Friday, December 31, 2010

Embracing the Life Cycle

On a Sunday before Christmas, our pastor was reflecting on the importance of Jesus as Immanuel—“God with us”—for humankind.  By becoming human, God entered into the messiness and beauty of this world.  In his incarnation, Jesus experienced the reality of life.  This means that he went through most of the experiences of the human life cycle just as we do.

Jesus experienced childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.  He probably dealt with the death of the one who was his earthly father and cared for his mother as she grew older.  He found both a livelihood and a vocation, and then he embraced another calling at midlife. He was faced with and experienced the reality of death.  In doing all of these things, he affirmed the importance of the stages of the human life cycle, raising them above being mundane, ordinary experiences.

By implication, we are encouraged to value these stages of human experience and learn more about them.  Although my training is as an historian and a minister of the Gospel, I have always been drawn to the study of  human development and its psychological, social, and moral implications.  My Doctor of Ministry project was based on understanding the faith and psychosocial development of young adults.  Every stage of life carries its own challenges—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  Those of us who work with people should be aware of the varied needs of those with whom we minister at each stage of life.

God established the cycle in the beginning and Jesus lived it. Through our experiences as children, youth, and adults, we can learn more about ourselves and about our need for a relationship with God and God’s people.  If we fail to do so, we cannot become the people that God has called us to be.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Third Culture Principles

One of the most significant things I have learned in recent years is a new way of looking at missions.  Some excellent mentors—Eliot Roberts, Pat Anderson, Rob Nash, Mart Gray, Steve Street, Mike Young and others--have shown me that we must respect the humanity of those with whom we minister.  I have too often seen ministry as something that I or my group “do for” someone else without any regard for whether they want “to be done unto.”  They are not recipients by partners.

Dave Gibbons follows this perspective in The Monkey and The Fish:  Liquid Leadership for a Third- Culture Church.  If we are to mesh smoothly as ministry partners with others, we must observe certain principles.  Gibbons outlines them in this way.

First, we must listen more than we speak.  This is a skill that is often difficult to learn!

Second, we must believe that “the locals” know more than we do and learn from them.  They live there; they know the situation better than we do and have wisdom to share.

Third, we must understand that Jesus is already there.  In some way, God has already expressed God’s love for these people, even if we cannot readily identify that work.

Fourth, we must be open to redeeming and giving new meaning to cultural practices or customs even if we do not understand them or may be uncomfortable with them.  Much of the “baggage” we bring with us has nothing to do with the Gospel.

Fifth, we must respect the forms and practices of a given culture.  This means learning both the verbal and nonverbal languages of people.

Sixth, we must recognize that the world outside our doors has a much higher regard for Christ than for Christianity, especially as they have seen it practiced by us. 

Although some of these principles may seem harsh and critical, take a few minutes to reflect on them.  If your experience is anything like mine, you will identify ways that you have violated most if not all of these at some time. 

Gibbons seems to be saying, “It’s not all about us.”  There is a great big world of people who can teach us much.  If we will enter into their cultures with humility and love, we can open not only doors but hearts as well.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Monkey and the Fish: New Perspectives on Ministry

Dave Gibbons, pastor of Newsong Church, has mined his own life and experiences in writing The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third Culture Church.  In embracing his Korean and Anglo background, he has learned the value of seeing needs with different eyes—those of the “outsider.”

Gibbons writes, “Third culture is the mindset and will to love, learn, and serve in any culture, even in the midst of pain and discomfort.”  He expands this definition by explaining that third culture is not simply a strategy but a way that believers are to live—loving God and loving neighbor. In order to do this, we must be like water.  As a liquid, water adapts to fit its environment.  Using the metaphor of water as the Good News for a thirsty world, Gibbons challenges the church “to be open to creatively designing or embracing new forms, languages, customs, and containers to deliver that water.”

