The phenomenon of energy exchange

What is it? And how does it apply to church life and, more importantly, church growth?

Pete Harper,a retired minister, writes from Young, New South Wales, Australia.

It was our first appointment after graduation. Coming from years of farming background, my wife and I moved into the new pastoral intern assignment with much anticipation to learn and work. But it turned out that for most of the first year, the senior pastor was away, and I, in a sense, was the pastor. The evangelistic outreach conducted the following year did not go well, and among the members the church morale was very low. The congregation was not that involved in the outreach program anyway, nor did they have one social event in more than two years. They were overcrowded in their primitive facility and resided in a major growth area of the city. The membership was mostly young families having limited income capacity for any renovation. In fact, their plan for a new building was limited to architectural drawings made some seven years earlier, and their building fund balance had not increased during those years.

At the end of my second year, I was appointed senior pastor. Early in February, with the members settled down after the holiday period and school concerns, I called a business meeting. I asked the members if they wanted a new church building, knowing perfectly well they didn’t.

“No, we don’t,” they responded.

“Neither do I,” I responded. “What would you like to do with the architectural plans?”

After a long silence, one timid voice squeaked, “Can’t we draw up our own?”

“Sure, I see no reason why you should not,” I replied.

Another long silence, eventually broken by an elder, who said, “I am actually a draftsman by training. You tell me what you want, and I will draw it up for you.”

The church was reborn that night. Energy exchange had begun. Each was empowering the other. Over the next 90 minutes we thrashed out what we really wanted in a new building, and how we wanted it to look. Before we concluded the meeting, we arranged for a social evening when we would first have some fun, then lay before the entire membership the proposals that had come out of the meeting. Those proposals would be (1) the new drawings for the church on display for member inspection; (2) organizing the membership for fund-raising; (3) an appeal to members to kick-start that famished building fund by personal donations.

I had no role in these proceedings. The entire evening was under the leadership of newly appointed leaders of various departments—Social Committee, Fund-Raising Committee, and others. One member, the only one who could be described as moderately well-to-do, promised a significant donation. Over the next two years, the church building fund was growing at a rapid rate. At the end of the second year, construction began.

Energy exchange: a component of community

As a fragile component of community life, energy exchange is a sociological phenomenon, and religion can use it effectively. At that time I obviously had no neat conceptual apparatus to define what was happening, and I find it easier to describe what takes place than to explain why and how. We can talk of giving people ownership of those things that are of collective importance to them, but energy exchange has little to do with selfish motives. On the contrary, it awakens a spirit of sacrifice, of giving of oneself to a higher cause. However, as morally and qualitatively neutral, energy exchange will work for evil as effectively as for good.

Workings of energy exchange do not have any conceptual, spiritual, ethical, or practical boundaries, with its empowerment available to saint and sinner, the upright and the criminal, as it moves across the spectrum of community activity. Continuing the story outlined above, that church had not seen kingdom growth for a number of years. Yet in those two years we saw 31 baptisms. Once the members had that fire in their belly, members would come to me at church and say, “Peter, we have made friends with the couple next door to us, and she is an ex-Adventist. Do you think you should visit them?” Another might say: “Look, there’s this fellow at work. He’s been critical about the Sabbath. Lately he seems to have changed, for he even asks me questions. Could you drop around and see him?” The dynamism of the Holy Spirit was now touching the community.

Discovering spiritual gifts

The burst of energy the members experienced moved across the divide from their preoccupation with the new church to be built to a previously unknown awareness of spiritual placement in the wider community. They had not the slightest notion they were actually witnessing to people in their day-to-day life. There was not a shred of intentionality about what they did, but they were the real factor in that startling jump in membership. I just did my job—visits and Bible studies.

While not necessarily pain-free, energy exchange may engender interpersonal conflict, especially when entrenched power structures are threatened. Another church to which I was appointed had existed for the past 35 years with the same head elder. It seemed as though he owned it. As could be expected, it had been in steady numerical decline for much of those 35 years and had a social structure that could be cut with a knife. There were the leading office bearers, and then the rest of the church members. Midway through the first of our five years there, I realized what the leading elder actually meant when he told me on our first Sabbath, “Whatever you do here, we will support you.” The we was the operative word, and what he actually meant was, “I run this place; you play ball, and I can deliver.”

I took my own path, and the church members caught on. Here and there personal views and opinions began to be publicly expressed that would not have been privately breathed a year earlier. Three times this elder tried to have me shifted, but in the end he took his membership elsewhere. Even long before he moved, however, energy exchange had kicked in, and from that point, the church experienced regular baptisms, growing well beyond its previous high in membership.

What I am writing about here describes a dimension inseparable from the freedom of the human spirit to respond to its deepest longings and convictions. While on the one hand, energy exchange requires leaders and followers, on the other, it necessitates the integration of the individual ethical consciousness into a communal consciousness of similar ethical grounding. Thus the body becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and its wider influence through the general community is inevitable. The spirit of servant-leadership, modeled so profoundly by Jesus, took hold of the disciples, and from them it swept through the Jerusalem community. Individuals are never so free as when they become embodied by personal choice and desire in an individually empowering environment. Perhaps that is as close as I am able to come to a definition.

