Saturday, July 31, 2010

Beyond Survival to Service

Megachurches have developed several new patterns of cooperation. As writer John Dart explains in his article in The Christian Century:

“[M]ost supersized churches want the freedom to customize their programs and avoid bureaucratic delays. . . . Megachurch leaders find resources for adult education, youth programs and for hiring an experienced and successful pastor ‘without ever needing a denomination or seminary, board of missions or other baggage of hierarchical institutional structures.’” (The quote is from Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary.)

This approach presents a challenge to the survival of denominations, mission boards, and seminaries, and the responses from those entities vary. Although some of these institutions label the strategy of the megachurches as a fasting fad, others realize that it is part of a new way of doing church that will be with us for many years to come.

Seminaries are especially challenged to come up with new ways to partner with these megachurches. Why should they bother? Let me suggest several reasons.

First, most theological schools acknowledge that their primary mission is to prepare leaders for the local church. If they are to continue to pursue that purpose, they must find ways to relate to all types of local churches—traditional, megachurch, emerging, and organic models. The seminary does not define the church; in reality, the seminary serves the church. The seminary has some obligation to follow the church’s lead.

Second, theological schools and their faculties have the experience and expertise that the churches need, whether the churches realize it or not. When properly pursued, a seminary education provides the student with values, attributes, and skills to be an effective church leader, Seminaries are finding more effective ways to tell their stories and to share their successes in training leaders who can function effectively in the contemporary church environment.

Third, seminaries are adaptable. They are adopting new delivery systems and seeking new partners in order to carry out their mission. As denominations provide less and less financial support for the institutions they birthed (and which, in many cases, still bear their denominational tag), seminary leaders are finding friends among churches and individuals and developing programs to meet the needs of particular churches. This may be as simple as developing internships with local congregations or as complex as providing internal ministerial formation. In these partnerships, the church benefits from the expertise of the seminary and the seminary benefits from the resources of the congregation.

New situations call for new strategies. Mission is primary. Theological education will survive, but it will look very different.

We Did It to Ourselves

America’s megachurches have it all—huge crowds, upbeat music, huge TV screens, and high profile guests, and dynamic speakers. This is an approach that reaches thousands, perhaps millions, of people every week. I am always a bit amused when I hear mainline clergy decry the success of this approach because those of us who consider ourselves mainliners were there first.

The roots of the megachurch movement can be found in the methods embraced by mainstream churches, especially through their student and collegiate ministries, to reach youth and young adults beginning in the 1970’s. In response to the emerging counter culture and the growing Jesus Revolution, those of us involved in ministry were ready to try new and creative methods to reach and involve a younger generation.

A prime example was Mission ‘70, a conference held in Atlanta on December 28-31, 1969. The initial idea was birthed by several denominational leaders including Lloyd Householder, Glendon McCullough, and Jesse Fletcher. The Southern Baptist Convention agencies involved were the Brotherhood Commission, Foreign Mission Board, Home Mission Board, Student Department of the Sunday School Board, Vocational Guidance Department of the Sunday School Board, and the Woman’s Missionary Union. Ed Seabough served as the Executive Coordinator for Mission ’70, and Lloyd Householder was the Chairman of the Full Committee. The meeting attracted almost 5000 college students, seminary students, and young adults.

Mission ’70 was a truly amazing meeting, put together through the cooperation of six different agencies (that may be the most amazing part!). The focus on vocation and a call to make a difference in the world was effectively communicated through music written especially for the event, original drama, and speakers like Coretta Scott King and NBC commentator John Chancellor. Participants also had the opportunity to engage in workshops, discussion groups, and hands-on ministries.

I attended as a third year divinity student, a married Vietnam veteran with one child and another on the way, who was ready to engage in campus ministry. This was a great networking experience but also an opportunity to experience a new paradigm for ministry. The event encouraged those of us entering ministry to try new approaches to reach and involve college students.

My contention is that efforts like this set the stage for the type of cultural engagement that has flourished in the megachurch movement. The theology of the players may vary, but the approach is the same—find the things that will attract, engage, and challenge your target audience. This means that one must be aware of the culture in which he or she attempts to communicate a message. We communicate only when we use the language that people can understand. This is a lesson that the church must continue to learn.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crossing the Threshold

What does it take to be a leader? We talk a lot about leadership and ways to develop ourselves as leaders, but the real essence of leadership often eludes us. Otto Scharmer, one of the authors of Presence:Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, provides a description of leadership that is at once clear and threatening:

The definition of leadership can be traced back to the word’s root—the Indo-European word root of leadership is “Leith.” The literal translation of this word is “to go forth across the threshold” or, in a different translation, “to die.” In this context, “to die,” means that you let go of the world that is known to you and go forth into another world that you may not be sure exists. This other world only comes into being after you step forth into this nothingness. Leadership is the ability to cross that threshold. The challenge you meet in the process is the challenge of fear, the fear to let your old self, you old identities, your old context, die in order to more into that which is wanting to emerge through you.

