Like a mighty tortoise

galapagos-tortoise_532_600x450Many of us remember the parody of the famous hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight
Christ our rightful master, stands against the foe
Onward into battle, we seem afraid to go.

Like a mighty tortoise, moves the Church of God
Brothers, we’re treading, where we’ve often trod
We are much divided, many bodies we
Having different doctrines, but not much charity.

The “like a mighty tortoise” phrase came to mind recently as I listened to my friend, Brian Givans, describe the amazing and innovative work of Christians Against Poverty. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a national debt counselling charity with a network of 160 centres based in local churches. Brian heads up the ministry in my former congregation, Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, as it seeks to bring direct practical help to people who are struggling with debt. The testimonies of those who have benefitted from this ministry are inspiring.

But in describing the expansion of CAP’s ministry, Brian pointed out how that mainstream churches are slow in taking up the challenge, but that newer, emerging churches, are responding quickly and effectively to this pressing, and increasingly relevant, pastoral need. It seems that older, larger churches move at a much slower rate than the more recent arrivals on the ecclesiastical landscape.

seminary-book-194x3001This observation was confirmed by the author of  a recent publication. “What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary” is by an experienced pastor of large American church, James Emery White. It is an a-theological reflection on the challenges of pastoral ministry, which, in spite of its lack of theological reflection on the doctrine of the church, offers some useful and practical advice on coping with many of the issues that occur regularly in the rough and tumble of congregational life. White points out that many of the issues which preoccupy those involved in theological education are just not relevant when it comes to leadership in a local church.

Among those issues is the ability of the church to respond quickly to changing circumstances. When it comes to church government, how the church is led, the roles and responsibilities of its leaders, and general church polity, White says that it is important that we have a structure that allows gifted leaders the space and the opportunity to lead the church. The way churches are structured either releases the gift of leadership or stymies it. And churches rise or fall on leadership.

White points out how that people attending a conference or seminar on church life often identify an action that would radically improve their church’s health or effectiveness. But it is never implemented, not because their church doesn’t have the money or the volunteers or the facilities, but because they don’t have the freedom. If they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be blocked or hindered because that authority is not trained or inclined to make such decisions. In other words, decision-making is so radically democratised or shared that it can take so much time to act that you lose the window of opportunity. A more flexible and nimble-footed church or parachurch organisation can act more quickly and seize the initiative.

White says that most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure, any of which can kill good leadership: committees, policies, and majority rule. As someone committed to a presbyterian form of church government where committees, policies and majority rule are key components, White’s analysis, if correct, is depressing. The reality is that presbyterian structures can result in movement and change, but in many cases it only happens at a glacial pace. Without forfeiting the key features of a form of church government which “is founded on and agreeable to the Word of God”, is there any way that established churches can act more quickly and respond more effectively to their changing situations?

White describes how that his congregation were forced to leave the high school they were meeting in with just ninety days’ notice. White took a personal lead in a new building project and, amazingly, within ninety days a new building was built. There were no committees and no votes, he says, just truly gifted leaders leading as the Holy Spirit enabled their gift. And all because their church structure allowed it. It’s not a scenario that is likely to be repeated in any church in our denomination, and I imagine no one committed to a presbyterian form of church government would consider it desirable or wise to have to move at such a speedy pace. There are distinct advantages to a church structure that has an inclusive form of decision-making. But sometimes that degenerates into a desire for unanimity on every issue, which means that the decision-making body only moves at the pace of its slowest members.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is in decline, and in many places congregations are finding it hard to change. In some congregations there is an in-built conservatism which often reacts negatively to new initiatives, and the result is that in attempting to respond to the needs of their community they are out-paced and out-flanked by newer churches and fellowships. Clearly, it is important to have godly leaders who have a vision and a heart for the expansion of the kingdom of Christ. But it is also important that those leaders are not trapped in a church structure which stifles their gifts of leadership. That is why we must not only seek to develop the leadership gifts of people in our congregations, but we must organise our meetings and our decision-making processes in a way that allows opportunities for witness and service to be grasped.

