A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: Leadership for What?
The July 2015 Convocation sponsored by the Center for Parish Development explored leadership practices that cultivate Christian communities as a foretaste of the reign of God. As presenter, The Rev. Dr. Paul M. Dietterich, Executive Director Emeritus of the Center, shared results of extensive research over a 34 year period that demonstrate how the climate of a church shapes the life and ministry of that church.
“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). This short verse offers a summary of the nature and purpose of Jesus’ ministry. A new day has dawned, the time of salvation is now here. No longer a distant hope, God’s gracious reign has a name and a face, the name and face of Jesus of Nazareth. In him is embodied God’s saving and transforming presence. And the only criteria for participation in the new life offered by Jesus is repentance of sins and acceptance of God’s forgiveness as a gracious gift. In Jesus’ words and deeds God is present and God’s kingdom is unfolding in the world: “For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk. 17:21).
The primary responsibility of missional church leaders is to form communities that manifest a foretaste of the reign of God. “Foretaste” means to taste beforehand, a slight experience of life inside the kingdom of God which will be enjoyed and experienced more fully in the future.
Life Within the Reign of God.
The kingdom or reign of God was the central theme in Jesus’ message. It was the focus of all his preaching and teaching. His ministry provided a living example of what life is like inside the kingdom: he restored sight to the blind and thereby demonstrated that in the kingdom everyone can see. He restored hearing to the deaf and thereby demonstrated that in the kingdom everyone can hear. He healed the sick to demonstrate that in the kingdom no one will be ill. He fed the hungry and thereby demonstrated that in the kingdom everyone will have enough to eat. He welcomed children, women, and “the least of these” into his fellowship to demonstrate that in the kingdom everyone is welcomed, everyone participates, and everyone’s dignity is honored.
Interestingly, he did not instruct his followers to “build” the kingdom, or “extend” the kingdom. Instead, he invited people to “receive” the kingdom and “enter” the kingdom. The kingdom of God was, for Jesus, a present reality available to all who truly seek to live within it. Jesus called people into a new community of love and justice, peace and caring. His ministry provided people with a foretaste of life inside God’s kingdom.
The Mission of the Church.
Church leaders today have a similar mission: to help congregations today experience a foretaste of life inside God’s kingdom. This is done as congregations become credible signs of God’s reign in justice and mercy over the whole of life, become open fellowships whose concerns are as wide as the concerns of humanity, learn to care for their neighbors in ways which reflect and spring out of God’s care for them, and develop a common life that is recognizable as a foretaste of the blessing which God intends for the whole human family.
This is a tall order. It means that part of the role of church leaders is, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to enable people to experience a foretaste, a taste beforehand, of life inside the kingdom of God—which will be enjoyed and experienced more fully in the future.How are church leaders to do this?
One part of their work is theological. Leadership involves guiding congregations into missional ways of thinking about the church and its calling. Technically it means helping present-day congregations discern how their church, as a missional community called by God and gifted by the Holy Spirit, can faithfully participate in God’s mission, the missio Dei.
For the past 200 years North American churches have understood themselves as “agents of mission.” The church has a mission. In fact, congregations developed and carried out “mission programs.” Over the years “foreign mission” mission programs provided funds and persons to serve as missionaries to take the gospel to distant lands and cultures. “Home mission” programs provided funds and persons to minister to orphaned children, provide social services, establish hospitals and homes, and other services for people in need. Much good was done.
A Missional Ecclesiology.
The situation has now changed. A missional ecclesiology today requires re-thinking and re-conceiving what it means to engage in a cross-cultural situation made more complicated by the fact that the culture in view is our own. North American culture is described today as “post-Christian.” The church, once holding a privileged position and receiving preferential treatment, is now confronted by an increasingly secularized culture. North American churches today are in a minority status and face cultural indifference.
For several centuries the church taught and people believed that clergy were the ones called by God and set apart for ministry. Based on this understanding,clergy became dominant professional figures in the church with a special calling, authority, and spiritual knowledge. The laity, “amateur Christians,” were to follow what the clergy instructed them to do. A missional ecclesiology, based on scripture, challenges this way of thinking by asserting that God calls a people, not just individuals, into ministry. It is these people who are called and sent to participate in God’s mission. The role of the clergy and other church leaders is to cultivate Christian communities that celebrate, embody, and announce the advent of God’s new social order in a vibrant and open communal life of commitment, love, learning, purpose, meaning, and service. Church leaders are to create the climate and enlist others to identify, develop, and share their gifts in order to build up the church as a missional community that offers a foretaste of life inside the kingdom.
The church offers the world a new paradigm: a contrast society. Transformed by God’s love and forgiveness, the church actually manifests a different way of being a human society, a particular and peculiar people who learn and practice a unique and powerful “togetherness” as they seek to be faithful to their promises, to love their enemies, to tell the truth, to welcome the stranger, to honor the poor, to suffer for righteousness.