I don’t believe that Scharmer is calling for a physical death for the one who would be a leader, but he is calling for a radical step that means two things. First, a leader will be willing to put away old things and not let what is no longer necessary restrain him or her from moving in a new direction. This does not mean ridiculing tradition or condemning the past, but it does mean not letting those things deter one from moving into a new way of doing things. What is on the other side of the threshold is new and inviting and a little bit scary.

Second, a leader must believe in the future enough to stack her or his very life on it. There are no lifeboats or escape pods on this ship. Once it has sailed, the leader is committed to the voyage to the very end. He or she is also responsible for those who choose to go along for the ride. Therefore, leadership is not something to be assumed lightly.

This sounds a bit like Matthew 16: 24: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’” It also resonates with the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This certainly puts a different perspective on leadership, doesn’t it?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kids are Us!

In his article “Going Mega” in the current issue of The Christian Century, John Dart reports some figures from the United Methodist Church. He states that the UMC’s overall membership dropped 1.01 percent in 2008, its largest annual decline in decades. He goes on to explain that UMC churches with 3000 or more adherents increased their membership during this period by 1.9 percent, while congregations with 100 or fewer members reported a 2.25 percent decline that same year.

Dart argues that this shows, “Larger churches tend to weather economic downturns better.” No, it doesn’t. It simply shows that bigger churches are growing while smaller congregations are declining. This can be due to a number of factors, but part of it is certainly related to demographics.

The smaller churches in most denominations are made up primarily of older adults who tend to die off! These smaller churches are not replenishing their numbers with young adults with school age children. Our church runs 450 to 500 on a Sunday, but this trend is beginning to impact us as well. When our church has quarterly business meeting, I check the number of new members by baptism or transfer of membership over against the loss of members due to death or transfer of membership. Deaths of members often accounts for 50 percent of the losses. About 25 percent of the losses are transfers of membership to larger congregations. (We generally break even, so there is no net gain.) The bottom line is that we are impacted both by demographics and the appeal of larger churches.

So the challenge for the traditional church is two fold—have children and keep them! I won’t comment on the first, but traditional churches must realize that a first class children’s program keeps both children and their parents on board. I do not want to downplay the importance of youth ministry in a church, but if we want to grow our youth program, we must have a strong children’s ministry first.

One place where most megachurches excel is in their children’s ministry. When I talk to young parents who move to larger churches, the reported reason is usually, “We did it for the kids.”

Your church may not be able to provide all the bells and whistles of a megachurch children’s program, but it can provide acceptance, quality, and commitment. Nurturing the next generation of children is a priority for any congregation, no matter the size.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

One Future for the Church

I love the church—all sizes, types, etc. I love the church when it is hard to love it. I even have an unusual fascination with the megachurch. I am a fan of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Although the megachurch is not for everyone, the folks at Willow Creek know how to do it well. There are several things I like about them. They involve women in leadership roles, they seek to be multiethnic, they embrace social action, and they are open about their failures (for example, AXIS, the attempt to reach young adults that was something of an embarrassment). Each megachurch is different, of course, but I think that those of us who are more traditional in our approach to church tend to look down our noses at our mega brothers and sisters. In so doing, we may be missing an important learning opportunity.

In light of that, I found the article “Going Mega” by John Dart in the current issue of Christian Century very interesting and informative. Dart draws on recent research and personal interviews to share some insights on the movement. I will comment on some of those in upcoming blogs.

The primary point I want to make here is that the megachurch is a reality on the Christian scene. We can “cuss it and discuss it” (as a friend used to say) but it is here to stay. Dart points out that a number of traditional, denominationally related churches have moved into this category and megachurch attendance accounts for a significant percentage of membership in some denominations.

The megachurch is not the only new face of the church, of course. On a smaller scale, emerging congregations and organic house churches are growing not only in the United States for around the world. But the megachurch may have a more profound impact on Christianity. Quoting researcher Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, Dart writes: “’In some sense, megachurches are becoming de facto replacements for denominations and seminaries’ by providing resources and training staff more efficiently.” The megachurch will have long-term impact on how churches cooperate and how ministers of local congregations are trained. We ignore these implications at our own peril.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Facing the Future

Last Friday evening, I was watching Eureka on the SyFy Channel (a guilty pleasure). Due to some wormhole phenomena, a scientist from 1947 had been transported to 2010. As he looked around the town, he commented, “I am a little disappointed that there are no flying cars.” The lesson—innovation is tough and predicting the future is a gamble.

