Mark Greene goes east to find some culture-changing DNA
I'm sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. And someone else is paying. Not a bad start.
We're in a private room. Yes, because it's easier to talk, but also, I suspect, because in this beautiful country it's illegal to evangelise Muslims, and 65 per cent of the people of Malaysia are Muslims. And you have to be careful.
Round the large circular table there's a group of leaders. Most of them are involved in churches with more than 1,000 members. I'm here to listen. In fact, I've flown 6,000 miles to listen. I'm not here because these men and women are involved in large churches. I'm not here because they planted those churches from the seed of an idea that God planted in them, or to hear stories of struggle and perseverance and the amazing, imagination-bursting grace of God - though I do, and his grace is amazing.
I haven't come to learn about some new church model, though almost all of these leaders have been influenced by the cell movement that emerged in Singapore and most of them were touched by the charismatic renewal of the 1970s. There are lots of places in the UK I might visit if that were the agenda.
No, I have come because I've been told that the DNA of these churches is different, that when most of these leaders eventually stopped doing two jobs, they never forgot that most people spend most of their time doing one job surrounded by people who don't know Jesus. These were people whose leadership skills and mission perspectives were honed in the twin crucibles of church and workplace. In fact, I'm here because I've heard that these leaders are people who believe that the role of the church leader is not to grow the church but to make disciples who cooperate with God to change the world.
A couple of days before, I'm in a Methodist church with 2,500 members. But I'm not here because it's big. It was once small and it would still have been interesting. I'm not here because it's brilliantly led, not because the attention to detail is extraordinary - there are 50 per cent more ladies' toilets than men's and they have a constant flush system which means that you don't have to wait for the cistern to fill up. No more queues - much more time for relationship. No, I'm not here to admire the infrastructure or the brilliant acoustics in the auditorium that used to be a Singer sewing machine factory, or the range of ministries to the poor and marginalised. I'm here because I've been told it's different - in its core understanding of discipleship and mission.
On the Sunday I preach in the church in English. There are about 1,700 people there. Afterwards, two things happen that I probably won't ever forget. The second is this. A seven-year-old Malaysian boy comes up to me and says, 'Pastor Greene, your pronunciation is very good.' He pauses and then adds, 'And your grammar too.' He's obviously not an avid reader of Christianity and isn't aware of just how many of my sentences don't have verbs or begin with 'and' or 'but'. But still I'm grateful. The first thing that happens that I won't forget is when Daniel Ho, the senior pastor, invites the congregation to respond to the message. 'If you want God to use you where you are during the week, at school, at work, in your neighbourhood'. If you want to see transformation where you are during the week, please stand and we will pray for you.' Now, such an invitation is a rare enough event in itself. What happens next is rarer. About 1,700 people stand. And he commissions them for their role in transforming God's world - not just ministering to people, not just evangelising people but transforming the bit of God's world he puts them in.This has very little to do with my preaching, though I hope, under God, I contributed. The message I was asked to bring is one they've heard before. Indeed, as I read afterwards, it's part of the church's vision. Here's what Pastor Daniel writes:
'My vision of the dream (local) church is of a church that seeks to reclaim the eight domains of human culture back for God. The eight domains or spheres are business, education, politics and government, the media, the creative arts and entertainment, sports, science and technology and the family.
'The church is seen to be an equipping station where members are given training and a vision to bring their gifts and capacities to bear in these domains of society to effect change and transformation. Members are constantly thrust forth to fulfil their call and role. It is not enough for a Christian, for example, to be an exemplary worker and a good witness for the Lord in one's workplace. It is not enough to lead some colleagues to the Lord, although that is highly commendable and to be desired. What we need to see happening is that one's workplace becomes so transformed that kingdom values and practice are the norms in the company. When that happens then we have fulfilled our role as 'salt' and 'light' in society. I believe that when these eight domains are restored back to the Lord then the Church would have moved into the mainstream of human culture bringing its contribution to bear at every level of society.'
So when Daniel asked the people of Damansara Utama Methodist Church (www.dumc.com.my) to stand in response to a sermon about transforming the everyday places we find ourselves in, he wasn't asking most of them to make a first-time response to a new message. He was asking them to reaffirm a previous commitment and seek the Lord's continuing help in pursuing it. Does your church have such a robust, comprehensive biblical vision for cultural engagement? Have you ever prayed corporately in such a way? Have you ever been commissioned like this? The interesting thing is that the leadership team really believes in each church member's capacity to reach and transform the bit of the world God has placed them in. For example, the church had a ministry to homeless people in a particular part of town. As the outreach grew and a gifted leader emerged from among the homeless community, what to do? Bring all the converted homeless people into the main church or plant a congregation where the homeless were? You know the answer.
The church Daniel leads has about 15 other pastors. I lost count. Only Daniel and two other pastors have been to theological college. It's not that he is anti theological college or formal training, he has a Doctor of Ministry. Rather, the key question he's asking is about calling and competence, not formal qualification.
So, for example, the pastor now in charge of youth discipleship used to be an accountant. First, she got involved with helping young people and was good at it. So she was given more responsibility and mentoring and eventually offered the job of directing all the youth training. One day she may need theological training and then she'll go. It's a different model. You don't advertise in a magazine and select someone from the available pool of youth workers - you discern the callings of the people in the church and disciple and train them to fulfil them. That was the way you did it when you didn't have the money to hire someone, so why would it need to change when you do have the money?
Well, it doesn't need to change if you have a disciple-making, gift-developing culture in which people are growing. It doesn't need to change if you have a non-clerical view of church, if you believe passionately that church is indeed the hope of the world but believe equally passionately that the church is there to equip people to be agents of transformation in it. And if you pursue a disciple-making vision for a few years then maybe God grows the people you need to help people grow.
Now, this is a perspective that I don't think any of the big church movements in the Western church have fully grasped. And this dynamic, outward-looking, disciple-making, people-orientated, Jesus-centred, culture-transforming focus is a perspective I've long hoped to see flourishing in many churches in the UK. It would be easier to visit them. Even if the Chinese food might not be so good and I'd probably end up footing the bill.