Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why Most Churches are Good but Not Great

In Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team sought out companies that moved from being good at what they were doing to becoming truly great.  They pointed out that “Good is the enemy of the great.”  In other words, people will praise your organization for providing quality but not exceptional products (or programs or services).  People have been abused so long by organizations that they are satisfied with good but not exceptional service.   They don’t expect anything to be “great.”   Why take the risk to move to the next level when you already have acceptable results?

I have thought recently about how many good churches there are.  These congregations provide solid preaching, well-planned worship, comprehensive Christian education, competent pastoral care, and helpful ministries, but they are not exceptional.  They are shackled by their own expectations of what church ought to be and limited in their Kingdom vision.  What keeps them from being great?

Good churches are satisfied with the acceptable rather than the exceptional. They do what is necessary to “cover all the bases” so that the community will think well of them but they rarely are willing to go to the next level and provide something that is truly exceptional. 

Good churches tend to major on minor issues. They are very concerned that things be done correctly whether those things are important or not.  They major on minors.

Good churches value security over service.  They have a low level of risk tolerance, so they are unwilling to try anything that may result in criticism from within the congregation or from the outside community.

Good churches are more concerned about maintenance than mission.  They would rather take care of what they already have than reach out to embrace the unfamiliar, fearing embarrassment or uncertainty and possible inconvenience.

Good churches would rather invest in programs than in people.  They have the mindset that the right program will answer all their problems, so they sell their members on programs rather than asking members what they need in order to fulfill God’s calling in their lives.

Good churches prefer to stay with the familiar rather than embrace innovation.  When one is innovative, there is always the possibility of failure and good churches cannot tolerate failure.

Good churches are too easily distracted.  Every immediate difficulty becomes a major problem, so they take their eyes off what is best and simply settle for maintaining what is good.  They are unwilling to “stay the course.”

My friend Bo Prosser has noted, “Very few churches will thrive in the 21st century because we are too nice to sweat, too proud to cry, too stubborn to change, too sophisticated to laugh, and too busy to celebrate.”   Just being good will not further the work of the Kingdom of God.  Unless we loosen up and respond to the leadership of the Spirit of God, we will always be good churches but never great ones.

(This is an update of a post that was originally published July 28, 2011.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Informational, Formational, and Transformational

In our Companions in Christ study entitled “Feeding on the Word,” participants were introduced to the difference between informational reading and formational reading of scripture.  This idea is presented very effectively in Robert Mulholland’s book,Shaped by the Word.

Informational reading of scripture is a left-brain approach.  Mulholland points out that the person who reads scripture this way sees the material as an object, an “it”, something to be analyzed so that he or she can discover “the truth” that is contained there.  If taken to the extreme, scripture is perceived as a problem to be solved.  Baptists are very good at this.  We want to “wrestle” the text to the ground and will it to relinquish its treasures.

Formational reading of scripture is a right-brain activity.  As one reads in this way, he or she is allowing the scripture to speak.  Scripture is a subject, a “thou” with the potential for multiple levels of meaning based upon the reader’s own experience and receptivity to God. The reader seeks to engage the text as mystery and revelation.  Therefore, there are not “right” or “wrong” answers, just the truth that you or I perceive.  Methodists and Anglicans are better at this approach.  They appreciate a more contemplative and relational methodology.

Mulholland affirms both approaches by pointing out, “We must have a certain level of information about the biblical passage, some sense of the meaning of the text in its original context, some sense of what God was saying to the intended readers before it can become formational.”

I am not sure that I completely agree with Mulholland.  There are certainly examples of individuals being transformed by their exposure to scripture and only then learning some of the facts and dealing with critical (as in analytical) issues.  There is a transformational power in the teachings of scripture that is not dependent on analysis or contemplation.  Those of us who are already believers should embrace both the informational and formational aspects of Bible study but perhaps we should provide space for the Spirit to speak to us through the Word and transform us in the way it did when we first heard the message, bringing us back to our first love.  That would be refreshing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

This is Worth Checking Out!

Most of us in ministry leadership want to do a better job and are constantly seeking resources to help us, especially those that are based on sound theological reflection and actual practice.  If you are this type of leader, let me share something with you.

