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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Small but Exceedingly Wise (3)

"Locusts have no king, but they all go forward by ranks" (Prov. 30:27).

Locusts, including the desert locust of Africa and the Middle East, are grasshoppers.  They are basically the same as their other grasshopper relatives except that when they bump into each other frequently, the coloration of their bodies change (as in the picture of the desert locust nymphs below) and they give off a pheromone that attracts other locusts.

When locusts smell this pheromone they gather from everywhere to swarm.  Hungry locust swarms search for food, consuming approximately their body mass in green vegetation each day.  These swarms can travel an enormous distance—60 to 120 miles in a day—with apparent singlemindedness of purpose on their search for more to eat.  There is no "queen locust," much less an "alpha male" like in a society of mammals.  They just know what they're looking for, and they go, together.

Does a small church want to be like the rather gross-looking, immensely destructive locust?  You bet, because locusts are wise.  Locusts act in concert without being ordered what to do.  This makes them enormously efficient collective eating machines.  There are no locusts hanging back to help the other locusts from the rear and no locusts hovering to direct the traffic of fellow locusts.  Every locust flies straight and eats what is in front of it without being told, as one.

Imagine what a small church could do if its sometimes painfully limited resources of time, energy, money, and personnel were all devoted to accomplishing its mission instead of precious resources being siphoned off to manage the mission.  What if every member of a small church was engaged effectively and cooperatively so that everyone just did the work rather than create layers of bureaucracy to coordinate action and prevent mistakes?  Wouldn't that be great?

Of course not.  Or rather, it would, but getting to that point means going out on edges.  Edges are scary, and small churches (like anybody) tend not to like to be scared.  But here are three possible edges that, if a small church goes out on them, could give it the power of the locust.

1. The edge of a God-given vision.  I talked about the importance of vision when I wrote about the lesson of the ants.  In fact, there is a close connection between the seize-the-day nimbleness of ants and the concerted movement of locusts.  In both cases, if we all know who we are and what God wants us to do, things move a lot more quickly.

Though much could be said on the topic of what a vision is and how to develop it, I don't want to digress too far here.  But one point that I think is key is that people, especially leaders, trust the vision to lead the people.  I think the best thing we leaders can do is to communicate with others about the vision, whether that means, "This is what the vision is," or, "This is what I think the vision is," or, "What do you think the vision is?" depending on one's style, role in the body, and actual level of knowledge of what God has for one's church.  If the vision once developed is in people's heads, we have to trust that people motivated by that vision will do the right thing more often than not and don't require us looking over their shoulders.  If we can't trust that, our problem may be doubt in the vision itself, no matter how much we've been promoting it.  And that connects to . . .

2. The edge of the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Paul's description of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 reminds me a lot of the locusts.  In both cases none of the doers is calling the shots, and yet they all act together as if coordinated.  1 Corinthians 12 explains that this is because God has organized the church as a body with Christ as it's Head, it's Director.  But how does the Head direct the body?  God through Christ has given each member the Holy Spirit, who enables each member to do his or her part under the direction of the Head.  If the vision is from the Head, the Holy Spirit leads and empowers each member to do their own distinctive part.  He is the Coordinator, the invisible King of the locusts.

Believe me that I know that what I'm about to write is simplistic and requires more sophisticated treatment, but I think there is fundamental truth that we must not avoid: In the body of Christ, no earthly human being is in charge.  If someone is, we've switched heads.  If two people are, we're a two-headed monster, usually not as cooperative as these guys.  I don't care if you're the founding pastor of the church or the one guy who's been a board member for longer than most members have been alive, you are not in charge of Christ's church, because if you are, it ain't Christ's church no more.

Alternate heads arise in the church because they do not trust the Holy Spirit to do a good job telling people what to do.  Alternate heads also believe that they can do a better job than the Holy Spirit or at least serve as a Plan B.  But believe me, if the Holy Spirit does not appear to be directing someone according to God's vision, you can't.  Leadership is indeed essential, but it is not about making people go the right direction and/or excluding them if they don't.  It is about going the right direction oneself in a way that gives people the most compelling example to follow.  Which leads to . . .

3. The edge of emotional maturity.  You've heard the tried-and-true principle that in any voluntary organization, 20% of the people do 80% of the work—a very unlocusty division of labor.  This is invariably observed by the 20% doing the most work.  The 20% blame the 80% for not doing their part—"I'm so tired and busy; if only those other people would take their responsibility as seriously as I take mine then things would be great and I would get rest," whine-whine-whine, etc.  But in any organization like this—especially if the organization has an understood vision that ought to be compelling—the number-one reason for 80% deadbeats is the dysfunction of the hardworking 20%.  That's right, 20%: it's your fault.  But that's good news for you, because if it is your fault, then you have the power to change it.

Family systems theory (see related posts) posits that one kind of dysfunctional relationship is the overfunctioner-underfunctioner.  Superficially, the overfunctioner appears to be with-it, put-together, successful, high-achieving, responsible, and diligent—an A-student.  The underfunctioner appears to be listless, underperforming, irresponsible, lazy, and even literally sick.  So we naturally assume that the underfunctioner is the one with the problem, and if he would just get his act together, everything would be fine.  But what's really the problem is the relationship between the two parties, in which the overfunctioner functions both for herself and for the underfunctioner and the underfunctioner doesn't function for anyone.  The overfunctioner takes responsibility for her underfunctioning partner, which the underfunctioner is willing to yield, and never gives it back.  Both are miserable, and both contribute to the problem.

The thing is, at least nine times out of ten, for this situation to improve the overfunctioner deliberately has to stop functioning for the underfunctioner, no matter how much the underfunctioner whines about how uncaring and selfish the overfunctioner is.  Because the underfunctioner will not take the initiative to function for himself in the face of the overfunctioner's intrusive "care" and "responsibility."  What makes it so hard for the overfunctioner to pull back—indeed, what drove her to invade the underfunctioner's space in the first place—is fear of failure.  She is afraid of the world collapsing if she doesn't step in.  And the reason she is so anxious is she believes that if the world does collapse it will be her fault—she will take the blame.  It is the fear of that personal devastation, embarassment, and loss that drives overfunctioning behavior.

If the small church is going to act with the concerted, every-member action of a swarm of locusts, then the 20% who do all the work are going to have to risk maturing, which means admitting fault and allowing things to fail, go bad, and look embarrassing if no one does them.  For example, if cleaning the bathroom is someone else's job, and that person might not do their job, they are willing to risk letting the bathroom get yucky indefinitely with all the embarrassment that creates toward guests in order to compel the system to address the issue rather than rushing in as the stop-gap and allowing the cleaner to go on not cleaning.

Before concluding I'd like to point out one more thing.  Notice that a locust is small, and in my comparison a church is small.  Therefore if locusts are wise because they go forth in ranks without a king, then churches are wise if they go together too.  See, the actual application of the principle isn't to an individual church.  The application is to a swarm of churches who, though they are small, work together to do great things.  I provide these "edges" above in a local-church setting because if individual churches don't learn to do it within themselves then they will never apply it working together.  But it is at the associational/denominational/ecumenical/network levels that this really works.  The locust swarm is what those extrachurch entities must become.

It is not our size but our wisdom that limits us.  I think I'm on to something here, but we could go a lot further with it.  Thoughts?

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