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Dealing with Reality As Church Leaders

About 30 miles north of Dallas lies hundreds of acres once owned by my grandparents where they ran a dairy farm. My grandfather sold the property in the 1960s but when I was a kid my father rented it for raising beef cattle. But cattle was only one part of my farm heritage. We also raised sheep, chickens and even rabbits at one point of my childhood. We cultivated wheat, oats and hay. In my blood runs the dirt, sweat and tears of generations of farmers.

I learned a lot on the farm. For one, I learned that it is hard work and while I’m not medically allergic to farm labor I think psychologically I am. But there is another lesson that that shaped my imagination, one that applies to my work now as a pastor. I learned from my father that caring for animals begins by working with what you have not what you wish you have.

What exactly does this mean, to work with what you have not what you wish you have? If you grew up on a farm, you know exactly what this means. Farmers have no time whatsoever to spend dreaming about what they wish they have. They specialize in dealing with reality. Even if they want to grow their farm to be different, they spend their time and effort working with reality to get it there. The focus their energy on know their current reality and working with that reality to meet the needs of that reality. This is true whether working with animals or crops. I remember when my father rented some land to raise hay for horses. In the first two or three years, we did not expect that land to produce good hay. Our first crops were used to feed cows, which can eat low quality hay in a way that horses cannot. After a year a two, we were able to cultivate hay of higher quality that we could sell to horse ranchers.

I think that pastoral leaders could learn a few things from farmers like my father. There is a tendency within church leadership circles to think about the church not in terms of reality but in terms of what they wish the church was like. We often assume the people we lead are in one place when in reality their lives and the issues that they face in their lives put them in quite a different place. So we develop visions, make plans and strategies and then implement steps. With good intentions, we live in a dream world about what the church might look like. The church we dream about is of certain legitimate size, has an acceptable place to meet and has a organization that keeps the plan running. Then we try to fit people into our plans to live out the vision that we have. Again with good intentions and usually out of prayer and devotion we develop these plans. But I do think we fail to actually meet people in their current reality. We usually assume that they are in a different (usually more spiritual and better place) than they really are.

Let me illustrate. When we think about starting small groups, pastors have often set goals for small group growth. Years ago, I remember a pastor putting a sign up in his worship center that read “2000 groups by 2000.” He thought that would be motivating. Another pastor promoted a vision in his home country of Singapore of a small group on every floor of every apartment building. Now the rave is to promote a certain percentage of group participation. I know of churches that promote 80% or 100% participation in small groups. But as I have reflected on such visions, I have come to conclude that such talk is “pastor talk” not people talk. It does not meet people where they are. This has nothing to do with the realties that people face. What does a single mom with five kids care about how many small groups are in her church? She might not even see the need to participate in a group. Or maybe the groups she has been a part of have not dealt with the realities that she faces.

What about the over-worked man who is afraid of loosing his job? Or the couple who is afraid that their kids might be on drugs? Or the widow who is dealing with depression? Or even the faithful leader in the church who looks at such visions and goals and only thinks “Wow! That sounds like a lot of work.”

As leaders, we are concerned about developing a church that works well. We want a church that closes the back door, does body ministry and even grows through evangelism. These are all good concerns, but we need to think of them out of an awareness of the realities that people face, not out of the wish dreams of where we hope people are.

Most of our people in our culture are shaped by the imagination of individualism and don’t even feel the need for relationships in the church. The way they do life is already full of so much busyness and people that the thought of getting in small group is not that crucial. They might want a Bible study, but they don’t feel the need for biblical community that would live in such a way that would make a difference in the world. We must deal with reality, not the wish dreams of where we wish people were.

What do we do with this? How do we begin to see reality and meet people there? More to come …