Thomas Bandy: ‘Ask the Uncomfortable Questions’

Thomas Bandy, president of Thriving Church Consulting, answers the question, “How can churches remain agile in the midst of an ever-changing culture?”

Church leaders are asking a lot more questions today. Their confidence in the gospel may be strong, but confidence in themselves, their institutions and their programs has been shaken by current events and changing times. In the midst of all the questions about programs and processes, staff development and lay empowerment, I see three distinct trends.

And the common denominator behind all these trends is that church leaders today are asking the wrong questions. They are asking Christendom questions, not post-Christendom questions.

The first question I hear repeatedly is: What should we do? This is a Christendom question. It leads us to think about programs. It assumes that we already know the public, understand their needs and just need to “package” our answers in different ways.

Today, the public is incredibly diverse. Nobody understands everybody; and the more the church claims to understand everybody, the less they understand about anybody. The post-Christendom question should be: Who will we bless? Another way to ask this question is: Who is your Macedonian? What specific lifestyle group keeps entering your dreams at night, asking you to come over and help them?

You can’t reach everybody tomorrow. You do what Paul did. You reach one public at a time. Once you know who you want to bless, the outcomes and the tactics become clear. And once you have blessed the Macedonian, you pray for another public to appear in your dreams and bless them. Maybe it will be Corinthians or Ephesians.

The second question I hear repeatedly is: What works? Again, it’s a Christendom question. It leads us to believe our actions—the busyness of the church—is what is ultimately important. We assume there must be a “best practice” out there, and if we could only imitate it our church would be successful.

Today, every context is unique. What works here just won’t work there. The “seven-day-a-week” church that worked so well in the 90’s plateaus and stagnates in the new millennium.

The post-Christendom question should be: Are we credible? The issue today is that nobody trusts the church (and with good reasons!). The answer does not lie in what you do, but who you are. Does every leader (paid or unpaid) and every member (young and old, newcomer and veteran) model the core values and Christian behavioral expectations that Paul describes in Galatians 5 and Romans 12. Does everyone walk the talk? You have to assure the skeptical publics that it is safe to talk to you before you can start a significant conversation.

The third question I hear repeatedly is: Is it my fault? When the church declines, church plants die or creative ideas fail, church leaders blame themselves. The question is rightly asked in Christendom or post-Christendom contexts … but the answers are different. The truth is that 9 times out of 10, yes, it is your fault. The Christendom response, however, is to feel guilty, beg forgiveness and work harder doing the same thing over again.

Today the one sure thing you can say about every church leader is that they are incompetent … and given the pace of change they will always be incompetent. Every initiative is a risk. There are no easy victories. But in the post-Christendom world, the response to the question of failure is not guilt. It is adaptability. Guilt is a waste of precious time, when you should be learning from mistakes, adjusting and adapting everything you do, all the time.

Since church leaders are always incompetent, it follows that there can be no sacred cows. No sacred objects or facilities; no sacred programs or methodologies; no sacred people or patriarchs. All that matters is the gospel … but everything else is just tactics. Listen. Learn. Adapt. Change!

There is a reason post-Christendom questions are uncomfortable. Behind every Christendom question there was an unspoken assumption: The institutional church must survive! That assumption has disappeared today. The public no longer assumes that the church is the primary unit of God’s mission. Indeed, many like me would say that even God doesn’t consider the church as the primary unit of God’s mission. What is? It is the relationship that is now the primary unit of mission. It is the mentoring conversation that is the primary method of mission. So perhaps you might ask this question: How many authentic mentoring conversations are happening between your church people and spiritual-but-not-religious people out there?

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