The Wall Street Journal recently posted, “How to succeed in the Age of Going Solo” by Richard Greenwald (February 8, 2010). The article states that today as many as 20 % to 23 % of American workers are operating as consultants, freelancers, free agents, self-employed contractors or micro-preneurs. Think through that. Since 1985, one of every four workers have shifted from the stability of full time careers to project-to-project contingent work.
Modifying our cultural psyche from life goals fulfilled through the context of institutional, long-term production to individual, self-directed, short-term strategies has also created a seismic shift in the ministry of many churches. Instead of measuring the value of a pastor or missionary’s ministry in terms of reaching generations, cultures or a particular demographic, there is tremendous pressure on the pastor/staff/missionary to perform with an entrepreneurial mindset often characterized by quickie salvation decisions, short-term mission projects and expending resources as if there is no tomorrow.
Solo shepherding in this context has little to do with the number of people supported by a local church. Solo shepherding can occur in a part-time church, single staff church or a multi-staff situation. It is a mindset that has a negative predisposition toward institutional channels of education, missions and cooperation. To some church leaders in today’s post denominational age, self-directed, local initiated ministry is all that has relevancy.
For a pastor or church leader, the seductive lure of individualism has some great merits such as initiative, creativity and flexibility. Who can argue? A renewed passion for lost people is not needed in a church culture that has succumbed to practical universalism? However, in God’s kingdom, passion is not a substitute for credibility. Well-intentioned people, who have used their preferences to run good ministries into the ditches of extremism, litter the landscape of Christian history.
Who asks the pastor flying solo the hard questions that require research, study of unintended consequences and collaboration? Questions like who really gets the glory for a particular strategy? Or in an international setting, what happens when your church team goes back home to the mainland? Who disciples the indigenous people after they receive Christ? Who trains the leaders for the new churches?
Before a church leader embraces a ministry model of independence, he needs to recognize the inherent dangers in a mindset that shoves aside the collaborative work of great institutions and determines to go solo.
Danger of negatism toward team enterprises.
Great Commission work, Kingdom work is predominately teamwork. God wants his people (plural) to be on mission with him because we are not wired to go alone. He may call some to go solo but that is extraordinary. He may also call some people to celibacy but not all his children.
Even the Book of Acts records how teams impacted the Gentile world with the gospel message. From the First Century forward, the work of the church advances best when collaborating teams engage in ministry instead of independent operators.
The cumbersomeness of teams, the stodgy nature of institutions and the messiness of working with people, are often negatives that a solo shepherd chooses to accentuate. He’d prefer to turn his back on the team or institution and chart a new adventurous course. For example, there is an interesting trend among some new church planters to place churches on an organizational diet. Too many teams make some church leaders uncomfortable. In reality the expansion of an organization with growing disciples is a sign of church health.
To make credible advance toward fulfillment of the Great Commission, church leaders need the balance of working within the context of a team that has many components including teams within the local church. But also collaboration with area churches, state coordinators, national strategists, theological educators and global missiologists hold the potential for positive generational gains in any particular context. Every church leader achieves a greater measure of productivity by coordinating Great Commission work, Kingdom work with a team, with institutions or with conventions.
Danger of short-term thinking.
Entrepreneurs are so committed to what they think is important, they often run the risk of focusing on short-term results instead of long-term values. Their thinking is that they can deal with long-term issues later and pour their energy into the immediate. The church leader with this perspective often is an immediate results champion and minimizes the importance of changing the culture now and in the future.
Some younger generation pastors are vocalizing their distain for quickie spiritual commitments that abort at the first sight of trouble. At the same time, this group is quick to jettison the value of generational systems of ministry that require hard work, cooperation and long-term commitments to change a wicked culture from its destructive patterns.
Witnessing the transformation of a church or community requires a long-term commitment not only to our unchangeable God but also to the people he is called to shepherd.
Danger of independence, no accountability.
No one is above the need for accountability. Marketers make a fortune off appealing to people with an idea that they can become their own boss. The “pride of life” can be especially tempting to the church leader who is bent toward independence.
However, God uses accountability to protect church leaders from their own flesh as much as to assist them with mapping out ministry strategies. There is great value in testing ministry plans against those who have experience and expertise. One of the roles of convention structure in Southern Baptist life is consultations. No level of Southern Baptist life has authority over another. However, we influence one another by wise counsel and strategic initiatives that encourage us to work together to fulfill the Great Commission.
Danger of self-directed global outreach.
“Man, there is a whole world of lostness out there and we are gonna take the message to the streets!” Taking the gospel message to the streets may be the best strategy for some cultural contexts but not necessarily for every situation. That is the ultimate danger of self-directed global outreach.
What’s needful is a comprehensive strategy to communicate the gospel. Street witnessing may be part of that and so are prayerwalking and intentional relationships and humanitarian assistance. Once a person comes to Christ there is the need for core discipleship and leadership training. Sometimes that includes teaching that certain cultural behaviors are not biblical. Sometimes that includes years of assisting indigenous churches and groups of churches with strategies for birthing additional New Testament churches.
Can one independent solo shepherd, one independent church develop and support a comprehensive gospel witness to generations in a particular demographic? Sure. Independent churches have done it for years. But what happens when the entrepreneurial pastor dies and the new church leadership doesn’t share the same vision? One must ask not only what happens to the missionary families but also what happens to the credibility of the work?
What if the shepherd caught the vision for a cooperative comprehensive strategy that not only takes the Great Commission beyond what only one church can do but it also takes the witness of the local church to mission points simultaneously all over the globe, 24/7/365? Isn’t that the model Southern Baptists chose with the Cooperative Program?
Instead of the old societal mission approach where every board and agency of the Convention were clamoring for designated dollars directly from the churches, Southern Baptists chose coordination, collaboration and cooperation to build systems that engage missionary strategists, local churches, mission boards, state conventions, associations, theological seminaries, humanitarian resources and other methods, all in a process of reaching the various people groups of the world. While there are always wrinkles in the methods, the cooperative process gives national and global missions a generational face, a credible witness and a more comprehensive strategy.
The cooperative goal is to not only reach individual seekers but to disciple new believers and to develop new church leaders who plant new churches. The result is a mighty movement that transforms the generations of a culture.
The independent, solo shepherd model may be the latest “thing” in American evangelical churches. But that doesn’t mean it is the best thing for reaching the world or this nation’s great cities with the transforming power of the gospel. Looking at the historical facts, Southern Baptists do have a pretty good track record when we work together.
What would happen if the entrepreneurial church leader invested his creativity and initiative in the process of a comprehensive cooperative strategy coordinated by our conventions and institutions? What lost people group is waiting on such a pastor to join with others in bringing the whole counsel of God to their culture?