes and failures. According to the Bible, human beings are not simply imperfect creatures that need improvement, we are rebels who must lay down our arms. Those who crucified Jesus acted no differently than we would have, given the same circumstances. In other words, the struggle to overcome evil is not, first of all, a social or political task, it is a struggle against the evil within.
This “repentance” is not fun. Acknowledging failure is humiliating and repugnant. But it is the necessary path toward redeeming our lives from the downward spiral of the evil that besets us all. It is the only way to bring our lives into the sunshine of reality. This “repentance” is simply recognizing the truth about ourselves. We will never change until we are willing to be changed, until we recognize that change is needed.
The neat thing about God’s plan is that He understands what this struggle for authenticity is all about. In submitting Himself to the humiliation of the cross, Jesus experienced the kind of surrender we need. In the Garden of Gethsemane He struggled to give Himself up to God’s plan. And the Bible teaches that if we follow Him in His surrender and humiliation, we will also share in His conquest of death and find new life in our present experience (Rom 6:3-6).
Tragedies like September 11 and the Holocaust are more than just the work of a few kooks and fanatics, they are symptoms of deeper issues that plague us all. The struggle to recognize the evil within us all is fundamental to the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin V

The climax of the story of Jesus, and the whole reason for His coming to earth, took place one Friday in Jerusalem, a sequence of events dramatized in Mel Gibson’s recent movie, The Passion of Christ. As the “God-man” he was designated to experience all the consequences of human evil in His own person (1 Pet 2:21-24). His death on the cross would sum up all the pain, all the suffering, all the regret, and all the rejection that evil has caused the human race. He would suffer loss of meaning, loss of relationship and all the misery of human sickness and death (Isa 53:1-12). His anguish was much more mental and emotional than physical (in contrast to Gibson’s movie).
Arriving at Golgotha, the place of execution, Jesus was nailed to the cross through the wrists and ankles and put on display between two common thieves. Three hours later He was dead, more from emotional and spiritual anguish than from physical causes. Rich friends of Jesus then secured His body and placed it in a cave-tomb nearby, closed off behind a huge rolling-stone door.
The story reaches a climax about 36 hours later, early Sunday morning. Several women decide to visit the tomb and anoint Jesus’ body with spices, to preserve it and show Him honor, even in death. But when they arrive at the tomb the stone has been moved away and the tomb is empty. One or two men are standing nearby in dazzling apparel (one witness calls them angels). The women are told not to seek the living among the dead. Jesus has risen from the dead and will appear to His disciples again.
God’s answer to the problem of evil, therefore, is the answer of love in the most self-sacrificing form of that word. He does not seek to change the world by force, but by the power of a loving character, exhibited in the self-sacrificing actions of Jesus in our behalf. He wants to be acknowledged as God, not for what He has or the power He can wield, but on account of His character, which is evident at the cross. Why is this event so important? Stay tuned.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin IV

