Teachable, Changeable, Flexible

August 21, 2008

There was recently an article in Slate magazine about franchising churches. It’s caused a lot of controversy over the wisdom of having figurehead pastors and huge churches. I’ve been reading stuff from mega church pastors and attenders as well as some people who have problems with any sort of “formalized, in a building, with paid staff” kind of church. It really makes me think. And when I do comment I usually do some defending of formalized structure provided by denominations (like offering national connection, providing things like health insurance to pastors and legal counsel to congregations) and medium size congregations (offering diversity of relationships as well as opportunities for small groups with like interests.) Anybody want to take a guess about what type of church I attend?

But here’s what I think it comes down to… the how is not nearly as important as the what. I think there’s much more consensus on what a healthy church should be achieving (members who display the fruits of the spirit, sacrificial giving, authentic worship) than the specifics on how it gets there. Because frankly there are a million ways and you know if somebody had it down perfect, heck I’d be there, but imperfect people form imperfect churches. So what to do? How do we get better?

Do you know how they train dolphins to do all those cool flips and stuff? It’s a conditioning technique called “shaping” or “reward for successive approximation.” The dolphin would not just do a flip all on it’s own one day you have to teach it how. So the first day the goal is to get the dolphin to touch its nose to the end of a stick. The trainer has a ton of treats and whenever the dolphin comes over the trainer puts out the stick and gives the dolphin a treat (probably some slimy fish eww.) Dolphin now thinks stick=treat… we are on the right track here. So now the dolphin swims over and the trainer touches the stick to the dolphin’s nose, he get a treat… great pretty soon he’ll be touching stick on his own (got to have that slimy fish.) Goal one down. But the next day the trainer mixes it up a bit and has the stick out of the water so the dolphin has to raise up a little to get the treat. And no more rewarding for touches in the water. Slowly the trainer will add harder elements of the behavior (like actually flipping) and remove excess things (like the stick) until they have the desired result. Now different trainers might have different techniques, some use a red stick some use blue, some use sardines, others use guppies. But what do they have in common? Patience and evaluation.

It takes a long time and many tries to get what you really want, sometimes you fall short. And evaluation, the trainer has to look at what the dolphin did and say treat or no treat, close enough or way off. Are we moving toward our goal (the “what”) or not? I think we miss that piece in churches too often. We look and look for the perfect “how” and neglect the “what.”

I was recently on a young adult retreat and the leader wanted us to discuss while we were all there and captive, whether we wanted to start meeting in our small group every week instead of just every other week. We had opinions on both sides and kept going back and forth each making valid points. Until someone said “why don’t we just try it for a few months, and if it doesn’t work we can always go back.” Eureka. Try something new and make an evaluation. Are we moving toward our goal or not?

One big but… for this to work you have to be willing to change, to go back and to move forward. There’s no way around that fact. No matter who fights you on it. Bold chances and honest evaluation have to become part of the ethos of all ministry. We have to be willing to be shaped.

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