Friday, October 19, 2007


Intentionality seems to be a buzzword these days in church circles. The idea is that whatever we're doing--worship, preaching, evangelism, decor, cell groups, niche ministries--we should become conscious of why exactly we're doing what we're doing and how we're doing it and what it conveys to people so that we can better tailor what we're doing for maximum effectiveness at whatever it is that is our goal.

This would seem to be wisdom, if it weren't for my having read Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions.

Sowell's book has nothing to do with faith or church or theories of evangelism. What it is, is an attempt to explain why the same people group together around various political issues which apparently have little to do with one another. Sowell's theory is that political positions relate to how a person views human nature--as essentially constrained or unconstrained. The unconstrained vision, roughly identifiable with liberal or socialist politics, views humanity as essentially perfectible, and therefore has a more negative view of history and tradition and a greater willingness to embrace change and social experimentation. The constrained vision, roughly identifiable with conservative politics, views humanity as essentially limited, and therefore is more skeptical of the possibilities inherent in experiments in social change, and has a more positive view of history and tradition.

The unconstrained vision regards humanity as on a journey toward perfection. The present generation is therefore farther along on this journey than past generations have been, so present-day ideals and mores are to be preferred to those of the past or of tradition. Moreover, particular individuals are more advanced than the rest, so their views are to be preferred to those of the hidebound majority. It is, finally, by the conscious foresight and will of these enlightened individuals that humanity advances.

The constrained vision regards humanity as limited and potentially dangerous to itself. The accumulated wisdom of generations past, conveyed in its traditions and rituals, is to be preferred to the vicissitudes of present-day innovators. There may be reasons beyond our understanding for some of these traditions. We should be wary of the law of unintended consequences: what we change may have ramifications beyond what can be predicted.

No one is perfectly constrained or perfectly unconstrained in their views. But the constrained view accords more nearly with the biblical view of humanity. Although created in the image of God, we are only an image; we cannot be God himself. And we are fallen. Even redeemed, there is much in our minds and hearts that has not been perfected. And we are not the agents of our own perfection: God is.

The idea that we should be intentional about what we do as believers, individually and corporately, assumes that we can know what the goal of our actions is, or should be, and that we can adjust our methods better to achieve that goal. But that comes from more of an unconstrained view. Can we truly know all of the reasons God calls on us to worship, or to witness to our faith, or to gather together for mutual edification? Is it possible that we may exaggerate one reason and thereby frustrate others?

It appears to me that we have spent the last 20 years or so becoming increasingly intentional about what we do as Christians; we have tried to become more relevant to the world, more understanding, more accommodating. We try to understand how our services and our worship and our language are viewed by outsiders, and we've tried to adjust. But overall, we are losing ground as a percentage of the population.

Is it possible that we are not supposed to be conscious and intentional about what we do in our Christian life? Is it possible that our quest for intentionality is a quest for control, that we simply are not willing to do and be what God told us to do and be, because we think that if we figure it out, we can do it better? Should we perhaps worship in the way that we feel glorifies God best, without worrying about what impact we think we're making on others? Is it perhaps the best way to serve God to focus on Him, and let Him take care of the results?

Just a thought.

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  1. Hi Keith,

    I'm not sure I completely get the distinction that you're making here. Yes, I see real danger in assuming that we can dissect and categorize everything that happens in worship. And I understand how this can be a type of control. But I don't think many who are speaking of intentionality are going to this extreme.

    You wrote:
    Should we perhaps worship in the way that we feel glorifies God best, without worrying about what impact we think we're making on others? Is it perhaps the best way to serve God to focus on Him, and let Him take care of the results?

    These sound like great examples of being intentional in our worship! If we are not intentional at all in our church practices, that leaves us not having a clue why we're doing whatever it is we're doing. I think the danger of this approach is clear, and I also think there are far too many examples of this lack of intentionality.

  2. It begs the question to say, "Should we perhaps worship in the way that we feel glorifies God best?" What one person feels would "glorify God best" could (and often is) seem by another to be an improper concession.

    On the whole I agree with you on this, but 1 Corinthians 14 (for example) argues for some degree of concern for the impact our worship has on others. Certainly the pendulum has swung to far toward "felt needs" in many circles, but I would also be wary of a swing too far to the other extreme.

    A worship service is not just vertical but horizontal as well, not just about glorifying God but also edifying the Body. We must continually struggle ato find the balance between transcendence and immanence.

  3. Interesting--Curt's "great example" is Bob's begging of the question! To both--worship is merely one example (unless we take "worship" in a much more expansive sense than we usually do), not the only area in which I see this problem.

    Curt - first of all, welcome! Second, by "intentionality," I specifically mean trying to produce an effect on others that we think we can control by the methods and styles that we use. Intentionally dropping all that and just focusing on the God that we're worshiping is something different, and something I think I'd agree with.

    Bob - there's a difference between honest disagreements on what best glorifies God, and conducting our worship in a way that's designed not for the purpose of glorifying God at all (at least not primarily), but rather for a completely different purpose, related to what we think will attract more people (or achieve some other ulterior motive).

    It's the difference between Larry Norman sincerely trying to write music that was his own expression of faith in the musical language of his generation, and music execs pumping out product that they think will appeal to "the kids of today."