This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Talk Is Cheap.


In Woody Allen’s classic movie, Sleeper, Allen wakes up several centuries in the future, meets Diane Keaton, and the two of them are called upon to save the world.  In the course of this situation the two of them are mistaken for surgeons and given the job of cloning the recently deceased evil dictator back to life.  As they are in the OR, observed by many real physicians, they have no idea what to do.  Someone suggests that they “check the cell structure” of the tissue to be used for the cloning (the dictator’s nose).  Allen and Keaton proceed to do a dance while repeatedly chanting “check the cell structure!” as the end of which Allen snaps his fingers and declares, “The cell structure is checked!”  Of course, they didn’t really check anything, they simply did a dance about it and enthusiastically affirmed that it was done.
I remember this scene often these days in the church.  Too many of our leaders are caught in a “deer-in-the-headlights” mode, as they try to interpret and implement many different strategies for reviving and transforming the institution. 
Too often they do a mindless tap-dance while chanting the words, even getting the rest of the presbytery to sing and dance along, and at the end of it pronouncing that the presbytery is now officially “missional,” “adaptive,” “relational,” or whatever…  when actually nothing has changed.  In fact it may be worse.  That is, we are actually less missional, adaptive, or relational than we were before we started parading around, chanting the rhetoric, doing the exercises, playing with the rocks, ribbons, water, candles, pieces of cloth or paper, and watching the film clips.
“Checking the cell structure” is an actual thing that a medical professional is trained to do.  Terms like missional, adaptive, and relational appear more vague and subject to interpretation and negotiation.  Indeed, sometimes it seems that they are not really intended to be anything beyond merely rhetorical.  As if it is just about how we talk, but has no bearing on what we actually do or how we organize ourselves.  We change the label as if that by itself is enough and will eventually change the way we relate to each other.  
Maybe we get this understanding from decades of focusing on reforming our theological language, imagining that once we are talking with appropriate inclusivity we will automatically start acting more justly.  Maybe it goes back to that primal Protestant liability in which “believing” can be more important than, and have no bearing on, actually doing anything.  
But words have to be embodied.  I have zero patience with people who claim to follow Jesus, and yet also advocate guns, war, economic injustice, torture, racism, and a whole lot of other things that Jesus explicitly rejected.  To me, they reduce discipleship to a merely rhetorical category.  We give ourselves the label “Christian,” but it doesn’t occur to us that this has any behavioral content? 
I have a problem when we start loudly proclaiming how “missional!” we are now, while we continue to support the same corporate, bureaucratic, hierarchical institutional structures and procedures we have had for decades.  We say: “The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church” (F-1).  And yet we remain essentially the same institution we were before we made this claim.  Our actions reveal that what we really believe is that our “shape and substance” should continue to determine what we do.  Only now were calling it by the glitzy new term, “missional.”
I have a problem when we drag over from the business world a term like “adaptive change,” and then cynically use it to justify whatever changes the leadership wants, even if they have nothing to do with the way managerial guru, Ronald Heifetz, actually defines it.  So where Heifetz says it is adaptive to include people in a broader conversation about how to organize, a leader might impose a closed, secretive, and exclusive process to ram self-serving changes through, and then call it being “adaptive.” 
I have a problem when we rationalize changes by saying we’re becoming more “relational,” when actually we are acting in a way that is more directive, centralized, controlling, leader-driven, and even paranoid.         
If we’re going to use these words — missional, adaptive, relational — perhaps we might benefit from realizing that the words are supposed to describe actual ways of acting and functioning together.  Just changing the word is a cynical and desperate dance.  These are powerful terms that mean we have to relate to each other differently, act differently, and be organized differently.

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