Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Becoming a Coaching Leader

In a blog for the International Coach Federation, Diane Craig discussed leadership styles for aspiring leaders.  Some are suited for short-term situations where immediate impact is needed. Others are best when there is time and space to provide leadership over the long term.  Most pastors find themselves in situations where long term strategies of leadership can be implemented.  Craig identifies those as Visionary, Participative, and Coaching.

According to Craig, a visionary style “establishes standards and monitors performance in relation to the larger vision.” This might be called an inspirational or aspirational style.

 The participative leader “invites employees to participate in the development of decisions and actively seeks opportunities for consensus.” The goal here is to develop a smoothly functioning, cohesive team of people to accomplish something.  This often complements a visionary style. Participative leaders tend to reward the team, not individuals.

The third approach is the coaching style.  Craig’s assessment is that the coaching style “is focused on long-term development of team members by providing ongoing instruction and balanced feedback. Coaching leaders are prepared to trade off immediate results for long-term development of team members. A willingness to accept short-term failures and disappointments is indispensable for this style.”

As you might expect, I believe that the coaching style provides the greatest return on investment by the leader in the long term.  Coaching leaders are playing the long game. They realize that transformation for individuals and groups is an incremental, step-by-step process with each success building on the next and each failure providing an opportunity for learning and innovation. Coaching leaders take the long view of individual and corporate development rather than looking for quick wins.

What difference would it make if you thought of yourself as a coaching leader?  

(A version of this post appeared here on August 1, 2017) 


Transforming Churches: Alignment

In a recent conversation with a denominational leader, we both agreed very quickly that each church is unique. Not only is a church situated in a particular geographic context, but it has people with different gifts and opinions and a history of past experiences that is formative.  

When a church enters into a process of transformation, its uniqueness can make it difficult to “get all the ducks in a row.”  Getting everyone moving in the same direction can be a challenge.  This is what we call alignment.  In church transformation, two types of alignment are necessary.  

First, we attempt to align the people to move in the same direction.  This begins with spiritual and relational vitality, but the next step is communication about the way forward.  This can only take place in face-to-face communication.  Surveys gather information, but they do not engage people.  Newsletters and social media communicate information to individuals, but we have no assurance that they receive the desired message.  Alignment requires town hall meetings, small group dialogue, and personal conversations. It engages personal capital.

Second, we must align our church processes and structure with our mission and vision.  Too many churches are attempting to move into a 21stcentury vision with a 19thcentury structure.  There is nothing harder to kill than a church committee!  Even when a committee has outlived its usefulness, someone will speak up to argue for its continuation.  If a committee only meets once a year, is it vital to the mission of the church?  When we struggle to find gifted individuals to be part of a committee that provides a gate-keeping rather than a ministry purpose, shouldn’t we realize that the “vision has departed” from this committee?

In effective churches, people serve in places of their giftedness.  They see a clear connection between their service and the mission of the church. They see how their investment of time and energy are helping to achieve the vision of the church. They see themselves on mission with God.

As we consider the various components of church transformation, aligning people and processes may be the greatest challenge.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Helping Professions and Clergy Health

Wespath, the benefits and investment entity of United Methodists, recently published a report titled, “Clergy Health Factors--What Matters Most.”  The report states, “Healthy churches and congregations foster healthy clergy and church leaders--and vice-versa.”

The report identified 13 factors that influence clergy health.  Some are specific to the Methodist system--“stressors of the appointment process” and “appointment changes and relocation” --but might be translated into similar challenges in other denominational contexts.  Some deal with issues that might be addressed through formal counseling--“personal centeredness” and “marital and family satisfaction.”

The rest of the list reflects the concerns that I often see articulated by pastors in coaching conversations. For example, “relationship with congregation,” “work/life balance,” “existential burdens of ministry,” and “outside interests and social life.”  

The study stresses the need for congregations and denominational systems to provide opportunities for clergy to engage with those who can help them to be more effective:  health care providers, pastoral counselors, coaches, and spiritual directors. 

Clergy often do not seek assistance from these helping professionals because they don’t want to be seen as inadequate by their congregations or their judicatory leaders.  Church personnel committees, denominational leaders, and helping professionals must find ways to work together to overcome this stigma and provide the support that will nourish healthy clergy and healthy congregations.  This is essential to the future of both ministers and congregations.





Monday, February 25, 2019

When Is It Time to Pull the Plug?

During a recent conversation with a pastor friend, we discovered that he had been the pastor 20 years ago of a church that I worked as a consultant last year.  As we talked about the church, we realized that very little had changed, including a major annual event that was still an important part of church life.

Churches have a tendency to institutionalize events and other offerings that are successful the first time around. These events quickly become a tradition in the life of the church, whether the original purpose continues to be achieved.  One church I visited continued to have a Swedish luncheon annually even though few of the members were still Swedish and did not know any Swedish dishes to prepare!

When is it time to pull the plug on activities that seem to have outlived their usefulness?  Here are some questions church leadership might consider in making that decision.