Doing this will require a radical change in the way most churches operate.  In his list of third-culture principles, Gibbons argues for humility, openness, and flexibility in dealing with other cultures.   His approach calls for a maturity and adaptability that is open lacking in our churches.  We must give up our preconceived ideas and let God speak through others.

In undertaking this strategy, the church can tap into a new network of innovators and influencers in the world—artists, business persons, and community-development specialists.  Through the use of language, metaphor, and images, artists play the prophetic role in movements.  Businesspersons bring resources, connections, and organization skills to the table, providing “front-line wisdom to organizations and systems.”  Community-development specialists are those with “the view from the streets”—educators, healthcare professionals, relief workers, economic developers—with a passion to change the world. Each of these groups has shown the willingness to respond to human need with their talents and resources when given the opportunity.

 In order to tap into these leaders, Gibbons points out that the church must overcome its biases and learn to work more collaboratively.  In making this point, he says, “Even people we consider to be pagan often are much better at working together than the church is.”  He charges that the “obsolete systems and hierarchies” of the church tend to separate Christians from the real action in the world.

Although portions of the book seem to be adapted from sermons or conference addresses, Gibbons paints a vision of a new way of doing church that is challenging but optimistic.  He encourages the reader to adopt a new perspective on ministry that is refreshing.  The Monkey and the Fish is worth the read.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Shaping the Future

Forty years ago, Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote Future Shock, a groundbreaking book about what we could expect in the future.  It was a challenging and, in many ways, accurate forecast.  Some of its projections are still coming to pass.

Toffler Associates has released a special report called "40 FOR THE NEXT 40: A Sampling of the Drivers of Change That Will Shape Our World Between Now and 2050." The report identifies future trends in politics, technology, society, economics, and the environment. You can download it here as a PDF file for free.

I picked out several that seem to have specific implications for the church. 

First, THE NUMBER AND VARIETY OF NON-STATE ACTORS WILL RISE DRAMATICALLY.  NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will be the fastest growing non-state actors and will be extremely influential in humanitarian and social concerns.  If churches and their mission organizations are to have an impact around the world, they must have a strong presence through recognized NGOs.  Missionaries can no longer fly “under the radar” but must openly work and partner with others.

Second, THE EMERGENCE OF OPEN NETWORKS FOR INNOVATION WILL ALLOW RAPID ACCESS TO SPECIALISTS ACROSS THE GLOBE.  Churches and mission organizations must learn to embrace ideas and implement innovations they did not invent.  There are creative problem solvers around the world who can help Christian groups meet challenges even if they do not embrace a Christian worldview.  We can learn from them.

Third, SOCIAL NETWORKING WILL DRIVE NEW MEANS OF INFLUENCE.  The report comments that “new relationships will break down previously protected borders and provide new intelligence sources.”  The church must find effective ways to embrace social networking and build on its strengths.  With all of its faults, social networking is a reality that the church cannot ignore.

Fourth, COMPANIES WILL INCREASINGLY CREATE VALUE BY BEING “CONNECTORS”.  The church approach will be somewhat different from the secular approach, but church judicatories especially must come to see their role as being connectors rather than suppliers.  Judicatories can help churches discover resources and implement strategies that the judicatories do not create.   This is a better use of time and resources.

Fifth, GLOBAL RELIGIOUS DYNAMICS WILL IMPACT THE POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND SECURITY ENVIRONMENTS OF THE FUTURE.  According to the report, “Changes in global religious demography, such as the rapid growth of Christianity in the global South and increased Muslim immigration to Western nations, will shape public attitudes and government policies.”  It also states, “Growth in religious believers will have an increased impact, with major policy and security implications around the world.”  The impact of this trend can be positive or negative.  The churches can play a major role in making it positive by embracing strategies that promote understanding, dialogue, and cooperation.

