Must We?

I am growing more and more concerned about the ways we use language for instruction and direction. I have been reading a variety of church leadership and Christian spirituality books lately and maybe it’s just me, but it seems that religious writers are bossier than ever. On almost every page, phony emphatic declaratives proclaim what we must, ought to, should, should not, must not do. Conditional language, suggestion, and a simple “in my experience” or “in my opinion” seem to be endangered species of instruction. It feels like authors are attempting to communicate that they have all the answers and that they know what everyone must/ought/should do. Let me give a couple examples and reflect on why they bother me.

In an soon-to-be-published book on multicultural ministry, the author states, “Effective ministry demands that we must abandon many age old rituals and practices that have no meaning to a growing unchurched culture.” The author includes the recitation of Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer, the Passing of the Peace, Psalter readings, and sharing of congregational prayers/Joys and Concerns, in the list of things we “must abandon.” But where does this stop? He recommends that we limit the number of times we offer Holy Communion because “newcomers and members of other cultures find it confusing and exclusive.” Why not eliminate Communion and Baptism altogether? Why not scrap scripture reading and simply cherry pick The Message? He recommends very short “talks” (sermon/homily/message are all churchy language and therefore we “should not” use such terms any longer) or better yet, videos. This statement caught my eye: “The risk of powerful multicultural ministry is that it will preference one culture’s practices over those of others. Instead of trying to incorporate what is meaningful for some, we should develop our own rituals that emerge from our new intercultural reality. We must let the past be the past and live fully into the future.” I find that there are a number of important questions raised that invite serious further exploration, but the absolute language of what is good, right, and necessary leaves me cold.

Church planter and congregational revitalization resources are extremely susceptible to phony emphatic declaratives. What always strikes me about these “how to” books on church leadership is that if they truly delivered what they promise, we wouldn’t need to buy more than one or two. Resources that really work would kill the market. There are two variables in every setting that make “one size fits all/magic pill” resources ineffective: context and chemistry. Just because something works well one time in one setting in one place is no proof that it will work well anywhere else. Generally the program that a church develops that gets published for general consumption is less valuable than the process by which the program was developed. The creativity, energy, experience, gifts, knowledge, and passion of those who develop resources are unique to them, and often programs are successful because of the mystical union of specific people working together in a particular setting. For me, this is the fatal flaw in “best practices” thinking: we are in trouble when we define “leadership” as “doing what somebody else has already done.” Contextual principles and values used to develop appropriate processes for a specific place, time, and opportunity, are the key to effective practices. Even when we borrow one another’s tools, we are probably going to create very different outcomes.

There are few things that we must/should/ought to do that are universal and ubiquitous. I don’t know what YOU must do. I have experiences that convince me there are things worth trying, and that I have evidence this works better than that, but does this mean you must/should/ought to do these things? I can offer suggestions, recommendations, experiments, and resources, but I fully accept that you have the right to ignore me.

The other problem with loosely and freely telling people what they MUST do is that it lessens the impact of the few things that benefit from mandate and global application. We have undermined the value of helpful emphatic declaratives through the use of phony emphatic declaratives. In our faith tradition, love of God and neighbor fall into a “must” category from my perspective. I don’t believe it is open to debate whether or not the people of God love God and neighbor. However, what this love looks like, how it is lived out, what difference it makes, and how it is ultimately defined embraces a broad diversity of understandings, beliefs, and practices. What MUST all Christians do to love their neighbor? Who decides? Even drawing upon the Bible as the ultimate source book creates more confusion than clarity.

The preponderance of phony emphatic declaratives in current church literature may be nothing new; I may just be more sensitive to it at the moment. I guess what I am saying is that, if we want to communicate effectively and well, we MUST stop telling people what they MUST do, we SHOULD NOT pretend that we know what other people SHOULD NOT do, and that we OUGHT to be ashamed of ourselves for presuming to know what everyone OUGHT to do.

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1 reply

  1. Love: “Generally the program that a church develops that gets published for general consumption is less valuable than the process by which the program was developed.”

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