Great Movements: Control or Co-op?

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

My retreat with the Mars Hill elders ended today. It was a sweet time of building relationships with new friends. I am honored to have served these dear men and their wives. On my flight back to Seattle this afternoon Mark Driscoll and I chatted about a number of things in our personal history. One conversation we shared is hugely important to me.

I am not an advocate of the way my generation has built growing ministries and alliances. Most grow out of the vision and gifting of one hugely successful leader. I have no problem with this reality. The simple fact is that God uses a man or a woman to do his work and often singularly uses visionary type-A people. This success that a leader enjoys may come through a large church, a succesful book (or series of books), or a popular conference ministry, you name it. This will not change. It is the nature of human relationships that leaders who enjoy wide favor for any reason will use that favor to build relationships for a cause or a movement. The "great man" theory is not all wrong. In fact, it is more right than wrong.

The problem comes when great leaders build associations and alliances for larger growing ministries. In my own boomer generation this was done almost exclusively by singularly strong individuals drawing others into their circle of influence to work for them. They then have some kind of control or authority over others who join with them. (This can be seen in a myriad of forms, all claiming that followers and movement joiners are really free!)

This approach does build movements for sure, often exciting and powerful movements, that grow and develop along the lines of one strong emphasis and usually one dominant personality type. (Passion is always in, and laidback types are out!) If a person like me refuses to use his influence to help build by these means he is generally left out of the party. In time friends actually act as if you are now an enemy if you do not build you own power base or join the one they built. (I wish I could relate to you how many times I have had strong leaders argue with me that I should build a ministry like the one they have so I could see what they see. I have routinely said, "No thanks. I do not want to build a ministry that requires me to feed it 24-7.)

I have decideed three times in my last fourteen years to not be drawn into such an alliance longterm. In every case a relationship with a stronger leader included my surrendering to the big picture of the movement. And in every case the situation ended badly because stronger leaders were deeply disappointed that I would not join their team and play by their rules. I could not, indeed I would not, give up my freedom in Christ to join and grow a bigger work just because it was there for the taking. I did not sense that anything good would come of my surrendering my joy and freedom since the trade off would render me powerless to think and do my best work. I can say now, at age 56, that I have no regrets about these three great opportunities that I passed on.

As we talked today Mark outlined a simple view of these things that comes from some keen minds in the Emergent movement. It is a "newer" way of thinking about networking and alliance building. It is the way I have thought about this for decades. I had previously found few who agreed with me. The model is what Mark calls an "organized co-op." Various ministers and ministries agree on the common core of important things and allow one another the freedom to share influence, ministry and strategy. They meet, honor each other, support the good each is doing, and all the time no one controls anyone else.

This new model can work when leaders are really secure. In short, good leaders must not be driven by the need to control and develop their own empire. Few I know, in the old school approach to building developing mission systems, think they are really empire builders. Many are godly wonderful people. This is why my suggestion sounds harsh and jugdmental at first glance. I actually do not mean it that way, even though some ministry developments often lead to bad conclusions. In fact no one in such a mission model will admit to the idea of building an empire. But the truth is clear. When leaders want to control, to lead very directly, and to develop and assure outcomes, they are building an emipire even if they do not see it.

What is the answer? In short, "mutual submission to one another." You can have a strong leader, who is a hugely successful visionary, without buying the old top-down model. I saw it at work this week. Mark is developing an amazing vision by which he plans to build one of America’s largest churches. By this means he also envisions planting 1,000 new churches in the coming years. He is doing all of this without one iota of desire to control anything or to be the president, CEO, or top dog. I know what I have seen for thirty-five years of ministry among great evangelicals. And I know what I saw this week. It was entirely different and frankly it was very fresh. I pray other strong leaders with huge vision will take the same approach and thus by this means the the old way will be dead in twenty years. I doubt that it will be, however, since so many leaders I know are terribly insecure and need to control and dominate others  through a kind of piety that often covers deep insecurity and fear.

John Calvin is right when he says the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are basic and essential. Too few of our leaders have adequate self knowledge. The results are huge.