As powerful as God was and is, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom in the universe were not many. What was God to do? God decided to neither rule the universe by force nor to sanction the evil that infected it (see previous blog). Instead, according to C. S. Lewis, the great British scholar and novelist, He did a number of things to gradually turn the tide away from evil and in favor of love and justice. These are outlined in the Bible. 1) He has provided the conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong that few humans are without. 2) He has provided some, from Abraham to Moses to Paul, with visions and dreams that helped clarify the central issues of good and evil. 3) And He provided the story of a people (Israel, the Jewish nation) and the struggles through which He sought to teach them more clearly about Himself.
Then God did the most amazing thing of all. 4) In Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem in the Middle East, a baby appeared, whose birth we celebrate every year at Christmas time. As the story goes, he was born in a manger, and visited by both shepherds and wise men. He was then forced to flee with his parents to Egypt because he was a threat to the reigning king (Matt 2:1-25; Luke 2:1-20). The reason the Christmas holiday is the high point of the year in Western countries is the conviction that this man, this single, solitary man, was the most important person who ever lived. His name was Jesus.
When Jesus reached adulthood, he went about doing good (Acts 10:38). He had an amazing ability to heal the sick (Matt 8:1-17; John 4:46-54) and, on occasion, even raise the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 11:1-44). He brought delight to a wedding couple by turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). He fed thousands with a handful of bread and a few fish (Mark 6:30-44; John 6:1-15).
He also taught some memorable things. There were great one-liners like “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other” (Matt 5:39), and “Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:35).” He told unforgettable stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), and the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:18-23). He had memorable encounters with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) and a dead man named Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
But none of that is the reason Jesus’ life was the most important in the history of the world. It was the strange habit Jesus had of going around talking as if He were God. Others have healed people, some have even claimed to raise the dead. But Jesus went beyond that, claiming an eternal relationship with God and doing things that only God can do.
Jesus is often referred to as a good man, or even the best man who ever walked the face of the earth. But neither description is accurate. Jesus could not be simply a good man. If a mere man claimed to be God he could not be a good man. To quote Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
If Jesus were merely another prophet, a man among many, he would be a fraud for claiming to be God. But if He is what He claimed to be, God Himself taking on human flesh, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the greatest events that ever happened in the course of human history. And they are the key to explaining how a loving God, who is powerful enough to stop it, could allow so much pain and suffering in this world.

The Infinite Value of Christmas

I interrupt the series on The Problem of Evil to post some thoughts on the meaning of Christmas.

Many people in today’s world are concerned about self-esteem or self-worth. We all have a certain sense of personal value or lack of it, often grounded in childhood experiences. People can spend a lifetime searching for value and few seem to find it in ways that are both satisfying and lasting.

What does this have to do with Christmas? Christmas is not about what we think we are worth, it is about what God thought we were worth when He sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. In the words of Matthew 1:23: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” In sending Jesus to be born of a woman, God placed a high value on human existence. It was something like the architect of a church becoming a cricket or a beetle to explain to the insects in the church the meaning of their existence and environment.

There are three basic ways that people attempt to find value for themselves. First, they seek value in the things that they possess. This is expressed by the bumper sticker on the Mercedes: “He who dies with the most toys wins!” This is the bottom line approach: the more you have the more you are worth. But it doesn’t really work. The things we buy rot, rust, scratch and crash. The more you have the less value you find in things. And in any case, you can’t take it all with you when you die (although the Pharaohs really tried!). It may feel good to buy stuff, but the feeling doesn’t last. Ask any rich person.

The second way people seek value is in performance, to be the best at something, whether it is sports, business, politics, fashion or even church. “If I can be the best, then I’ll be somebody.” “If I become president, then I’ll be somebody.” And achievement really does mean something. But again, as the basis for self-esteem, it does not last. Athletes get old and decrepit, teachers get old and senile, beauty queens wrinkle and fade, and even if you are at the top of your game, you can still have a bad day, and then what?

The third way people seek value is in other people, what others think of them. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan in the eyes of a young Prince Charming. People drop names of the celebrities they have met. Parents find pride and meaning in their children. But even this method doesn’t last. The people you love may move somewhere else, change their minds, betray you or even die. And nothing is more damaging to self-esteem than divorce. Relationships are meaningful parts of the value we sense in ourselves, but they are rarely permanent enough to based one’s self worth upon.

The bottom line is this. If possessions, performance and people solved all of life’s problems, Tiger Woods would be the happiest man on earth. He is worth a billion dollars, has achieved the top all-time rank in a high-profile sport, and obviously has the attention of more beautiful women than he knows what to do with. But would any reader really want to trade places with him right now? The rich know that things don’t truly satisfy. The high-achievers know the limits of satisfaction that performance provides. The well-connected know how fragile relationships really are. The rest of us are dreaming about things that will not get us where we need to go.

It seems to me that there is only one path to genuine and lasting self-worth. And that is to find our value in relation to a unique kind of friend, someone with the following four characteristics: He or she is genuinely valuable, knows all about us, loves us just the way we are and lives forever. The love of such a friend would provide a sense of worth that would even out the emotional ups and downs of life, it would provide inner peace and stability. To be loved by such a person means it would no longer matter what other people think of us.