As we think about the future and try to plan for it, the future seems to have a mind of its own and is rarely cooperative. Therefore, we end up with computers on every desk when no one ever thought that was needed, telephones that play music and videos, GPS devices in our cars that seek to rule our lives, and the Internet! These common aspects of our daily lives were not on anyone’s list of future innovations thirty years ago.

Thinking about the future is just plain hard. Being an innovative leader who tries to prepare his or her organization for the future is like banging one’s head against a wall. Economist Otto Scharmer said in an interview:

“The process of innovation . . . is actually a journey that asks you to cross a threshold and leave behind a world that is known, comfortable, and familiar--where you are part of a given community. In your journey of discovery, you will move into something that is less known, more unfamiliar. It is a context that only comes into being when you take a daring step, which almost feels like stepping into nothingness.”

Now who in his or her right mind would want to do this? When we think about most of our stakeholders, any change in the system creates a fear response. The attitude is often, "It's not broken. Why change it?" In reality, "it" is probably broken. The signs of its death are already on the doorstep, and the stakeholders are trying to ignore it.

No one knows what the future holds. We cannot even be certain that it will be like the past, but every organization—including the church—needs courageous leaders who will take time to develop a spirit of openness and trust that will provide the space for stakeholders to talk, dream, and innovate. Perhaps we cannot foretell the future, but we can embrace its possibilities as they emerge.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

This is What a Preacher Looks Like

During the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Charlotte in June, participants were invited to an early morning session on “Heightening the Role of Women in Leadership.” The conversation was initiated by a group of women and men who have been meeting for several months to encourage and nurture increased opportunities for women in leadership roles in all areas of Baptist life.

The facilitators reported some encouraging statistics including the fact that ordained women made up one-third of the chaplains/pastoral counselors endorsed by CBF this year and that six percent of senior pastors in Baptist churches are women. This is not to say that the numbers are satisfactory, but the trends are encouraging.

As we moved into small groups and brainstormed ways to encourage churches to provide more leadership opportunities for women, the ideas flowed freely. Our group suggested such actions as inviting a panel of women in ministry to talk to the congregation about their calling, struggles and what women bring to ministry. We even talked about the importance of not only opening up traditionally male leadership roles to women but “allowing” men to serve in traditionally female roles (like working with children). A very practical idea was offered by one of the young women in the group—the church should set the standard for society by adopting fair, gender neutral policies in the church (such as maternity and paternity leave policies).

Another highlight of the General Assembly for me was the book signing for This is What a Preacher Looks Like: Sermons by Baptist Women in Ministry. As I walked through the line getting the various chapters autographed by their authors, I was impressed by the diversity of the group—women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Many have struggled and paid the price for leadership and others will be called to do so in the future.

So the conversation continues. I hope you will be part of it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Playing the Hand You're Dealt

One of the key criticisms that Geoff Loftus offers of Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership in Lead Like Ike is the way that he handled (or failed to handle) Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, the highest ranking British commander in Operation Overlord. Immensely popular with the British public, Montgomery consistently over promised and under produced. He was the architect of the disastrous Operation Market Garden plan, but Eisenhower authorized the effort and took blame for its failure.

Montgomery, left of Eisenhower (center)
Although Loftus acknowledges that Eisenhower was willing to put up with Montgomery in order to accomplish his mission of defeating Germany through an allied effort, I believe that he understands the necessity of keeping Montgomery on as the face of Allied cooperation (and the enormous pressure that Winston Churchill provided as Monty’s advocate). Eisenhower was forced to play the hand he was dealt and hope for some good luck along the way. Toward the end of the war with victory in sight, Eisenhower began to marginalize Montgomery and saw his role as less important once the Allies moved into Germany from the west and the Russians advanced from the east.

Eisenhower’s dilemma is not unusual for those who try to bring together disparate groups and people in order to accomplish a task. Although business consultant Jim Collins talks about “getting the right people on the bus,” we cannot always control who becomes part of our team. This is especially true in church and denominational situations. We might prefer not to have that particularly obnoxious lay leader on the long-range planning team, but he is the church treasurer and the church expects his involvement. The new pastor might not immediately “synch” with the ministers already on the staff when he or she arrives, but they have experience and expertise necessary to the smooth functioning of the church, and the pastor must make an effort to develop a team attitude and good relationships.

The good news is that as the leader gains credibility and confidence in a setting, she or he might be able to move the less cooperative members of the church or staff into areas that make a better use of their gifts or simply “put them out to pasture.” This is done with respect, kindness, and charity, but only with the cooperation of other significant stakeholders in the body.

