“What if we could find ways to work together to get a few things done that we all believe in? We could actually change some things.”
This is an interview in three parts. Return to Part One.
JH: I want to turn a little bit then to your own congregation and ask you what kind of wins they and you have experienced. How has this been good for the people in your congregation?
JP: With any new initiative that requires some investment and activity, there’s always some push-back. People might say, “Does this mean we’re not promoting Jesus or the gospel?” But by and large, what this does is that it grounds people within our city. Their geography matters. The Bible has a “theology of place” – where you are really does matter. Scriptures talk about how God has put people in places that they might reach out.
So that’s the first thing that changes in people: it grounds our experience with God, and it puts us in challenges that we don’t normally put ourselves in within our local context.
I love all the things that we’re doing globally to try and change the world and be a part of. But it’s amazing how many things really are locally happening on your street. Marriages are coming apart. There’s addiction. There are the effects of poverty and of brokenness. So that alone changes things. People have to deal with the implications of their neighbors.
We’ve got hundreds of stories of people from the city. It changes every piece of our people’s faith, because they have to negotiate new dynamics of the city that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t simply gotten to know the people who lived nearest to them.
That’s the real basic thing, but I also think it validates people that aren’t in what we would classically call full-time ministry. It’s having a real role within what it is to see the Kingdom come and change real time and space; where we really live with real people. And it makes them a lot more valuable than just being inviters or servants within the church world.
It validates vocation. Most people don’t have a good theology of vocation, an idea that your work really counts for the Kingdom. There are a lot of little implications that spin out from there. What we commonly call “normal life” becomes more important. Little things like how you manage your yard and your time, your relationships; they all become holy in a different kind of way.
And it affects how you think about where you live. Simple things: if you are mowing your lawn, maybe you think, “What if I mowed my neighbor’s lawn today?” Instead of thinking of it as some special service project, it’s just a good thing to do: “This is the life that God has given me.”
We’ve often said in church that 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the stuff. And that’s sort of the pastoring technique that makes people feel badly so that they sign up for whatever you’re trying to get them to sign up for. But I’m just trying to become more convinced that maybe it only takes 20 percent of the people to do 80 percent of the stuff.
JH: To just run the church side?
JP: Yes. Maybe that’s just perfect. So maybe 80 percent of the people then do the rest of the 20 percent. They help out, they pour coffee, they touch up bulletins and do some cleaning once in a while. But then they are freed up with the rest of their time actually doing what they’re supposed to do within their real life. Maybe my job as a pastor is to equip them to do that.
That’s a major shift. It can be an emotional shift, too, especially for businesspeople who don’t have time to be more involved. Recently at a meeting I told some of the businesspeople in our church that probably one of the most important things they could do for our city would be job creation. Along with that, they can work to create the right kind of atmosphere in their jobs – to love God, love their employees, and build incentives and godly types of management structures.
But again, one of the greatest needs our culture needs right now is the presence of great businesses that create certain kinds of jobs that deliver useful products to people.
JH: Here’s something that strikes me. You talked about the emotional aspect of recognizing what we normally do matters. But I have times felt a sort of insanity like we’re supposed to bring the Kingdom. People say things like the church should build schools and hospitals. Maybe eventually, but then again, how do you really do that? But as you talk, I think it’s a good reminder that it’s actually going happen through the people that are already living in a city doing the things they already do.
JP: That’s exactly right. How do we bless all that is happening?
And so, in my mind, everybody brings something different to the table from all these different domains. Businesspeople can bring money. Government workers can bring power; they have the ability to make things happen. And church people bring people. But what’s funny is, businesspeople don’t have any power and they usually don’t have enough people to do what they need to do. And government people know that they can’t get people to do whatever they want, either.
If you’ve ever been to a city meeting, it can get bad. First of all, nobody’s there. The only people who show up are usually angry. And they’re making multimillion-dollar decisions that change how a lot of people live life – roads, parks, codes, city laws. But they can’t actually get people to do anything.
The mayor has a small staff, he manages some things, and he can certainly hold press conferences, but a lot of people in a city are just apathetic; they don’t pay attention. And the city never ultimately has enough money to make changes that could be good.
