Been fairly taken back by the whole bushfire thing, mixed in with the usual busy-ness so it’s been a bit of a rough effort trying to get much else out onto a keyboard. But I’ve been brewing this post for quite a while, so I’m having a go at it. It’s longer than some of my normal fare, mostly because I’ve thought about it too much.
I’ve been spending my working hours for the past 8 months or so as an IT Consultant. And the role of a consultant is really quite simple and clear. When you’re consulting, you’re there because you understand a particular subject area better than the people you’re consulting for. A consultant shows up at the work site, is given a rough understanding of the specific context, and gives advice and guidance on what the best solution will be, based on the situation and constraints in place. Now sometimes that means you have to wing it, and pretend to know more than you really do, but on the whole the reason people bring in consultants is to get in the people who are experts in a particular subject.
The current day, “attractional” church operates essentially in a consultant mindset. We have the expectation that when push comes to shove, people will recognise our authority (or at least our pastor’s authority, but that might be a second conversation) and seek guidance from the spiritual experts. And for most of the western church’s history, that’s been a valid way of operating, because the assumptions (people see the church as the experts in all things spiritual) were accurate. It did lack an ability to speak into areas outside our specialist subject and thus missed out on preaching a holistic spirituality (but that’s probably a third conversation). So on the whole, the approach made sense.
But circumstances conspired against the consultant mindset. As society has moved forwards, and as the church made some pretty big mistakes along the way; our position as “experts” came into question – and then became ultimately out of the question. Some (well, lots) of churches have stayed as they are. But there have been a number of reactions to the deficiencies in the consultant approach, and one of those, I’m going to call “The Bartender”.
The role of the bartender is as clearly defined as that of a consultant. The bartender just serves the drinks. He doesn’t give an opinion unless one is required of him. Everyone likes the bartender, there’s nothing really to dislike about someone whose purpose is to serve you, without ever disagreeing. And at times, usually later in the evening (and after a couple), the bartender is trusted as a confidant – after all, if you’re going to share your big secrets, you want someone who isn’t going to offend you by disagreeing.
In our rush to reject the consultant paradigm, there is a real danger that we embrace the house of sand approach that the bartender represents. The truth of the matter is that Jesus has a lot to say about how people, and the world is living. Now that doesn’t mean we sit back and wait for people to recognise that we are the spiritual experts – but instead we need to be sitting at the table, sharing life. If we are standing behind the bar, opinionless, we fall into the same trap as the consultant – we fail to engage with where people are really at.
That has to be the third way. To walk with people, not as experts in all things spiritual (nor as the sales team for the expert pastors), but neither as the guy who stands by without anything to say about how people live. I know that I’ve tried both, and I know that neither approach represents a viable way of furthering the kingdom of God. And I desperately want to live out the third.