4 Lessons for Malaysian Churches

I couldn’t resist posting this up from my sage-friend from Grace@Work that came into my INBOX during Chinese New Year. Somehow I see myself somewhere in there 🙂 This ecommentary conveyed grace to me and spurred me to stay the course and grow in areas I’m weaker. This post is dedicated to anyone discouraged with the state of church in any given context (We “feel” because we care enough to even get frustrated).

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4 Lessons from W. L. Gore & Associates

Most of us have probably heard of Gore-Tex fabrics, fabrics
“which have a transparent plastic coating that makes them
waterproof and wind proof but keeps them breathable.”
What you may not know is that the company that produces
them, W. L. Gore & Associates, was deemed the most
innovative company in America by FAST COMPANY magazine
(December 2004 issue, 54 – 62).
(W. L. Gore and Associates have been in business since
1958.)

The article gave 6 reasons why the company is effectively
innovative. I found 4 of them particularly pertinent for
those of us thinking about better ways of “doing church” in
the 21st century.

1. “The Power of Small Teams: Gore tries to keep its teams
small (and caps even its manufacturing plants at 200
people). That way, everyone can get to know one another and
work together with minimal rules, as though they were a task
force tackling a crisis.”

For years church growth specialists have mooted 200 as the
church growth barrier that needed to be breached if a church
was serious about becoming really big. It was Robert Banks,
I think, who countered that 200 may actually be God’s
protective ceiling, that somehow, by growing beyond 200, a
church loses something fundamental in its character. Indeed
I have found that when churches grow beyond 200, there is a
subtle shift away from people, to procedures, buildings, and
techniques.

I have always being haunted by the fact that when the church
was penetrating the Roman empire, it’s primary manifestation
was house churches of about 40 people each. Yet the biblical
metaphors for the church, like “body” and “household” imply
close personal relationships between her members. Clearly,
community and mission are not mutually exclusive. And groups
like Gore confirm that intimate communities can also be very
effective in the pursuit of a mission.

There may be more to contemporary buzz words like “missional
communities” than we realize.

2. “No Ranks, No Titles, No Bosses: Employees, dubbed
‘associates’ have ‘sponsers’ who serve as mentors, not
bosses.”

As churches grow larger, leaders are seen more and more as
decision makers, speakers, and vision casters. Nothing wrong
here apart from the fact that such leaders end up having
little time to develop and nurture people. Soon, such
churches begin to actively promote people who are decision
makers and speakers, but no longer even ask if such people
are personally involved in developing others.

But the heart of the Christian faith is people
transformation. Leaders indeed may have many tasks, but
Christian leadership is finally about developing people.
Jesus invested a large part of His time developing His
disciples. Paul was always nurturing people in the context
of relationships. Indeed, one of the qualifications for
leaders in the New Testament is a track record of having
being able to nurture one’s children well ( 1Timothy 3:4-5).

Should we be surprised that the primary task of leaders in
Gore is to develop people? How many of our churches are full
of people whose potentials are untapped because they are
seen as merely cogs in the church machinery?

We have so many church leaders who are treasurers, speakers,
strategic thinkers, committee members etc., so few who are
disciplers and mentors, people who invest quality time in
developmental relationships. There are many tasks that need
to be done but what is the core of Christian leadership?
Indeed what is the core of the Christian faith?

3. “Make Time for Face Time: …anyone in the company can
talk to anyone else. Gore discourages memos and prefers
in-person communication to email.”

The fact that God came to us as Jesus Christ tells me
straight up that God puts a high premium on personal
communication. God is spirit and invisible. But Jesus, truly
man and truly God, gives God a face (John 14:9).

Indeed even the apostles understood the power and necessity
of face to face relationships (3 John 13-14), and that there
are some blessings that can only be given and received, face
to face (Romans 1:9-12).

Today, I find that churches can be some of the most
impersonal places around. A few things lend to this. One, is
the increasing shift of many churches away from a community
mind set to a task mind set. Listen to the language from the
pulpit. Often, the focus is on things that need to get done,
for the Lord of course. Relationships are expected to happen
by auto pilot.

Another trend that works against the building and nurturing
of face to face relationships is the rise of technologies
that are meant to enhance communication. I really appreciate
instant messaging, hand phones, emails, and sms messaging. I
can’t see how I can function without these technologies in
my life and my work.

But human beings are complex beings. We are embodied beings.
We were given five senses by God and none of them are
superfluous in human relating. Face to face and eyeball to
eyeball relationships are critical to the health of any
human community. if this is true for a bottom line entity
like Gore, how much more true it must be for the church of
Jesus Christ.

On this score many of our churches are in deep relational
doo doo.

4. “Tale the Long View: Gore is shockingly impatient with
the status quo but patient about the time — often years,
sometime decades — it takes to develop revolutionary
products and bring them to market.”

There is a gross misunderstanding in the church. Because we
serve an almighty God we assume that things should happen
quickly. Therefore most of us in the church are very
impatient about the purposes of God. I know I am.

God is indeed all powerful but He works “in the fullness of
time (Galatians 4:4)”. His plans are for the ages. Instead I
have found groups as disparate as Communists and radical
Islamic extremists who are much more patient about the
pursuit of their goals.

Communists believe that even if they do not see victory in
their life time, their battle is still valid because their
children will taste the fruits of victory. If not their
children, then their children’s children. Some Muslim groups
are committed to their cause even after they face setbacks
because they believe that in Allah’s timing victory is
assured.

In contrast your typical church long term planing exercise
is for the next 3 – 5 years. Not 3 – 5 generations. I wonder
what the impact will be if our churches, seminaries,
parachurch groups etc., and even our families, start to plan
for 3 – 5 generations. What will our plans look like then?
What sort of structures and programmes will we need to
ensure that the values and purposes of God are passed down
from generation to generation?

I suspect that automatically, we will have to shift our
emphasis from buildings and procedures, to discipling and
mentoring. Surprised?

Many of us are discouraged when we look at the church today.
But I am beginning to be more hopeful. There is a quiet
revolution that is taking place. More and more I am
encountering Christians, some of our best and brightest, who
are growing very sceptical of how church is usually done.

Some of them have been badly burnt by the systems in place.
Some just intuitively feel that they have been sold a bill
of goods and they are not buying it anymore.

Some are quietly working for renewal within their churches.
Some still attend their church services but are seeking more
authentic experiences of Christian community elsewhere.

I also know leaders in denominations ranging from the
Brethren to the Lutheran, who are attempting to build
churches that are closer to what they see in Scripture.
Often such leaders are lonely because they are perceived to
be weirdos on the fringe, by the mainstream.

I guess that is the price to be paid for any sort of
prophetic ministry. But I hope these leaders take courage
from a growing body of literature that is calling the
church back to fundamentals, and from sources as unexpected
as FAST COMPANY, and realize that they are on the right
track.

I hope that they will take the long term view and press on.
I am proud to stand with them.

Your brother,
Soo-Inn Tan
February 11th 2005
Write me! At: sooinn@graceatwork.org

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