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The madness of relying on donkeys: systems that have yet to fail are already broken (part 2).

My sister and I were huddled in the gooseneck of her horse trailer, sleep coming slowly because I couldn’t stop thinking about how we should have been more careful to not park at a slope.


Everyone else at the Pat Parelli weekend training had stayed in hotels or more comfortable campers instead of hot slanted goosenecks and raised-bag showers where you stood in the manure of the trailer and hoped to God no one would walk by and look in.


As blood rushed to my head and I huddled into my sleeping bag, I drifted off to sleep wondering about brain damage.


We woke up to the horrible racket of a donkey, just a stone’s throw from the trailer. I already had a headache and that’s when I realized that a donkey is a really, really noisy thing.


Gets a lot of attention, it does. Makes a poor alarm clock, but if that’s all you have, it’ll get the job done. The fact that God can use an donkey to accomplish his will says more about his ability to accomplish his will than it does any validation of the donkey.


It’s easy to mistake the final result as directly the effect of the tools.


Paintings are beautiful because of the skill of the artist, not the brushes used. Poems are lovely because of the skill of the writer, not the kind of computer they were written on.


Unfortunately, we tend to fixate on the methods someone has used to achieve success instead of going deeper. They’re obvious, easy to quantify and systematize, easier to understand and replicate.


“I lost weight doing this, this, and this. So can you!”


“I achieved financial freedom by using plan X. So can you!”


“I achieved confidence and victory in my life by doing A, B, and C. So can you!”


We see this so much that we don’t really question it as anything but true.


We should question it.


Was it correlation or causation? the scientist asks.


More importantly, I would ask whether the success came because of what we did, or because of what God did? Was it for only that moment because of the grace of God, or is this the method we should repeat for the rest of our lives? Did success come to someone in a specific area of need because God worked in a way that was uniquely fit for them, or is success a one-size-fits-all uniform?


When we think that success is the most important part of our personal story, the thing that encourages others the most, we miss the picture. What encourages me more is the fact that God can use donkeys.


There are a lot of donkeys out there, roaming about in our lives.


A thirty-year path to success seems like a failure in this age of instant everything. You can’t spend thirty years on Facebook promoting your incremental success because you can’t sell anything off of that.


Todays success is data-driven, something we can quantify. If you can’t measure it, you can’t be sure it’s success. It needs to happen on a fast enough timeline—visible from start to finish in our limited viewpoint—so we can package it up and sell it as a methodology.


Here is the thesis statement, buried this far down: the modern way of doing church is in fail mode because the culture and times we live in are so extreme that to try to stay alive and relevant by adapting our methodologies to what seems to be working successfully around us is to move away from the heart of the Christian faith.


Whew.


Systems fail. It starts with an obsession with leadership, which leads to complicated structures and hierarchies, which then becomes an obsession with people coming under other people’s authority and rules, which then becomes an obsession with platform and relevance, which then becomes an obsession with measurable data, which ultimately becomes a slave to culture. Along the way, a theological sieve is created.


We ride donkeys, because they got us where we needed to go last time.


In a December 2021 podcast, Christian journalist Julie Roys interviewed pastor Lance Ford. In this interview, Ford talked about this corporatization of the American church.


But what you’re talking about is really creating a new culture. One that’s not this leadership culture, where you have the pastor/CEO that’s being exalted. And these corporate business principles, you know, really imported from the world, nothing to do with scripture, if anything, scripture turned those upside down into more of a servant hood culture. One of the things I thought so interesting about what you wrote is that the word servant or servanthood, I mean, that’s got really negative connotations to us, I doubt it was really more positive in the Greek culture to be a servant or a slave, which are the the terms that Jesus uses. But it’s like, we also aren’t looking to Jesus as our model.[…] So how, how do we do it? How do we go from a leadership culture to one that’s a servanthood culture?

Those business structures have served the world well, so we mimic their success by setting up the same thing in the church.


Business principles organize our church structures. We have boards instead of deacons (which are supposed to be servants, not controllers), and all sorts of hierarchic controls that seem like success.


Cultural attractants bring in people, so we have light shows and concerts we call worship, with people reporting intense emotional and spiritual feelings. You get feedback from people still on their emotional high, you collect the numbers, you tally the commitment cards and increased attendance, and you rejoice in your success.


Marketing techniques popularized by brands work in the world, so we start branding our church, our leaders, our pastor, our publications, our sermon series, our social media, and our PR. In fact, PR becomes our evangelism, though we don’t realize it.


It’s just a talking donkey.


You ride it in your own power, holding onto the reins, praising God for blessing your efforts, oblivious to the fact that while God might use it, it doesn’t mean it’s what he’d prefer.


Catering to the culture has always been odd to me. You catch more flies with honey, but our methodology shouldn’t be about catching flies; Beelzebub is the lord of the flies and he can have them.


“God can use this system! He can use our methodology! These materials! Our traditions!”


Yes, yes, because he can use a donkey.


We can be partners or pawns, working with God or working in our own power. We seem to confuse God’s ability to work through something as a proof that it’s the right way to do it.


“Thousands come to church! God has blessed our methods! His blessing is on us, just look at what we’ve built and accomplished!” might actually be “Despite our methods, God has brought thousands to hear the Gospel!”


This has taken me several decades to begin to understand this, several decades of watching church leaders fall, denominations slide, leadership celebrated over servanthood, authoritarianism and control used to hurt people—it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to figure out how to grasp.


“How can such a big church have a pastor who would do such a thing? How can such a successful ministry that’s touched thousands of lives for good have done such horrible things? How can that leader have been carrying on in secret while still preaching messages that brought people to Jesus?”


It’s still hard to understand, but I have to remember the truth about donkeys. We have a lot of donkey farms disguised as successful churches.



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