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Modern Risk Management Lessons from the Book of Revelation: Addressing Pastoral Risks in the Church of Ephesus

Wednesday 3rd July 2024

The image of the laid back Aussie, whilst ingrained in the world’s psyche is further from the truth than you might think.

Australians might be the most nervous people in the world. A study from Deakin University found Australian parents are among the most risk-averse in the world. Infosys surveyed 9000 people across nine countries and again found Australians to be among the most risk averse. And contrary to popular wisdom, Australian young people might be more risk averse than older people. So, Australians are good at worrying, but are we worrying about the right things?

Risk? Should we take risks? If so, what risks? We want churches and spaces which are engaging for the sake of Jesus. Throwing a ball doesn’t sound that risky and yet the ‘perfect storm’ for me occurred when a visiting teenage boy was struck by a stray ball while walking into a youth group for the very first time. He was knocked out - both out of the room and out of consciousness.  It turned out OK, when he came to, he said the group was ‘fully sick’ and wanted to go back. But not all stories of risk end like that. Churches are of course aware of their public liabilities with respect to Risk Management (RM). As organisations that regularly host large groups, hopefully composed of at least some newcomers, and occasionally with vigorous activities, many have Risk Management Committees that perform a vital task.

Risk management tools are used in the course of many workplaces and church ministries.The basic principles of Risk Management (RM) are identification, analysis, control, financing, and claims management. What if we applied these principles to the ‘Letters to the Seven Churches’ in Revelation? What could we learn about risk from a Biblical perspective? Occupying chapters 2 & 3 of the book, these seven letters from the Apostle John to churches in modern-day Turkey outline a variety of challenges faced by these congregations, and some serious outcomes they faced if those challenges were not met. John also advises a variety of control measures, tailored to each situation. 

Risk Analysis Table 1

Commonly used RM tables require possible events to be rated across two axis in order to give an incident rating.(See Above) These are the first steps in the risk management process. That is identifying the risks and analysing the risk. The questions being asked are ‘is something likely to occur’ and if so what level of impact would that incident have.

Let’s apply a table like this to the letter to the Ephesian church and see what happens

Risks identified: It seems the Ephesians have already identified ‘wicked people’ and ‘the practices of the Nicolaitans’ as significant risks. It’s hard to know if these are the same group, or different groups, or what those practices might have been. However, in any case, the most important thing is that the church has identified the risk.

The Spirit also identifies ‘forsaking first love’ as a significant risk. But is that love for Christ, or love for each other? Perhaps John was ‘purposefully ambiguous’(Fee, 2011, p. 27), as the two are so closely related in both his gospel (John 13:35) and his Epistles (1 John 4:20). Whatever the object of the love is, the significance is that the church has not yet identified this loss as a risk.

Risks analysed: The Ephesians have already taken steps to mitigate the risk posed by the ‘wicked people’. As such, it seems the probability can be considered ‘unlikely’.

With respect to the frequency, of ‘forsaking first love’, at some level it has already taken place – the church has already ‘fallen’ from it’s first love. In this case it is not ‘if’, or even ‘when’, but rather ‘now’. So perhaps it is better to say that the risk is not so much that the church will fall from it’s first love, but that it will fail to realise that it already has done so. What is the probability that this failure might take place? As with so many RM decisions, there is an element of subjectivity. On our matrix it is clearly ‘possible’ – would John have warned people if it were not? Should it be ‘likely’ or even ‘very likely’? That is difficult to say, but as the next section shows, it is a moot point.

Perhaps we would consider the severity as ‘catastrophic’ – a threat not simply to attaining objectives, but an existential threat to the organisation. “I will remove your lampstand from it’s place” seems likely to be a metaphor for the extinction of the church, an outcome that would certainly compromise it’s objectives! Some have objected that the ‘punishment does not fit the crime’. In other words, a failure to love does not seem to warrant the end of a church. But in the thought of John, perhaps failure to love is a complete failure.

So, regardless of whether the probability is ‘possible’, ‘likely’, or ‘very likely’, it can be seen that the severity of the consequences places ‘forsaking first love’ in the ‘red zone.’

Controls recommended: The verbs used by the author are ‘consider’ and ‘repent’; a process of significant and sober self-reflection. This is to be followed by action, ‘Do the works you did at first.’ 

Application: First, there is a significant difference between how the Spirit assesses the risk to the church, and the perspective of the church itself. The Ephesians have identified and acted on some of the risks but are yet to identify others. It seems the church was hard at work with their deeds and testing of false apostles, but had not fully understood their situation. Perhaps the most important application from all of these letters is the capacity we have as Christian leaders to be, if not blissfully ignorant, then perhaps busily ignorant.

Second, is it possible we could win the cultural battle but lose the war? Many churches today feel themselves to be in some level of conflict with the surrounding culture. And to be sure, the Ephesians Christians are commended for not tolerating wicked people and hating the practices of the Nicolaitans. But at the same time we cannot forsake our first love, either for Christ or his people. As important as standing firm in the faith is, it will not result in us obtaining our objectives if it comes at the cost of genuine devotion to Christ or self-sacrificial concern for our brothers and sisters. To fail to love Christ, to fail to love others, or to neglect the deeds that come from that love, is a catastrophic failure.

What next? Perhaps you are ready to try this exercise on the other six letters that begin the book of Revelation. This would be a helpful exercise. But don’t leave the message of the Ephesians on the page. Risk Management tools are meant to be put into action by helping us adjust our practices. What could genuine devotion to Christ or self-sacrificial concern for our brothers and sisters look like in practice?

Graeme Dunkley lecturers in Missions at Morling College. He has previously served with his family in a number of far-flung places seeing God at work in all sorts of ways.

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