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Subterranean Spirituality

Ron Martoia, a ruggedly handsome man, is one of a new generation of leaders who is jumping into the 21st century with both feet. The senior pastor and “transformational architect” at Westwinds, a progressive church in Michigan, Martoia is a forward-thinking, forward-living minister who isn’t afraid of using society’s current cultural clothing to reach out to the lost (and the almost found). On the surface, Martoia is a really good pragmatic thinker, but at the intuitive level, Martoia is a ministry artist, using the materials around him (lay leaders, staff leadership, technology, architecture, etc.) to create a space for seekers to experience God.

Morph, Martoia’s first book, is the culmination of years of thinking about creative Christian leadership. For Martoia, Morph became the metaphor for the type of change a leader must go through to get to that place where he or she naturally “leaks” the good stuff of Christ. Though the book has a lion’s share of 21st Century suggestions, the core of Martoia’s message is as timeless as the gospel. Recently, Relevant had the chance to talk with Ron about leaking God, becoming a life-long learner, and resisting linear propositions.

[RELEVANT magazine:] Morph is obviously a book of the 21st century, but at the foundation, it seems to be a book about developing the character of Christ above everything else. Can you talk about this a little bit?

[RON MARTOIA:] Sure. I think what really motivated me to write a book like Morph, was the recognition that who we are automatically just comes out; it leaks. I think that if what we’re about is really attempting to see the life of Christ duplicated or incarnated again in our lives, then, in terms of leadership, it’s doubly important that what we leak or who we leak is Christ. Our dysfunctions, our hurts, our pains just naturally come out unless you’re highly into “image management”. So, at the basis of this leadership model is a sense of deep, deep spiritual formation, or inner morph as I call it in the book.

At the end of the day, the feel of our leadership team, the feel of our church is ultimately going to be a function of what we leak out. And, if Jesus isn’t at the core of what we’re trying to do or what we’re trying to reproduce in our culture…then we’ve got the wrong focus.

[RM:] So putting aside all the experiential worship, all the use of technology, a minister better be constantly letting the Holy Spirit develop him or her or…

[Martoia:] It’s about life long learning that starts first with learning more about who Jesus is. I mean, that’s what the word disciple means. The Greek word “Mathetes” means “learner.” Though, we have to be careful in our culture how we use the word “learner.” A lot of times when we use the word “learner,” we think “academic.” We don’t think “modeling,” we don’t think “lifestyle,” we don’t think “authentic, real, living it out.” There’s a lot of confusion in our culture today between information transmission and actual transformation. We’ve got to be saying, hey is it the life of Jesus that we’re actually living that’s at the foundation of how we lead?

One of the things that motivated me to do the book was this tendency to think that Christian leadership is about learning to put more Bible verses to our leadership techniques. It’s the cheese bag approach. It’s about saying, “If we could only find just a few more Bible verses about why delegation is important…” Well, that’s just cornball. We have to find something that’s more foundational, and that’s the leadership that naturally “leaks” Jesus.

[RM:] Let’s move on to the technological side of church leadership in the 21st century. Your church is obviously trying some out of the box type approaches…

[Martoia:] I think the place where we’re the most experimental is in our monthly worship event that we call “encounter.” In Morph I used the example of our “Desert” piece when we reproduced a desert in our auditorium. Every month, we’re constantly trying to do something that’s just a little bit different.

We just did a worship experience that we called “Present” where we set up in the round. This particular time we used a lot of candles, a lot of elevated platforms. We built a three-sided screen that had all these different kinds of graphics pieces going on. Then we had a reading by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the guy who wrote the whole “present moment” idea from the 7th Century. We read a poem by T.S. Eliot. We had a neuropsychologist walk us through a present-eating experience where he walked people through unwrapping and eating a Hershey’s Kiss. The whole thing was about learning to experience God right here and now.

We did an experience called “Online” not too long ago. The point of that one was the whole notion that life in the 21st Century is so fast-paced. The question we were asking was this: if we’re mentally “online” 24-7 now, how do we take God into our “online” experience of being mentally engaged all the time? When people walked in we had about 20 TV sets all over the place with video feeds of fast-forward type movement. We had hundreds of tech magazines strewn all over the place, we had our two big screens projecting other frenetic video streaming. In terms of ambient sound we had Moby and other techno playing, and we overlaid that with modem connection sounds, cell phones, beepers. It was visually and auditorally mass chaos. As the evening went on, the sounds slowly thinned, the visuals slowed and then we had a time of tranquility when we connected with God.

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The whole idea in what we’re doing experimentally in worship is trying to get away, if we can, from a front-end “Christian” theme. Instead of just saying, “Let’s talk about holiness”, we want to help people connect on the front end with something in their real experience that causes them to have that epiphanous moment. We do this so that people will actually experience holiness in real world terms: connecting with God amidst the frenzy of life.

[RM:] So much of this type of leadership seems to be intuitive for you. How can leaders, who maybe are stuck in a model of church that no longer connects to their culture, lead in more of an intuitive way?

[Martoia:] If you were to have talked to me 6 or 7 years ago, I think you would have found me to be a lot more left-brained, a lot more rational. As I’ve gotten older, and matured, I’ve realized that spiritual leadership is naturally more intuitive. If we’re going to lead God’s organism, then it’s got to be more than rational, linear propositions and principles.

Now, let me say that thinking rationally about leadership is not at all bad. John Maxwell influenced me tremendously. I mean, he mentored me. I was one of 40 guys in the nation at his house learning the 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Yet, as much as that’s helpful…there is something that’s deeper that comes from a more subterranean spiritual level that allows us to really get out of the box, or, actually, throw the box away and say: “How do we get at what God might be up to next?” And you know what? We can’t rely on principles and propositions for that.

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