- Ephesians 4:11-13
Jesus revealed the Father. He died and rose and sent the Spirit to save the lost, gladden hearts, and renew the earth. What could be more beautiful? And yet... the chief instrument God sent to advance the Kingdom - the church - has seen its missionary impulse weakened and dimmed. Too often the church is not acting as if it is equipped, and the lost are not being reached.
I am a Catholic priest trying to take seriously this challenge to equip a struggling Church with a renewed missionary impulse of transformative power. While Pope Francis proclaims the “What?” and “Why?” of mission, the “How?” is not always clear. And while the Catholic church has a great history of missionary church planters (St Patrick, Boniface, Francis Xavier, Junipero Serra, to name a few), in the modern day USA it’s a different story.
Here we primarily have parishes where maintenance trumps mission, where the tendencies are often more self-referential rather than missional. The Catholic pastor is more often a shop-keeper than missionary; an operator than an innovator; trained for the sanctuary rather than the streets. We don’t know how to be missional ourselves, let alone equip our people. This needs to change...but how?
JR Woodward’s “Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World” has added real value to my understanding and practice of the church’s Jesus-given Kingdom mission. The author is a Los Angeles-based church planter, disciple and thought leader with depth and experience in both theory and in practice. His book draws on a wide range of authors and experiences to present a guide to fostering a missionary impulse which can become incarnate in a culture and thus, become self-sustaining.
Culture is what allows ideas to transcend individuals, becoming embodied in living environments that promote what they propose. Culture sets new defaults, creating currents which flow in the right direction. Culture makes doing the right thing, advancing the mission, easy. Or at least, easier.
For a church, living and breathing the missionary impulse requires an environment in which it can grow and flourish - a missional church culture. But how to build this?
Woodward starts out with a discussion of just what culture is, and what it entails. Culture is like gravity - we don’t talk about it, but it effects everything we do. “Like gravity, the culture of a congregation can either pull people down to their base instincts or lift people up to their sacred potential. We create culture, and culture re-creates us.”
A missional culture requires “polycentric leadership” - the key element to Woodward’s argument. It’s based on Paul’s five-fold distinction of the different ministries God has given for the equipping of the church for maturity: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11-13). Forgetting or neglecting these ministries is one reason churches become ineffective, and why they are failing to connect with people today, especially the digital generation. Woodward discusses several “mega-shifts” that have happened in recent times which make polycentric leadership a more effective approach for churches today.
“We need to shift from a hierarchical to a polycentric approach to leadership, where equippers live as cultural architects cultivating a fruitful mission ethos that fully activates the priesthood of all believers.” Dense sentences like that pervade the book, making for a not-always-easy but very rich read that invites repeat readings and provokes in-depth consideration of the issues.
Woodward spends several chapters fleshing out the polycentric approach to leadership. Differing situations require different approaches to leadership, and the five-fold, polycentric approach proves more effective than top-down hierarchical leadership, argues Woodward. He argues that polycentric leadership best mirrors the image of the Trinitarian God and honors the communal nature of the human person.
The polycentric approach is the alternative to top-down approaches where a senior pastor calls all the shots. Catholics call it “clericalism.” I have also heard it called the “parent-child” model of ministry. Here, leadership remains the exclusive domain of theologically trained, ordained minister, who is like a service provider to a laity that act more like consumers than disciples. The result is dis-engaged faithful who never attain maturity: a sort of church equivalent of the perpetual adolescent living in his folks’ basement. I am interested to hear that this affects Protestant communities and not just Catholics.
While Protestant understandings of hierarchy will differ from Catholic, I believe his argument is much more compatible with the Catholic view than would first appear. His biblical and pastoral arguments in favor of polycentric leadership, particularly his unpacking of the five-fold ministries of Ephesians 4, should be taken very seriously by Catholics, especially in light of Pope Francis’ criticisms of clericalism and the call for a mature laity promoted in the documents of Vatican II and other recent popes.
The Five "Equippers"
Woodward’s detailed, chapter-by-chapter descriptions of the five-fold ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher are wonderful. I would pay full price for the book - and then some - for these alone. I have read and re-read them and they have fed me in prayer. He even discusses how Jesus lived out each one. Using Paul’s own language, he refers to them as the five “equippers.” He uses fresh language for each equipper: the apostle is the “dream awakener” (Woodward’s Twitter handle); the prophet is the “heart revealer;” the evangelist is the “story teller;” the pastor is the “soul healer;” the teacher is the “light giver.”
Woodward seeks ultimately to help churches find better ways to organize so that every single part of the body lives up to its sacred potential. There’s too much money left on the table, so to speak. Churches filled with unequipped, under-challenged masses of faithful do not advance the Kingdom. In an increasingly complex world, polycentric leadership is proving better than centralized leadership in promoting “emergence”- where “simple components self-organize into wonderfully rich functioning systems, without any top-down control.” Polycentric leaders equip others for leadership so as to cede control while modeling and teaching greater reliance on the Holy Spirit.
On a practical level, the author envisions five equippers for every 100-250 people in a community. Equippers should be proactive in seeking to identify and train apprentices for mission.
Mission exists, Woodward insists, because God is a missionary God: a Father who sends a Son and a Spirit into the world for the sake of the world. The way this mission proceeds through history is the church. Woodward’s book, then, inasmuch as it calls the church to mission, is ultimately a summons and aid to help the church return to being church. We should all be grateful that God is raising up such people and such books as this!