I met Joe Myers a few years ago at an Emergent event and have enjoyed getting to know him since then, as we’ve run into each other a couple times and as I’ve had the chance to read both of his great books, The Search to Belong (short review here) and his newest book, Organic Community.
One thing I really enjoyed about Joe Myers’ work is his different take on small groups and community in a church. Many churches have the mentality that “if we build it, they will come” and the goal is to create a small groups program at the church, and get everyone into a small group. But the reality is – that simply doesn’t work for all people. Sure, small groups are a place where people can really connect and experience some community and intimacy – but some people just don’t work that way. And by trying to force that on your church, you might be doing more harm than good.
Myers focused on the issue of belonging and small groups in his first book, and really takes a look into what he calls the “master plan” mindset. Throughout this book, he compares masters plans with organic order. Master plans are always focused on the end goal, the destination – “we’re going to have everyone in our church in a small group in 6 months!” He writes:
“Master plans use the language of ‘ought’ and ‘should,’ language that points to the future in a rigid, predetermined way. The problem is that ‘ought’ and ‘should’ are often interpreted to mean ‘must!’ This future – the plan – must be protected and preserved. Master plans embalm embryos; they are a form of cryogenics.” ((Joseph R. Myers, “Organic Community: Creating a Place Where People Naturally Connect” (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), 30.))
What Myers is hoping to help people move toward is organic order, rather than the master plan mindset. Within organic order, instead of a language of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’, one is presented with the language of possibilities. In keeping with his desire for organic order, Myers moves through a variety of changes in language that he thinks we should be making as we think about creating community in our churches and other places. Here are a few of his language moves that I particularly enjoyed.
PATTERNS | Spatial Observation: Moving from Prescriptive to Descriptive
Myers discusses the ways in which we begin to form patterns in our churches as we move forward with projects, and in a more general sense, discusses the power of descriptive language over prescriptive language for the church. Prescriptive patterns and ideas leave less room for change, for adaptation and for new ideas, than more descriptive ways of doing things.
MEASUREMENT | Recalculating Matters: Moving from Bottom Line to Story
Another issue he really goes after is that of measurement in churches – how do we measure success? Are we following the ways of corporations, or do we have a better, more Spirit-led way of determining whether or not we’re being “successful” in the church. And is that even a question we should be asking? He says that instead of a bottom-line form of measurement that includes numeric, linear and statistical evaluations (one that far too many churches most likely follow), we should be more interested in narrative measurement: “Stories not only inform how things are going, they connect with the stories of those who are leading and generate wise insights for the future. Stories enable leaders to form a better picture of the health of community than numbers alone ever could.” ((Ibid., 81))
POWER | Authority: Moving from Positional to Revolving
In this section, Myers looks at a different understanding of leadership, one that goes against the traditional idea of a hierarchical, positional understanding of power. He advocates for a more revolving understanding of power, one that lives by the motto, “the project holds the power.” The goal or project is what holds the power, and certain people are called upon to be stewards of that power from time to time – but those people will change. It creates a more dynamic power structure, than one that is static and leaves the same person in “control.”
COORDINATION | Harmonized Energy: Moving from Cooperation to Collaboration
This section may have been the most interesting to me, in that it really made me think about my understanding of the word “cooperation.” I’ve often thought of cooperation as a good thing – the idea of everyone working toward the same goal. Myers puts a different spin on it – he creates the image of a teacher in a schoolroom instructing her students, “Cooperate with me children. Cooperate!” ((Ibid., 116)) He writes about cooperation, “The trouble with this is that the spirit of cooperation is a rigid spirit, one that stifles creativity and discovery. It is more concerned with sequence than rhythm. It squashes the human spirit. The master plan becomes the master.” ((Ibid., 116)) Some would say that’s putting a very specific spin on the concept of cooperation, but I think it can often be like that. Someone calls a group together, presents a goal, and says, “Alright everyone – I’d love your cooperation with this.” Basically they’re saying, “Do this my way and we won’t have any problems.” However, the idea of collaboration is much different – it’s saying “Let’s actually work together, create together, come up with something new that really works together!”
Finally, Myers takes a theological spin on this idea of leadership and community functioning and asks what our relationship with God looks like (or should look like) – one of cooperation or collaboration? Surely there will be some different ideas about this – but I agree that it should be one of collaboration – not cooperation. Myers writes, “A theology of God as creator of organic order, however, allows for collaboration with him. We are privileged to participate with him in the forming of our future. He invites our ideas, our energy, our creativity, our perspective. He gives up a measure of control to facilitate relationship with us and to demonstrate his love.” ((Ibid., 130-1)) I love that image of a relationship with God – and is one I can really look forward to living and look forward to sharing with others.
I have always enjoyed Joe Myers’ writing, and so I look forward to whatever next book he comes out with. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the ideas behind creating community in a church or other setting.