So I’m finally back. Sorry for the long delay. I began writing this post on a long train ride between Edinburgh, Scotland to London–then I finished it on a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis. I’ve had this post ruminating in my head for a while, so I thought I’d finally take the time and put it down.

There’s something to be said for systematic thinking—that is, it’s just something we do. It’s one of the phenomena of being human, I think, to put our world together in some logical way that functions to help us get around, plan ahead, and have some semblance of what might be called “success” at living. But it is something altogether different  to live with the presupposition that all things must be well planned, strategically thought through, and based on past successful endeavors used as models (that is, tried and true) in order to be regarded as worth following, doing, or even considering. This, in my personal experience, tends to be the manner in which most church leadership/administration operates. Strategies, models, and the “tried and true” have become the main legitimating factors in whether or not we ought to move forward on any given proposal.

For example, in a recent planning meeting, one of my close friends offered up a creative (and different) idea for ministry in our particular context. At this meeting was another leader from a different local church with whom we’re discussing a partnership. His first question after hearing our idea was whether or not we had a model for our new plan. In other words, where did we come up with our idea and who do we already know who is successfully doing it? Our answer was, there is no model, and thus, we don’t know someone who is already successfully enacting our idea. It seemed that this fact was somewhat surprising, disturbing, and disappointing to our friend. I believe his willingness to work with us hinged on the (his) necessity for a tried and true model, a known strategy that could be copy-catted in our context. In what seems to me to be contemporary church culture, we shouldn’t try anything unless it’s already been done by Willow Creek, Saddleback, Mosaic, Northpoint, or some Emergent leader and their community; unless it’s supported by some “solid/accurate” Barna research or Pew study; unless there is a book that’s been written on/about it (which has sold well, of course—and additionally, if that writer is now in demand as a conference speaker); and (I think this attitude is most unfortunate of all) unless there is serious financial backing to weather what might be called “unsuccess.”

I put some of these ideas in quotes (“success,” “unsuccess”) because there’s always that reader who will pithily respond about what counts as success or failure. (Don’t worry, often times that person is me) But I think in the long run, we all have an idea of what kind of success we’d like to see for all of our plans. Usually it has to do with something big, comparable in our context to what is happening in megachurches, and of course, gains for us as the leader, that elusive, I-don’t-want-you-to-know-that-I-want-it-but-I-really-secretly-do thing called notoriety (hopefully the kind that allows for us to write a book about our success and which eventually results in our being invited onto the conference circuit—the true mark that we’ve “made it”).

I think this whole business of church leaders requiring successful models and strategies to uphold and legitimate their plans is a mockery of the Holy Spirit. To make the point, ask yourself how often you’ve heard sermons or read a Bible study or Christian books that references the fact that Jesus entrusted the Kingdom of God into the hands of his 12 know-nothing disciples who followed around the King of the Universe for 3 years and were oblivious the whole time. How’s that for risk? And yet the modern church has adopted what it believes to be the practice of “successful” businesses, requiring well thought out plans based on successful models and sound research for all new ventures (because this is clearly the way the Kingdom of God operates). In fact, this isn’t the case for the most successful businesses—they’re flexible enough to change without necessarily knowing what the future holds or how their plans will play out. And they often can’t pinpoint exactly why they’re successful.

And so you might ask, do I think we should just follow our whims, if only to allow the Holy Spirit to work instead of being trapped in the idolatry, safety and comfort of our well-laid plans? You might ask, didn’t God give us brains and expect us to use them instead of ignorantly plunging into things? Yes, God gave us brains—no, I don’t think we should just follow our whims.

So we should find balance then between planning and (prayer and) faith in the Holy Spirit?

Well, sure. But I don’t like word balance…it’s just another pithy Christianism that I’ve heard too many times from people who’d rather avoid the struggle of working through these kinds of challenging issues. It seems as if balance simply becomes that excuse that is supposed to get people like me “off your back”…because you’re perpetually trying to “find the balance” and it’s hard so I should leave you alone. But I don’t think this is about balance in the first place.

So what do you think?

Well, I think like most of our lives in the Kingdom of God, what we’re really actually dealing with is a paradox. Paradoxes cannot be balanced. They are tensions which must be maintained. Two “truths” (if you will) that both apply while at the same time seemingly contradicting one another. What do I mean? Well, I think it’s easy to understand that only by faith in the power of God can we move forward with anything in the Kingdom of God, including for us as church leaders, our plans for ministry. The second part is more complicated. I think we are wrongly convinced (and therefore, just plain naïve) that models, strategies, and systems can really accurately tell us much of anything at all about life. Life is just far too complicated for any model, any strategy, or any system to be able to account for everything accurately enough to offer any semblance of a guarantee (or even raise the chances of) success. There are always already too many unknowns. We continue to learn this from cultural anthropology, economics, the philosophy of science, and sociology.

Ah, I see. So what you’re saying is, since in every plan/strategy/model there are areas of unknown information–there’s the room for our faith in the Holy Spirit? Wait a minute, that’s what I’ve been doing all along anyway—I expect the Holy Spirit will take care of those things I can’t think of. Thanks for the encouragement.

Hold on. Not so fast. Don’t just take what I’ve been saying to reaffirm yourself.