Empowering members to participate

With variations, we have experienced energy exchange in some other churches. Never automatic as a result of technique or theory, trivial circumstances can dampen energy exchange overnight. With control as its greatest enemy, effective leadership means giving people freedom to speak, to try, and to do; control means the denial of that freedom. I have had my fingers burned more than once through my willingness to let go of the reins and give people that freedom or through doing things in an unconventional manner, but there is really no alternative if we are to be honest to our calling. If ever there was a person who took risks with people, it was Jesus. “ ‘It is to your advantage that I go away’ ” (John 16:7, NASB). What an incredible thing for Him to say!

Control is not playing safe, nor is it protection for the body. With that as the standard excuse, control can be defined as a fabrication and a denial of individual inner freedom. Control seeks power.1 It brings death to energy exchange, for it cuts the flow—the reciprocation of energy—and requires that the energy of the body be channeled toward one unit or cell that has set itself above and over the body and sucks the life-force from it. “All such control mechanisms are self-defeating. The more conduct is institutionalized, the more predictable and thus the more controlled it becomes. . . . The more, on the level of meaning, conduct is taken for granted, the more possible alternatives to the institutional ‘programmers’ will recede, and the more predictable and controlled conduct will be.”2

Two elements for church vibrancy

Two key elements in establishing vibrancy of church life are worship and social interaction.3 Worship is primary, but the social element in church life is equally indispensable, for without it worship may become ritualistic regardless of how “contemporary” we try to make it. The other hazard, which is becoming pervasive in some divine services, can be described as a deliberate casualness attached to the worship hour. This is a subconscious attempt to conflate worship and play because the body has not been led into structured social life, distinct from worship. Life of the church as a body, and with it the energy exchange, shrinks when the whole body does not participate in social life. Energy exchange enhances body life, but it will never realize its potential if worship and play are not distinctive elements of the life of the church community. The mistake made by the people at the foot of Mount Sinai was not that they played; rather, it was that they combined worship and play.

Elias Canetti draws a distinction between the “open” and the “closed” crowd. “The closed crowd renounces growth and puts the stress on permanence. The first thing to be noticed about it is that it has a boundary. It establishes itself by accepting its limitation. It creates a space for itself which it will fill. . . . The boundary prevents disorderly increase, but it also makes it more difficult for the crowd to disperse and so postpones its dissolution. In this way the crowd sacrifices its chance of growth, but gains in staying power. It is protected from outside influences which could become hostile and dangerous, and it sets its hope on repetition. It is the expectation of reassembly which enables its members to accept each dispersal. The building is waiting for them; it exists for their sake and, so long as it is there, they will be able to meet in the same manner.”4

The stratifications of society at large and of religion in particular parallel each other regardless of the extent of secularization of society. In the west, people live in a society based on “civil religion.” The renunciation of power, and of the forms and codes of civil religion that certify that power, are the key to energy exchange. The manner in which a church comes to mirror the mores of the culture in which it is planted, even while resisting them, is something we know exists but fail to identify in ourselves. We battle it with our forms and codes, not realizing this is the failsafe mechanism of the culture around us, a mechanism guaranteed to prohibit the energizing influence of the Spirit. These words should in no way be seen as a “pitch” for congregationalism. In fact, quite the reverse.

Whatever term we choose for it, what we are considering must have its genesis in worship, otherwise it becomes a configuration of human creation: “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (Col. 1:19, NKJV). Pentecostals are familiar with the logistics of energy exchange, but they tend toward a technique of milking the congregation to achieve it. Jocular quips and other preaching modes are regularly inserted into the address, and ultimately the response can become automatic.

By contrast I will never forget the church service I attended in Dallas when,as a member of a Church Growth tour party in 1985, I heard W. A. Criswell preach. The humble warmth of the man, combined with his spiritual authority and his ability to make you feel he was talking to you, generated a strong reciprocation of energy.

“To truly catalyze the greatest amount of energy, to strike a resilient chord in the hearts of its people, to seize the day, a ministry must penetrate to a much deeper level. It must touch people at a level that gives their lives greater meaning and significance. How does a ministry accomplish this? . . . Values give servants a greater sense of meaning in their service, but not just any values and not just biblical values. The answer is shared biblical core values. . . . If any Christian ministry desires to capture the great energies and gifts of its people, it must share to some degree their common core values so that its people, in turn, find common cause with the organization, which leads to authentic biblical community.”5

Some congregations have worked through the exercise of setting their core values, and nothing happens. This may be for at least two reasons: First, the agreed-upon values may have been those the members thought they should have, rather than those their hearts dictated; second, the values are a veneer spread over the stereotyped mechanics of church life. Nothing has changed. That authentic biblical community has not come to pass. Until people are trusted, there will be no reciprocation of energy even if they have not earned that trust (see John 15:15, 16).

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn.,), 6:397; Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn.,), 212, 213, 301–304.

2 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 80.

3 White, Messages to Young People (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1974), 405.

4 Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), 17. Emphasis supplied.

5 Aubrey Malphurs, Values-Driven Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 22, 23.



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Pete Harper,a retired minister, writes from Young, New South Wales, Australia.

December 2006

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