My prayer is that the authentic words of the hymn may not simply be an aspiration but may become a reality in our churches: “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God….one in hope and calling, one in charity.”

11 Replies to “Like a mighty tortoise”

  1. Mmmm
    Seems like an accurate diagnosis of PCI but not much by way of how to treat the ailment. The truth is we are experiencing a period of rapid change but our leadership structures are weighted in favour of the more elderly, most conservative and least likely to embrace change. This is true at congregational, presbytery and General Assembly level. Additionally PCI is riven by institutional distrust, carelessness about inter-personal relationships and a lack of bottle among many younger leaders. For all that you can teach about leadership skills, you either have the courage to lead or you don’t. I’d propose the setting up of a future focus committee to meet for two years to really grapple with the issues as they are on the ground rather than continuing in denial. 90% of the committee should be under 45 years old. See what difference that would make!!!!

  2. What is the effect upon the PCI of the arrival of younger, more fleet-of-foot churches in our towns and cities? It is that they willingly receive our younger leaders, and potential leaders, giving them a space where they are heard and heeded. It is 20s mainly, who join the various Vineyards and the Collective, and often this is because they have lost patience with the leadership in their “home” congregations – not just PCI. I have personal anecdotal evidence of many 20-30s who have left PCI congregations for new churches, and the reason for their departure when asked is not “the music is better” or “the teaching is better” but “this church knows why it exists”. And this is about leadership. Leadership is the exercise of influence towards an agreed goal. One young person told me they felt the influence of their elders in their older congregation was obstructive and malign. They told me some stories to illustrate. I couldn’t help but agree with their analysis. They left the church, damaged and disillusioned, and now worship in one of the new churches. Some ministers I met recently commented ion this by saying, “Well, these new churches come and go.. when they get a bit older, these young people will come back.” Don’t count on it, and don’t hold your breath.

  3. David #2

    I wonder if I might pick up on some of your comments regarding new churches, reasons for leaving, and coming back.

    As someone who, in their early 20’s, left, became a member of a new church, experienced a significant period of not attending church at all, and more recently came back, I speak with first hand knowledge.

    Much of what you say has merit. I am certainly able to relate to the “this church knows why it exists” reason for leaving, but it was not the only one – new churches are also very good at providing friendship and a sense of belonging; they also have the added advantage of seeming ‘fresh’, ‘alive’, ‘zealous’; but things are rarely as straightforward as that.

    Like all churches (and it really is all churches), new churches have their problems too – I have personal experience of churches which have ‘come and gone’, (I can think of two specific examples of once strong churches which now no longer meet), and this coming and going is no different to what happens when more traditional churches speak of falling membership. In addition the ‘turnover’ in membership of many new churches is quite high, and, interestingly, and this was almost the case in my own life, sometimes the journey into a new church can be the beginning of a journey out of faith. I also know a significant number of people who have followed this route to a loss of faith (not that the new churches are to blame for this, they aren’t).

    The trouble with trying to find reasons to explain why people move churches, is that there are often as many reasons as individuals. And this has been the same throughout the history of the church, with the endless schisms and movements being one of the reasons some Protestants give for returning to Rome.

    What strikes me about the whole discussion about church life/growth/style is that it seems that every time the issue is raised there is an unspoken assumption that there is some kind of ‘magic bullet’ which will either explain or solve the perceived problem. Some assume it is a matter of music or style, some a matter of visionary leadership or planning, some that there needs to be a greater focus on youth, some highlight buildings and facilities and so on. There are a lot of assumptions and subsequent efforts to provide people with whatever it is the leadership thinks they want, but what rarely seems to happen is a process of listening: listening to the individuals, listening to the broader social change (and in a world where one can attend church on the internet, this is very influential too).

    I would say something else: you are quite correct to warn against the assumption that, “these young people will come back”; most certainly the church should listen to it’s young people (as long as it really listens), but, like all of us, the young will grow old (my kids are now closer to 25 than I am), and what they, like the rest of us, will one day learn is that life is a marathon, it isn’t a sprint. Zeal comes and goes, leadership comes and goes, faith too, can come and go, and we all need to be in this, together, for the long haul. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes, and sometimes we have to let our ‘young people’ go and come, and even if they don’t return to our particular denomination, we should pray that they learn to walk with God. As a Presbyterian who once stood in a new Charismatic church with my hands in the air, I have now found strength in the Book of Common Prayer – such is the Christian life.

