July 4, 2005
The Master's Program
The Point of View - A Weekly Commentary by Bob Shank


Dear Marketplace Friend, 

      I ran into a longtime friend last Sunday - in New York, of all places. I say, "longtime," because ... we became friends a long time ago (does 16 years count as a "long time?"). I was sitting - alone - at a restaurant, in a hotel ... and he joined me for lunch. Rick and I were in a "small group" together; five of us in all. The common denominator: we were all pastors of churches in the southern end of Orange County.

      Back then, "small groups" were the emerging trend in newer churches. How do you make a big church small? was the common opening question; "Small groups" was the newfound answer. We were all trying to get people together, intentionally, during the week - probably in a home - and connect. The challenge of organizing something that was - at its best - organic was no small thing. We all came up with ways to get 'em started; the problem was keeping 'em going, after they got past the nametag-dependent stage.

      Our small group - remember, we were pastors - talked shop a lot. We reinvented "the church" nearly every month - over Togo's sandwiches - and gave each other permission to think outside the box.

      Rick and I hadn't had the chance to "talk shop" in nearly a decade, but - over lunch, in New York - we made up for lost time. I don't have a church to lead these days, so it was a great opportunity to hear from Rick about his.

      He's come up with some creative ways to promote small groups at his church. A couple of years ago, he wrote a book - I think he calls it The Purpose Driven Life- and had his small groups undertake 40 Days of Purpose, as a common endeavor. It worked: scads of new groups, high percentage of retention. Great idea.

      What in the world do you do for an encore to that? He's worked out a next-stage challenge for their small groups: he calls it his PEACE PLAN. It's probably proprietary, so I can't spell out the acrostic without permission (I'd have to shoot you) ... but it's Rick's strategic blueprint to touch the whole world, using small groups (his church's small groups ... and a few hundred thousand church's small groups as well) in a holistic, comprehensive way. The G-8 Leaders in Scotland will be stymied this week in their effort to confront the world's poverty challenge. Rick Warren isn't waiting for the politicos to agree; he's pushing his small groups out of the nest ... and into the developing world. In the "old days," we asked people in small groups to bring potluck with them; now, Rick says, "Forget the potluck; bring your passport."

      Cheri and I were in Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia on Saturday (on our way to Chisinau, Moldova for a crusade with Franklin Graham this week) ... and visited about six churches in a city which, until the early '90's was under the atheistic government of the Soviet Union. In Slovakia - and, across western and eastern Europe, "church" denotes an historic building housing medieval art ... and charging an entrance fee.

      When you crisscross America, "church" has a radically different meaning. In many cities, "church" is often an institution with a building, a history ... and a remnant audience who still assemble on Sunday mornings. They don't expect much ... and they don't expect to do much. In those same cities, you could be in a "church" that bespeaks maturity and organization and a wide-spectrum of programs and services. They've found their niche ... and they've mobilized to fill it.

      Find a "church" like Saddleback - or any of the first-generation, founder-led, pressed-for-space start-ups that have sprung-up in most urban and suburban environments - and meanings are turned upside-down. If someone from Slovakia landed at Saddleback, they wouldn't know what hit 'em. "Church" was never meant to be a building with a thousand-year history; it was formed to be an organism with a just-got-started vitality that is dangerously dynamic. Is that okay?

      Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees because his religious movement didn't look like the one that preceded it. His answer? "... no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined." (Mark 2:22). God is into "new stuff," and he loves watching people get uncomfortable with the unexpected. Are you more energized in your faith life with old wineskins ... or, with new wine?

Bob Shank


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