NOT a Zero-Sum Game


From Chris Marshall:

Ordinary Community: Being Ready
It is the sense of entitlement that I am speaking against when it comes to vocational roles in ministry. I am not against the idea of being paid, I am against the assumption that its the way it always has been and always will be. God does not owe us anything! Not a job, not a title of honor, not an air-conditioned office nor full time hours a week to be a spiritual leader. Now his provision may [embody] all of that for you, but we have to be okay if it doesn’t.

I think this is so important.  This weekend, as I reflected on this issue, I found myself being often drawn back to the idea that this thing (the transition, the economics of what it means to be the people of God in the early 21C) is NOT a Zero-Sum Game. “In game theory and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s).”

This is not about one “model” of church being more “right” than the other.  It is not even about being more biblical, though I think that is an intriguing question.  It is about the Kingdom of God continuing to break in and how we are going to respond.  It is not about older, traditional church folks losing and young, hip, emerging Jesus-followers winning.  That is NOT the point.  It is about the Mission of God in our time and place.  It has always been about God’s Mission, we’ve just tended toward co-opting it to our own ends (and I’m as guilty as anyone on that matter).

I had a couple offline (i.e. real life!) conversations this weekend with 2 friends (Russell and Bethany) who read my (and others’) post about this topic.  A prevailing concern was that of older, traditional church and the older, traditional adults in them.  Does this move to a new form of ministry and church leave them in the dust?  What about inter- and multi-generational ministry?  What about all those presently paid clergy and staff, are they all doing it “wrong”?  Again, I don’t think this is a Zero-Sum Game.  Transition times are inherently liminal spaces and as a society (and as a global church) we’ll surely have a period of both/and-ness.  We’ll have traditional, institutional expressions of church who are honestly and sincerely seeking to follow in the Way of Jesus… right along side organic, emerging, experimental communities of faith also seeking to follow in the Way of Jesus.  We’ll have paid clergy who instigate Kingdom work partnering with bi-occupational pastors and missional leaders (Russell Smith is a great example of this!).

I think one of the points of this whole conversation is that many see that this transition is coming (and has in significant ways already arrived).  These deep cultural shifts aren’t going away.  The church has always and will continue to adapt to the cultural situation in which it finds itself.  My take on these (blog) writings of church leaders from around the country is that we’re seeing similar adaptations across the USofA.  These adaptations look less and less like the churches of our parents and grandparents (not necessarily less and less like Jesus – though every experiment will have the errant petri dish…).

So, during this transitional time we may have to work extra hard to facilitate inter-generational ministries.  We are by our nature cultural beings who feel most comfortable in what is familiar to us.  But, and I think this point is very important, we are not bound by our culture.  We have the ability to cross cultures and even be countercultural.  As a church our main identifier should never be the comfy cultural confines of me and mine.  This is equally pertinent for the postmodern-embedded college student and the retirement-home octogenarian – both (and all of us in between) must seek first the Kingdom.  We find our common cause in the cause of Christ.  Of course we’ll have disagreements and points of contention, but that is important too for the refining process.  Our unity is in Christ.  Working out the way we live as a people of God in a particular place and culture… well that takes time and an openness to the Spirit that cannot happen if we are tight-fisted about our way (which we always think is the “right way”) of doing things.

Mark Van Steenwyk’s comment on his blog in this conversation is helpful in this strain.  In response to what traditional (local churches, denominations, seminaries) churches can do, he says…

You can be helpful by doing what you’re doing…leveraging what resources you have at your disposal to think with a kingdom mindset, rather than with an Institutional one.

At some point, all of us tied into the status quo need to make a choice. We have to choose whether it is better to work hard to secure what we have…or work hard to secure the future. In other words, are we going to leverage everything to try to make sure that the Mennonite Church USA and Canada have a place in the future? Are we going to leverage everything to try to make sure Bethel Seminary and Mars Hill Grad school have a place in the future? OR are we going to leverage everything that MCUSA and MC Canda and Bethel and Mars Hill has to advance the kingdom where we see it breaking in, with a lesser concern for the role they will keep for themselves in that inbreaking future?

To say it another way: Maybe our educational institutions shouldn’t ask how they can survive the transition. Maybe they should ask, how can we risk our resources on our students so that they can thrive in the transition? Clearly there is a tension here. It doesn’t need to be an either/or. But the way most institution are operating (from the lofty philosophical level to the banal logistical level), I am seeing a stronger desire to maintain market share…to survive…than a desire to help create the necessary future.

The distribution and use of resources is a HUGE issue with all this.  Who has what resources and how are they being used is an important part of the process of how any ministry works.  It also says a lot about our lived theology and priorities… follow the money.  Figuring out how to leverage resources (money, time, property, etc…) for the Kingdom is essential.

May the Kingdom Come…


4 Responses to “NOT a Zero-Sum Game”

  1. 🙂 For the record, my name is Mark Van Steenwyk…would Mark Evans be an unholy hybrid between myself and Jason Evans?

  2. 2 ak

    ha, oops. not sure how I missed that. it has been fixed.

  3. 3 Rose

    You are right…liminality is not easy to live through…what does it mean for us to be faithful in this time….what if the new world being birthed is still, say 50 years away…if that’s the case none of us have the “one expression that is biblical” I am tired of that conversation. The question of structure for some might need to come after rediscovering the nature of the church as mission …living through transition times in history are times when the conversation has to have give/take, yes/and…sometimes when folks are advocating to do away with all the current structures I get nervous, there are good people, faithful servants of Jesus that would not be ready for their faith community to go away…on the other hand, we do need to cheer on those that are out in front, exploring without a map…we all agree we are in the midst of rapid fire cultural shifts — we have to call out issues that are hard, we have to look in the mirror, but at the end of the day we need to allow each other to ask Jesus what it means to be faithful in our own life, in our own context — and that could look very different from community to community.

  4. 4 jason

    I’m glad you brought up the issue of our transitional time and the generations that are caught at both ends.

    For me the question is, how do we embody something that acts as a bridge but doesn’t just succumb to some of the old destructive paradigms? I’m not sure transition CAN be eased through. I think perhaps it may have to involve pain.

    Love your point about resources too…that’s pretty much the project I’m giving my life to at this point. Hopefully we’ll see some of this being lived out effectively in our lifetime.

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