    An interesting listening exercise, in the form of a recently published book I hope to buy is, “Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture” by Claire Mitchell and Gladys Ganiel.


    for a review and

    for the publisher’s site.

  4. Peter

    Great post. I guess I am still a Presbyterian for some of the reasons you have mentioned – and not just because I earn a crust by working for the denomination… honest.

    No, really, I mean it.

    I like the security of knowing that our best and worst ideas are open to scrutiny and challenge by one of the most public ecclesial fora of all; the General Assembly. I carry the bruises to prove that this kind of accountability can be painful, but I wouldn’t trade it. Thank God too, for the systems which appear to slow us down, but in reality protect us from our own egos and immaturity. I thank God that my wife and I are part of an all age, inter-generational fellowship. For years I felt like a young radical within the denomination, often discontent and bit angry at things… Now I’m much more comfortable being a member of the Body, and that journey has been personally therapeutic, because it has freed me to serve and nourish the church, rather than merely be her critic.

    All of that said, I still have concerns from within my genuinely happy love affair with the Body of Christ in her PCI expression.

    If we expect our ministers to be entrepreneurs rather than pastors, then we can hardly complain when they start behaving like Lord Sugar. However, we need to be ready to pick up the pieces when they try to fire the Choir. We surely need leadership that is pastoral in ethos and ambition, and as you very helpfully suggest is in this for the long haul. Christ-likeness among God’s people comes slow. It needs careful, wise guides to nurture it, just as occasionally it needs prophets to provoke it.

    I worry for the 20s who have left, not really because they mightn’t find their way back to PCI, but because the cause of Christ appears to be to be ill served by the formation of dozens of church-lets which simply reproduce, within a generation, the frustrating tendencies of the older churches which prefigured them. I am frustrated for the 20s who are doing this, because we have utterly failed to give them the space to actually lead anything.

    I honestly believe we in the historic denominations need to have the courage to articulate our purpose as the people of God in Ireland, and then to identify and equip leaders to serve this cause. The trouble is, those of us who might try to do this are in our 50s or older. It’s our children who oughtt to be driving this, but we haven’t let them.

    Thanks for the post, and the link.

  5. Refreshing to hear Peter correct what has become hysterical angst and envy of many in the historic denominations because the so called new churches are ‘stealing’ our young people. In actual fact they offer very little that is new and even less that is likely to serve the long term purpose of mission in Ireland. We in the historic denominations certainly need to ‘articulate our purpose as the people of God in Ireland’ as David says. This will not be possible without facing up to the fact that we are where we are – and that is not where we where! A lack of leadership at all levels is preventing us from doing so. Are members in congregations really being faced with the truth that ‘more of the same will only lead to less of the same’ in future? Are presbyteries really grappling with the challenge of creating sustainable bases from which congregational life and mission might flow, or are they just trying to ensure every church that falls vacant continues to get their own Minister so that they can carry on as before? Is the General Assembly through its Boards offering anything by way of new forms of church and mission and backing such initiatives with cash? At the minute the conversation,where it exists at all,amounts to no more than the bland leading the bland! There’s probably not even enough momentum for us to fall into the ditch!

  6. In the 1970’s the Swiss watch making industry was plunged into crisis because of their resistance to embrace the innovation of the quartz watch. Japanese and American manufacturers took the lead as the Swiss stuck to their tradition of mechanical watches (see for details). The Swiss had forgotten that the purpose of a watch is to tell the time accurately, not to be made in a certain traditional way. The crisis that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland faces with the rise of ‘new churches’ and the decline in its membership has strong parallels. The Swiss watch industry made a recovery and experienced revival through the now well known brand ‘Swatch’ which used the new quartz technology. It seems to me that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland needs to reinvent itself by learning lessons from the ‘new churches’ (and avoiding their mistakes). The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has a long and blessed history and I pray, depending on the timing of the return of Christ, will have a long and blessed future.

