Reading this in my current quest to explore the connection between trauma and church culture, I have found a book that is well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed.

Dave Burchett’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive gets a lot right. He is honest about how church can and has been a painful experience for many. He has a pastoral heart that yearns for the church to reach out to those so wounded. There is some helpful advice for those who care and some useful insights for those who have been hurt. But this book is far from the “healing plan” it is touted to be.

A defining image (page 13) in the book is of the “lost sheep”, the one who has wandered, as opposed to the 99 who remain in the fold. He exhorts us to have the heart of the Good Shepherd who seeks out that one lost sheep. The image draws on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, of course, but it’s a somewhat tortured connection with the parable. Not only does Burchett avoid a nuanced exposition, he misses the plain correlation between the lost sheep and the “little child” of Matthew 18:5 who “enters the kingdom of heaven.” His use of The Message as his biblical text throughout severely restricts the depths from which he can draw.

It’s a shame, because Matthew 18 can really help us in this area. The wandering sheep is a “little” one, who exhibits a childlike faith. Jesus has just talked about the consequences for those who would cause such a “little one” to stumble, or sin, or wander. The dramatic image of a “millstone hung around the neck” and being drowned in the sea should give us pause for thought! It is a prophetic parable against those “who look down on one of these little ones” and has more implications for the character of the flock, than that of the little lamb.

And here lies Burchett’s problem. As he rightly appeals to church leaders to value those who have wandered away, he misses this prophetic trajectory against the existing flock, and therefore embraces some worrisome assumptions. I’ve tried to bluntly distill them here:

  1. The point of reaching out to the wounded is to bolster the strength of the church. “How much depth have we, the collective church, lost by not aggressively seeking to find and heal our wounded lambs?” he asks on page 2, in the introduction. Somehow the utilitarian power of the wounding community has become the point.
  2. The problem lies with those who have left. “So many people out there have been given up for lost,” he writes. “They could be found, healed, and returned. If we could only begin to communicate that we are willing to accompany them on the road back, forgive them, love them, and celebrate their return” (page 18). Frankly, this sentence made me angry. The subtitle of the book aims it at “those wounded by the church”, yet here it is the wounded ones that need to be “found”, “returned”, and “forgiven.” This is close to the language of an abusive husband, offering “reconciliation” because he is gracious enough to forgive his wounded wife.
  3. People leave because of their immaturity. “Like a thirsty sheep, a bored and unfulfilled Christian who is without spiritual shepherding may wander onto paths that lead away from God.” (Page 36). Which is fine to say, perhaps, if this is a book about being better shepherds. But it’s not, and it infantilises those who have left and diminishes the principles (some of them dearly held) that shape that departure.
  4. Unity trumps holiness and justice. “The Good Shepherd has a cure for us, and it starts with His prescription for unity.” (Page 48). “Division within the body of Christ is sin. Jesus’s teaching about unity is indissoluble.” (Page 56). His words, in themselves, are not wrong. They are simply not careful enough. Again, he inadvertently echoes the words of an abusive husband insisting that marital unity is more important than any particular transgression on his part. Sometimes separation is necessary for unity. Even Paul (quoted by Burchett on page 53) exhorts Titus to have “nothing to do with” the (truly) divisive person. I know too many people who have appropriately departed their church community, and have then be shamed as divisive or schismatic, when the real wound to the body of Christ was done to them, not by them.

I’ve deliberately painted a stark image here, to make my point.  Despite the flaws, Burchett does get to some helpful places.

The chapter entitled The Heart of a Shepherd is generally good. Occasionally he has the same sentiments as people like Mike Pilavachi who reimagines church as family. “Peter did not advise the shepherd to show difficult rams and ewes the sheep gate”, Burchett writes (page 76), and I hear Pilavachi echoing “We don’t have employees to hire and fire, but sons and daughters to raise.” Burchett’s one clear point is well made: We have a responsibility to the wounded(page 78), and we should take it seriously.

The second part of the book is also useful. It is actually aimed at those who have been hurt, rather than those who might seek them out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is good, solid, stuff. He would turn our wounded eyes towards Jesus who “understands the pain, betrayal, and anguish that… selfish and sinful behavior causes” (page 117). He exhorts us towards forgiveness (page 180). He gives guidance about living in the present (page 153).