There is more to say. Models, strategies, planning and the whole mindset that believes these things are good and even necessary, it should be pointed out, are all “articles” of faith. There is a certain element of belief that comes into play with all of these things—to the extent that what is really going on in the back of our minds is this: “I believe these things are necessary in order for success, legitimacy, etc.” Here is the thought I’m trying to challenge—we take for granted the necessity of such corporate strategic thinking, to the extent that challenging it or perhaps leaving it behind for the sake of risk feels terribly uncomfortable. Such discomfort is no surprise—this this ‘comes with the territory’ in challenging our base assumptions. The problem really comes when the discomfort is so scary that we become unwilling to have our thinking/presuppositions challenged, or what is more, to change our minds if that’s what we really ought to do.

In part, I am arguing that we ought to change our minds.

Beyond saying that we have faith in the idea that models, plans, and/or strategies are necessary for success or legitimating ideas for ministry (and this kind of faith is opposed to real faith in the Holy Spirit, hardly supplemental to it, and thus can be considered idolatry), we must also think more about why models and strategies just don’t give us the chances for success or legitimate our ideas as much as we tend to assume they do. The reasoning here has to do with the nature of human groups and unpredictability. For all the stock faith (the assumptions and things taken-for-granted that we haven’t intentionally reflected upon) that is put into sociological research these days, sociology is one of the most inaccurate fields of research that exists. The problem is that human beings and groups of human beings are treated like predictable objects that can be scientifically (that is, objectively)  studied, when in fact, the very object of study is also a subject of the study—in other words, humans are studying humans. Why is this a problem? Because on the one hand, there is no generally accepted concept of human nature, which is a crucial part of understanding why individual humans do what they do, much less attempting to study whole groups. On the other hand, even if there were a generally accepted understanding of human nature, it would most likely resemble the kind of unpredictability that is recognized in human nature within such fields as phenomenology and cultural anthropology, as well as the kind of provisionality and potential for revolutionary moments to occur in scientific theory as in the philosophy of science. To say it another way, social scientific research treats humans and groups of humans just like any other object of study in the world (all too ready to render verdicts and ascribe laws of behavior). This is the ultimate failure: the view of  human-as-object (or human group-as-object) is too narrow because it does not take into account the utterly complicated nature of human creatures. Thus, scientific revolutions (where whole paradigms of understanding in fields of study change), unpredictability, and provisionality should give us great pause in believing that strategies, plans, models, and “good leaders” have everything (or even a lot) to do with success in ministry (or anything else for that matter). For what I am saying about sociology applies to a great deal more of life than we tend to assume—unpredictability is everywhere. And when what might be called success does manifest itself, explaining WHY it happened, what led up to it, who is responsible for it, etc, is on the whole virtually impossible. At best, we’re only guessing. Knowing all the factors that may have contributed to “success” is only possible for God.

So what am I saying? Where does success come from and what good (if any) are models, strategies, planning, etc? I think success is mostly accidental. It’s a right place/right time sort of phenomenon. Like I said, explaining it much better than that becomes pretty much impossible. We’re only guessing—there are too many contingencies and unknowns that may have contributed. As for models/plans/strategies, I think at best, they’re only helpful—at worst, they’re meaningless and a waste of precious time. I’m sure some readers think that’s awfully harsh, and too hasty of a generalization. So be it—maybe I’ll change my mind, but I predict not. I think in the end, however much time we spend planning, basing our actions on models, strategizing, or implementing whatever plans/models/strategies we’ve adopted, we’re taking just as much as a risk or making a gamble as if we’d just followed our whims. Both boil down to matters of faith (do I do one or the other?) because our reasons for believing one is better than the other are arbitrary at the most fundamental level. It goes back to that tendency to think systematically I mentioned in the beginning. But, regardless of the tendency, the ideas of unpredicability, complicatedness, contingencies and unknowns should make us seriously doubt our ability to really systematize much of anything at all.

Wow. Another hasty/harsh conclusion. Again, maybe so. But I’m convinced that the world is too complicated for us to understand, as much as we’d love to take ultimate responsibility for things going “right” (that is, that our use of models, planning, strategies and our straight up “good leadership” made it all “come together” like a well orchestrated symphony and run like a well-oiled machine). And to take that one step further, let us again bring out the contrast of the world with the Kingdom of God because in the end, we’re trying to talk about models, planning, strategies and leadership in the specific place of the church. We can’t simply conclude that planning, models, strategies and leadership should be done “differently” in the Kingdom. For the Kingdom of God doesn’t even work “backwards” in comparison with the world (that is, it doesn’t just call for a reverse of the logic, like “the first shall be last”), but is a calling of the world to something else altogether different from what we know.

Nevertheless, since most ministry needs some sort of funding, I don’t predict that after saying all this, most readers will be able to take me up on the idea of just being risky and following our whims (who knows…our whims may very well be God-given, and if we’d just follow them, we might find ourselves working where He’s blessing…if so, that would definitely be the kind of success without explanation I’ve been talking about—that is, explanation outside of anything transcendent) because the context in which they work will not let them. Their context (meaning those with whom they work, especially those in charge, and especially those in charge of the money) still live by the comfortable paradigm that only good plans supported by successful models are legitimate and worth pursuing/funding. Too bad. I can’t be sure (because it can’t be tried), but maybe following our whims (or maybe a better term would be ‘intuitions’) would bring more kingdom growth than following our models. I don’t know, but somehow Christianity has been the most successful, fastest spreading, and tenacious idea in all of history–and it happened without the support of sociological knowledge. We haven’t had sociological research to support our endeavors but for about 100 or so yrs. It seems before then and even now, somehow the kingdom just happens, good intentions and best-laid-plans notwithstanding. It all began with a bunch of know-nothing disciples. To quote the title of a song from the Dave Matthews Band, “Funny the way it is.”