Under the leadership of executive director David Odom, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity designs educational services, develops intellectual resources, and facilitates networks of institutions including churches and denominational judicatories. Support for the program is provided by a major grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. and on-going funding from The Duke Endowment as well as other donors.

In addition to on-site conferences and consultation, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity produces a number of digital resources, including several e-newsletters.  I was recently introduced to another online resource, a Principles and Practices archive that provides information around the following topics:
  • Thriving Communities
  • Vibrant Institutions
  • Christ-Shaped Leadership
  • Traditioned Innovation
  • Transformative Leadership
  • Generative Organization
  • Sustainable Design

 Each section has a number of well-written articles on the topic (usually from a theological perspective), specific examples of where the best examples of the principle are being practiced, and resources such as books or multimedia for further study.  This is a creative, thoughtful, and challenging collection of materials.  The best thing is that it is free of charge!

You might want to go to the introductory page and take a look at the material available under a topic that is of particular interest to you.  I think you will be impressed as I was.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What’s in a Name?

A couple of weeks ago, we received a mailer from a new church start in our community.  Actually, the pastor has been working on this for about four years, but evidently they are moving toward more visibility in the community, thus the mailing.

When I went to the church’s web site, I found this paragraph:

“We are the first Theologically SBC church in Rutherford County, TN to start with out [sic] “Baptist” in the name and take an interdenominational approach to people.  Every church has core theology that ties them to a denomination.  This directs all the teaching and doctrine of a church, but we refuse to focus on the dogmas [sic] of a denomination!  Jesus is so much bigger than a denomination.”

So what’s this all about?  After reading this, I have to ask questions like, “Is this a Baptist congregation or not?” “Did you feel that you had to put this on your web site because you are receiving funds from the state Baptist convention to get started?”  “Do you intend to keep this on your website until the financial assistance from the state Baptist convention runs out and then declare your true colors?”

These folks are living with some tensions, aren’t they? They seem to be saying that they come from a Baptist background and hold Baptist beliefs, but please don’t hold that against them because they still love people. 

By pursuing this strategy, this church communicates several things.

First, they do want to reach people but being “Baptist” may get in the way of that, so they aren’t using Baptist in the name of their church.  This is not so unusual these days and actually makes some sense and, in spite of what they have on their website, they are not the first Southern Baptist Convention church start in the county that has chosen not to put their denominational connection in the name of their church. I can think of a half dozen off pretty quickly.

Second, what does being “Baptist” really mean to these folks?  They seem to be saying, “Don’t hate us because we grew up Baptist, believe Baptist doctrines, and take Baptist money.”  In fact they make it clear on their web site that their mission and ministry work is not limited to Southern Baptist causes.  It seems that they may be a bit ashamed of who they are.

Third, what does it mean to take “an interdenominational approach” to people?  Most churches that are interested in outreach and evangelism welcome people without putting a tag on them.  Does “an interdenominational approach” mean they won’t hold it against someone who was a Presbyterian if they want to join this new church?  Does it mean that they will accept prior baptism regardless of mode and meaning of administration?  Does it mean that they won’t push Baptist doctrine too hard if someone joins?

If this church is honestly Baptist in its beliefs, welcomes all people regardless of their religious background, and ministers in such a way that honors the calling and giftedness of its members, I hope they will prosper.  But if they are just trying to market themselves in a way that won’t be offensive, perhaps they need to rethink their vision and strategy.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Birthing Communities of Faith: A Different Perspective

On any given Sunday, there are more people outside the walls of the churches that within and few of these will be in Christian worship at any other time during the week.  Some leaders see starting new churches—new communities of faith or worshipping units--as one way to address this situation.
Church consultant Eddie Hammett pointed out in a recent Facebook posting that although he is an advocate of starting new churches, he is “increasingly concerned about the amount of money denominations are putting into the effort that is not bearing fruitful results in reaching a new generation.”  He goes on to ask what are other options that might be pursued that are “a better stewardship of our time, energy and money.”
North Carolina pastor Jack Glasgow responded with this comment (shared with his permission):

I believe our efforts will not be fruitful focused on clergy to be church starters. We need to focus on a core group of laypersons who want to create, or have created, a spiritual community and invest in them. When they are ready, they will call clergy leaders to service. Across the board we must shift our emphasis from clergy to laity in denominational work if we want to have relevance in what God is doing.”

