Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Oblique Approach to Church Growth

In my last post I considered the cost to individuals and families of church leaders trying to fulfil their vision. In it I suggested the three phases that people encounter during their journey through the church. 

I would like to offer some further thoughts to help Christians in general, and church leaders in particular, deal with the tension found between each individual's well being and the corporate vision. 

In his book Obliquity Professor John Kay of Warwick University considers how the most direct route towards achieving one's goals might be less effective than a more oblique approach. He uses the example of the earliest journeys from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean.  The most logical direction of travel would be west and yet the shortest and most convenient route is Southeast along the Panama Canal. Adding to this picture he shows that somewhat paradoxically ‘the happiest people do not pursue happiness'.  In fact it appears the wealthiest do not directly seek wealth but find it as a result of attempting to fulfil another goal. Think Bill Gates here.

This principle of seeking the more oblique approach is useful when considering the vision of church leaders. It might well be that the leader wishes the church to grow numerically by say thirty percent. The direct approach drives the team to look for ways to attract new members. In this construct the front end, or shop window, receives the greatest focus and budget. They are trying to offer visitors a 'what's not to like about this moment'. Energy is expended on great lighting, quality worship music, and video displays with high production values. 

At one level this has all the appearance of working because it is highly likely to make it easy for church members to invite others to the meetings. If, however, my three phase model is correct then it will be a limited number of people doing the inviting.  In addition the presence of what I call organisational entropy means that left unchecked, or un-invested in, church adherence will continually work towards disengagement. 

Compare this to a more oblique approach. In this construct resources, both human and financial, are allocated towards engaging people in a more holistic environment. In joining the headline vision with the unspoken narratives that truly drive behaviour. Here there is more leadership self-reflection and less demonising of those who are struggling with the complexities of being in a community of faith. Less measurement of commitment against the fulfilment of the vision and more encountering the stories of real people. Less commoditisation of church members.

The problem is that the former seems more certain and as such is easy to sell. The latter allows a higher degree of freedom to church members. Such freedom allows them to decide for themselves what commitment looks like in terms of attendance, service, and giving. It actively disconnects commitment to the church vision from commitment to God. It teaches people to be more holistic and less tribal. True oblique leadership thinking seeks to give away in order to gain; to die in order to produce life. 

If the happiest people are those who do not seek happiness could it be that the most successful churches are those that don't seek success?

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