If you ever want to feel lost, try church-planting in an ethnic context different from your own while living in the United States. Believe me, you've never felt so stupid, no matter what your favorite professor said about you in seminary.
Secondly, if you ever want to make others feel lost, try asking this question at a small-group Bible study or Sunday School: "If the Holy Spirit was wrapped up in a box under your chair, and you brought it up to your lap and took off the lid, what would he say to you, and then what might he start doing with you and others in this room?" Deer in headlights have had longer answers I can assure you.
Missiology professor Craig Van Gelder, formerly at Calvin Seminary and now at Luther Seminary, seems to know that the church is facing a lot of lost folks, and by that I do not mean the unsaved. I am referring to ministry leaders and participants, including myself, who are church-planting or guiding established churches in vision, conflict, or transitions. Van Gelder's latest book offers two tools. One is a definition of what it means for the church to be Spirit-led and missional. The second is both a definition and a demonstration of what it looks like for a church to apply open-systems theory to its organizational flow and leadership development.
In the first half of the book, Van Gelder briefly covers the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, and argues that one must understand the Spirit's role in creating the church in order to understand the church's missionary nature. A church cannot discern its purpose without understanding how the Spirit forms, leads, and shapes it.
When discussing the Gospels, Van Gelder points out that Christ performed everything in the power of the Spirit as the fulfillment of the Old Testament's expectation of the Messiah and the manifestation of the kingdom of God. "This reign of God in Christ represented a force field of the power and presence of God's redemptive work in the world….[T]he clear manifestation that the Spirit of God was present, (Matt. 12:22-30; Luke 11:14-23)" (38).
When the Spirit is given at Pentecost, Jesus had anticipated a community of believers to be built up around the evangelistic work of the apostles and future disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), but he did not provide a lot of detail about how this community of believers would be organized and relate to the challenges and needs of its local context. Certainly, we are given examples of leadership and organization both in Acts and the Epistles as well as early church writings, but nothing is declared to be universally normative, and that's where Van Gelder's thoughts on organizational theory and open-systems theory in particular come into play.
These are the fruit of the social sciences' labors, providing tools and paradigms for leadership in the twenty-first century. They do not trump biblical theology or church polity necessarily, and never are they to usurp the leading of the Holy Spirit. An open-systems model allows for an organization (e.g., the church) to have a dynamic, interdependent relationship with its context and community. The organization pulls in scarce and valuable resources from their environment (people, money, land, etc.), which are then processed and transformed by the organization and ushered back into the environment. At both points-the point where people and resources flow in and the point where ministry flows out-feedback is necessary to assess the church's effectiveness. This feedback mechanism creates a learning loop for all in the church and some in the community.
A closed system, on the other hand, does not take its context into account when forming theories and philosophies of practice. While the military is one example of a closed system, churches can fall into this as well; Van Gelder cites the negative example of shrinking churches that face rapid transition in their neighborhoods due to immigrant populations and attempt to solve their problems by: 1) searching for a pastor who can bring back the glory days; 2) implementing internal ministries to strengthen member commitment such as small groups or prayer strategies; 3) developing mercy ministries, but with no intent of enfolding participants in the life and membership of the congregation; or 4) developing a ministry to attract people from far away to drive to their location. "Such efforts may have some impact on strengthening member commitment along with attendance and participation for a time. But none of them, individually or collectively, are sufficient to address the more systemic issues facing the congregation…. Such a congregation must recognize that it cannot close itself off from its context and changing community if it hopes not only to survive but to also develop meaningful ministry" (126-127).
Another important point made is that a church with an open-systems approach has boundaries it needs to continuously examine: the geographic locale; buildings utilized; biblical and confessional values that shape the religious heritage; and the organizational history and core ministry values. Even though the church's primary identity is as the body of Christ, united to him by the Spirit, these four boundaries contribute to a congregation's culture or ethos, and congregants as well as formal leaders contribute to and impact all of these.
In working with a Hispanic church-plant in Dallas, I would add a fifth boundary that significantly contributes to the culture of the church, and that would be socioeconomic. Unfortunately, we worship homogenously when it comes to our dollars, schools, and clothes. Coming from a life of privilege, I am continuously introduced to a culture of poverty (an American version) that profoundly impacts church ethos and practice. I also work as a counselor in an affluent church downtown, and that too has a formidable culture that affects practice. It is also much easier to place formal feedback mechanisms among the church's wealthy. Don't we assume everybody wants our opinion anyway? It's not so easy to establish this among poor, immigrant populations who are often robbed of a voice; but we must seek their voice and believe that God intends for it to come forth.
Van Gelder offers much more in his short book, making it well worth the read. After studying the growth and development of the church in Acts, he notes that in five of his six examples the church experienced significant change that was neither planned nor anticipated. Welcome to church-planting and church life, ladies and gentlemen, where strategies are essential, but the Holy Spirit will disrupt, interrupt, and raise folks up, often in spite of us.
Near the end of the book, Van Gelder warns us to account for sin and brokenness, and then talks about guiding a congregation through significant and often painful change. I think it would have been helpful if he had also warned against failing to discern the Spirit's work from the spirit of the age. It would also be good to articulate that while we need a refresher course on what the Holy Spirit does to reconcile all of creation to God in the creation-fall-redemption schema, not all the Spirit's work is saving work. The Holy Spirit dwells only in believers; and while the Spirit provides gifts and mercy to all, the New Testament repeatedly shows us that there is an antithetical relationship between the world and the Spirit (John 14:17; 1 Cor. 2:14).
When it comes to initiating change of a church's vision and guiding a congregation through transition, Van Gelder offers helpful maps and also cites stages and cycles to anticipate. He has statistical backing for the types of responses people give, both for change and resisting it, and how to work well with each group.
As a Christian consultant friend of mine pointed out, working well and being led by the Spirit using open systems as a form of organizational management does not guarantee "success" by worldly standards. A church may just have to close up shop in the end, maybe due to persecution or imprisonment, and that will have nothing to do with failing to follow Christ's lead in the end. So who's ready to sign up for that?