Over the coming year, our presbytery is going to be looking at six basic questions from Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. In the introduction, Nixon makes the case for apostolic leadership in the church. By that he means that leaders know themselves to be sent into the world with good news, based on a real and personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Nixon suggests that even social-justice liberals have had such experiences, but usually frame them differently. His example is of the pastor who, upon reflection, remembered a seminal encounter with a homeless person in which she saw Jesus’ face.
It is really crucial that we realize the living of Presence of Jesus Christ with, within, and among us. He is, of course. But often we are not in the habit of specifically identifying him. When we prayerfully consider our story, it occurs to us that there are many ways in which we experience the powerful Presence of the Lord, that he was and is with us all along.
I hope we pay close attention to this point as we discuss Nixon’s book. Everything else he goes on to say is built on his idea of apostolicity rooted in a direct encounter with the living Lord.
For instance, the first of the six choices before the church may be the post important: Life or death? In many ways churches today are choosing to die. Usually this is done unconsciously. When we dissolve into nostalgia about the way things used to be, and fervently wish for nothing else than that those days return, we are effectively choosing to die. When we treat the church like a social club, or an institution that must be maintained at all costs, we are choosing to die. When we pick the wrong side of any of Nixon’s choices – isolation, drudgery, mildness, being a fortress, and procrastination – we are actually expressing our first choice, which is death instead of life.
And life, from an apostolic mindset, is identified as the life we receive in Jesus Christ. I distinguish this kind of life from the counterfeit excuse for life that is imposed upon us by the Empire. That would be “life” as measured by secular, quantitative categories. In informal parlance, these categories are summed up as the 3-B’s: butts, bucks, and bricks, that is, membership, money, and buildings. A church that is evaluating its ministry in terms of these things is not following Jesus. For nowhere does Jesus give any positive attention at all to the 3-B’s. A church that follows them is living according to the Empire’s model for “success.” Nowhere does Jesus ever even ask the question, “What can we afford?” in these terms, let alone use such a question as a basis for action.
In his chapter on this choice, Nixon basically says that a pastor should locate and cultivate in the congregation those who have vision, energy, and passion for ministry. On the other hand, those who make themselves drags and roadblocks, should be tended to pastorally, but not permitted to set the church’s agenda. While Nixon seems to allow that this will be difficult, he does not really go into the possible, if not likely, consequences of this strategy. The people who effectively choose death, who are not the “vision shareholders,” who are often the majority, may withhold their support from the church. If we are talking about a small church with little or no endowment, this may mean the church will have trouble paying its bills. And if those people are so angry as to leave, we are left with a severe deficit in at least 2 of the 3-B’s, with the third in jeopardy.
Nixon does not talk about how to handle this. He seems to assume these dead-weight-members can be charmed into participation. He does not address what happens when a church that has taken his advice goes to a judicatory for assistance, and all the judicatory sees is membership and income dropping off a cliff. I know for a fact that many judicatories will write off such a church as a “failure,” and refuse to “throw more money at” it. What normally ensues is part-time ministry, which is often the death-knell for a congregation that has not yet been equipped with strong leadership.
Churches know all this, at least intuitively. Which is why so few are willing to take Nixon’s advice. Even with a visionary, apostolic pastor, everyone knows that losing a large percentage of a church’s members, or their support, even if it is necessary to set free a newly arising missional leadership group, will attract, well, vultures. (This is especially the case in polities where the assets of a closed church go to the judicatory. I know of judicatories that use assets so acquired to keep the assessments on churches low, thus further incentivizing the closing of churches!)
Clearly, the regional denominational bodies must catch the vision and support risky, innovative, out-of-the box ministries in churches. They have to be willing to accept sometimes massive membership losses in churches, before and as a condition of those churches turning around. (See my blog-post, “Small Enough to Grow, at www.raxweblog.blogspot.com/2013/08/small-enough-to-grow.html.)
I hope and pray that our presbytery, in grappling with the principles in this book will lead us to new ways of thinking and acting that reflect and express the apostolicity of leadership in the church. I hope we can encourage and empower local churches to take Nixon’s advice without fear of abandonment.