Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Hjalmarson Knows My Church!

Written by: on June 2, 2015

I think Len Hjalmarson has attended my church!

Hjalmarson’s articles perfectly captures the nature of my church and puts into words many of my concerns about the way my church functions. And his forecast for my church doesn’t look all that bright as our leaders would have us believe.

A little background. I had spent twenty years in a small church of about 120 people. It was small enough that I knew everyone and we were close enough that we were forced to deal with everyone (equal opportunity misery). It was an old fashion church, stuck in the past, with the older generation keeping tight reigns on the church’s practices in the midst of a quickly changing world. After 20 years, the church had experienced zero growth and lots of frustrations.

You can imagine the joy my wife and I had when we moved to Omaha and had an opportunity to choose a new church. We landed in a growing church housed in a spanking new building. Everything in this church was well organized, professional, sharp: One hour worship services, a slick children’s center and programs, and the ever-new capital campaign. At the beginning, there was a sense of delight in not knowing everything that went on. I could enjoy worship without all the frustrations of knowing too much or having to deal with so many headaches. But, it sure seemed awkward to have a stranger appear on stage on Sunday morning to introduce herself as a new staff member. When did that happen? It is a well oiled, humming machine that was as organized and effective as any business or factory, where everything is controlled and timed and guided by unseen, all controlling invisible hands. But, over time, I have often asked: Is this really “church”?

What is wrong with this idea of the church? Hjalmarson gives several important insights of what is missing and what this means for the future of my church. He suggests that though this well scripted, well-choreographed hour of worship may seem comfortable and refreshing in the midst of our chaotic and uncontrolled lives, it is ultimately artificial and unrealistic. It is not real life. He calls this “liminal space” – a “nowhere land that has come into being in the turbulent waters of societal shift.” (Broken Futures, 2) The church has figured out a formula that has fed into the felt needs of our modern society, providing a few minutes of rest outside of one’s chaotic life, to experience something that works well and runs on time, that gives a sense of organization and direction. This might be refreshing for a while, but it does not meet the deeper needs of individuals: the need for connection and community necessary to deal with life’s numerous uncertainties. This explains why churches like mine are revolving doors, which is acceptable as long as the machine is bringing more in the front door than is sending out the back door.

This modern, efficiently organized way of doing church presents several troubling issues. First, is it requires no reliance on the Holy Spirit and no tolerance for chaos. It is a leader driven/order-focused program, where the people either join the program or leave for greener pastures. “Leaders use control and imposition rather than self-organizing processes. They react to uncertainty and chaos by tightening already feeble controls, rather than engaging our best capacities in the dance.” (Leadership in a Chaordic Age, 2) Certainty is seen as the key to success. But, “certainty is not a value advocated in Scripture, but rather faith, and dependence on movement of the Spirit, a dynamic which is never in control of the church.” (Leadership, 5) What is needed for our chaotic world are chaordic leaders, those who “don’t mind fluid structures and are comfortable with chaos because they are more interested in finding meaning than in building structures or establishing order.” (Leadership, 5)

Second, it lacks personal investment. Instead of church as family or congregation, you have an audience. This leaves little room for personal involvement. I see this as a major issue in my church, as the regular plea for funding for new buildings and programs will have less response as the older and more generous generation is no longer here. As Reggie McNeal rightly states: “The current church culture in NA is on life support. It is living off the work, money and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80 percent of the money given to congregations comes from people aged fifty five and older) or when the remaining three fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalist die or both…” (Leadership 1) To gain greater support requires allowing wider participation, which will lessen control and opens the door for confusion, which is anathema to today’s leaders. But, it also allows space for the Holy Spirit work and for God to reveal His power to reconcile, heal and give meaning.

Finally, the church is no longer a place of rich connections. “Life emerges where there are rich connections.” (Leadership, 2) The deeper needs of our world will not be met by organizing well, but by providing a place where, through involvement and participation, meaning will be found for life in the midst of life’s struggles and heartache. This means we “have to invite participation and encourage open conversation and begin to listen deeply.” (Leadership, 2) The reason for this is that the “‘best capacities’ of people are engaged when they participate: When they have a voice, when they are valued partners, and when they see that their work has meaning.” (Leadership, 3) Here is where I see my church falling short. There is little opportunity for real participation, for belonging, for ownership. Therefore, people fail to find meaning and purpose. In the long run, this does not encourage connections to the church or within the church that results in the revolving door of church attendance.

