Monday, June 18, 2018

A Challenge for the 21st Century Church: Facilities

Since seminary days, I have been a student of church architecture.  I love to walk through worship spaces, take pictures, and learn their history.  The structures that we Christians build make theological statements, whether the buildings are gothic cathedrals, simple country churches, art nouveau temples, or modern places of gathering.  Auxiliary buildings such as Christian education space, fellowship halls, and gymnasiums express our approach to church life and ministry.

The challenge we face comes when the way we do church changes.  Believe it or not, it is easier to change the way that a church worships than it is to alter how it uses its buildings.  And, as anyone who has ever attempted it knows, changing worship styles has divided more churches that have doctrinal issues.

Church buildings become memorials to life experiences.  We become emotionally attached to buildings because that is where sacred moments in our lives took place--professions of faith, worship, baptisms, weddings, and ordinations, for example.  The experience becomes so closely tied to the structure that the two become inseparable for us.  Even more, the sacredness of the space prohibits any changes that might increase its effectiveness.

Spaces become relics of earlier, better times.  The sanctuary that accommodated 700 people thirty years ago may now be used by a hundred people or less.  We simply don’t need as large a facility as we once did.  Aging facilities, often with deferred maintenance, constrain the church’s ability to institute new ministries and reach out to the community.

No one wants to admit it, but facilities may become a stumbling block to effective ministry.  In a recent Baptist News Global story, Jeff Brumley observed that “another factor that can lead to extinction [of a church] is an emotional attachment to facilities so strong as to cripple a congregation’s willingness to share the gospel and make disciples.”

Buildings are not an end in themselves.  They are tools to further the work of God’s Kingdom, but once something is built it takes on a life of its own and can hinder the work of the Spirit in the life of a congregation.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Challenge for the 21stCentury Church: Acceptance

Dr. Terrell Carter invited me to be a guest on his weekly radio program which is broadcast in St. Louis.  We recorded the program last Friday and it was scheduled to be broadcast on Saturday.  This is not something I usually do, but I enjoyed the dialogue that emerged between the two of us.

As Terrell asked me about some of the challenges that face the 21stcentury church, I said, “One of the biggest challenges that we face is accepting people where they are rather than where we would like for them to be.”  I don’t think that I had actually used that terminology previously.  Whether we intend it or not, we think in terms of the “ideal new member” for our congregation, expecting the person to come up to certain standards.  Unconsciously we are thinking, “This way we avoid the hard work of acceptance.”

Of course, we should ask ourselves, “When I first became part of a faith community, was I such a great ‘catch’?” The answer is probably, “No.”  Each of us was a long way from being the type of disciple that is ready to make a significant contribution to the Kingdom of God through a local church.

My friend Mark Tidsworth points out that the process by which people choose to affiliate with the church has changed. At one point, especially in the free church tradition, the idea was that a person would profess their faith (believe), begin to grow in their faith (become), and then seek to be received into a congregation (belong).  In the 21stcentury, the process often plays out this way:  a person experiences relationship with believers (experience), belongs to a group that is largely comprised of loving and active disciples (belong), grows in her or his understanding of the Christian faith (become), and finally understands what it means to be a follower of Christ (believe).

We must learn to meet people where they are and not impose burdens on them for which they are not ready.  This means accepting casual dress in worship services, unexpected language in fellowship sessions, and na├»ve questions in a study group. In other words, we love them and accept them where they are, inviting them to join us on the journey.  This requires more patience than most of us have, so we depend upon the Spirit of God to give it to us.

And there are other challenges as well, but those can wait for another post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Four Steps to Disarm the Saber Tooth Tiger

We’ve all been there. Someone comes at us full of anger, looking for someone to blame, and spewing ultimatums. If we’re not aware, before we know it we’re in an argument, defending, counter-attacking, and escalating the situation.

In these situations, our nervous systems see saber tooth tigers. The brain leaps to protect us, sending oxygen and nutrients to help us fight, flee, or freeze. The higher-order thinking needed in these situations doesn’t stand a chance.

When our brain is hijacked like this, it takes us to a place of distrust, and any hope of a conversation worth having is severely diminished. Problems can best be solved with the help of critical thinking and creativity. This means moving out of fear and distrust and into a place of trust and cooperation. Anyone can do that. Whoever does it first in a conversation can readily change the dynamic, de-escalate the situation, and bring others into a place of cooperation and creative problem-solving.