Occasionally, the era of the book shows. Published in 2004, it is just before the heyday of the emerging and emergent church movements. As he scratches on the disaffection of those in church who are “tired of pretending their lives are better than they actually are” (page 90), he has not yet seen the growth of movements that did arise from those who left that plastic world.  Perhaps there is a glimpse of some generational wistfulness: “…they need to hear from their former flock that we care, we miss them, we need them, and we want them to come back” (Page 91). Having lived and led in that era, what we actually needed to hear was “that we care, we miss you, and we long for you to fly, and do, and build what that the Lord is leading you to do, we’ve got your back.”

I shook my head a little, when he talks about churches setting up classes and seminars for those wounded (by the same churches running the classes, presumably!), so that the “injured lambs” might not “feel alone… having a forum where they can express their hurt, and share their concerns.” I don’t think he realises how patronising that idea sounds.

You see, in the end, the lost wounded sheep don’t want to be found by a hurtful church, even a regretful hurting church. I know this from my own experience. I know those because many of those I’ve met are wary of being found by me; I wear a clerical collar, I embody that which has been the source of their trauma.  They don’t want to be found by us, they want to be found by Jesus. Yes, they also want community, but they want it real, spiritually authentic. Which means, Jesus first.

Helping the wounded isn’t about classes or offers of therapy. It’s not about technical change in tired institutions. It’s not even about “revivals” of a surge of life into ordinary auditoriums. It’s not our task to “bring ’em back alive.”  Yes, we follow Jesus as we search for them, care for them, breathe life into them, back them, cover them, and cheer them on. But it’s not about slotting them back in to where they were first injured. It’s about the Lord doing something new. When I meet the “little ones” who find no place at the institutional table, laden with looming millstones, I am increasingly realising that the kingdom of God belongs to those such as these.

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A Friend asks:

My question is, how do we, who are in Christian leadership encourage and bring about cultural change in our churches? I am sure that it is already a question that you are grappling with and probably have no easy answers to.

In the past I would have simply said the main component is leading by example. Lead and others will simply change. In recent experience I would say that, unfortunately that only seems to work when the people around are teachable and actively pursuing growth.

Previously I would have also said teach from the Scriptures and let them speak for themselves. But again, I have seen time and time again a misunderstanding of those Scriptures even when it is spelled out in black and white.

And then what do you do when there are different cultures in the mix? I don’t mean racial cultures, but church cultures. How do we authentically worship when so many different priorities are given to the various components of what constitutes a worship service or Bible study? How do we encourage true disciples in a way that is maintainable in Western society and yet still confronting, challenging and deep?

[This is a Q&A question. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

Thank you, dear friend. What a joyfully fundamental question! Answer this, and you will have answered the cry of the heart of every pastor who takes their calling seriously.  Books have been written about this. Even Archbishops’ Councils wrestle with the conundrum – I reflected on a recent attempt at “Setting God’s People Free” not too long ago.

You’re right. I am grappling with it, and I don’t have any easy answers.  There is a whole bunch of theory out there about changing organisational culture etc.  In my mind, however, it’s like mentoring and spiritual direction; it relies on discernment more than anything else and therefore can only truly be known in context and in practice, not in theory.  So here follows some random thoughts from what I’ve seen in the real world:

The first thing I want to do in response is to affirm the premise of the question. Cultural change is to a church what sanctification is to a person.  Just as individuals Christians are called to grow into maturity in Christ, so churches are called to grow into maturity as the Body of Christ.

The road of maturation for an individual is, necessarily, “a long road of obedience in the same direction” (I think I’m quoting Eugene Peterson there).  It involves confronting one’s past, one’s brokenness, one’s fears and pains. It involves repenting of sin, and seizing the lifegiving ways of God with a firm faith in his grace. It can involve times of trial and failure, as well as the temptations of both success and boredom.  This is something we all understand.

That leadership task is first and foremost not about the “professional” tasks of institutional refurbishment and resource management, it is the “pastoral” task of leading a community on a long road of obedience. As I said many years ago, this means “we have to talk about the real issues – rebellion, idolatry, lack of belief, hard-heartedness, and unfaithfulness – rather than the excuses of broken systems.”

More recently I have reflected a little more deeply on this. Culture itself can be conceived of in terms of the “stories we tell each other”, i.e. it is grounded in a narrative that encapsulates the collective worldview. A racist culture will share a narrative about the inhumanity of different ethnicities, for instance. Similarly, the grounding of an individual person’s life can also be thought of in terms of narrative: what story helps us conceive of ourselves within the world? This is why we consider things like “self-talk” when we help an individual to reflect. Individuals and churches share a narratival world, i.e. a cultural context.

