Early in my ministry as the pastor of Wildwood United Methodist Church, one of my “-isms” manifested in a death-dealing way.
Caught up in a workaholic drive to grow the church, I neglected my wife, children and my relationship with Jesus (yes, it is possible to work for God and not walk with God). During that time, our church was growing at an incredible rate. More people came to Christ through professions of faith, and more baptisms occurred in a single year than in previous decades combined.
In the midst of all that growth, I was experiencing recurrent excruciating pain in my abdomen. I worked through the pain and trusted that God would heal me, especially since I was doing such great work on God’s behalf! That was until I ended up in an emergency room, where it was discovered that I had a severe case of pancreatitis.
Although God did not cause my condition, God certainly used that hospitalization to call me back into relationship and a sustainable path in ministry. While that is a reflection for another time, I believe this experience can highlight some powerfully applicable principles for the church in a post-Christian US.
Healing Through Prayerful Innovation
It took almost a month of hospitalization and fasting with IV fluids to get the pancreatitis under control.
After being shipped around to a couple different hospitals, with doctors scrambling to figure out what was going on, a very rare Choledochal Type III Cyst was discovered in my biliary duct at the head of my pancreas.
The diagnosis was quite devastating. I was going to require a “Whipple,” a major procedure with an 80% mortality rate within five years. I decided I would take my chances with pancreatitis. I began to research the condition and explore natural ways to help my digestive system. I researched pancreas-friendly foods and changed my entire diet. I also started an intense exercise routine to strengthen my body in case I had to go for the surgery.
I stopped working for God and started walking with him again, made my wife and family my top priority, and put up healthy boundaries with the church. I had two good years of health with no recurrence.
However, all my efforts were merely “tinkering” and ended up ineffective. I was subsequently hospitalized for pancreatitis two more times. I visited with top surgeons in some of the most prestigious institutions in the US, who all recommended the same brutal surgery.
After a final hospitalization, I went to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, where I met with a well-known, surgical pioneer. It was a last-ditch effort. That surgeon took all my extensive medical records, ran multiple tests and scheduled a consultation.
He sat down with me and treated me like a person. We made some small talk in which I discovered he was a Christian. Before he could speak to my condition, I blurted out “I really don’t want to do the Whipple Procedure doc.” He nodded knowingly, and I will never forget the words this doctor, whose specialty was the laparoscopic Whipple procedure, spoke: “I don’t blame you. I think going after this cyst with a Whipple, is like going after a nail with a sledge hammer.” I sat in stunned silence, tears welling up in my eyes.
“I want to propose an experimental approach, that will require a series of less invasive surgeries” he said. I had done quite a bit of research and what he was proposing was definitely an innovative approach to a very rare condition.
That surgeon and his team conducted a series of three surgical procedures, which included prayer before each surgery, to remove the cyst from my biliary duct. Using a combination of common endoscopic and laparoscopic procedures, they were able to remove most of the cyst. The final surgery was completed three years ago. I have had no recurrence and maintain my physical health at a competitive athletic level.
I am alive and healthy today, partly because of a doctor who was willing to deviate from the prevailing medical beliefs and protocols to try an innovative approach. In contrast to an industry where specialized procedures like “The Whipple” equate to big money, his concern was the person and their long-term wellbeing. Furthermore, he knew that new problems required fresh solutions.
New Problems Require Fresh Solutions
The Body of Christ is sick. I am convinced that in the new missional age in which we find ourselves, we spend most of our time going after “a nail with a sledge hammer.” The unique convergence of forces that have created the “great decline” of Christianity in the West present a unique set of challenges that if overcome, could lead to the greatest renewal movement in church history.
These new problems will require fresh solutions. Unfortunately, we are trying to force the Body of Christ into a Whipple that we don’t really need! We blindly accept the prevailing paradigms of church growth, spend exorbitant amounts of money on ineffective church planting models, and attempt to force the inherited Christendom model on the next generation. Local churches die on the operating table with the mantra “it worked back then, it will work now.”
As I study the Book of Acts, I discover a church that was quick on their feet, highly responsive and whose theology was taking shape as it emerged in the process of mission.
Some clear examples:
- Acts 6:1-7. Leadership was born and structured improvisationally from a missional imperative.
- Acts 11:1-18. The Spirit guides the church to abolish long held convictions that divided people along racial and religious lines—to “make no distinction between them and us” (v. 12).
- Acts 15. The church “gathered” (i.e. Jerusalem, inherited) and “scattered” (i.e. Antioch, fresh expression of church). They cooperate, conference, and make major concessions for the sake of the greater mission (Vv. 28-29).
- Acts 16. Context determined Paul’s missional approach. At Philippi, there were no synagogues, so Paul finds “a place of prayer” down by the river. A fresh expression of church is born in Lydia’s home.
- Acts 17:1-9. The disciples disturbed the imperial peace, not cooperated with it, and engaged in non-violent subversion (v. 7).
- Acts 17:16-34. Paul adjusted to context. A true innovator, he uses cultural phenomenon as a medium of proclamation (Vv. 22-24)
The US church today, with its rigid intuitionalism, has little flexibility and responsiveness.
Not only do we fail to engage and transform the culture, we often ignore it. Some churches that I have served were willing to die on hills of tradition that actually had no basis in scripture. We clung to a brand of imperial Christianity that was more a handmaiden of North American empire than the bride of Christ. The sad byproduct of that kind of “church,” is people who go to a church building their entire lives, but never actually become Christians.
