April 15, 2010

The Risk of Categories

Leading a group of people to develop a heart for others who do not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the right step.  It reflects the very heart of God.  John 3:16, the most familiar verse in the entire Bible, demonstrates this by saying “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NLT)  Jesus spent much of His life reminding those that followed Him that His mission was to help us have a restored relationship with God.  Any church that is seeking to follow Christ has to have a culture of helping people discover Him.
In our efforts to create these kinds of churches, however, it is easy to make the mistake of lumping people into categories.  Categorizing people is natural and at times necessary.  For example it is healthy to categorize people as adults and children.  On the other hand, it is destructive when we categorize people as rich and poor.
Unfortunately, when we categorize those without Jesus we often fail to recognize that being without a relationship with Jesus is common to everyone at some point in time.  When we begin to categorize those without Jesus more often than not we are building a numbness to the fact that we once were without Him.  The first and most destructive category that emerges is “we” and “they”.  Good leadership will build a culture of thought that will not allow insider vs. outsider categorizations.  We have to keep clear in our thinking that everyone begins without a relationship with Christ.  We have to protect against the risk of creating a culture that includes those who have made a decision to follow Christ and excludes those who have not yet made that decision.
We also have the tendency to try and describe those people who are without a relationship with Jesus.  We create stereotypes and preconceived ideas and perceptions.  In our attempts to make these descriptions we innocently create categories of people.  These categories can become self-defeating in that they keep us from seeing those people who do not fit within our categories as having a need for a relationship with Christ.  For example,  churches describe a group of people they are trying to reach as being the “unchurched”.  People who fit into this category were those who were not a part nor had ever been a part of a local community of Christ-followers.  While this description is helpful in allowing us to create types of programming and determining language, it causes us to fail to realize that there are people who need a relationship with Christ that are attending our churches.  If we indeed are on mission of helping everyday people become spiritually passionate Christ-followers, we have to guard against the risk of becoming too narrow in our focus.
The final risk in categorizing people is what I call the “individual definition.”  When we are focused on helping people discover a relationship with Christ we have to create a clear understanding of the needs and perspectives of those who have not yet chosen to follow him.  We easily then create methods of labeling or categorizing those people.  I have observed that sometimes those categories become the definition of power within the organization.  Here is what I mean:  1.  Someone starts participating in the church  2.  They hear that the church is trying to reach “unchurched” people  3.  They determine that they themselves are the target audience because they fit into the category of unchurched  4.  They begin to exert power over the direction of the church through the expressed or implied statement “I am your target audience, therefore, you should do what fits me.”  It is critical that the leadership protect against the “individual definition.”  When this is applied the church begins to move toward the narrowest of categories and can easily lose effectiveness against it’s original mission to help everyday people become spiritually passionate Christ-followers.
There are a few simple and practical measures that leadership can take to protect the church from the risk of categories.  First, work hard to make sure the mission statement of the church is an inclusive and not an exclusive statement.  The mission of any church should include the broadest group of people possible.  Second, avoid language that automatically categorizes people.  Resist the urge to place labels of sub-groups.  Instead discuss all types of characteristics of those whom you are trying to reach.  Third, model and train people to look and listen for anyone who manifests a need for Christ as opposed to a particular demographic of people.  Fourth, as you celebrate accomplishments of the vision be sure that your examples are broadly inclusive of many different types of people not simply one grouping.  Finally, continually remind yourselves and those who are following you that everyone begins without a relationship with Christ so we all have that in common.

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