This is a novel approach for today although it certainly has valid biblical and historical roots.  Modern church planting movements tend to focus on finding, placing, and equipping gifted individuals who can start a new church.  We can identify many examples, however, of faith communities created by the work of lay leaders.  Although I am not ready to give up on committed church planters, Glasgow’s idea merits some thought.

If we believe that churches start other churches (and I will proceed based on that assumption), then what steps would the pastor or staff of an established congregation do in order to implement a lay-led church start strategy or “incubate” a core group for a new church or faith community?

First, the minister must regularly and forcefully present the challenge t0 laity to accept the responsibility to start new faith communities.  You can call them faith communities, cell groups, house churches, or new church starts, but the idea is that a committed group of lay people can do this without clergy leadership on site.

One approach would be to ask church members to think about their own experience and where such a new faith community might be needed.  This may be a geographic area like a neighborhood or an apartment complex.  Perhaps someone will have a calling to reach out to a particular people group—an ethnic group, for example.  Church members may be aware of the need to work within a particular institutional setting—a college or university, a military base, or a health facility—in a creative and transformative way.  The call may be some mix of the above; for example, developing a worshipping community of international students in a local university.

Second, the minister must find and present examples of where this has happened.  This might be hard to do initially, but there are groups of lay people who have done this successfully.  Give them the opportunity to tell their stories in person, by video conferencing, or by recording.

Third, pray regularly in worship services and other meetings that God will place this burden on the hearts of persons to lead such an effort.  The call to this challenging work may be articulated by pastoral leadership, but the empowering to undertake the task comes from the work of the spirit of God in the hearts of individuals.
Fourth, ministers in established congregations can provide the training that is necessary for a core group to grow spiritually, in community, and in ministry skills as they undertake this task.  The first step is for the core group to develop the spiritual and relational rapport in which gifts can be affirmed and encouraged.  Only then will the strategy to begin the work emerge.

In all of this, the incubator church should invest very little funding so that the core group will not become dependent on outside finances.  The initial stages will require a commitment of time by church leaders to encourage and equip the group, but actual funding should come from those who are called to do the new start.  One of my seminary professors repeatedly said that an indigenous church can be started with ten tithing family units.  With some creativity, a new faith community should be able to prosper with that kind of funding.

Although the cliché is over used, we do need to “think outside the box” when it comes to reaching unchurched people.  Tom Ehrich recently commented, “Mainline churches have missed two consecutive generations of young adults – because they never came, they never found a reason to attend Sunday worship. If something else had been offered, who knows? But as it is, churches have remained remarkably stubborn about ‘putting all their eggs’ in the one basket of Sunday worship.”

Calling out a group of committed lay people who are not bound by tradition, location, or time impediments might be one way to address this concern.  “Church” does not have to happen in a brick edifice on Sunday mornings at eleven o’clock with a musical team and an ordained minister.  The Christian faith grew as individuals were “called out” (ekklesia) to become part of the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps it can be so today.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Ed Rollins

Ed Rollins passed away on Tuesday.  Ed was who I wanted to be when I grew up.  Shortly after Charles Roselle became the director of National Student Ministries at the Baptist Sunday School Board, he asked Ed (then state director of student ministries in California) to join him as manager of the department.  Charlie was “Mr. Outside” and Ed was “Mr. Inside.”  They were a well matched team who trusted and supported one another.

Many knew Ed as committed family man, Sunday school teacher or faithful church leader, but to me Ed was the consummate administrator. He was the person who “made the trains run on time.”  Despite his task-oriented side, Ed was respected and loved by those who worked with him.  Some called him a true Christian gentleman.  They knew that he expected the best of them, but he walked with them every step of the way.  This was especially important when staff began to cross barriers related to sensitive issues like race and gender equality.  Ed understood that the audience that NSM was intended to serve—college students and their leaders-- expected and demanded clarity on social issues.  When NSM staff responded to this need, they often found themselves called on the carpet by upper echelons but Ed was always standing right beside them.  When they were criticized, he accepted his role as their supervisor, leader, and friend.