First, does it still fulfill the purpose for which it was designed?  It is easy for an activity to become a tradition, something we are comfortable doing, even if it no longer achieves its original goals.

Second, if it does not achieve its original goals, have new goals evolved to justify its existence?  For example, something that originally began as an in-house fellowship event might be repurposed as an outreach to the community.

Third, does the activity still generate passion within the leadership and church membership or it is just something we do because we have done it before?  Too many leadership teams do their annual planning by just going through this year’s calendar and finding dates next year to do the same things.  Do leaders and church members still have the energy for these activities, or have they run their course?

Fourth, if we are continuing an event, how can we improve upon it?  Once an activity has been completed, leadership should evaluate what happened: Did we achieve our goals?  What went well?  Should we do this again?  If so, what should we change?  Since leaders and members have limited time, energy, and resources, it is foolish to continue investing in something that does not help the church fulfill its mission.

The biggest challenge in this process is our complacency.  Making change requires intentionality, being willing to fail, and then learning from failure. If we are afraid to fail, we just keep doing the same things and hope that no one notices that what we are doing is no longer relevant.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Take It to the Streets

You’ve seen it happen.  A motivated, well-meaning group of leaders decides to provide a ministry, program, or outreach that will change the lives of a particular segment of the population. They gather the resources, train the providers, deliver the intervention . . . and it falls flat on its face.  What happened?

There may be multiple causes for the failure, but one could be that those delivering the intervention never stopped to talk to those who were the designated recipients.  Perhaps the project failed to meet a real need, duplicated another service, was offered at the wrong time, or failed to understand the values of the recipients. There are times when the intervention might even be offensive.

In recent years, several processes have been developed—total quality management, asset-based community development, and design thinking, for example—that begin with those who know more about the concern or problem than anyone else:  the people who live with it day in and day out.

When we begin by engaging in conversation with those most impacted by a situation, several things happen.  First, we are talking with the people who know more about the need than anyone else. They live with absence of services, lack of support, intolerable conditions, and minimal resources.  They can define the real issue.

Second, those closest to the problem may already have ideas about how to address it.  Although all of their solutions may not work, their ideas and suggestions may be clarified, evaluated, and turned into workable courses of action.

Third, those who deal with the issue day to day are not without resources. They may be challenged financially, but they will often have skills, relationships, and insights that will prove invaluable in addressing the need.   They know the culture and how their peers will respond.

Fourth, those on the front lines of the problem will buy into a solution when they help to identify and design the solution.  The know that their knowledge has been respected and valued in the process.

One of the ways to assure that those who know the turf are involved in discovering a solution is to use a process such as Asset-Based Community Development, Appreciative Inquiry or Design Thinking.  These methodologies help planners understand and develop creative ways to solve a specific issue whether congregationally-centered, business-based, or community-oriented.  Each process emphasizes end-user involvement, collaboration, and participative decision-making.  If you want to know the best solution, talk to those who are on the front lines.
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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Missional Seminary

Theological education as we know it is a construct that is relatively new in Christian history. In a recent article in Christian Century, Ryan Bonfiglio points out that the first seminary for clerical training was established by the Roman Catholic Church in 1563.  Since then, other streams of influence--European and American, theological and sociological, ecclesiastical and educational--have shaped the models of theological education with which we are familiar today.

In his article, Bonfiglio suggests that we rethink our assumptions about where theological education happens and reconsider the role of the church in ministerial formation.  

Bonfiglio’s ideas stimulate us to consider other alternative models for equipping ministers. For example, if we take missional theology seriously, what would a missional seminary look like?  Missional theology challenges us in three ways.

First, we should reconsider the context in which we live and realize that we no longer are part of Christendom where the church in some form was dominant in society.  The place where we live is a mission field.

Second, we must rethink the Gospel message we embody and proclaim.  Our driving imperative is the missio Dei, the mission of God, which calls all people into relationship with God.

Third, in light of the first two statements, we must reimagine ourselves as missionaries, people of God on mission in the world.  This means that baptism is an ordination to mission and that mission happens not within the walls of the church on Sunday but in the marketplace every day of the week.

If we take this missional theology seriously, what would be the marks of a missional seminary? Consider several possibilities:

A very small physical footprint.  A missional seminary would have a very small physical presence.  Rather than investing in property and buildings, a missional seminary would invest in people--faculty and students--and the means of delivering instruction and resources.

A robust digital presence.  Online learning and an online library would be key to the work of a missional seminary. Although instruction would not be exclusively online, synchronous and asynchronous classes would provide both flexibility for students and access to quality teachers.

A network of providers. A missional seminary would actually be a network of micro-seminaries.  Online instruction would be supplemented by face-to-face cohorts hosted by churches, denominations, para-church organizations, and not-for-profit organizations.  In partnership with each setting, the seminary would design courses of instruction that meet the need of a particular cohort and context. Instruction would be available online and through on-site presentations by faculty.

