There is a common misconception about following God that is prevalent in the Christian community. This misconception is costing us dearly. As the saying goes, "it is not what you don't know that hurts you. It is what you think you know that is wrong that hurts you."
One expression of this is in the popular video series by Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God. (Just by the way, I am a total fan of Henry Blackaby and the book Experiencing God.) There is a question and answer session on the video. Henry Blackaby had been talking about discovering where God is working and following him. Prayer is a primary component in doing this. The question raised was, "When you seek to find where God is working through prayer, are the answers you get ever wrong? Do we ever hear wrongly?" Henry Blackaby paused to reflect and then said, calmly and confidently, "No. I don't believe that has ever happened to me." (By the way, I am going on memory so I may be a little fuzzy on the exact wording.)
I both admire and am jealous of Henry Blackaby and of anyone who never gets it wrong. At first, I felt badly about myself in this regard, because I have definitely gotten it wrong lots of times. As I have had the opportunity to talk to other believers about this, I have found that many have gotten it wrong. Henry Blackaby's testimony, it seems, is the exception, not the rule.
Still, this picture pursuits. We go to God in prayer, seeking His leadership about how to follow Him. We get an impression to go to this school or start this ministry or go at the work in this way. And this impression is always right. Or, so the theory goes.
Not so in many cases. As I think about it from a theological point of view, this all makes sense. I was taught that the Bible is inerrant and only the Bible is inerrant. To suggest that impressions are never wrong moves us into some shaky theological territory.
It is important because often, persistence in pursuing methods that clearly don't work is seen as a virtue. I want us to think about this together.
For me, following God has been much more experimental. It is somewhat like Paul's experience in Acts 16 where he sets out in this direction and the Spirit says, "No" so he goes off in that direction and the Spirit again said, "No." I assume that he was praying all along the way, but he discovered where God was moving by moving himself. He didn't just sit in his closet and pray and expect to get just the right answer as to where he was to go next. He prayerfully moved.
It is always easier for God to direct a moving target.
Sowing and reaping
God has hard-wired into the universe the iron law of sowing and reaping. It is succinctly stated in Galatians 6.7: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." Galatians 6:7 (NIV) God has promised that he will not break this rule, to do so would be to mock God.
What this means is that certain behavior gets certain results every single time. We live in a predictable universe. If you keep doing what you have been doing, you will get what you have been getting. And, we are told God's will in terms of results. We are told to go and make disciples of all nations. The question every believer, every church and every group has to ask is, "Is what we are doing (what we are sowing) getting results (what are reaping) that are congruent with what Christ told us to do (making disciples)? If it is not, and a reasonable time has expired, we would be well advised to scrap it and do something else.
One of the best ways to find out what will get the results we want is to try lots of stuff. Throw lots of seed on lots of soil and do lots of looking. As John Maxwell says it in the title of his book, Failing Forward. The gist is, "Try lots of stuff, keep what works."
This is also the philosophy of the excellent companies studied by James Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last. This incredible book does a detailed study of companies that have outperformed the market over a 50 year period. Compare the visionary companies to the general market in the following graph:
What did these visionary companies have in common? Well, a number of things, but one was this tendency to "try lots of stuff; keep what works." They experimented; they learned by doing.
Bob Russell has grown a huge church in Louisville, Kentucky (Southeast Christian). He tells his story in When God Builds a Church. Excellent reading. He tells a passing story about how they experimented with a kind of big band style of music for a while. It seemed this style was making a come back among the young people. Since it was also a style that was popular during their grandparents era, they thought was this was a style everyone would like. The young people would like it because it was in. The older people would like it because that was the hot music in their generation. Everyone wins.
They tried it. Everyone hated it.
What is the lesson here? Is it that big band music is not a good idea? Is it that we dare not ignore the baby-boomers? (Their parents and their kids liked it, but baby-boomers never got into this big band sound.) Is it to just leave the music alone? Wrong. Wrong. And, wrong. The secret at Southeast is not that they used big band music or didn't, or that they tried or didn't. The secret is their willingness to experiment. That is often how we follow God.
I have heard Rick Warren say many times, "We have tried far more things that didn't work than did." The tendency is to copy what they or some other successful church is doing rather than following the process that led them to do it. This process is often trying and failing, seeing what works, keeping that, throwing out the rest. That is the key to success.
I was talking to my friend, Lance Witt, who is in charge of small groups at Saddleback. He was telling me how they have done a whole new restructuring recently on their small group system, virtually eliminating the 1:5 coaching level so popular in many home group churches. "We are not completely sure if the new system will work or not, but we have very hard evidence that the old system did not. At least, not around here."
Another experiment at Saddleback that has led to breakthrough growth in their small group ministry is replacing teachers with hosts. This is something so profound, only Rick Warren could have come up with this one. Hosts do 4 things:
H - Have a heart for people
O - Open their homes
S - Serve refreshments
T - Turn on the TV. Saddleback's small group curriculum (soon to be released to the public) is all video based.
The key to success is failure. It is trying lots of stuff and see what works. Set your goals. I hope one of them is to help the world-wide, capital-C church double in the next 20 years by helping your Sunday School class or small group double every two years or less. Then, get moving. Try lots of stuff. Keep what works. Throw out the rest.