There are 35 more and you may find others that you feel will affect how we “do church” in the next 40 years.  Take a look at the list and reflect on its implications. You won't agree with everything, but it will stimulate your thinking.  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Hospitality

Our family usually marks the holiday season by doing something in relation to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville.  The property has good memories for us.  We always enjoyed the Opryland Theme Park (not closed) when our children were young.  We attended at least three student mission conferences held at the hotel during the Christmas/New Year’s holidays.  We have eaten Thanksgiving dinner there as a family and toured the Christmas lights and decorations some years.  Rita and I have attended Christmas programs or concerts there.

Like many, we were saddened by the closing of the hotel due to the flooding last spring.  We have a close friend who works with guest services at the hotel and she was devastated by the damage.  One Sunday this summer, we talked at church and she was excited about the renovation work and the opportunity to bring back the personnel who had been laid off due to the closing. 

Rita and I spent a night at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel this week and attended a Christmas concert.  We ran into our friend when we arrived, and she graciously stepped in to provide VIP treatment for us.  She knows the meaning of hospitality and practices it both at her work and in her personal life.

Hospitality is a key part of this season.  Hopefully, we will provide a more hospitable setting to family and friends than Jesus experienced at His birth.  As we think of Him, we have the opportunity to rekindle our sense of hospitality for those we know and those we don’t know.  I hope that at least some of your gifts during this season are directed toward “the least of these” whose needs continue year round.

Behind all the decorations and festivities, I need to reconsider the meaning of hospitality.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Engaging Believers in the Church

“How can we help our church members grow?” is a common question among church leaders.  Undergirding that question may be others such as “How can we reach people for our church?” or “How can we get our members more involved in ministry?” or (if we are honest)   “How can we get our people to support the church financially?”

These are all valid questions that express the concern to help believers grow in their spiritual commitment.  Albert L. Winseman, a Methodist minister and an associate with The Gallup Organization, suggests that we take a step back and first ask, “How can we help people to be more engaged in our church?”  In Growing an Engaged Church, Winseman draws on extensive research to show that once a person is engaged in the life of the church, he or she will show growth in life satisfaction, serving, inviting and giving.

Winseman observes that conservative churches have done a better job of connecting with people at the emotional level than have mainline churches.  He states, “In today’s postmodern world, people don’t show up at worship services because they want to know more about God; they come because they want to experience God.  They want to have an emotional connection with the holy.”

He points out that the three things that will have the greatest impact on a person’s engagement in the church are clarifying the expectations of membership; helping members discover what they do best; and creating small groups.  Ironically, encouraging people to discover and use their natural talents tends to go against conventional wisdom in most churches.  We are more concerned with putting people into slots than assessing whether they fit there or not!  If we help people discover what they do best, give them a chance to do it, and then provide some level of accountability (such as small group involvement), they are well on the way to becoming really engaged in the life of the church.

The book tends to be a bit repetitive and even “sermonic” at times, but the concepts and suggestions ring true.  I think you will find it helpful as you seek to help people live out their faith in community.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Milestone

This posting is something of a milestone for Barnabas File.  This is my 400th post!  For a number of years, I used the title "Barnabas File" on articles I wrote for the newsletters of various organizations I served.  The title, of course, honors one of the "nobodies of the New Testament" (as one writer called him) whose love, integrity, encouragement, and innovation are characteristics that I would hope to reflect in my own life.  When I decided to launch a blog  in June 2006, it seemed appropriate to continue to use that title.

The subtitle I chose still seems to apply:  "Comments of a  progressive Baptist Christian about things that matter to him." I have written about everything from my personal response to the death of Titans quarterback Steve McNair to my commitment to women pursuing their calling in ministry.  Although this blog has served as something of a personal journal for me, I have tried to avoid making it a place for me to gripe.  Rather, I have tried to ask questions with which I am personally struggling.  My purpose has not been to pontificate but to investigate possibilities.

Although I have received inquiries about using this space for commercial purposes, my only concession has been linking books and resources to an online publisher.  When I review or comment on a book, I have read it and try to be honest about whether it is worth your time or not.  In fact, why would I take the time to write about something that is not worth your reading?