But for some reason, churches can get people – sometimes thousands of people – to show up at basically some of the worst stuff I’ve ever been to. We’ll listen to cheesy music. We’ll watch poorly made movies. I mean, we can get lots of people to do very sub-par stuff and pay for it! And why? Because these people are motivated intrinsically. There’s spiritual motivation to show up at things like that.
So we have something we can bring: people. We generally don’t have much money or power, after all. Maybe we want $18 million to build a community center. In the church world, that is a whole lot of money. But you know, in the actual world of city planning, $18 million isn’t all that much. It takes a few million dollars to, say, change an intersection. That happens all the time.
Now, what it would take to actually change something at its root – a refugee problem or a major healthcare issue – it is shocking the amount of money required. But in other worlds, that’s not a lot of money. I have sat in government meetings where they would say, “We need $5 million to do this,” and everyone goes, “Okay, let’s go get that.” And I’ll just sit there, blinking, thinking, “You can just do that? How does somebody do that?” I have no framework for that. But they can. And these people have a whole other way of seeing the world, but they can’t get people to do anything.
So I just think, what if we could find ways to work together to get a few things done that we all believe in? We could actually change some things. And ultimately, I believe that what the church brings is basically the top of the puzzle box. We provide the people. The other groups bring puzzle pieces; I simply bring the top of the puzzle box. We know how this is supposed to end up. We know what God wants to do. We know that the world is broken and all of this is supposed to change.
So we can see where government and businesses are trying to do things that aren’t ultimately going to be effective – and we can see other things that we know the favor of God will be upon. The Kingdom will break in.
JH: I want to turn to this idea of cost, then, because there’s a reason that most churches aren’t doing this. What does it cost? What does it take to get to the point where you’re at?
JP: Everything costs time, energy and money in different ways. As a pastor, I think the specific cost I am aware of is the cost of realizing that your church is not the only way your city is changing – and your church is not the only way to make any changes, either. That’s a big cost emotionally, just to admit that there are other factors in play and not everything is light and dark, that the church is the good guy and everyone else are the bad guys.
If you think about it, most of the ways the church interacts with any metropolitan entity is by taking a combative stance. There are a lot of zoning issues: “We’re not going to get the right kind of building,” or, “We really have to deal with this code issue?”, etc. And so most city conversations for churches by default end up in some kind of argument about how the building or funding works.
That’s really too bad.
And that’s often our relationship with the business world too. We ultimately think, “Here are the people that can write checks for us,” just so they can make our lives easier to do what we want to do.
I think that government and businesspeople ultimately resent that, and they should. They’re giving their lives for some of these things. Some of these people even know Jesus and often think, “There’s no room for me in the scheme of church.”
That’s an emotional cost, for the pastor to confess, “I’m a part of the solution, but I am not the solution.” And that’s where our theology is really important. If you have a triumphant sort of theology, you think that your job is to take control of all these domains instead of serving them. And that’s a big shift for a lot of people. There is a lot of good theology for counteracting militant theology. Ray Bakke has written a book called Theology as Big as a City. It’s a great book talking about how he realized that his suburban theology didn’t apply well to inner city problems. It just didn’t work.
So there’s that. I think that’s a shift in paradigm, the theology and praxis. It’s a little bit of a shift of theology – recognizing that all God wants to do by way of mission won’t happen solely by my church getting bigger.
I was talking to a large-church pastor at one of these city gatherings. There were 10,000 people at the church, and they are planting ten satellite churches. So they were dreaming about how in ten years they could try to gather another 10,000 people. I should mention that he’s in the Chicago area, which is several million people.
He looked at his staff as they were planning this, and he said, “If we get this done, if another 10,000 people join our church, will God’s dream for our city be accomplished?”
They all went, “What?”
He said, “You know, let’s even go crazier. Let’s say that for every ten years we plant ten satellites, 10,000 people come to Christ. Are we really going to make a noticeable shift in our city? The thing that God wants done in our city, will it get done? Will his dream for our city be accomplished?”
And the staff just stared at him. And that’s when it hit him: “We have to be a certain kind of church, not just a certain size of church, if we’re really going to do what we want to do – if God is going to get his way for our city.”
When he said that to me, I thought, You’re right. That’s exactly right. It’s a shifting paradigm that we’d like to replicate in our church, working within the limits of what we have. Is there a way for us to do that?
Jay Pathak is the pastor of Mile High Vineyard in Arvada, Colorado.