The church’s resources, practices, and services cultivate a new people, a people learning and practicing the virtues, habits, and behaviors of the reconciling way of life disclosed in the words and deeds, ministry and mission of Jesus Christ. As a public, visible, and social reality of transformed relationships, this people exhibits the relational fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Clergy and lay people together are called to be a community of disciples who, through faith in Jesus Christ, participate in the transformed life of the Holy Spirit. As “stewards of the mysteries of God,” together they discern, nurture, and manifest their diverse gifts in a common life and shared ministry of obedience and faithfulness to God’s creative and redemptive purposes for all humanity.
The locus of mission is the worshipping and witnessing congregation. It is the church, not just the pastor, that celebrates, embodies, and announces the advent of God’s new world—a new social order—in a vibrant and open communal life of commitment, love, learning, purpose, meaning, and service. The evangelical mission of the church is graciously and hospitably to invite the world to participate in the re-creation of humanity: to experience the freedom, joy, and wholeness of life in communion with God and with one another.
Congregations tend to be culture-bound.One of the reasons many congregations fail to provide a foretaste of life inside the kingdom is because they are shaped by life-blocking cultural narratives. These narratives are not found in scripture. They inhibit the fullness of life that God intends. Too often they shape the actions of congregations and lead them astray.
The nationalism narrative tells people that they are Americans as their primary identity. They are to love their country above all else. After all, according to this narrative, America is the best nation in the world. It deserves their ultimate loyalty. This narrative confuses people so that they are unable to say whether they are Christian Americans (primarily loyal to the nation-state) or American Christians (primarily loyal to the call of God as revealed by Jesus Christ).
The individualism narrative tells us that our individual goals, desires, and interests take precedence over all else. These goals, desires, and interests should not be challenged or interfered with.
The consumerism narrative tells us that we are needful beings and should consume an ever-expanding quantity of goods and services to fulfill our self-defined wants and needs.
The racism narrative tells us that all members of each race possess characteristics specific to that race and distinguish it as superior or inferior to others.
The sexism narrative tells us that one sex or gender is intrinsically superior or inferior and the inferior gender may be discriminated against, stereotyped, harassed.
The biblical narrative provides a different way of seeing and interpreting the world. When the church is domesticated by cultural narratives, the gospel is compromised and makes the Christian message indistinct. This is why a new ecclesiology and missiology are required to address the spiritual and theological issues facing our culture and facing the church. A different kind of church is required today: grounded in the biblical narrative, embodying a powerful version of a people shaped by the gospel, equipped to represent God in the engagement God intends with our culture.
This leads us to our focus on the quality of life inside the congregation.
The Quality of life inside Congregations.
Every church has an organizational climate. A church’s climate may be invisible but it is powerful. Climate shapes every aspect of a church’s life: it actions, its activities, relationships, participation, financial support, decisions. Climate is too important to be ignored.
Climate has to do with how the church’s internal environment influences its members. Some churches have a cold and forbidding climate. Others are warm and inviting. Others are cool and indifferent. In some churches members feel that they must wear protective armor to ward off the harsh judgments of others.Other churches are quite disarming. A church’s climate is surely felt by people in the church or visiting the church.
One of the problems with climate is that a church’s climate is invisible. Climate is felt rather than seen. If it is unseen, it is more difficult to address. Therefore one of the challenges of church leaders is to find ways to make the church’s climate, this powerful force that influences all that occurs in the church, visible. Only if it is made visible can a church’s climate be examined and changed to make it more expressive of the church’s mission.
Technically, climate is an organizational phenomenon. Organizational climate studies by social scientists and other scholars began in 1933 and continue today. These studies help make what is invisible visible. They reveal how patterns of leader behavior influence patterns of participation as well as how these patterns express or block the faithful and fruitful witness of a congregation.
The Center for Parish Development, beginning in 1973, entered into a relationship with Rensis and Jane Likert of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Some of the best work being done by social scientists in the field of organizational climate studies was being conducted under their leadership. The Center asked the Likerts to adapt their various measuring instruments and processes for use in churches. This was done. The Center has used these questionnaires and processes for more than thirty years to help congregations, conferences, dioceses, and other church bodies gather the kind of information that enables them to “see” their organizational climate in order to improve it. Churches have learned to make the invisible visible so that climate issues can be addressed.
We’ll come back to these studies and what the Center has been learning in subsequent posts.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “the kingdom of God”?
- Read Psalm 145 slowly, picturing the images. What do we learn about God’s reign from this psalm?
- Read Luke 4:14-21. How does Jesus embody the reign of God?
- What is the difference between the church having mission programs and the church living as a foretaste of the reign of God?
- In what ways do narratives shape identity? In what ways have cultural narratives shaped the church?
- What is meant by the “climate” of a church? What is the relationship between climate and mission?
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.