Monday, October 27, 2008

Welcome to the 21st Century Church!

At various times, I have used this blog to point to the changing face of denominationalism in the 21st century. One example came across my desk this morning. This is the time of the year when Baptist churches present their budgets for the coming year to their congregations for adoption. Often these proposals are published in the church newsletter and released to the world.

One such church newsletter came in the mail today that included the church’s proposed 2009 budget. The item that stood out for me was the change in the amount allocated for “cooperative missions.” This is the amount (usually a percentage of projected budget gifts) that the church intends to send to a denominational group to support missions. This may be the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, or some combination of the two and their respective state organizations. In so doing, the church relinquishes the control of these funds to another body—a convention, a fellowship, or a mission board, for example—to do ministry.

The church in my example plans to cut its cooperative missions giving by 75% in 2009. Part of that money will be reallocated to “strategic missions.” I am assuming that the church will distribute these “strategic missions” funds to support mission efforts—local, state, or national—that further the church’s chosen priorities in missions. Adjustments in other line items reflect a similar philosophy.

I present this case not to chastise this church for its decision (or anticipated decision; this is, after all a Baptist church, and we should never assume too much) but to use this as another example of a trend in missions giving on the part of churches across the nation. Many churches have taken control of missions rather than delegating this task to someone else. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Tennessee CBF have contributed to this approach by encouraging churches to be “missional”—discovering God’s mission for your church and pursuing it. Well, they are doing it! They have found things that their church is passionate about, and they are reallocating resources to pursue those ministries.

This is the reality! We can fuss about it, agonize over it, or condemn it—but it is reality! Welcome to the 21st century church.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

But We Did a Survey . . .

I have had the opportunity to work with a couple of churches that were trying to clarify who they were and what they should do. In both cases, the first thing the pastor said was, “We have done a survey.” This action is not unusual in churches in their situation, but I have found that a written survey is not always the best step to take initially. Here’s why.

First, a survey produces information, but this is often information in a vacuum. Without some preparation and understanding of the context, how does one know what questions to ask? Trained researchers start with a hypothesis, then they determine what questions they will ask.

Second, communication comes first. The first step in dealing with congregational issues should always be verbal communication, usually with a small group or groups that are representative of the congregation. In this interpersonal communication, issues may be identified, needs expressed, and the right questions can begin to be formulated.

Third, writing a survey is not an easy thing to do. Ask any researcher how long it takes to come up with a good instrument. It rarely happens on the first try. Language is tricky and means different things to different people. I may use a word a way that communicates something entirely different to you.

Fourth, a written survey is a conflict avoidance technique. Usually, the most meaningful way to identify the “elephant in the room” (the real issue) is through dialogue. The results of a survey can be used to cut off rather than encourage discussion. Most congregations don’t need a better tool, they need a better conversation.

Fifth, if the church needs hard and fast data, it is often already available. This can be found in church minutes, Sunday school attendance records, and budget figures.

Sixth, a survey can be helpful in some cases, but not as the first step. After the foundation work has been done, the church may turn to a survey to clarify issues and gauge attitudes.

People will often say, “We love who we are as a church.” My question is, “Do you really know who you are as a church?” This type of knowledge will not come from a survey but from conversation. As we talk with each other, we discover our misconceptions and gain new understanding. A survey form, no matter how well done, cannot take the place of honest Christian dialogue.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Playing the "Race Card"

In December 1969 I was in the middle of my last year in seminary. I was married with one child and another on the way. Louie Farmer, who had been my Baptist Student Union director in college, invited me to go with him and a group of college students to Mission 70, a missions and ministry conference for college students and young adults scheduled to be held in Atlanta between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since I was networking (although I did not know that term in those days) and looking for a job in collegiate ministries, I gladly accepted his invitation.

A day or two after Christmas, Bro. Louie and I found ourselves in his car on the way to Atlanta with two young African-American women in the back seat. I don’t remember how long that trip from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Atlanta, Georgia, took but I do remember that the two college students did not get out of the car to eat when we stopped (and I am not sure they ever went to the bathroom) as we crossed Alabama and made our way to Georgia.

I am still amazed at that experience. Since I graduated from college in 1965, I had worked with African-Americans in the military (in fact my first company commander was an African-American). I had gone to seminary with at least a few African-Americans. I was going to a conference in Atlanta that held out hope for a future in which Christians of all races and nationalities could work together to fulfill the Great Commission (interpret that as you wish). But these two young women were afraid to get out of the car as we crossed my home state.

This memory came back as I considered the Presidential race this year. For the first time, Americans have the opportunity to vote for an African-American for the highest office in the land. We have come a long way in almost four decades . . . or have we? I have noted that many of the e-mails I receive soliciting my presidential vote still want to play up the racial angle. Certainly many of these contacts are not racial in perspective and are carefully reasoned and presented, but there are too many who seek to play the “race card” in this election.

We have two good candidates for President this year. Both are Americans with unique records of service to our country. Both are gifted persons. One is black and one is white. Wouldn’t it be great if that last descriptor made no difference in our decision?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Try, Try Again

One of my favorite quotes is, “It is better to have tried something and failed than to have tried nothing and succeeded.” This came to mind as I was clearing out files in preparation for my departure from the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the end of the year. Although we have developed some successful projects and relationships over the past ten years, I was struck by how many we attempted that did not succeed or result in an ongoing relationship.