Your comments are appreciated.  I am often surprised to find out who is reading my "stuff."  Thanks for engaging in this conversation with me. My plans are to continue with the Barnabas File as long as ideas come to mind. I appreciate your fellowship on the journey.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

No Regrets?

One morning recently I was scanning the obituaries in the local paper (a daily ritual) when I noted the comment in one posting:  “He lived his life with no regrets.”  I also noted this man had also requested no memorial service.

I did not know this individual, but I started wondering, “What does it mean to live one’s life with no regrets?”  I cannot identify with the statement.  Perhaps I am either too introspective or too guilt-ridden, but I can think of a number of things that I regret in the sense that I wish that I had handled them differently.

There are people that I knew in high school and college to whom I could have paid more attention.  As a young person, I was too concerned about me (I guess it goes with the territory) and less concerned about how my remarks and attitudes might affect others.  There were times that I treated others in inappropriate and disrespectful ways.  I should have known better, but I didn’t or chose not to.

I regret that I did not spend more time with my children when they were at home.  I now see what a gift they have been to my life.  The business of life and work interfered with family time.  It often still does.

From time to time, I regret that I did not spend more time with those who are no longer with us—my grandson who died of cancer just short of his fifth birthday, my parents, longtime friends and mentors.  These all enriched my life and more time with them would have blessed me and perhaps them.

I regret that I was not aware of the needs of one friend who committed suicide.  When I heard of her death, I was shocked and could not understand why I did not see this coming.

I could go on, but the point is that I do live with regrets about “the road(s) not taken.”  Regrets are based on actions we wish we had taken.  I suppose we live with and learn from regrets by the way we deal with them.  First, I have to acknowledge these before God and ask for God’s forgiveness.  Second, if possible, I need to share my regret with those involved.  I don’t expect forgiveness but I need to acknowledge my failings.  Third, I need to ask God to give me insight about myself based on these feelings.  What do they say about my priorities, my values, and my growth as a believer?  In addressing these regrets, I can hopefully become a better person.

Life without regrets?  No, I don’t identify with that statement and I do not choose to practice it.  I will live with my regrets.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Patton: The Pursuit of Destiny

Because of the responsibility entrusted to them, top military leaders tend to be controversial figures.  In fact, Agostino von Hassell and Ed Breslin begin their overview of the life of General George S. Patton, Jr., with a critique of the Academy Award-winning 1970 film that bears the general’s name. They seem to think that their subject was frequently depicted unfairly in this production.  This book attempts to correct those misconceptions.  Von Hassell and Breslin’s brief biography of one of the greatest general officers of World War Two is readable and comprehensive without drowning the reader in detail.  One will come away with a much better understanding of a gifted and flawed leader.

Von Hassell and Breslin provide a good account of the legacy inherited by George Patton, one that was both a blessing and a burden. Although Patton was often a thorn in his side, Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower valued Patton and acknowledged that he was “born to be a soldier.”  Patton was often intemperate, impolitic and impulsive, but he was a leader of men and produced results when they were needed.  The authors’ theme is that all of Patton’s life prepared him for the greatest victory of his career, the relief of the embattled and surrounded American troops at Bastogne in the winter of 1944.

One of the more interesting insights of the book is the account of Patton’s gifts as a teacher.  He was a student of war, especially cavalry tactics, and this informed his training of thousands of American troops.  Patton was not only able to effectively organize vital teaching about preparation and tactics, he was an eloquent (although often profane) communicator who got his point across.

There are some shortcomings in the authors’ approach.  First, they often heap excessive praise on Patton, forgetting that he was part of a team of diverse but gifted leaders.  Patton himself was careful about sharing praise with others, especially his troops.  Second, Von Hassell and Breslin tend to identify too many people (including General Mark Clark and General Omar Bradley) as “enemies” and “rivals” of Patton when they were really only men doing their jobs who might not have agreed with Patton!  Third, they appear to think that war and politics are separate distinct endeavors and that Patton was above politics.  In fact, Patton was politically savvy although not always careful in his remarks.

