Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How the Mighty Fall

A friend alerted me to an article in Business Week entitled “How the Mighty Fall: A Primer on the Warning Signs” by business researcher Jim Collins. Collins' work includes the influential and informative Built to Last and Good to Great. The article is based on his new book How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In.

I have not read the book yet but I think some of his comments in the article may speak to observations I have made previously about the lifecycle of a local congregation. Collins writes, “Every institution is vulnerable, no matter how great. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fall, and most eventually do.”

Once again, I affirm that the church as the body of Christ will endure, but many local expressions may not. Collins offers some warning signs beginning with “hubris borne of success.” This is a warning to us who think that because we are on “God’s business” that we are “too big to fail.”

Life brings challenges for organizations and for churches. This is to be expected. Collins acknowledges that any organization will encounter difficulty (even some of those he has profiled in previous books as success stories). He points out:

"The signature of the truly great vs. the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty. It's the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before. Great nations can decline and recover. Great companies can fall and recover. Great social institutions can fall and recover. And great individuals can fall and recover. As long as you never get entirely knocked out of the game, there remains hope."

I look forward to reading the book and will share comments when I do. You might be interested in it as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

In light of the new Star Trek movie, President Obama has been tagged as our “first Vulcan president” because he comes across as a logical, cool, “no drama” person of mixed heritage. This is an interesting and fun approach, but I think that the President is really Sidney Poitier.

Although many young adults may know Poitier only as the old black guy who shows up on the highlight reels at the Academy Awards, those of my era know him as the first African-American movie star, the Denzel Washington of his day. When I think of our President, I think of Poitier. I am not thinking about the handsome young hero of A Patch of Blue, Lilies of the Field or The Defiant Ones, but the more mature protagonist of In the Heat of the Night, To Sir with Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

As you may remember, in To Sir, with Love he played Mark Thackeray, a teacher from Guyana, who comes to teach a disruptive class in an inner city London school. In In the Heat of the Night, he was Virgil Tibbs, a detective from Philadelphia who helps a racist sheriff solve a murder case in rural Mississippi. He plays a physician who is the suitor of a white woman in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, dealing with interracial marriage in an era when it was still illegal in several states.

There are certain common characteristics of these characters in the three films. First, they are smart and they know it! They have achieved things that most black men in their era had not, and they would not be intimidated. Second, although there was a suppressed anger in these men, they used it constructively to move them forward in their chose tasks. Tibbs got angry, but it did not keep him from doing his job. It came across as power. Third, there was a moral center and an innate goodness in all three characters. The teacher in To Sir, with Love had come from a difficult background that helped him to identify with the rebellious, and often discarded, students in his class. Fourth, all three carried themselves with authority—teacher, detective, physician. They were accomplished in their own way.

I think we get all of this in Barack Obama. He is not only well educated, but he knows what to do with his intellect. He can be forceful when necessary, but he is unfailingly respectful of others and of the office in which he serves. Obama has a moral center, and he will be called upon to continually revisit it in the days ahead. Finally, he has a sense of authority about him. Sometimes he seems to take on the persona of the “I know what’s best for you” classroom teacher who won’t take any stuff off of an unruly student (Joe Biden, perhaps?). This can be a little hard to handle, but we may need a little discipline right now.

Poitier came along at a time when he was anointed as “the one” who exemplified the African-American male we could respect, follow, and love. He accepted the role, succeeded in his field, and has lived a decent and exemplary life. Although I may not always agree with the way he governs, I would wish the same for our President.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Care and Feeding of Entrepreneurs

“The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1, NIV)

Abraham may have been the first ministry entrepreneur. He stepped out and followed God without knowing exactly where he was going or what he could expect there. The only thing he knew for sure was that God had called him. The following years were not easy. He had some grudging support from his wife and extended family (servants, etc.), but his primary support came from God.

As we think about ministry entrepreneurs of today, do they find themselves as lonely as Abraham? How can we help them? I am not saying that dependence upon God is not sufficient, but I am asking if our church and denominational structures are ready to accept the person who stands up and says, “I have heard voice of God and I must follow.”

Most churches would prefer that these folks would just go somewhere else and pursue their vision. The usual response may be, “That is all well and good, but we don’t do that kind of thing here.” The denominational structures (even those of the moderate variety) are more likely to respond, “That really doesn’t fit in with our long range planning. If you want to be part of what we are doing, you had better fall in line with organizational objectives.”

How can we help those who have unique and “out of the box” ideas to pursue their callings?

First, we can give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps God has spoken to them about a need that must be met and of which we are unaware. God blesses whom God chooses. It is not up to us to make that call.

Second, we can pray that they will have discernment and wisdom as they pursue their calling. You can be a risk-taker without being reckless!

Third, we can seek to understand if we should to align ourselves with them in their ministry. Perhaps we are headed in the same direction in our work as they are, and we can support and strengthen each other along the way.