Here are 4 steps you can use any time you recognize you’re being hijacked by negativity, fear, and defensiveness:

1.     Breathe. Breathe into your heart and slow things down. There is no saber tooth tiger.
2.     Adopt a positive frame. Focus on a shared, desired outcome.
3.    Assume positive intent. Speak to the other expecting positive intent and cooperation. Don’t be a saber tooth tiger. They’ve been hijacked just the way you were about to be hijacked. Empathize.
4.    Get curious. Ask questions that help everyone question assumptions and explore possibilities, surface new information, and insights.

Will you always be able to disarm the tiger? Nope. With practice, however, you will get better and better at it. In addition, you’ll help others learn to engage with problems in a different way. And just maybe, over time, the saber tooth tigers will disappear.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Community of Learners

Last week I was on campus at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.  Two Doctor of Ministry cohorts were there to attend the residency seminars that are part of their semester studies.  Dr. John Park, director of the program, was teaching “Embracing Design Thinking” to the 2017 cohort which started January 2017.  Dr. Terrell Carter and I taught “Understanding Yourself and Others” to the cohort that began in January of this year.

Although the groups had some interaction during breaks, over meals and in chapel worship, their primary interaction took place within their own cohorts.  Each cohort has developed a high level of trust, even the group that just began in January.  

Studies have shown that ministers thrive in intentional communities of practice or peer learning groups.  Many denominations such the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship encourage and facilitate the development of these ongoing groups. 

Our Doctor of Ministry cohorts at Central model what it means to be an effective community of practice. Although students are engaged in different types of ministries and are ethnically as well as geographically diverse, they engage each other in these ways:

They engage in dialogue around the content presented, providing reflection and real-time application to the information being provided.  In so doing, students actually share in the course instruction, making each seminar experience unique.

They provide honest, loving, and supportive feedback to each other. While respecting each person’s point and view and experience, they are not afraid to ask questions for clarity and applicability.

They encourage one another not only in their academic studies but when life happens. One student has lost a spouse since starting the program.  Another has delivered her first child, and another has lost a parent.  Several have experienced sickness.  In all of this, they support each other as both friends and colleagues.

They also hold each other accountable by questioning assumptions, reminding one another of deadlines, and providing critiques of assignments.

Our hope is that these student practitioners will take this model of mutual learning and support back to their ministries and seek out others who will walk with them in their journeys.  This will make them not only more effective ministers but healthier believers.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Change: Encourage

The final step in the CHANGE process for a church is encouragement. Accountability structures provide encouragement as we pursue a goal and they keep us on track.  In individual coaching, the coach is NOT the accountability structure.  The client designs his or her own accountability structures or identifies those already in place—family, friends, coworkers—who can come alongside and help.

As we work with a church to change, we can call upon structures already in place or create some to help move toward the goal.  

Some accountability structures already exist.  These may be staff meetings, leadership teams (elders, session, etc.), or church business meetings.  These provide times to not only report what is being achieved but to celebrate as well.  

For example, when a goal is developed, steps to achieve that goal are outlined.  We might see these not only as steps in a process but milestones toward achievement. They can also be the occasion for celebration.  We don’t do a very good job of celebrating.  Perhaps we think it is a bit too worldly but we find many times of celebration in the history of the people of Israel and in the ministry of Jesus. As steps are completed toward the goal, celebrate them as a spring board to the next step of accomplishment.

Another accountability structure might be a steering team that guides, coordinates, and evaluates the progress toward the goal.  This responsibility may be delegated to an existing body in the church, but it should include both clergy and lay leadership as well as those who are directly involved in working toward the goal.  The team’s role is encouragement not direction.

Reminders are a good accountability structure.  This may be a timeline in the church narthex, a pictorial representation in a prominent place, or pictures of a work in progress. These keep the goal before the congregation and serve as an incentive for continued action.

In summary, this is a process based on coaching principles that a church can adopt as it addresses change:

H—Honor the other
A—Ask powerful questions
N—Nurture curiosity and creativity
G—Goal Setting

How would this work in your congregation?

(This blog post originally appeared here on July 12, 2016.)

