The both-and debate continues – a rejoinder

Dave Williams has been blogging lately about a ‘both-and’ approach to utilising our resources. He has been broadly arguing in favour of recognising certain things as inherently important and thus to ask whether we should do X, Y or Z is the wrong question to ask. He argues we should be saying, all these are important and we will thus do all of them – we will simply run with whichever important priority we are able to tackle first.

I, on the other hand, think this is wrong. I think – although we may have several important priorities – we ought to prioritise our priorities. Rather than spending our scant resources on the first thing available, even if a worthwhile thing, we ought to put our limited resources into our most pressing priority (whatever that happens to be). You can read my first response to Dave’s posts here. You can also see some back and forth in this Twitter thread.

In his latest post, Dave wants to point out how evangelism and pastoral work can be a both-and situation. He highlights a particular evangelism strategy that ran through the vision, ‘when we do anything, our test is whether or not it will speak to men in their 30s’. This was (apparently) tempered with three points:

1. The church was deliberately correcting an imbalance where Christianity was seen as not for young men.

2. When they reached young men, then their families came with them and if the kids came too then grandparents were also there.

3. That the best thing they could do for the young women in the church was reach their husbands for Christ.

Dave lands on the third of these points and wants to notice that this evangelistic strategy was also a solid pastoral one. See how this church made a ‘both-and’ decision and ultimately saw pastoral care and evangelism intertwined?

Well, though Dave doesn’t want to land on it, I think that evangelistic strategy sucked. I don’t buy point #1. When churches try to ‘correct’ imbalances, they have a tendency to over-correct and lean unheathily in another direction. I have sat in churches, as one in a young child-less couple, in which the vision for ‘families’ has been stated ad nauseam and – despite claims (that is, private claims in reaction to your raising the point) saying otherwise – the only inference to be drawn is that if you are not a family, we essentially don’t want you. At best, it sounds very much like ‘we’ve got enough of your kind’. I find these sorts of overly narrow visions/missions decidedly anti-gospel.

What is more, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. We will determine those we want to reach and we will make a strategy to reach them. There is no sense in that mission statement that we will simply reach the people roundabout us nor that we are grateful for the people the Lord has chosen to save in our midst. That mission statement is pointed and specific about whom it will reach, which necessarily makes it exclusive and an implied statement that if you are not a man in your 30s you can, literally, go to Hell. Rather than thank the Lord for those he has brought in, or for placing us in our particular community with its specific demography, and forming a mission statement that bears some reference to these things, we instead determine who we want and will emphasise them at the expense of others.

I am, similarly, not sold on the third point. This is the one of which Dave wants us to take note. He lauds the sentiment. Isn’t the best thing we can do for the members of our church to help lead their family and friends to the Lord? Won’t this make them most happy?

But, once again, I want to argue this is not a both-and situation. Actually, it seems to me the both-and being argued for is, in point of fact, a prioritising of whom they want to reach. The (potential) both-and here is a question of whom we ought to reach with the gospel. It seems to be the one both-and they chose to eschew. Instead, they seem to have prioritised pastoral support to their members, which lead to an evangelistic approach of specifically targeting men in their 30s, at the expense of reaching swathes of other people. This is not really a lesson in a both-and approach – it is a clear example of prioritisation; not a good example at that.

Clearly, doing pastoral care or evangelism is a both-and situation. The difference here, however, is that no matter how well or poorly we do either, there is no limitation to doing both. Many forms of pastoral care and evangelism are free and simply require a person to do them. Likewise, everyone’s time is filled with a combination of things. There is no reason a person cannot split their time between caring for those in the congregation and reaching out to those outside. It is the fallacy of the excluded middle to suggest we must spend all our time doing one or the other and thus the best approach is a technique that kills two birds with one stone.

The only limit on us is our time. One person may be able to offer effective pastoral care to a handful of people but might not be able to do so to 200 people. Likewise, one person may be able to engage in a certain level of evangelism but might not be able to grasp hold of all the opportunities available to the congregation. This, however, leads us into a few either-or scenarios. Which evangelistic opportunities do we take at the expense of others? What sort of pastoral care are we in a position to offer? Which means to supporting others to do these things are we able to do?

The fact is that when I am in the open air, I am not offering pastoral counsel to my members. When I am sat in the church office counselling my members, I am not sharing the gospel with unbelievers. I, like all other people, have a finite amount of time available to me. Presuming some need to sleep and discounting the need to eat (or recognising some of these things may be done over food) that gives me about 16 hours a day, before recognising the need to build in rest, family time and a host of other things that inevitably take me away from direct evangelism and pastoral care.