David Hazelwood shared several “Ed says” quotes at the memorial service today.  One of those was “Ed says, pass on what you learn to the next generation.” Ed Rollins did just that.  He gave me a number of opportunities to stretch myself as young campus minister.  He generously said that I got him out of a bind a couple of times.  If I did, it was certainly the least I could do in return for what I learned from him.

Although Ed grew up in Mississippi and attended college in Louisiana  and Texas, he had a passion that never waned to extend collegiate ministries into new areas and reach students for Christ.   I was pleased to work with Ed, Charles Roselle, Joe Webb, and Tom Logue to organize the Baptist Student Union/BaptistCollegiate Ministries Advancement Fund to support collegiate ministry in “emerging regions” of the country.  I am honored that my name is on the charter next to leaders like Ed.

I suppose one of the main reasons that I liked and admired Ed so much is that we had similar personalities and work styles, often seeing things the same way.  I was at a meeting with Ed and Charles Roselle one time when Ed said, “I like washing dishes.”  Roselle came back with an amused response and Ed explained, “It’s good to see at least one thing that I can really finish.”  I think about that often when I am washing dishes.

Ed, you ran the race and you finished well.  Well done good and faith servant!

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Five Trends the Church Must Address

Strategy planning is not what it used to be.  There was a time when governments, businesses, and even churches planned for the future as if what happened next would be a natural consequence of what had gone before.  Of course, this kind of linear thinking no longer applies.  Instead of assuming that the future will be like the present, we recognize that change is all around us and we try to ascertain trends that will impact what we will be doing five, ten, or twenty years from now . . . and sometimes it works.  Of course, most forecasters missed the impact of the personal computer, the Internet, and social media, but we still try!

In a recent blog titled “5 Unexpected Factors That Change How We Forecast The Future,”  Jamais Cascio suggests that although we often think about the future in terms of technological changes, we would do better to look at social, cultural, and environmental changes.  These are factors that are likely to significantly impact our best laid plans.   He suggests five areas that should be considered, and I have thought a bit about how these might impact churches and judicatories.

First, climate.  Whether you believe in global warming or not, we are experiencing the impact of extreme changes in weather and in the environment.  Whether it is tornadoes in the southeastern United States, droughts in the Midwest, hurricanes in the Northeast, or tsunamis in Asia, we are certainly more aware of the calamities that the climate can bring.  How does this affect Christians? Increasingly, churches want to help those impacted by catastrophes.  What does this mean for the allocation of financial resources and people power in the coming decades?  What is your church going to give up in order to help with these needs?

Second, demographics.  The population of the United States is changing in many ways.  More Baby Boomers are retiring, the birth rate is down, and soon we will be a nation of minorities.  Added to this is the fact that retired people are living longer and adolescence is lasting into the mid-20s for many young adults.    How will this affect the church?  One key consequence may be in the contributions and cash flow for congregations.  Boomers have been good financial supporters of  the church but will this continue as they stretch their resources in order to meet the needs of a longer lifespan?  Will we find that boomers are helping out both children and grandchildren who are having financial challenges and are more dependent than in the past?  How will the church deal with the need to minister in these situations while finances shrink?

Third, changing social patterns.  I have addressed this concern in previous blog postings, but it is clear that the society in which we live has changed the definition of “family” and this trend will continue.  As the local church ministers to three or four generations within its walls, how will we provide a balanced ministry that is inclusive rather than exclusive?  What processes, ministries, and teaching methods are necessary to meet those varied needs?

Fourth, power and wealth.  We live in a global economy, the world is changing from rural to urban (much as it already happened in the United States), and the divide between the haves and the have-nots grows day by day.  If the church is indeed on the side of the poor and the dispossessed, we are going to have to take bolder steps on behalf of those in need.  This may be the most important trend that challenges our priorities and the one that we are least willing to address.

Fifth,  art.  I would interpret this to mean not only what we usually consider “art”—paintings, sculpture, music, drama, etc.—but “culture” which includes film, architecture, and style.  In reality, we shape the world around us and then it, in turn, shapes us.  Are we teaching believers to exegete the culture or simply to consume it?  What aesthetic impact does the church provide on its congregants as well as society at large?    Among all of the other demands on its resources, does the church have a role as a patron of the arts, encouraging an appreciation for tradition, interpreting and confronting contemporary expressions of art, and shaping future cultural expressions?