Early in their account of World War Two, Von Hassell and Breslin accuse Eisenhower of being a poor leader and envious of Patton, but later they acknowledge that Eisenhower knew Patton’s value and stood by him, even during some of his more foolish actions.  Once again, just because someone did not along with every idea Patton presented, this does not mean that the person was his enemy.

The book is based on primary sources that are often mentioned but never footnoted, but this does not detract from the work but allows the reader to proceed through the pages quickly.  For those who have never read anything about a remarkable military leader, Patton: The Pursuit of Destiny is worth the time.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the <> 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 

Monday, December 13, 2010

People Skills are Important

Organizations often state, “Our people are our most important asset.”  If this is true, the corollary should be “People skills are essential in our daily work.”  People skills are the way that individuals relate to their supervisors, those they supervise, clients, and other team members.  

At Peoplemap training recently, Mike Lillibridge pointed out that the longer a person stays with an organization, the more important their people skills become.  An entry level employee is usually hired for his or her technical skills not their people skills.  After some time with the organization, three years or more, employees are evaluated almost equally on their technical skills and their people skills.  When the person becomes a “valued” employee, their technical skills may be only 30 percent of their “value” and their highly developed people skills represent 70 percent of their value.  When a person becomes a leader, manager, or supervisor, their “advanced” people skills make up 80 percent of their work and their technical skills only 20 percent.

We may not hire for people skills, but we expect them from employees as their responsibility grows in the organization.  Mike pointed out that successful companies develop their workers’ people skills.

So how does this apply to the church?  I talked recently with a friend who works closely with seminary graduates in their “first call” placements.  For young adults with little experience in any organization, they often lack two abilities--project development/planning and relational skills.  In other words, one of the things they really need is people skills, but often they are called for their “ministerial” skills first.

Just because a person has been called to ministry, he or she may not necessarily have the people skills necessary to be an effective minister.  Pinnacle Leadership Associates is one resource to churches, judicatories, and not-for-profits who want to help their team members develop these skills.  Contact Mark Tidsworth for more information.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Reform without Accommodation

The Christian faith has been marked by conflicts between reform movements and the establishment from the very beginning (consider Paul and the Judaizers).   Without a doubt, the Spirit of God tends to move in unusual and often chaotic ways.   For the most part, reform movements through the centuries have started outside of the established church.  These include the monastic orders, Protestantism, mission societies, and even theological education.

They don’t stay outside the church for very long, however.  The church always attempts to institutionalize these movements and bring them under the wing of the establishment.  The church needs the enthusiasm and fresh insights of these movements to provide both vitality and new direction.  Of course, when this happens, the reform movements tend to become organized, controlled, and domesticated.

The trend continues today and has actually accelerated due to the social and technological resources available to spiritual entrepreneurs.  There a number of entrepreneurial organizations that are doing things in a new way, thus seeking to “reform” the church and adapt its mission and ministry to a new culture.  We see this in “moderate” or progressive Baptist life with the news agencies, social action and education groups, mission organizations, and theological institutions that have been created to support churches that have broken with an old way of doing things. 

There is still a desire among many to regulate or control these entities, absorbing their strength, but also domesticating them and sapping some of their vitality.  Is there any way to break this cycle? Is there a new model that will encourage cooperation, collegiality, and community without domestication?

For this to happen, we must not only be creative but willing to live with some level of discomfort and ambiguity.  In The Monkey and Fish, pastor and third-culture proponent Dave Gibbons says, “I need to learn to embrace chaos better, because movements of God are marked by chaos.”  As the various movements of the Spirit manifest themselves today and in the future, we will be increasingly challenged to learn that lesson.