Most of us have probably heard of Gore-Tex fabrics, fabrics which have a transparent plastic coating that makes them waterproof and wind proof but keeps them breathable. What you may not know is that the company that produces them, W. L. Gore & Associates, was deemed the most innovative company in America by FAST COMPANY magazine (December 2004 issue, 54 – 62). (W. L. Gore and Associates have been in business since 1958.)
The article gave 6 reasons why the company is effectively innovative. I found 4 of them particularly pertinent for those of us thinking about better ways of “doing church” in the 21st century.
1. The Power of Small Teams:
Gore tries to keep its teams small (and caps even its manufacturing plants at 200 people). That way, everyone can get to know one another and work together with minimal rules, as though they were a task force tackling a crisis.”
For years church growth specialists have mooted 200 as the church growth barrier that needed to be breached if a church was serious about becoming really big. It was Robert Banks, I think, who countered that 200 may actually be God’s protective ceiling, that somehow, by growing beyond 200, a church loses something fundamental in its character. Indeed I have found that when churches grow beyond 200, there is a subtle shift away from people, to procedures, buildings, and techniques.
I have always being haunted by the fact that when the church was penetrating the Roman empire, it’s primary manifestation was house churches of about 40 people each. Yet the biblical metaphors for the church, like “body” and “household” imply close personal relationships between her members. Clearly, community and mission are not mutually exclusive. And groups like Gore confirm that intimate communities can also be very effective in the pursuit of a mission.
There may be more to contemporary buzz words like “missional communities” than we realize.
2. “No Ranks, No Titles, No Bosses: Employees, dubbed ‘associates’ have ‘sponsers’ who serve as mentors, not bosses.”
As churches grow larger, leaders are seen more and more as decision makers, speakers, and vision casters. Nothing wrong here apart from the fact that such leaders end up having little time to develop and nurture people. Soon, such churches begin to actively promote people who are decision makers and speakers, but no longer even ask if such people are personally involved in developing others.
But the heart of the Christian faith is people transformation. Leaders indeed may have many tasks, but Christian leadership is finally about developing people. Jesus invested a large part of His time developing His disciples. Paul was always nurturing people in the context of relationships. Indeed, one of the qualifications for leaders in the New Testament is a track record of having being able to nurture one’s children well ( 1Timothy 3:4-5).
Should we be surprised that the primary task of leaders in Gore is to develop people? How many of our churches are full of people whose potentials are untapped because they are seen as merely cogs in the church machinery?
We have so many church leaders who are treasurers, speakers, strategic thinkers, committee members etc., so few who are disciplers and mentors, people who invest quality time in developmental relationships. There are many tasks that need to be done but what is the core of Christian leadership? Indeed what is the core of the Christian faith?
3. “Make Time for Face Time: …anyone in the company can talk to anyone else. Gore discourages memos and prefers in-person communication to email.”
The fact that God came to us as Jesus Christ tells me straight up that God puts a high premium on personal communication. God is spirit and invisible. But Jesus, truly man and truly God, gives God a face (John 14:9).
Indeed even the apostles understood the power and necessity of face to face relationships (3 John 13-14), and that there are some blessings that can only be given and received, face to face (Romans 1:9-12).
Today, I find that churches can be some of the most impersonal places around. A few things lend to this. One, is the increasing shift of many churches away from a community mind set to a task mind set. Listen to the language from the pulpit. Often, the focus is on things that need to get done, for the Lord of course. Relationships are expected to happen by auto pilot.
Another trend that works against the building and nurturing of face to face relationships is the rise of technologies that are meant to enhance communication. I really appreciate instant messaging, hand phones, emails, and sms messaging. I can’t see how I can function without these technologies in my life and my work.
But human beings are complex beings. We are embodied beings. We were given five senses by God and none of them are superfluous in human relating. Face to face and eyeball to eyeball relationships are critical to the health of any human community. if this is true for a bottom line entity like Gore, how much more true it must be for the church of Jesus Christ.
On this score many of our churches are in deep relational doo doo.
4. “Tale the Long View: Gore is shockingly impatient with the status quo but patient about the time — often years, sometime decades — it takes to develop revolutionary products and bring them to market.”
There is a gross misunderstanding in the church. Because we serve an almighty God we assume that things should happen quickly. Therefore most of us in the church are very impatient about the purposes of God. I know I am.
God is indeed all powerful but He works “in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4)”. His plans are for the ages. Instead I have found groups as disparate as Communists and radical Islamic extremists who are much more patient about the pursuit of their goals.
Communists believe that even if they do not see victory in their life time, their battle is still valid because their children will taste the fruits of victory. If not their children, then their children’s children. Some Muslim groups are committed to their cause even after they face setbacks because they believe that in Allah’s timing victory is assured.
In contrast your typical church long term planing exercise is for the next 3 – 5 years. Not 3 – 5 generations. I wonder what the impact will be if our churches, seminaries, parachurch groups etc., and even our families, start to plan for 3 – 5 generations. What will our plans look like then? What sort of structures and programmes will we need to ensure that the values and purposes of God are passed down from generation to generation?
I suspect that automatically, we will have to shift our emphasis from buildings and procedures, to discipling and mentoring. Surprised?
Many of us are discouraged when we look at the church today. But I am beginning to be more hopeful. There is a quiet revolution that is taking place. More and more I am encountering Christians, some of our best and brightest, who are growing very sceptical of how church is usually done.
Some of them have been badly burnt by the systems in place. Some just intuitively feel that they have been sold a bill of goods and they are not buying it anymore.
Some are quietly working for renewal within their churches. Some still attend their church services but are seeking more authentic experiences of Christian community elsewhere.
I also know leaders in denominations ranging from the Brethren to the Lutheran, who are attempting to build churches that are closer to what they see in Scripture. Often such leaders are lonely because they are perceived to be weirdos on the fringe, by the mainstream.
I guess that is the price to be paid for any sort of prophetic ministry. But I hope these leaders take courage from a growing body of literature that is calling the church back to fundamentals, and from sources as unexpected as FAST COMPANY, and realize that they are on the right track.
I hope that they will take the long term view and press on. I am proud to stand with them.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan