Who Am I? Being True in a Pluralistic Society

by Mr Paul Martin

The title of this talk is an identity question - who am I and how to be true in a pluralistic society. What is pluralism? Pluralism is defined as the energetic engagement with diversity. You are probably aware of some the pluralistic sayings around today. Some people say truth is whatever you want it to be. Of course, pluralism does not want absolutes and does not want to have right and wrong. If it works for you, then that is fine, so long as you do not impose those beliefs on others. Diversity, in other words, has no absolute. Let us really be opaque so that we would not confront any issues because we will just be really friendly and accommodating to each other.
Jesus encountered pluralism
Perhaps, Christians have an identity crisis today. In the midst of a pluralistic society, do we know who we are or really know what we believe? Can we actually speak and say what we want to say? As I read the Bible, I find that Jesus encountered pluralism, so it is not a new phenomenon. The Bible tells us in Matthew 16 that one day, Jesus went to a town called Caesarea Philippi deliberately. In Jesus’ day, it was a very significant town. Caesarea Philippi was a very popular place for the prophets of Baal. The Greeks called it Paneas after their Greek god Pan. The Romans called it Caesarea Philippi after Caesar and Philip who was a ruler of Israel at that time. For all those groups of people, it was a very significant town. Perhaps, it was not surprising that our Lord should go to that town and turned to His disciples and asked them: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). Jesus knew because He knew everything but He wanted to engage His disciples and wanted to say as it were “What are people saying about me?” And they said: “Some say you are John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (16:14)
Jesus turned it right round and asked the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” So in the midst of a pluralistic society of His generation, Jesus went right to the source: “What did society say about who I am?” Jesus was interested in how He and His message were being received. “Who do men say that I am?” Perhaps if we turned that question on ourselves for just a moment and asked as we represent churches, various societies and charities here in Singapore: “What does our community say or think about us?” If our organisation ceased tomorrow, would the beneficiaries miss it? Would the people who really benefit from it miss us if we disappear today? Do we really care? Have we taken the time to find out?
Being true to God’s calling and to ourselves
Charities today are encouraged to evaluate their effectiveness, which really mean engaging effectively with our communities to see if they perceived that we are there, to see if they are benefiting from us being there, and are we scratching where they are itching? So when considering how we present ourselves in a pluralistic society, we need to be true to our calling of God and to ourselves. We cannot say to society one thing, if inwardly, we believe in something else. We do not fool God and probably not fool man either. I like a phrase that I have used a lot while working with charities in the United Kingdom. I say to them that you need to understand the onion skin principle - as a society peels the layers all the way to the core, it needs to see that we have integrity at the core and are true to our calling of God and ourselves.
In an age where we are looking for new ways to take the timeless Christian message of the gospel to society, we might want to consider whether the present vehicle we have in our charity, structure or organisation is the best way to do it today. Is it fit for the purpose? It may exist for many years, have a wonderful history, and a great legacy but today in 2010, are we really, really at the cutting edge? Perhaps, we are reluctant to ask this challenging question. After all, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, we need to get on with our mission” or “we have always done this before. The history and tradition of our organisation are very important; they got us to where we are today”. But they would not necessary take us into the future. Sometimes, people say, “the old ways are best and we are going to continue like that”.
However, times are changing, our message may not change but the target audience is changing and we need to change to meet it.
Enabling structures of a charity
The phrase I like to use is “enabling structures”. When looking at a charity, we need to ask: “Does our structure enable or hinder our work?” The structure of your organisation needs to have several characteristics. First, the structure should enable everyone to play his or her part. Whatever structure of your organisation, can everyone play a part in it? Do they fit in to the organisation? Second, an enabling structure should ensure the proper checks and balances are in place. Next, does the enabling structure enables compliance and good governance and ensure the main purpose of the organisation remains? An enabling structure will also facilitate the organisation’s success and succession. You will be able to bring in the next leaders, the next managers in line and they will be growing and understanding the organisation so that the baton can be passed on fairly easily to the next generation. Last and most important, an enabling structure will enable its survival.