To be honest, churches and judicatories may abdicate all responsibility in addressing these trends, but the decision to do so will lead only to marginalization and decline.  On the other hand, a willingness to face these trends creatively and redemptively can breathe new life into the churches.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Is Coaching an Art or a Craft?

Although I have been a mentor and informal coach most of my life, I have practiced professional life coaching with clients for about five years now. During that time, I have built on my inherent gifts of encouraging and relating by adding professional training and observed coaching experiences.

As I talk with other coaches, a common conversational topic is whether life coaching is an intuitive gift or is something that a person can be taught.  Is coaching something a person is gifted to do or can it be learned?  In short, is coaching an art or a craft?

A craft originates in the left brain, the cognitive or rational side.  A craftsman learns techniques and how to use particular tools to develop or create something.  Once the creation is complete, there is little doubt of what it is.  In coaching, there are certain structures that the coach brings to the coaching conversation.  The coach brings order, direction, and momentum as well as some level of analysis to his or her relationship with the person being coached.  Perhaps this is why coaches often talk about adding a skill to their “tool box.”

An art begins in the intuitive and creative right brain.  The artist draws on his or her “inner eye” to make creative leaps and new connections.  Because an object of art—no matter what the medium—is the result of the artist’s personal vision, the completed work often solicits the question, “Exactly what is that?”  In coaching, there is a place for playfulness and creativity.  The coach challenges the client to see things with fresh eyes, with a new perspective, or in a different way in order to create a vision for his or her life.  Story-telling is an art, and the coach’s greatest contribution to the coaching conversation may be in helping the client to “tell the story” of his or her life, putting the pieces together in ways that the client has never done in the past.

Is coaching an art or a craft?  Of course, the answer is, “It is both.”  Both come together as the coach helps a person identify the vision he or she wants to pursue and then take the steps to achieve it.  Although a person may have certain innate gifts that will facilitate the coaching conversation, the professional coach will want to learn more.  Art and craft go together.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Theological Education: Innovate or Die

These are challenging days for theological institutions—seminaries, theological schools, and divinity schools. Whether they are attached to denominations or larger institutions, they still must deal with declining enrolments, stagnant endowments, and increasing costs.  In a recent article in The Christian Century, Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, noted that enrolment in ATS schools has dropped about one percent every year since 2006 and that although “the level of financial stress is not boiling like it was in 2008,” most schools and especially those related to mainline denominations are continuing to experience financial stress.

How are theological institutions responding to these challenges?  One option is to consolidate with other institutions such as in the merger of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary with Lenoir-Rhyne College (also an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America school) last year.  Some sell their property and move to other facilities to cut cost such as St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist school in Kansas City.  Others choose to either go out of business or change their mission in such a way that they are no longer a graduate school.  This has happened with Bangor Theological Seminary which, as BTS Institute, will offer certification programs for clergy and laity.  Such moves are often controversial but they are taken to provide some continuity in established programs.

Hardly a week goes by without the news of another theological school announcing a creative way to survive, prosper, and even extend their mission.  Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary decided to limit enrollment, increase endowment, and move toward providing full scholarships and living stipends for students in an effort to cut student debt and bring the most promising students to the campus.

New degree programs that fill a particular niche can also breathe new life into an institution.  Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, is providing a new masters degree in church planting and a master of divinity concentration in the same subject.  Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, is offering a hybrid master of Christian ministries degree that combines online learning and intensive week-long classes on campus.  They hope to reach individuals who are already in ministry but who need theological grounding.  Iliff School of Theology in Denver is reaching out to the marketplace with the Authentic Engagement Program to provide assistance in employee development.

Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas, has concentrated on new programs to provide education for a number of unreached potential groups.  The Korean Contextualized Theological Studies offers theological education in the Korean language in the United States and several foreign countries.  The Foundations program offers non-degree studies to language groups such as the “Judson Communities”—resettled people from Burma/Myanmar—and urban pastors in St. Louis.

The common thread in all of these innovative approaches is not simply survival but a new commitment to  theological education.  Although the number of traditional students may be in decline, especially in mainline institutions, the church will continue to need qualified and equipped men and women to lead.  Even theological schools with a rich heritage are looking forward rather than resting on the achievements of the past and embracing new approaches to ministerial formation.