We have developed a healthy relationship with twelve ministry partners. All but two of these have been included (or are presently included) in our Tennessee Partners in Missions offering. These are ministries whose values and ministry goals match those of TCBF. All are independent of our organization, but they are our friends and they honor us by giving us the opportunity to work with them. On the other hand, there are at least 15 ministries with whom we have tried to establish an ongoing relationship, but this has not developed for one reason or another. Sometimes it was lack of interest on the part of the other ministry, sometimes lack on interest on the part of our constituency, and sometimes it was because the ministry moved in a different direction. All seemed to be good potential partners, but the relationship ultimately failed.

A similar story can be told in relationship to new church starts. In one way or another, TCBF has been involved in at least 12 new church start projects over the past ten years—four worked, four floundered, and four were never born. Believer’s Baptist Fellowship, Olive Branch Fellowship, Neverfail Community Church, and “the story” are alive and functioning as communities of faith. Considerable time, prayer, and money were put into efforts in Franklin, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro, but they didn’t work. Good people, ongoing prayer, and significant effort were invested in these new church starts, but these efforts did not survive early childhood. At least four other projects were considered, but they were never initiated. Quite honestly, I talked one group out of even trying!

So what does this have to say to us? I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4. Some seed fell on rocky ground, some was eaten by the birds, some started to grow but was killed by the sun, and some fell among thorns and was smothered. But Jesus concludes by saying, “Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."

Did the sower waste his time? No. He tried to do his best. Perhaps sometimes he sowed carelessly, but where the seed found root it prospered and gave a great harvest. The same is true of the ministries and churches that survive and prosper. They are producing fruit that will continue for eternity. In the final analysis, the success belongs to God. We do our best, but God gives the reward.

Monday, October 13, 2008

We Did It Ourselves

In a recent devotional written for the Smyth and Helwys publication Reflections, Bruce Lampert tells this story about legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Someone asked Bryant the secret of this success. He pointed out that there was not secret. “I’m just an old plow hand, but I have learned how to hold a team together—to lift some up and calm others down—until finally, as a team, we’ve got just one heartbeat. So there are just three things I would say. If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes real good, you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

Allowing for a little false modesty on the coach’s part, he has identified a key ingredient to team success—alignment. We may have different gifts and strengths, but we can learn to work together and pull in the same direction. Of course, this means that each of us must be willing to pull our share of the load!

The real challenge in any church is getting everyone moving in the same direction! One thing that facilitates this is a leader who doesn’t feel that he or she should get all the credit for success. An effective leader knows how to nudge, coax, and even pressure participants to move in a certain direction without abusing them. If done correctly, when it is all over they will say (in the words of the old Chinese proverb), “We did it ourselves.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Great Emergence

My colleague Mike Young loaned me his copy of Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence, so that I could do a quick scan. The thesis of the book is that we may be experiencing a seismic shift in the nature and practice of the Christian faith. This change may well “rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.” (p. 162)

There is much to consider in this little book, but here is one item that certainly impacts how we operate as Fellowship Baptists. Tickle explains the difference between “center-set” and “bounded set” Christian movements. “Bounded-set” groups define their boundaries. Their rules determine who is in and who is out. “Center-set” groups are doing what they are committed to do and allow individuals to decide how close they are to the center. Traditional churches are “bounded-set” people while the emergent churches are “center-set” people. Traditionalists practice a “believe—behave—belong” approach to bringing people into the fold while the emergents tend toward a “belong—behave—believe” approach.

In theory, I think that Fellowship Baptists want to practice the “center-set” approach, allowing individuals and churches to decide the level of their involvement in the movement. In practice, we tend to set boundaries that determine who is in and who is out. The latter approach is the way of the past; the former is the way of the future. Which do we want to follow?

A Door of Opportunity

During the 2008 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Memphis, participants were involved in a discernment process to address the question, “What has God prepared for us now?” Through prayer, discussion, and response to a written survey, they were asked to rank six primary topic areas and 47 specific issues in their importance to the CBF movement. This is one element in a process of planning for the future.

A preliminary report produced one very interesting result. The top ranked issue in both discussion groups and the written survey was “invest in young Baptists.” There were other significant responses, but I want to camp here for a few minutes.

One reason that this is so interesting is that this has not been the place where the CBF movement has put its greatest emphasis up to this point. Certainly, we have supported theological education, developed the student.go missions program, and partnered with the Passport ministry for youth and children, but these emphases account for less than seven percent of the CBF budget in 2007-2008. State and regional organizations are beginning to place some emphasis on ministry with college students and young adults, but there is so much more to be done. In our own state organization, this has not been a priority.

I am grateful for the efforts that have been made especially in calling out and training future leaders and involving students in missions, but there is a need for a broader ministry to those who will be the future lay leaders of moderate Baptist churches. The strength of our churches is ultimately based on the quality of the people in the pews.

Although some will argue that college students and young adults are a touch audience, at least one survey point out their readiness to respond to spiritual opportunities. The Ivy Jungle Network conducts an annual survey of collegiate ministries. This year’s report states that although most of these ministries are still on the margin of campus life, 52 percent of the ministries reporting have experienced growth in the past three years. They also report that more students are connecting with local churches.

In a general overview of students involved in collegiate ministries, respondents found that students tended to be cause oriented (social justice, environmental issues, etc.), spiritually hungry, eager for community, and spiritually growing. Moderate Baptists cannot leave this ministry to conservative and parachurch groups.

These are days of opportunity for Fellowship Baptists. Here is another door that God is opening for us.