Fourth, we can share resources. When we talk about “resources,” the first thing that usually comes to mind is financial resources. In reality, the greatest resources we can share with the entrepreneur are our time and our relationships. We can spend time in encouraging our entrepreneurial friends, and we can also help them network with others who might be interested in what they are doing.

Fifth, we can celebrate their successes and can learn from them. The promise to Abraham was not only that his descendants would become a great nation but that they would bless others as well. We may have different responsibilities, but we are all part of the mission of God.

Sixth, we can pick them up when they fall. Entrepreneurship has its risks, but we fail only when we don’t learn from the experience. We can help our risk-taking friends to debrief about their experiences and discern their future efforts.

Through my experiences in ministry, I have come to appreciate the words attributed to President Reagan: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Perhaps as Christians, we can paraphrase the statement in this way: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you give God the credit.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Missions Web

Are we entering a new phase of Christian missions that can best be described as a web of relationships with local churches as part of the mix? In previous postings I have commented both on a “networking” approach to ministry and “ministry entrepreneurs” who develop their own ministries to support and/or supplement the work of the churches. In all of this, I think something new is developing that is changing the face of Christian missions.

I am thinking particularly about the ministry entrepreneurs who have a special sense of calling and act on it. These are individuals or couples who have a calling to a specific type of ministry, the gifts to do it, the passion to sustain their work, and a willingness to devote their lives to make it happen.

My wife and I support some people who are ministry entrepreneurs. In addition to our gifts to the local church, CBF Global Missions, Central Seminary, and the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, we send monthly checks to three couples who are doing ministry with specific groups—two in the United States and one overseas. We do this for three reasons—we know the individuals involved, we value their ministry, and we affirm their ability to do it. This is Kingdom work, and we want to be part of it.

Some have suggested that this is a return to the old “society” approach to missions and have charged that this approach leads to splintering of support and rewards those with the most heart-rending stories. In reality, the society approach never really died in Baptist life in the south. Although churches have and do contribute to “cooperative” mission endeavors, both traditional and newer Baptist groups have supported special offerings for missions (Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, Global Missions, state missions), institutions (colleges, seminaries, adult and children’s homes, for example), and organizations (American Bible Society, Gideons, Habitat for Humanity, etc.)

What may be new are the methodologies involved. For one thing, all of the couples we support have some connection with a larger agency, but the agencies provide two primary things—administrative assistance and training. The agencies do not give financial support, and they only provide a broad ministry strategy, leaving the persons on the field the opportunity to exercise their gifts in local, tactical ministries.

Another new approach is the way that these couples communicate to their supporters. Reports and prayer requests come not only by snail mail but by digital means. We can know within a few minutes if there is a specific need, success, or prayer concern. Supporters can have immediate, personal feedback from the field workers.

Another aspect is the post-denominational aspect of these ministries. Although these couples come out of specific faith communities, their support is found in churches and individuals from a number of faith traditions. These individuals and churches support the ministries because they are committed to Christian witness and not to a particular Christian witness!
Perhaps this also testifies that the locus of authority is moving from organizations to individual relationships. Trusting relationships are important when it comes to people making decisions about their investment of time, money, and resources. Institutions are no longer trusted as they once were.

This way of doing missions can be a bit messy and may seem inefficient, but my friends who are doing it can testify to the ways that God is speaking through their work and changing the lives of individuals and communities. Not a bad way to measure success!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rites of Passage

This is one of those times of the year when we celebrate certain rites of passages. Many young people are completing their work at various institutions of learning and moving on to the next phase of their lives. I was reflecting on this over the weekend and found it a very encouraging thing. Graduation (or commencement) recognizes not only achievement but that fact that there is always a next level to attain. We are continually passing from one stage of life and work to another.

For my five year old granddaughter, Erin, the passage is completing WEE school and registering for kindergarten on the same day. She knows her alphabet, has learned how to get along with others, and is ready to conquer elementary school.

My grandson, Bryan, completed a bachelor’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University. He really did not want to go through the commencement thing but he did it for the family. His next step is graduate school; not a bad choice in this economy!

If my grandson, Benjamin, had lived he would have completed high school this year. He left us too soon, before he could even start kindergarten, but he had a loving family and good friends. He, too, moved on to the next level.

My friend, Mary Beth Duke, will receive her master of divinity degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary next weekend. A working mother and wife, Beth is the first student to complete her degree at the Murfreesboro center of the seminary. I know that God has something special for her in ministry.

So it is the time of year to celebrate what has gone before, to treasure it, but not to dwell there. It is time to move to the next level.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Live Long and Prosper

Let me admit right up front that I am a Star Trek fan. You can call me a “Trekkie” or a “Trekker” but I am still a fan. I have been since I returned from Vietnam in 1967 and stumbled upon the original series one night. I have followed it through reruns of the original series (I used to watch them with our kids every afternoon after school), four new series (Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise), and ten movies (some of them pretty awful).

Now we have Star Trek (no Roman numeral) for a new generation as reimagined by J. J. Abrams—and it’s not bad. As most reboots of familiar material, this film will not satisfy everyone but there are enough nods to the mythology that old timers like myself will identify and enjoy.