Such a friend lives! His name is Jesus. Is He genuinely valuable? He made the whole universe. He knows all there is to know about us, yet loves us just the way we are. Having died on the cross, He will never die again. No one can separate us from His love. To know the love of Christ is have a sense of infinite value, He would have died just for you. And no one, not even death, can take that away from you. That’s the infinite value of God did on the original Christmas day.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin III

Imagine a couple of angels in heaven having a whispered conversation just outside the pearly gates. One angel whispers to the other, “You know, I’m not so sure anymore that God is as loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be. You know what I just heard. . . .?” As the other angel leans forward to hear the juicy tidbit a lightning bolt flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the complaining angel.
Stunned, the other angel seeks out an old friend. “You won’t believe what I just saw! Charleburt was just saying some negative stuff about God and got vaporized by lightning, just like that! You know, maybe he was right. Maybe God isn’t so loving and kind as He makes Himself out to be.” And at that instant another bolt of lightning flashes out of the sky and vaporizes the second angel.
If this kind of thing were to go on for long, what would all the angels be doing? Looking for lightning bolts, worried that they will be next! It would be the end of love and the beginning of fear in their relationship with God. From that time on they would do the right thing and say the right thing, not out of love for God, but out of fear. So eliminating evil the instant it occurs was not an option for a God of love.
A second option for dealing with rebellion would be to sanction it. God could change His law and character to reflect the new realities in the universe. Everybody would be allowed to do whatever they wanted. But this too would be the end of genuine love. It would result in anarchy, “every man for himself.” Evil would become the reigning doctrine in the universe and a destructive chaos would be the result. Injustice would reach even greater proportions than what we now experience, as everyone sought to take what they could from others. Sanctioning rebellion, therefore, was not an option for a God of justice.
As powerful as God was and is, therefore, the options for dealing with the consequences of freedom were not many. What was God to do? The Bible offers the answer, which we will cover in the next blog.

The Problem of Evil and Its Origin II

As outlined in the previous blog, God created the world and filled it with loving gifts for the human race. He gave the original humans the gift of His love, but He also gave them the gift of freedom (Gen 1:26-28; 2:9, 16-17). He placed His loving heart in their hands to cherish it or reject it. God opened Himself to pain and suffering in order to experience the genuine love of His creation.
And, according to the Bible, things went terribly wrong. First, in heaven there was a being called Lucifer who became enraptured with his God-given abilities and position and led an insurrection against the government of God (Isa 14:12-14; Ezek 28:13-15). Echoes of that insurrection can be found in Rev 12:7-9, NIV. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down– that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
Second, Lucifer/Satan did not give up the conflict when he was cast out of heaven, instead he transferred the insurrection to earth by enlisting the support of the first members of the human race, Adam and Eve. In the primeval garden he raised doubts about the character of God and turned Adam and Eve’s trust away from God to themselves (Gen 3:1-7). In the process, their loving relationship with God was broken, and pain and suffering were introduced into the world, resulting in decay and death (Gen 3:8-24). To make it even worse, Adam and Eve’s rejection of God left them subject to the domination of Satan, who had enticed them to no longer trust in God’s love for them.
From that point on in the Bible it could be said of every human being, “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5, NIV). The world became a place of greed, exploitation, murder and chaos. From that time on the earthly evidence regarding God’s nature was a mixed bag, tokens of love mixed with portents of suffering and death. And worse yet, the Bible tells us that the world is the chief battleground of a universal civil war, and its citizens are held hostage by rebel forces. Evil does not exist in this world because God is evil, it exists here because the world is enemy-occupied territory.
The question arises at this point. Why didn’t God simply put a stop to evil when it occurred? Why didn’t He stop it in heaven before it ever got to earth? Why not just eliminate evil-doers on the spot and give their squandered freedom to others more worthy?