Western Christianity, including in New Zealand, is facing a crisis in the face of ever-growing secularism. Trevor Geddes believes that, as for any team in trouble, the solution lies in going back to basics.

Imagine a rugby match where the coach rushes onto the field, grabs the ball out of the hands of the half back and takes charge of his or her team’s game. Later they do the same with a winger—in fact they keep popping onto the field and taking over. Assume for the moment that the rules of the game were vague enough to allow such a thing to happen!

If the coach is a star player in their own right, some of the supporters will probably support the coach’s actions, but what will be the long-term consequences for the team?

Or imagine the captain of a team insisting the ball always be passed to them before it gets passed to another player. Or that before the half back or any other team member passes the ball to another or kicks the ball downfield, they need the captain’s permission. What would such a team performance look like?

The natural reaction is, of course, “Hang on, that’s not the role of the coach! That’s not the role of the captain!”

Role confusion!

We have at least a rough idea of the role of a coach or a captain in sport, but what about when it comes to churches and those who lead them? For example, is the pastor, or the senior pastor in the case of a larger church, a coach? Or the captain of the team? Or the star player?

Have you noticed how sometimes a church is referred to by the name of the person ‘leading’ it? But few, even in Dunedin, think of the Highlanders rugby team as ‘Ben Smith’s team’. And we expect them to perform well and probably win—not all Kiwis have this luxury!—whether he is available to play or not. Sure, we enjoy his play and praise his ability, but many of us from the South particularly enjoy the effect he has on the players around him and how he celebrates their success. Most of the game we don’t even notice him.

Yet when I am out of Dunedin and attending a church, often what I see in church services leaves me with the feeling that the ‘team’ were mostly absent that Sunday. The pastor keeps popping up: giving a key notice, taking a key prayer, giving the message, leading communion—some denominations even make it a rule that this must happen—and closing the service. It leaves me wondering, “Whatever happened to the team?”

When I read the letters to the churches in the New Testament, leaders of any form are rarely mentioned and, even then, seldom by name. That does not make leaders unimportant because importance does not equate to prominence in the kingdom, but it means they saw church differently back then.

What needs to change?

So, is there another way for the modern church to operate? And what would need to change? I suggest the following.

  1. Leaders need to find significance in things other than their own performance. They need, like a team coach, to gain their greatest satisfaction out of the team itself, and to find the greatest joy when they are least noticed because the team does well. Sure, the discerning will recognise a well‑coached team, but most won’t notice them.
    This is much more difficult than it sounds. Church leadership puts leaders in front of people. Inevitably their own performance is put in the spotlight. Church leadership often attracts people who want to stand in front of others and be in the spotlight, though of course this is not true of all who lead churches.
    It is time to ponder how this can be changed. There is a natural human model to draw from: parents derive great pleasure in their kids doing well. They often take more pleasure in boasting about their kids’ performance than their own. Maybe church leaders need to adopt more of a parent outlook, as Paul did with his churches.
    However it happens, leaders need to find significance in things that encourage and promote the team, not themselves.
    And this needs to apply equally to other members of a pastoral team, to elders, worship leaders, etc.
  2. Church attendees need to see themselves as part of a team. As followers of Jesus we need to learn to play our part to the best of our ability and then to celebrate the team’s performance. For it is not only those appointed to lead churches who are tempted to seek their own prominence. In other words, it becomes about the kingdom for all of us, with an understanding that Jesus wants his whole team to be in the game. And to believe him when he says that whoever humbles themselves will be exalted and whoever exalts themselves will be humbled (Matthew 23:12).

Jesus built his church on team

We need a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking. And leaders will have to lead this change, by learning to excel in building and promoting teams without thinking of themselves.

At the centre of this lies the need to remember who the church really belongs to and who really does lead the church—at least when it is operating as it should. If we really took our time to listen to him, laying aside our agendas and our desire to be significant in the eyes of other people, I believe we would start a revolutionary change. And because God is into team we will rediscover team through him.

That will be a great journey! Being in a good team is a wonderful thing. God speaks to such teams.

Story: Trevor Geddes

Trevor led the team at Dunedin City Baptist for 33 years, co-leading with Bruce Elder for the last five years, before stepping down in February to move on to other things. One of those other things he and his wife, Helen, are involved in, is the education of children with special needs, here and in Asia.

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.