In the short term, the leader should be thankful that the difficult partner is at least “inside the tent” and try to appreciate what he or she has to offer for the good of the cause. There is always the possibility that the person who does not seem to be a good fit may have insight that is vital to the mission.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Churches that Teach

Churches and seminaries continue to seek new models to prepare men and women for ministry in the life of the church. Both are acknowledging the necessity to adapt to a changing situation. Many churches are calling out their own members to leadership roles but recognize the need for quality theological education. Seminaries realize that fewer students are willing to relocate to pursue preparation for ministry, especially those already involved in church leadership and those who have experienced a call to ministry at mid-life. The situation calls for new delivery models.

A new example is The Potter's House, the Dallas megachurch led by Bishop T.D. Jakes. The church is expanding its mission statement to include collaboration with Palmer Theological Seminary. The Pennsylvania seminary has started a Master of Theological Studies program that will be mostly online, but will have students spending a week every other term at the Potter's House, getting practical experience under Jakes and other pastors.

In an article in the Dallas News, Jakes added that other seminaries have approached him about a partnership. He went with Palmer, he said, because its program is based on the Openseminary model that began in South Africa and seeks to give a seminary education to laity and church workers who can't relocate to a seminary campus.

Central Baptist Theological Seminary recognized the need for new models of theological education several years ago, establishing centers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Wisconsin site is supported by the regional American Baptist organization. The Tennessee site is a partnership involving First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro; Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; and the seminary. Both programs have already produced graduates with the Master of Divinity degree. Central is also increasing its online offerings to provide students both on the Shawnee campus and the centers flexibility in their degree programs.  Central offers innovative programs such as the Master of Arts in Missional Church Studies in an urban setting and a cohort-based approach to the M.Div. called "create."

Necessity is the mother of invention.  Partnerships such as these are productive both for the seminaries and the churches and will strengthen both in coming days.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lead Like Ike by Geoff Loftus

Over the last couple of decades, there has been a number of management books published under the general title “Leadership Lessons of . . . (add any name—Attila the Hun, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln).” Some are more successful than others. Lead Like Ike is one of the best.

Geoff Loftus takes a look at the historical record of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership of the Allied military organization that launched the invasion of France and led to the unconditional surrender of Germany and draws ten strategic lessons for organizational leaders. Initially, a military campaign as metaphor for business strategy seems a bit whimsical and irreverent--for example, “battlefields” become “markets,” “enemies” become “competitors,” and “general officers” become “executives.” The author makes a good case, however, that Eisenhower tended to think of himself as a corporate CEO, counting the cost of both lives and materiel and how to justify those expenditures to his stockholders, the American and British people.

Although Loftus respects Eisenhower as a leader, he freely critiques his leadership decisions and draws lessons from the bad choices he made. Eisenhower learned from his mistakes, but he was not always quick to apply what he had learned. For the most part, Loftus sees Ike as a principled, competent leader with significant skills in planning, motivation, and execution.

I did find Loftus’ attempts to insert contemporary corporate examples into the narrative to be a distraction, but these might be helpful for someone leading a business. The book is an interesting analysis of a great leader and will be a useful tool for the leader of any organization.

Disclosure: This book was given to the reviewer by Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Freedom to Be Wrong

The story is told that Brooks Hays, the legendary congressman and Baptist layman from Arkansas, was walking along the street with a friend one day when he was accosted by a rather antagonistic woman who wanted to “straighten him out” on an issue. Hays listened quietly for a few minutes and then said to the woman, “You may very well be right.” After he and his friend left the woman and walked a few steps, Hays said under his breath, “And you may very well be wrong.”

I am reminded of this when I consider how difficult it is to have discussion about substantive and possibly volatile issues in a congregation. I attended a workshop on “Building Capacity for Congregational Dialogue” led by David Odom at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in June. Odom provided some good suggestions about facilitating discussion about difficult issues in the congregation. As I think back, though, I am forced to consider why we so often balk at open discussion in congregational settings. Several reasons come to mind.

First, open dialogue about an issue may call into question the congregation’s cohesiveness. Those of us in the South are particularly inclined to ignore the “elephant in the room” and avoid bringing up potentially difficult subjects. When we do this, we may well be sacrificing not only our honesty but our integrity. In so doing, we compromise our witness.

Second, an open discussion may threaten someone’s real or perceived power within the life of the church. Surprise!—We are not always talking about the pastor. The threatened person may be the matriarch or patriarch of the congregation, the influential community leader, or the biggest contributor. Whoever it may be, they like things the way they are, so don’t “rock the boat.”

