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Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Pastor Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston.  The following is an excerpt from that book on the importance of distinguishing between safety and spontaneity.

As we’ve seen, movements of the Spirit started with a fresh vision of God and His calling, an honest appraisal of needs, and zeal to touch people’s lives.  In the early stages, these movements were spontaneous and fully alive.  As they aged, however, many of them moved from being “intentionally spontaneous” to “intentionally safe.”  Let’s take a quick glance at some differences between the two.

Ministries that are intentionally safe…

  • …measure and celebrate size of attendance and budgets
  • …use traditions without much reflection
  • …resist change and avoid failure at all costs
  • …focus resources on insiders
  • …value stability
  • …often project the leader as perfect (or close to it)
  • …avoid risks and value organizational survival
  • …develop their own language for insiders
  • …see the leader’s role as CEO who controls almost everything with centralized planning and decision making
  • …become a fortress to protect people from the world
  • …normalize risk avoidance and make safety the ethic
  • …are protective of facilities
  • …are threatened by those who ask hard questions

Ministries that are intentionally spontaneous…

  • …measure and celebrate intangibles of zeal, love, and spiritual vitality
  • …may use traditions, but often explain the real meaning
  • …embrace change
  • …focus resources on both community impact and member growth
  • …value creativity and are willing to learn from failure
  • …select leaders who are transparent, authentic, and honest
  • …take reasonable risks to make a difference
  • …use plain English and avoid insider language
  • …see the leader’s role as the primary vision caster who expects much of the planning to be done at the grass-roots level.
  • …become a welcoming family
  • …normalize spontaneity, freshness, and love
  • …are willing to use facilities to the max to make people feel comfortable
  • …regularly ask hard questions about purpose, scope, and effectiveness

Traditionalists, by their nature, look to the past for answers for the future.  They do things this way because they’ve always done them this way.  I’m not an anarchist, but I feel very sad when I see churches that aren’t touching their communities because they are so inwardly focused, bogged down by their insistence on safety an fear of taking risks.

from Touch: Pressing Against the Wounds of a Broken World (by Rudy Rasmus), p. 192-194

I wonder how many ministries have declined or even completely shut their doors because they were addicted to safety.  I can vividly remember the title on a little book written a number of years ago called The Seven Last Words of the Church (“…but we’ve never done that before”).  I honestly have no idea what the book was about, but the title is provocative enough.

I also wonder how many pastors or worship leaders have settled into the mediocrity of safety and the comfort of pleasing others at the expense of their own ministry and prophetic voice.  I’ll have to admit, I’ve fallen into this during times of my own ministry.  The irony is that you don’t become an “intentionally spontaneous” church spontaneously.  You have to be intentional.  You have to plan, prepare, and train for that.  Sadly, it is a whole different context than many of us are accustomed to experiencing in our faith communities.

The one thing that I might disagree with in the list is that intentionally spontaneous churches “see the leader’s role as the primary vision caster who expects much of the planning to be done at the grass-roots level.”  I’m not sure that vision is necessarily (or ideally) a top-down process.  If the vision comes from the pastor or leader alone, what happens when that pastor leaves?  The vision should come from the spirit and be discerned by the whole body so that it becomes the church’s vision, not the pastors.  In this way, regardless of who is leading, the vision of the Spirit for that congregation carries forward.

Another statement that also struck me as particularly evocative was the assertion that “traditionalists, by their nature, look to the past for answers for the future.”  I couldn’t help but think back to one of my New Testament classes in seminary and a discussion about the difference between priestly religion and prophetic religion.  According to my professor’s understanding, priestly religion follows much of the same rules as the traditionalist mentioned here – they look to past precedent and law to determine future direction and action.  The prophet, however, is sent to a specific time and a specific place.  He/she arrives on the scene, looks at the past precedent (backwards), looks at the present situation (right and left), and is often given a vision of God’s future work (forward).  Then, at the intersection of all these realities, the prophet speaks a Word from God to the people at that point in time and place.  In my mind, this is the “intentionally spontaneous” character that Rasmus is talking about and the kind of leaders the Church needs.

Maybe we would all do well to look over the above list and ask ourselves, “Am I playing it safe with my faith?  Which list looks more like my life, my attitudes, my emotions?”  Or maybe you see your life in the second list.  Praise God!  We need more people willing to dare to leave safety and comfort behind to live radically for our Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)