Let us consider for a moment the main structural elements that we should have in a charitable organisation.
a) A vision (objective) - everybody needs to know what the objective of the organisation is and the reason for its existence.
b) A board (governance) – which looks after the governance of the organisation such as setting policies, ensuring compliance and ensuring that resources are effectively deployed in what they set out to do.
c) Leaders (management) - who will have to carry the work forward and work closely with the workers in the implementing of the organisation’s objectives.
d) Workers (implementation) - who will actually carry out the work.
The governing structure enables these four groups to link together so that the work is done effectively and the beneficiaries of the charity are helped. The size of the organisation will determine the degree of complexity of the actual governing structure itself but these are the four main ingredients that we would seek to see.
Re-thinking our governing structures
The things that caused us to re-think our governing structures, to decide whether we are doing the right thing, is efficient, fits its purpose, and has a future that can be sustained are due to various factors. I have listed a few of them:
a) Bloated administration - some workers involved in the administrative side, who are implementing the vision become demoralised. In these days of increased compliance, it is tempting to add more people to administration. It is okay if you are a big multinational company but in a charity, it could be overkill.
b) Internal dispute – such as staff relationship problems and personality issues.
c) External challenge – such as investigations or when someone takes us to court. Are we immune to this type of hits?
d) Declining effectiveness – such as becoming out of touch with our beneficiaries.
e) Financial shortfall - this always gets our attention when our expenses are more than our income.
f) Succession planning - the founder leaves and the mould has been thrown away. How do we pass on the vision to the next generation?
g) Operation opportunities - we are busy doing one thing and doing it quite well. Then, an amazing opportunity comes and we cannot let it pass. It will change the things we are doing, it is what we are praying and hoping all these years and it will put us in the big time. So let us go out and do it. Crash! Very often, that brings down charities. Opportunities may come along but it may not be the right thing for us. Flexibility is key.
h) A governance conference – now you know why you came to this conference!
i) God - we should constantly be in tune with God. God should be the one prompting us and nudging us. But the trouble is that we focus so much on doing the good work that we do not take time to go before God. Do we take the time to ask God? What is His will for this? What is your bigger plan? Let God direct us and we know that God will complete what He has started.
Irrespective of what we may think about our governing structure, society generally has a certain view on us as Christians, church leaders, charity workers and a charitable organisation. Sometimes, we need to take a little bit more time to think about and understand that. If your organisation closed down, would anyone miss it? Think also about the reaction of the media. Think about how society is looking at us and what they think of us so that we can make changes in our organisations as we take the timeless message of Jesus to them.
Perhaps, the important question to ask ourselves is would those we seek to serve in society find evidence of inconsistency between what we say and what we are? Our organisations will reflect the DNA of its leadership and so our personal attitude will impact and affect the organisation and its effectiveness. We believe that our organisation and work will have impact on the here and now, but it will have a greater impact on eternity. We are chosen and equipped by God to do good works and we shall each give an account of our stewardship of what have been entrusted to us. Our fidelity to our calling here on earth is therefore of primary importance
Let us come back to the title of this plenary message - how can we be true in a pluralistic society? Jesus asked His disciples this question. Peter came back with the answer and it was a good one: “You are THE Christ, THE Son of THE living God” (16:16). The important word in that answer is the definite article “THE”. You are not one of the gods, you are the One! I think how we can remain true as Christians in a pluralistic society today is to remember as Peter did our distinctiveness - who we are as men and women of God. Peter saw it very clearly and we need to as well so that we do not change in a way that puts aside our distinctiveness but change in a way that is God-honoring. This distinctiveness is going to encounter society with the timeless message we take and in the power of the Holy Spirit, it is going to see changed lives.

(This talk was given by Paul Martin at the LCF-EFOS seminar on “Blameless before God and Man” held on 30 October 2010 at Bartley Christian Church)