There are weaknesses for sure. For one thing, the first new big screen Trek villain in seven years is pretty two dimensional. Nero is a Romulan miner who has a grudge and a big ship. He is ugly, loud, and menacing but Eric Bana doesn’t do much with the role. Evidently, he did not have much with which to work. This is really not a villain or menace-driven story anyway. It is about introducing a new young crew for the Enterprise.

Another weakness is that the science involved is pretty lam. The major weapon yielded by Nero is “red matter.” Yes, it really has a ring, doesn’t it? Sounds like something that Abrams would have used in his TV show Alias. Even the writers of Next Gen or Voyager would have come up with some more exciting like “tachyon particles” or “dark matter” to describe this substance. There are other problems, but I won’t linger there.

Some filmgoers will have a hard time accepting new actors playing the familiar crew, but I don’t think that is a major weakness. Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as McCoy, and John Cho as Sulu seem to fit well (although Urban tries a bit too hard to channel the late DeForrest Kelly). Zoe Saldana is good as Uhura but the romance thing with Spock will take me some time to digest. Simon Pegg as Scotty and Anton Yelchin as Chekov are so different—not only in appearance but in the nature of the character—from the originals that I have to completely suspend judgment right now; I guess I will get used to them. The always excellent Bruce Greenwood provides "adult supervision" as Captain Christopher Pike.

There are plenty of plot holes and unbelievable events. For example, I know Jim Kirk is great, but I don’t think any organization (even Star Fleet) would promote him to Captain of one of the newest ships in the fleet after only three years as a cadet and one spectacular mission. But it’s a movie.

There are many positive things I can say about this film. Pine and Quinto are great. They both bring complexity to roles that have been owned by other actors for over 40 years. They can carry the sequels quite well.

Time travel is featured and that is always a winner in Trek movies (remember The Voyage Home and First Contact?). This time it gives us a chance to see Leonard Nimoy one more time as Spock Prime, and the twist opens up an alternate time line for our heroes that provides latitude for character development and future plot lines.

All of the scenery is great—Vulcan and 23rd century San Francisco are brought to life in big, complex presentations. The overall look, especially of the Enterprise, is more industrial and complex. For the first time, we really get an idea of how big this ship is. As for costumes, I really don’t understand why they still have to wear those tacky long sleeve T-shirts when they are on the ship and neat 23rd century outfits when they are earth side.

The best thing about the movie is that it is fun. Yes, there is major planetary destruction and pitched space battles, but the film is not as dark and philosophical as most of the Trek series. Quite honestly, it seems that these people are having fun, even Nimoy who always has exhibited more respect for the material than William Shatner ever did. The story also avoids being “preachy.” The biggest problem with creator Gene Rodenberry was that, too often, he wanted to hit the audience up side the head with a message—we can all get along, we should reflect on the purpose of life, etc. If there is a theme to this story, it is responsibility. Kirk is challenged to stop wasting his considerable intelligence and talent and step up to a leadership role. Spock is conscious of his responsibility to both his human and Vulcan heritages and struggles to balance the two. And the film drives home the “dirty little secret” of Vulcans. Far from being unemotional, they have very deep emotions that they have worked to control and this makes them very conflicted. Sounds like a lot of us.

This is not a deep film, but it is fun. Abrams misses some beats, but his effort here deserves praise and promises a good future for the Trek franchise.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Giving Birth

The responses to my previous posting about hospice care for dying churches have not given much attention to the “new birth” aspect. One way to ease the loss of dying is to provide something that will live on after the present congregation is gone. One way for this to happen is to give birth to a new church or congregation.

Although many in the moderate Baptist movement seem to think church planting is a great idea, the actions fall short of the rhetoric. If we are really serious about this, we need to put more of ourselves into this effort.

Several years ago, church strategist Peter Wagner stated, “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.” Why is this? Let me suggest some reasons.

First, new churches are not burdened with the baggage of established churches. Such baggage may include (but not be limited to) aging buildings in a declining area, numerous policies and procedures that have been developed over time, and a lack of vision for the future of the congregation.

Second, a new church starts with a specific, defined vision of what it wants to do and who it wants to reach. There is no ambivalence about what its vision and mission are.

Third, when you are small, you pay more attention to those who show up for worship and outreach events. Those folks are given an unusual amount of attention and cultivated as potential members.

Fourth, leaders of a new church hone their message to a fine edge. They reflect upon their theology of church and mission and try to put that into concrete structures and actions.

Fifth, a new church and its leadership is often more dependent on prayer. They realize that this will not happen without a great outpouring of God’s grace. They understand that their best efforts can only do so much and then something else must kick in.

Of course, one reason that moderate Baptists don’t concentrate more on new church plants is that we may be ambivalent about evangelism. Do we really want all the trouble of assimilating these new folks into the church? Will they want to stretch what it means to “be Baptist”? Giving birth can be a risky business. Babies are messy and take a lot of time and attention. Parenthood should not be entered into lightly, but failure to do so robs one of great joy and hope for the future.