Third, we may be afraid to discuss some subjects because we don’t know what is really important. We put women wearing pants in the church on the same level as admitting people of another sexual orientation into leadership roles. Some issues are doctrinal and some are simply customary, but we don’t know how to differentiate between the two.

Fourth, we often fail to realize that there may be more than one view on an issue and none of them are clearly right or wrong. There is no reason in splitting the congregation over the unimportant. There is some wisdom in being able to state our ideas and then “agreeing to disagree” in Christian love.

Fifth, we may be afraid of being wrong and losing “face.” The most difficult thing for any leader to do is to be willing to step up and say, “I was wrong on this. I missed it entirely.” He or she does not realize that this may be the wisest approach to building confidence in one’s future decisions.

Perhaps the writer of Ephesians provides the key that will foster openness, tolerance, and transparency in congregational discussions: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15, NIV). What an idea!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

I was once in a group where we were asked to identify a book that had made a significant difference in our lives. When I mentioned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one person in the group laughed. I assumed then, and still do, that the person had never read the book nor understood its importance to a generation of people born and raised in a region where racism was common.

The book was published 50 years ago—July 11, 1960—and has never gone out of print. Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book became an Academy Award-winning film, but she never wrote another book. Even so, the story of young Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, has helped many to reconsider racism both then and now.

I read the book as a college freshman attending a segregated university in the South. I did four years of college on a campus where the only African-Americans were custodians and service personnel. It was a time of racial unrest and outright conflict. As a young Christian who was struggling with how to reconcile what I had lived with what I was learning from my study of scripture and discussion with friends, the story of white people who were willing to take a stand in opposition to community standards was a revelation. I came to understand that discrimination based on the color of one’s skin was wrong in a court of law or in society at large.

Lee captured both the prejudice of a culture and the fearlessness of Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer who was willing to defend a black man unjustly accused of rape. Through the eyes of a child, she cut through the extraneous and unimportant to the heart of the matter—there are times when a person must take a stand for the right.

The lesson is never over, of course. It is one that we need to reconsider as individuals and as a society on a regular basis. Prejudice always raises its ugly head, especially in times of stress or crisis, and must be exposed for what it is again and again.

Thank you, Harper Lee, for helping us to deal with our demons and find new ways to love others. We still need the help.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Paradox of Judgment

Several weeks ago, a friend shared a question with me and made this comment:

“For a while in my life, I simply journeyed--walking by faith but not asking a lot of questions. However, as I get older there is tremendous value in asking the difficult questions. This new journey-- although it has more rocks-- has been a deepening faith experience.”

These are brave words. Nobody likes questions, especially when the questioner is challenging conventional beliefs and pushing us to reexamine our boundaries. As I have been reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith and discussing it with a group of friends, I have found myself uncomfortable with both the questions and some of his responses. One of these has to do with the final judgment.

The traditional approach to the final judgment of God, usually seen as one of the functions of the Risen Christ, is that it will be a time to settle up accounts with humankind. This is the point when we will be asked to answer THE question. Now the nature of that question is a bit ambiguous. Is the question, “Did you profess me as Savior and Lord?” Or is it, “Did you do unto one of the least of these?” Or, “Is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life?” Or any number of others that you and I have heard from pulpits and well meaning friends down through the years. The traditional idea is that if you answer correctly, you enter into eternal fellowship with God. If you answer incorrectly, you are cast into outer darkness, eternal damnation, and suffering.

McLaren provides an insight which reframes the discussion. He writes,

“God’s judgment . . . is not merely retributive—seeking to punish wrongdoers for their wrongs and in this way balance some sort of cosmic equation. No, God’s judgment is far higher and better than that; it involves “putting wrong things right.” It means reconciling and restoring, not merely punishing; healing, nor merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; revaluing (or redeeming), not merely evaluating.”

In other words, the just judge may dispense not only judgment but deliverance. We always assume the worst outcome in a judicial proceeding, but after weighing all the facts, the judge’s decree may be, “I find you not guilty of all charges.” In the final judgment, we come before One who has (in McLaren’s words) “beautifully and fully integrated” those things we see as opposites—justice and mercy, kindness and strength, grace and truth. We stand before One who wants the best for us—all of us. In that final judgment, our judge will look for mitigating and extenuating circumstances that may temper the decision and will seek to redeem the good things found there. The wisdom used in that decision is far beyond anything that you or I can comprehend.

I must say that this approach—involving hope, anticipation, and participation—puts the final judgment in a new perspective. Perhaps God does not give up on us as quickly as we give up on ourselves and our peers. If so, this is indeed “good news.”