I recently came across Dave Gibbons’ small book, Small Cloud Rising. I know nothing about Dave Gibbons or his ministry aside from the little I gleaned in reading the book, but I’ve been blogging about a “post-consumer” version of the Church, and I want to interact with some of his ideas as a means of continuing that discussion.
Gibbons’ book is clever, thought-provoking, and engaging. The book uses clouds as a metaphor for our approach to “doing church.” Gibbons uses Babel as a symbol for a typical consumeristic church, the kind of church that he had originally set out to create. Babel builds a tower up through the clouds in order to make a name for itself, in order to build an empire. He contrasts this approach of rising through the clouds in greatness with the story of Elijah waiting for rain to end the drought in Israel. The answer to Elijah’s prayer came with a small, barely noticeable cloud on the horizon. Gibbons uses this image of a small cloud to represent God’s people joining together to flow out into the world and bring God’s blessing.
Gibbons says that he had tried to build a grand church around his dream of what a church could do in his town. But he became uneasy with this approach, realizing that it would require the mass-production of church members in a one-size-fits-all pattern.
“Instead of rallying people around the pastor’s dream, I wondered: What if we equipped our people to discover—and live—each person’s God-given destiny?”
This is an important question to ask. It’s not wrong for church leaders to have a vision for their churches, but Gibbons’ question pushes us beyond what we might like to see our churches accomplish, and invites us to dream about what the unique people that God has brought around us might accomplish if we equipped them according to their gifts and callings. He continues:
“The effort to build more walls required a one-size-fits-all training manual focused on unleashing the power of the mass. Names are not really necessary for achieving the success of someone else’s dream. In a nameless culture, everyone began to:
Look the same.
Do the same.
Require the same.
Conform to the norm.
It was all the same kind of same in a place without names.”
Gibbons became very concerned about knowing people’s names, knowing their stories and abilities and passions, rather than simply calling them to fall in line with church-created programs designed to mass-produce disciples in a common mold. He confesses that the church had originally functioned this way:
“Instead of knowing their names, we asked them to sign up.”
“Nearly all of our job descriptions engaged projects and programs inside our walls. We asked an entrepreneur to lead a church Bible study and requested an artist to paint crosses in the nursery. Most of our resources went to creating spectacle and precious little into shaping lives. By failing to know and equip our people, one creation at a time, we defrocked them of their priestly roles in the real world. We began to witness mechanically and call that evangelism. Because we looked more and more the same, we branded others because unique people scared us.”
I want to be clear that I don’t know enough about Dave Gibbons or his ministries to know whether or not I would advocate the solution he came up with. But I do find his questions and many of the concepts he wrestles with in Small Cloud Rising compelling. We might find Gibbons’ probing questions threatening, as if he’s saying that all of our hard work in creating programs to minister to people is worthless or harmful or self-focused. But I don’t think we need to take it that way. Instead, I think we should take this as a challenge, and we should push ourselves to dream a little. Don’t start with the logistics, just dream about what could be:
- What if we could get to know the individual people in our churches?
- What if we could find those areas in each person’s life where they are unusually gifted and passionate?
- What if we could find a way to equip each person according to their unique situation?
- What if we could send people out of our church walls with an understanding of the mission that God has given them and how that fits with their unique talents, passions, and experiences?
- What if we could resource our people as we sent them out, so that every time they hit a snag in furthering God’s kingdom beyond the church walls, the pastors and the rest of the church body were right there, offering support, creative solutions, and a never-ending supply of encouragement?
The truth is, we can be overly critical of our churches. Our churches are not doing everything wrong. But I love these sorts of challenges. I love calls to dream about what the church could be. I love imaginative suggestions as to how we might embody discipleship in our churches and how that might flow out into the surrounding communities. If we would all engage in this imaginative process more often, we would find it easier to move beyond the consumeristic rut that many of our churches have fallen into.