  7. one point everyone seems to have missed ,the church , regardless of denominational tag belongs to our soverign god who has promised that not even hell itself shall prevail against it people will come and go as far as the visible church is concerned but not one of those for whom christ died will be lost………. time to have some faith brothers Jesus is still upon the throne so don,t worry about the numbers falling rejoice for he knows everyone that is his. There is a lot of talk in the church today about what we should do in relation to reinventing the church so as to keep our young people that friends is the work of the holy spirit the same holy spirit who brought the church into being and who by his power leads and guides it . if you are worried about the young people leaving, them ground them in the truth while you have them prov. 22:6 “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” our plans and schemes to keep our children by giving them what they want so as not to loose them to other “churches” wont work we need to pray for our children, bring them before the throne and trust god for the results

  8. cmt

    Hello. May I ask a question?

    Why did you place the word, churches, in quotation marks, i.e. “churches”? Did you intend to indicate something?

    I think I’d also like to suggest that there is a difference between missing a point, and making a different one.

  9. I (and I am sure others who have contributed here) believe absolutely in the Sovereignty of God. I have witnessed vibrant, growing churches of all types around the world in South America, Africa as well as in South Korea where Presbyterian churches are overflowing.

    Therefore, the question is not whether Christ’s church will go under. The question is how those who are responsible (including myself) for leadership in this corner of the globe in the one of the main established churches, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, should exercise that leadership in a diligent, biblical way. We must remember the core purpose of the church (as per the Swiss watch example) rather than being tied to every pattern of the past.

    Grounding our young people in the truth is essential but one might be forgiven for thinking that some would suggest we also train them to appreciate organ music or in how to submit to a passive leadership that is focussed on maintenance and not on God’s mission. I am sure the Holy Spirit can act even if good leadership is absent but just read Acts and see how the Holy Spirit used church leaders to build the church.

    I said we can learn from the ‘new churches’. Why? Because they often have a biblical focus on discipleship, missional leadership and a worship style that allows people to worship God in their own language rather than the language of the past (I am indebted to Stafford for pointing out that music itself is a language).

    ‘New churches’ may sometimes have weaknesses in areas such as leadership succession and a lack of an accountable biblical leadership model based on a plurality of elders but that should not prevent us learning from what they do well and applying it in a wise and discerning way. I am encouraged that there are Presbyterian congregations which have and are learning these lessons and reinventing themselves in a biblical way.

  10. @Peter
    hi peter what do you yourself think i intended to indicate by placing the word churches in quotation marks ? maby you could give me the biblical difinition of church . there are many groups out there that call themselves a church yet deny many of the basic tenets of the christian faith many of our young people are attracted to these so called churches . my original point was that if we ground our young in the truths of the faith we might just keep many from falling for the false teaching and attractions of these particular groups .i was in no way refering to genuine bone fide church assemblies regardless of their denominational tag

    you suggest there is a difference between missing a point and making a p0int exactlt but when the point of a topic is being missed ( ie why we are loosing so many of our young people) then surely we are not making another point but missing the original point that was intended .

  11. cmt

    Now here’s an interesting thing: you used a particular punctuation mark; I asked you if there was a particular reason why you used this punctuation mark; now you ask me if I know why you used it. Are we playing QI?

    There are any number of reasons why you might have used the quotation marks you did: perhaps you were quoting my use of the word in the first sentence of #3; perhaps you were using it to indicate irony; perhaps you were using it to assign a particular (but unflattering) meaning to the word; perhaps you were signaling some other unusual use of the word, church. I don’t know. I could guess, but I thought I’d ask. Perhaps it has something to do with, “genuine bone fide church assemblies” (#10); if we’re going to discuss that we’d need to have some clarity about how we can recognise them. I’ve always found it interesting that no one thinks of their own church as heretical.

    And a point of clarification:

    I didn’t ask you for a biblical definition of church, only an explanation of your use of quotation marks.

    As for missing the point, I think Tom has answered that rather well with his comments about leadership.

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