I’ve been studying a lot lately about congregational development. Congregational development is the term that’s in vogue today; twenty-five years ago it was church growth.
Do you know what I mean by this term? It’s the area of ecclesiology—the theology of the church—that wrestles with questions like: How can our congregation grow? What does it take for a congregation to attract more worshipers? What clues can be learn from local demographics to help a congregation grow? And—a question I’ve been confronted with recently—can a congregation of the Episcopal Church thrive in a geographic region where Trader Joe’s won’t open a franchise?
Okay, now we’re getting personal! As a rector of an Episcopal parish in a town where there is in fact no Trader Joe’s, I have begun to take this area of ecclesiology seriously. How can St. Paul’s grow? How can we become, well, bigger and better?
And I’m not the only one studying. This area of ecclesiology has become a rather prominent focal point of not just the Episcopal Church but of most Protestant Christian denominations in America. And not in just one segment, like mainstream, liberal, conservative, settled, or adaptable. But in all of the above!
Numerous books are published on the subject annually. If I wanted to attend workshops or other continuing education opportunities on the topic of congregational development, well, there are so many available I don’t even know where to begin. It has even become a focus of doctoral study: one of the terminal degree options I could pursue is a Doctor of Ministry in Congregational Development.
So, again, I’ve begun to take this area of ecclesiology seriously. I’m reading a book on the subject right now called Owl Sight, by Russ Crabtree, a well-known expert on congregational development. And later this week I will be attending a workshop on this subject at our diocesan office. I’m giving congregational development some serious thought.
Then I’m confronted—we all are—with today’s passage.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask, “Teacher, will you give us whatever we ask?”
And right here, already, things are sounding suspicious! I mean, whenever someone approaches me and says something like, “Tim, will you do me a favor?” my defenses go up.
What is this “favor,” exactly, I wonder? What is it that the asker is trying to get me to do? Why hasn’t this person just come out with it and asked me directly? Am I being manipulated?
That, and I’m also remembering in the back of my mind that Bible story about Herod and his stepdaughter:
Daughter: Daddy, will you do me a favor?
Herod: Sure, I’ll give you anything you like, dear, up to half my kingdom.
Daughter: Okay, then. How about the head of John the Baptist on a platter?
And so I generally refrain from saying, “Yeah, sure. What do you need?”
Maybe Jesus’s defenses went up too. At any rate, he doesn’t say, “Sure, what do you need? Name it”; instead, without answering their preemptive request, he asks for clarification: “What is it you want me to do for you?”
“Oh,” they say—I imagine at least a little sheepishly—“well, you know, nothing much; just that one of us gets to sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory. No big deal. Won’t you do this for us?”
James and John’s is a recognizably audacious question. We could even call it rash. And thus there’s tension here.
These two brothers are arguing about who’s the best, about who deserves to be in a place of honor in the kingdom. And—as if they didn’t already know—for the third time in this Gospel Jesus tells them what they must do to inherit the kingdom of God: be servant of all; be like a little child.
Now—though we’ve heard it all before—many times!—aren’t we a lot like James and John? Aren’t we rather audacious and rash in our faith and practice? When we go about our daily routines, isn’t it all too easy to put ourselves first and consider others only as an afterthought, if at all?
And what should we make of congregational development—how St. Paul’s might become bigger and better? Isn’t this similar to what James and John are doing?
We want glory. We like to be in places of honor. We crave accolades. Wouldn’t it be great if St. Paul’s became known as the best all-round parish in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego? Well, how are we going to get there?
But we shouldn’t be self-absorbed, fighting for the top spot. This passage of scripture—along with so many others!—demonstrates that.
So: on the individual level, how do we combat self-absorption? And on the corporate level, why should we concern ourselves with congregational development? Isn’t it simply a self-serving exercise?
Now, here’s the bigger picture. James and John were rebuked for striving to be on top; and yet, in the annals of church history, they are in fact some of the top saints. Jesus rebuked them for wanting to be the greatest; they nevertheless became some of the greatest.
As a parish, we shouldn’t be competitive about how well-known we are or might become because of our ministries; though St. Paul’s may possibly be or become a model parish in the Diocese of San Diego.
Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”
And we are left thinking it will all in fact happen as they say, though not as they envision.
Do you see? The bigger picture here is about effective self-assessment.
James and John were poor self-assessors. They looked around themselves and knew they were in an exceptional situation. Here was Jesus, their mentor and friend, perhaps the greatest teacher in the history of the world, and they’d been with him, faithful followers since the very beginning.
They thought pretty highly of themselves; and on that basis, their own, limited self-assessment, they thought they deserved to have the two most honorable places in glory.
We, too, are poor self-assessors. It’s very easy for us to see the faults in other people; but not so easy to see our own. On the other hand, it’s very easy for us to see our own achievements and accomplishments—we’ve experienced them first-hand, after all—but much more difficult to see the accomplishments of others. It’s easy to criticize others and praise ourselves. Human nature comes with blinders included.
What we should be after in self-assessment, however, is the other way round. For self-assessment to be effective, we must look outward, putting others first; not inward. We don’t come to Jesus asking him to do something for us because, hey, we deserve it. Instead we come asking humbly, “What must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” “How can I become a servant to all?” “How can I receive the kingdom as a child?”
Ask Jesus these things in prayer; ask Jesus these things by asking those saints among us whom you trust for counsel. Look outward, not inward. Be vulnerable. Put others first.
And this is precisely why I’m reading Russ Crabtree’s book and planning to attend a diocesan workshop later this week.
I’ve been here at St. Paul’s six months now; and, quite frankly, I like what I see. St. Paul’s is a wonderful parish. Two strengths especially stand out to me. One is that we are a very hospitable folk. Any time a newcomer visits, he or she is made to feel welcome. The people of St. Paul’s very much care about other people, all people. This is a very positive thing.
The other strength I call out is flexibility. Some changes have been made in the half-year I’ve been here. And not all of them have been small! But, because of the flexibility that is woven into the fabric of this parish, they have all run very smoothly.
These are two great strengths for any church: hospitality and flexibility. And if I’m only looking inwardly it’s really tempting to say, “Hey, Jesus, are you noticing what’s happening here in Yuma? Doesn’t St. Paul’s deserve an awesome place in your kingdom?”
But this would be poor self-assessment. Let’s assess ourselves; but let’s be effective in our assessments. For in doing so will we learn to be the servants of all, see as through the eyes of a child, and inherit the kingdom of heaven.