What Hjalmarson is encouraging is a radical and biblical reevaluation of how we do church, by returning to a church where leadership is seen “as a process in which an entire community is engaged” (Leadership, 7) and God has space to work.


About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

7 responses to “Hjalmarson Knows My Church!”

  1. Julie Dodge says:

    These are some great thoughts, John. You organize your thoughts on your current church in a meaningful and structured way. It makes sense. As I read your post, I had two thoughts. First, as you describe your church, it sounds a bit like going to the theater each week. You pack up the family, see a show, get a little “culture” (in this instance religion), and head on home, perhaps having said hello to a few friends. But it’s not community, as you note. Second, I was reminded of Nehemiah as he approached the re-building of the Jerusalem wall. He was a virtual stranger to the Israelites living in Jerusalem. He knew that the best way to re-build the wall was to engage each person – so that each family re-built the wall in front of their own home. In this manner, community was re-built, hope was restored, ownership regained. I wonder how the church might do this in your setting?

    • John Woodward says:

      Julie, Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, it is better than going to a movie theater — you know how it is going to end each time. No worries!! But Nehemiah is a great example, especially his methods of helping people come to terms with their disastrous situation. I’m not sure how you would begin to wake up the church in a similar way. I find in churches like mine, those who come to the realization are so used to hopping churches and are so little invested (at least for Nehemiah’s people, he was talking to them about their very home!), that they don’t stick around. It is hard to “break in” the controlling powers where some of the change has to start. Don’t know what would happen if I just made a stink! I think I would like your church a whole lot better! Thanks for your insights, Julie!

  2. Deve Persad says:

    John, there is so much for us to learn in the liminal spaces we either enter by choice or we find ourselves thrust into. Your experiences in these two churches demonstrate that well. However, you’re own feeling about the second experience speaks to a greater desire for meaning rather than being satisfied by an efficient community gathering. You said: “This might be refreshing for a while, but it does not meet the deeper needs of individuals: the need for connection and community necessary to deal with life’s numerous uncertainties.” Perhaps the difference may lie in what leadership perceives as their objectives as a church, as these objectives often dictate practice. So, I wonder about how you perceive the differences between your two experiences?

    • John Woodward says:

      Deve, you hit it square on. Objective! For our leadership (though very sincere, I have no doubt) their objective is “growth” – primarily numerical growth. It would be explained that the growth is a sign of effective evangelism, signaled by a large number of baptism. So, as long as people are coming in, the church is seen as “growing” (which, as you can see has very little to do with anything spiritual or even with God or with community…but we are getting bigger). The first church I described, they had no objective. Because there I had some involvement (as most people did) in the direction of the church, I sought out from the leaders what might be the “objective” of the church. They really couldn’t answer the questions, and the lack of objective was reflected in the disarray of programs, committees and activities that filled the void from not knowing where we were heading! So, yes, objectives does determine practice! But, my question has been how does one begin to change the objective — in a dictatorial, distant and all controlling leadership structure on the one hand and in a church that seems to lack any understanding of why one should have an objective on the other. Any thoughts?

      • Deve Persad says:

        John, change is always difficult no matter what the structure. I’m sure your aware of it. Much prayer, a commitment to be part of the change and using the structures in place to respectfully address the leadership are ways that honour the Lord and allow us to leave the results in His timing. That’s all I’ve got…unfortunately we come up against a subliminal and overt hunger for numbers and $ which make these changes difficult…

  3. John,

    Wow! You hit the nail on the head here. You write of your church, “It is a well oiled, humming machine that was as organized and effective as any business or factory, where everything is controlled and timed and guided by unseen, all controlling invisible hands.” Scary! I have been in such churches. I have worked in such churches. I have since left such churches — for good.

    I look forward to chatting with you face-to-face about these matters in only a few hours. I am so glad that we will be traveling on Sunday, so our conversation can be our church. It won’t be like your church; it will be real. I so look forward to that. See you soon!

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, the group we are taking to South Dakota come from my church. You will get a look at it…it is very impressive! Yes, looking forward to your visit here very shortly! Have a safe travel!

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