Here are a few steps we can learn from the innovative surgeon who saved my life, which I believe are applicable to local churches on our current missional frontier.
I. Strategic action begins with prayer.
I’m thankful the surgical team clasped hands and prayed before each procedure. While there is no way to measure the effects of prayer in an operating room, in the church world, missional endeavors that don’t begin with and are not undergirded by prayerful listening are doomed to fail. Churches in need of revitalization often skip this crucial step. Throughout Acts the disciples are guided directly by the Holy Spirit in a posture of prayer.
II. We need the “gift of desperation.”
We must properly identify and assess the problems and see them as opportunities to experiment with fresh innovative solutions. Denying you have pancreatitis doesn’t make it go away. The churches I have personally been involved with that experienced revitalization had what we call in the recovery community “the gift of desperation.” Without it, one could not reverse decline. We have to first break out of denial and be aware that what we have been doing is not working. That will not change if we just keep ignoring it.
III. Fresh solutions require risk.
There is no way to play it safe. All surgery, even common procedures, require a degree of risk. However, the greater risk is not doing anything. Without a fresh approach, death is imminent. The risk-aversive nature of local congregations leads to their demise. “We have never done it that way before” is the death rattle of many churches.
IV. One size does not fit all.
The Body of Christ will not get better by simply “tinkering.” We need an innovative approach that will deal with the source of the sickness. Doing better worship experiences, hiring better employees, and renovating facilities might have a temporary effect but that is essentially rearranging chairs on the Titanic. Not every case of pancreatitis needs a “Whipple.” The solutions will be as unique as the patient. In the case of local churches, there are many variables that will shape a revitalization. Prayerful attention to context will determine the appropriate course of action.
V. We have everything we need.
Revitalization is not just about doing something new; it’s about rekindling what we have always been. Renewal and innovation are sometimes about reconfiguration. In my case, the surgical procedures were not new. They were tried and true endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries. What was new was the process, the application, and the reconfiguring of the sequence of the surgeries.
The Fresh Expressions movement is not about abandoning the tried and true. It’s about taking the best of who we are and reconfiguring. It’s about both attractional and missional models, and the two giving life to each other in the mixed economy way.
The Holy Spirit has already provided us everything we need. We have a Scriptural blueprint, we have the tools, and we have the power source.
VI. Every life is unique and valuable.
We have to see people as persons of sacred worth, made in the image of God. Some of our efforts at “evangelism” devalue people as objects. Most of the surgeons I visited with only saw me as dollar signs. They leaned more on the evaluations of colleagues and common practice than actually seeing my unique condition for what it truly was.
Beating people over the head with the Bible, and aggressively treating every person with some tried and true “Whipple” method, creates more wounded “dones” than it does disciples of Jesus. People are not trophies to be collected through an approach. They are children of God who desire authentic relationship and community.
VII. We must think of the long-term wellbeing of the Body.
My surgeon could have easily followed the assessments of his colleagues. In one sense, all of them were right; a Whipple would have solved my recurrent cases of pancreatitis, but at what greater cost? This man was concerned with the long-term health of a 32-year-old with a unique condition.
Several decades of Christians have been making crisis-oriented, fear-based decisions to preserve the momentary health of their congregations, with little regard for future generations. As pioneers, we must realize that we are planting seeds we may never see come to harvest.
Most of the great Christian social innovations that changed the course of world history came at a great price. Sacrifice is the norm. Innovation is risky; we will most likely experience great resistance, especially from within, which leads me to my final point.
VIII. We are our own worst enemy.
My stubbornness almost killed me. Sometimes we can cloak our compulsive drivenness in Christianese. When I was sick, there were certain signs I could point out to demonstrate otherwise. I could easily say, “I’m just fine, look, all the numbers are up and to the right! Look how our church is growing!”
But beneath the façade of numbers, I was dying inside. In most situations, there is some middle place between a Whipple and doing nothing. One of the largest churches I served was spiritually the shallowest, and beneath the surface had a deadly soul-sickness.
Dying on the hill of 1950’s time capsule worship with complete insensitivity to the needs of newer generations. Turning focus inward to “taking care of us at any cost” while completely loosing contact with the surrounding community. Judging cultural phenomenon as shallow and anti-Christian, while never seeking to understand the perspective of the other.
All these symptoms turn once vibrant missional communities into a walled city, a secret garden of death. In the work of revitalization, it has been Christian people who have put up the greatest resistance, not the people we are trying to reach with the love of God.
Furthermore, the current systems do not cultivate and release innovative pioneers, but exile them. I have been sent to three consecutive congregations that were in significant decline with very little hope of revitalization. When we turned our focus outward to join God in mission to our community, the existing congregations began experiencing renewal.
In my own denomination, true innovators are written off by some on different sides of the theological spectrum as renegades—loose cannons who, as such, do not enjoy the support, resourcing, and opportunities that some more politically savvy and institutionally minded clergy are provided.
I have witnessed firsthand that a church paying our apportionments takes precedence over whether we have “professions of faith” or are “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” The dysfunction is not only at a local level, but throughout the institutional hierarchy as well. Many pioneers jump the denominational ship or throw in the towel on ministry, not because of outer resistance from the people they are trying to reach, but from inner resistance.
The US Church has been “going after a nail with a sledge hammer” for too long. The Fresh Expressions movement, led by the Holy Spirit, gives us new tools, a fresh innovative approach, and resurrects the best of the early church on a new missional frontier. We are planting the seeds now of what the church will be in the future.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.