Friday, June 01, 2018

Change: Goal Setting

GPS is a wonderful invention.  All one has to do is either type in (or speak) a destination and step by step directions are provided to get there.  I must say, however, that I often pull up an overview map that shows me the “big picture” of how I will get there as well as some perspective on the arrival point.  I like clarity about where I am going to end up.

Author Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  Before you depart on a journey, it is a good idea to know where you are going.  As a church makes decisions about the change it wishes to initiate, there should be clarity about the desired future before planning on how to get there.  This is the desired goal the church is working toward—more engaged worshippers, expanded ministry to the community, or a great commitment on the part of participants to Christian formation, for example.

There will always be those who resist setting goals. Several objections often surface. 

First, there is the argument that the church is a spiritual concern, not a business endeavor, and goals are secular.  (These people overlook the fact that the church has a bank account, a budget, pays staff, follows fire codes, etc.)  Certainly, the work of the church is spiritual in nature rather than profit-generating, but this does not mean that there should not be clarity and a direction for the work of the church.  The Gospels indicate that Jesus had a clear idea of where he was going and stayed the course to the end.  There are any number of examples of believers who set goals in their own lives for Christian growth and service.  Goals can be very spiritual.

Second, some argue that we don’t know what the future holds, perhaps citing James 4:13 about the uncertainty of the future.  This is a good argument, but there is nothing to prohibit us from modifying or changing goals to meet new challenges and circumstances. In fact, to do otherwise would be foolish.

Third, there is always the situation where someone says, “We did that years ago, but those goals were just put in the file and forgotten.” The problem here is not in the process but in the execution. We will discuss that in the next post.

Goals give us direction, purpose, and a challenge to plan. Once we set our goal, we begin to design ways to reach the goal, using all of the creativity and curiosity that we can muster.  If there is a fear of trying something new or attempting an especially challenging goal, it might be helpful to conduct small “experiments.”  When we experiment, we are making a low level commitment to try something new, but we can learn things even when the attempt is limited.  

For example, if the church is thinking about adding a worship service, leadership may suggest that a first step might be to do some interviewing or a survey to see who would be interested in attending or leading the new service.  A more extensive experiment would be to do a pilot offering for a couple of weeks as a “test run.”  The next step might be to schedule the service for a limited period of time—three to four months—to see if it gains traction.  Each step can provide more information about the best way to pursue the goal.

Goals stretch us and encourage us to try new things for the Kingdom of God.  They open new doors for ministry.

(This blog post originally appeared here on July 11, 2016.)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Change: Nurture Curiosity and Creativity

When did the need for structure first begin to limit your creativity?  I think it began for me in kindergarten when the teacher insisted that I had to color within the lines.  I don’t remember if I asked “Why?” or not, but I do know that there was no option.  Of course, my teacher wife and daughter would assure me that this has something to do with developing small motor skills, but I still wonder about the practice and what’s so important about “coloring within the lines.”

The same is true in the church.  Early on, each of us was ingrained with the idea of “this is the way we do church.”  Imagine my surprise as a teenager when I discovered that other people (including other Baptists) did church in different ways.  I did not find this threatening but rather exciting!  

Those of us who work in the church today must address the fact that we have been trained to avoid creativity and temper our curiosity.  We have been encouraged to maintain a structure not to modify it. Not only church members but ministers are threatened by change.  If we change, what will be the consequences?  How will it affect me?  Will I have to do something different or learn a new skill?  As William Bridges says, “It is not that we don’t like change; we don’t like BEING changed.”

Perhaps the most challenging step of the CHANGE process is nurturing curiosity and creativity. I think there is a fear that if we become too creative in the way that we do church, we might not recognize what we have created.  Will it still be “church”?

A historical perspective might help.  If we went back to the first century, would we expect Christians to be “doing church” in the same ways that we do now?  We really don’t need to go back that far to see how things have changed.  If you are Baptist and remember the six-point record system, Sunday night worship, week-long revival meetings, and Church Training, you realize that the church you attend today is different from the one of your youth.

If you have someone in the church who says, “We’ve never done it that way before,” I think you can assure them that somewhere in some era of church history, there are have been Christians who have done just about anything to further the church’s mission—house churches, bi-vocational leaders, faith missions, and so on.

If we are truly to fulfill our God-given mission, we must consider all the options that our curiosity and creativity can devise.

(This blog post originally appeared here on July 10, 2016.)