The Christian task is to make sure we are operating out of the correct narrative so that we conceive of ourselves and the world according to God’s truth, and where we find ourselves in his story.  In fact, we can think of the conversion experience in terms of an exchange of stories, where we die to an old narrative of sin and self-centredness, and are raised to find ourselves in another story in which Jesus is King, and we are forgiven and embraced.  I alluded to this in a recent sermon on wisdom in Job, if you have some time to listen.

The sad fact is, in these terms, some churches, as much as any individual, need to convert to Christ.  That is the cultural change that is needed. And it is an ongoing journey. As the saying  goes: “I AM saved, I am BEING saved, I WILL be saved”

But your question is how do we bring cultural change about

Firstly, understand that just as with individual sanctification, it is not entirely humanly possible. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul says in Philippians 2, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”  Work it out, because God is at work in you, and in the church. Or as someone wise I know says, “We are Christ’s church, and he will grow us.”

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s a focus. And the practical application is this: It begins with worship. Sort out the upward focus of your life first, work on the upward focus of the church first, and all manner of other things will sort themselves out.

This rubs up against one of your subquestions about authentic worship in competing church cultures.  One form of worship can only compete with another if we are worshipping the wrong thing!  Yes, we need to attend to our attitudes, and recognise different styles, and compromise a bit about liturgical rigour. But I’ve only ever seen this work when the attitude has been “we are all here to help one another to worship Jesus.”

Secondly, your negative experiences don’t mean you had the wrong idea. You talk about leading by example, and about preaching the word. Sometimes they don’t seem to “work.” That doesn’t mean that they are the wrong thing to do.

In fact, they are the right thing to do.  Our story changes, our culture shifts, as individuals and as churches, when we pay heed to what the Lord has to say to us.  He has spoken the words of life, and by God’s grace, that word is present for us to read, hear and receive. Preach the word, brothers and sisters! Do it without fear or favour, without tickling ears. And by some miracle, and the power of the Spirit, that word will take root and shift our story.

Similarly, preach with your deeds. As Paul exhorted Timothy set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.

In both cases, of courses, the preaching may seem fruitless. People are hardened to the word, unteachable; they mishandle the Word of God to suit their own ends. You can’t do anything about that. But we preach the word both in and out of season.

As a leader, of course, there is a sense in which we must go ahead. We must preach to ourselves first. We must attend to our own sanctification. It is often the case that churches “catch up” to the culture of their leaders. Unless the leader is willing to attend to the long walk of obedience in themselves, they are likely to be content in their existing church culture where their insecurities are stabilised and their sins are acceptable.

So it’s an absolute imperative: Sanctification begins with me. Personally, I have to say that to myself, even today.

Thirdly, you ask about encouraging “true disciples… in a way that is maintainable in Western society and yet still confronting, challenging and deep?”

In my experience, what you are hoping for here is blocked by the blindness of the culture that you’re hoping to change. In the West our culture is significantly shaped by consumerism and individualism. When the term “discipleship” is used in churches it has often been emptied of its real meaning and held captive by the culture; it is reduced to a product by which consumer Christians are given “nice ideas by which I might build a successful spiritual life.”  It has elements of truth, but it has a self-righteous posture; there is an incomprehension that we might have to have our story shifted.

We need to cut across that dynamic somehow, and sometimes we need to be upfront about it. The gospel is encouraging and lifegiving, and it is about being unmade as much as it is about being remade.  The gospel is about conviction and confrontation as much as it is about affirmation. We can set expectations, explaining to people that we are expecting to be undone by God, in fact hoping to be challenged and confronted with ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point?

We also need to give them the tools to proceed.  A good tool is the ability to question our own cultural assumptions, to question ourselves. Help them to affirm what can be affirmed and question what needs to be questioned. Push for the story underneath the top layer. Ask “why?” a lot. “Why do we do that? Why, really?” What’s under the facade? “We have words to explain ourselves, but what do we really believe?”  It’s the difference, as they say, between “espoused theology” and “actual theology”.  The exposition of Moral Therapeutic Deism is an excellent case study in this; it is the actual religion of much of the Western church.

Above all, this is a pastoral task. The incarnation teaches us about how God enters into our world in order to bring us out of darkness into his wonderful light. We must have the same attitude of Christ. Enter the culture. Affirm what can be affirmed. Work out where the ugly bits rub against the gospel, and then bring that light to bear, beginning in yourself. Walk the hard road, and when others join you in it, rejoice.

Photo Credit: © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.

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