This, dear reader, means I have to make a series of either-or decisions. Do I spend time with my family or take up that evangelistic opportunity? Do I counsel that member in my office or share the gospel with that unbeliever after the service? Do I favour men in their 30s or do I form an missions strategy based on the people in my community? Do I create a mission strategy that makes the church reach out to serve some members of the church or do I reach out to all people and equip members to do so which, in turn, will help them reach their own friends and family.

Whatever your answer to those questions – or the unstated excluded middle that you are inevitably thinking of now – these are either-or decisions. Our time, money and other resources are finite. We may not be able to reach them all. We have to choose to do some things at the expense of others. Often our pastoral strategy and mission strategy, whilst not at odds, are not able to be fully realised together. Painting it as a both-and decision is simply trying to rebrand an either-or decision as something better than it is.

The both-and approach feels like it is offering a level of hope to those who believe we will press in a particular direction when we have no ability to do so. We have to be clear about our gospel priorities with our church membership and be equally clear on why we are pressing in one direction and not another. It feels a bit like cowardice, or smacks of corporate PR, to pretend otherwise.

10 comments

  1. We need to be Christians 100% of the time. What we need is WISDOM to decide what to do now and next. There is a time for street preaching, and a time for visiting a sick church member. We make prioritised plans using wisdom, then we alter them using wisdom.
    It takes wisdom for a teacher of the law to put aside the priority of word ministry to help the mugging victim on the road to Jericho.
    It is not wise for a minister to “deprioritize” basic acts of compassion to zero, but of course the main job is to prepare and train others for works of service so delegation and training is going to be a high priority.
    Wisdom brings the weight of the entirety of scripture to bear on each decision made and so it is very difficult to come up with short pithy priority rules of thumb.

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  2. 1. It looks to me like you’ve jumped to some assumptions about the American church I used in the example. 2. Re your starting paragraph, once again, that’s not the argument I was/am making. The argument I am making is that a. Sometimes (not always) you will be presented with what looks like an either or choice. b. You will realise that you are being asked to choose between 2 things that you need to do. They are both equal priorities. Every day life is full of situations where we have to do both/and not either/or. c. That not only are there situations where we shouldn’t make an “either/or” but there are situations where we can do both – and that these are more often than we think. d. That asking the “can we do both” question is a good way of challenging our assumptions and getting us thinking about whether or not we have framed the question right. e. Just to repeat, there are plenty of times when it is genuinely an “either/or” decision but asking and pressing on the “both/and” question is simply a helpful way of challenging our thinking.

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  3. I don’t think anyone – as I said in my first response – has a problem with the question ‘can we do both?’ Typically, churches would be glad to do more than one thing. But it is usual that resources limit our scope to work.

    It still feels to me like you’re dressing up effective either/or decisions with a both/and gloss. More often than not, important priorities have to wait because they are not the pressing priority and resources won’t allow us to do both. We can call this a both/and or we can just acknowledge it’s not and we have to prioritise.

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  4. Thanks Stephen,1. Maybe you could clarify in your original articles What my argument is and that your disagreement is primarily about terminology (although I suspect it is still at least a little to do with how often both/and is possible)? 2. In terms of that terminology question , the reason I’m saying ” both and” is because I want to emphasise both that there are times when you need both issues resolving and that it is possible to solve both. Secondly, I recognise that there is a challenge in terms of those situations where you are prioritising WHEN and HOW to do something because you are prioritising but this is different to prioritising WHETHER to do something. This is important because if e are saying that x wil come before y but people learn that whenever we choose to do x that y never happens we are running into sticky territory. The point is that we are genuinely attempting to do both in a realistic time frame . It isn’t just that we aspire or hope to do something. So that’s why I am using that language but if you find it frustrating and unhelpful then I am not precious about the terminology. I’m not about to try and launch the Both-And steps to Church life book, website and programme any time soon?

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  5. Yes, I suspect we are arguing about terminology to some degree but also I get frustrated about lack of realism. That is not a counsel of despair but I do get infuriated by unrealistic expectations and stated desires. I feel we are too quick to dress our situations up too often. I appreciate this isn’t what you are arguing for but it is how it comes across a bit.

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  6. I suspect that probably tells us as much about how your problem solving brain works as anything. NB dare we even broach the point that there is a third option on the table. It’s not just do either or v do both/and. The third option is “Do neither.” The reality is that often people end up with this option by default

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  7. Honest question, genuinely intrigued, it tells us what about my problem solving brain?

    Yes, though, agree ‘do nothing’ is worst option. In fact, it is doing something; it is just committing to decline.

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  8. Just get the feeling this discussion would have been shorter if presented as a series of logic gates where one of the decisions is either do both or don’t do both 🙂 NB do neither isn’t necessarily the worst option it depends what doing neither is the alternative to. Nb neither is not the same as nothing. If we had been presented with the choice rebuild on site or buy elsewhere 5 years ago then we would have chosen neither.

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