An emphasis on praxis. There would be no field education or contextual learning courses in the curriculum of the missional seminary since every student would be involved in ministry on a paid or volunteer basis.  Those with full-time secular employment would find placements where they would practice ministry for several hours a week.  Class assignments would not be theoretical but have immediate application. For example, an assignment in a biblical hermeneutics class would require a student to teach a small group in his or her placement using the skills learned in the class.  An assignment in a Christian heritage class might require a student to look at a social problem in his or her ministry context through the lens of a historic event.

A broad clientele. Classes would not only be available to those who seek to become clergy.  Although diverse educational backgrounds would be taken into account, courses of study would be provided for those seeking full-time ministry roles, those who will be bi-vocational ministers, and those lay persons who will assume part-time or volunteer roles in the ministry.  This takes into account the idea of “all baptized believers are ministers.”

Some of these ideas are becoming practices in theological education.  Approaches to teaching, formation, and accessibility are changing.  Even accrediting agencies are encouraging adaptability and experimentation.

In developing the missional seminary, there would be other matters to consider:  accreditation, denominational requirements for ordination, and similar matters.  The most important concern that the missional seminary would address is bringing ministerial formation closer to the context of ministry in order to practice the missio Dei.






Friday, February 15, 2019

Leading Innovation

We cannot motivate others.  We can provide an environment in which people can become motivated, but real motivation comes from within.  

In the same way, a leader cannot make people into innovators.  If this is true, then what is the role of the leader in innovation?  How much can a leader do to foster innovation among others?  

Alec Horniman is the Killgallon Ohio Art Professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, teaching in the areas of ethics, strategy and leadership.  He suggests three actions that a leader can do to foster innovation. 

First, invite people to join the process of innovation.  The innovative leader invites others along on the journey. He or she is not only a role model but a resource, sharing experiences and opportunities.  An innovative leader invites others to be part of the process and to learn together.  An innovative leader does not just attend conferences and explore opportunities.  He or she invites others to be part of these experiences as well.

Second, the innovative leader includes a diverse group of people in the innovation process. Horniman points out that by including people of different backgrounds, experiences, and skills, we can leverage their strengths to create something unique and unexpected.  Innovative leaders are proactive in developing a team that is both diverse and inclusive.

Third, inspiration is an important part of innovation. The innovative leader is optimistic, enthusiastic, and hopeful that something will emerge from the process that will make life better for all involved.  The innovative leader not only has a vision but he or she seeks to pass that vision on to others in such a way that they can own it themselves.

Are you on track to be an innovative leader?

(A version of this post originally appeared on the CBTS website on October 13, 2016.)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Coaching is a Best Practice for Leaders

I attended an all-male military school for 12 years.  This was not a residential school; we all lived at our homes in the community.  When I told people I went to a military school, one frequent response was, “Oh, have you been in trouble?”  No, I entered the school in first grade not because I was an incorrigible offender but because my parents wanted me to have a good education and were willing to sacrifice for me to go to a private school.

Fast forward to the present day.  As I work with churches and other organizations, I sometimes hear this statement: “This person has a problem. They probably need a coach.”  I am not sure of the source of this perspective, but it misses the real reason that a person should have a coach.

The present coaching movement was birthed through businesses where rising executives were (and are) provided coaches so that they could build on their strengths.  They were already doing well and showed potential to do more, but the idea was that, with coaching, they could do even better. Coaching is a best practice for a business that wants to develop its leaders.

This is a point where life or leadership coaching intersects with athletic coaching.  A sports coach comes alongside an athlete who has talent and has already shown promise in order to help that person become even better. The coach challenges the athlete to improve, grow, and excel.

Whenever a leader faces a new challenge, a life or leadership coach can come alongside and help that person to lean into that opportunity, using all of their potential to excel.  In short, coaching is not for losers, it is for winners.  

If churches and other organizations value their leaders and want them to succeed and provide maximum leadership, a coach can be invaluable.  It is an investment that pays dividends.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

What the Churches are Saying to the Theologians

Where you do find the best information about what is needed to get the job done?  You go to those on the front lines, people who deal with the challenges daily.  This is what Luther Seminary in St. Paul did.

During fall 2018, faculty and staff teams from Luther Seminary visited a dozen Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) synods across the nation for listening sessions with pastors, lay leaders, and synodical staff to ask this question: “What do leaders need to know, or know how to do, to be faithful and effective in a rapidly changing world?”

The report generated from these conversations identified seven key themes: connect with God; cultivate community; innovate faithfully; connect with diverse neighbors; equip the saints; shift ministry models; and deepen administrative leadership. Early last year, I conducted a research project with a much smaller sample, but many of the same themes emerged. These findings provide both theological educators and facilitators of Christian formation with important insights about where the church is today and what it needs to thrive in the days ahead.

Here are areas that seem to be particularly vital:

1. Connect with God.  The Luther Seminary study says, “Leaders and congregations need a Christ-centered identity, embodied in a life of discipleship and nourished through spiritual formation.” In my own research, I was surprised by the lay leaders who said that they desired to grow deeper in their spiritual lives, but their churches did not offer the means to do so and their pastors often lacked the skills to help them in their journeys.

2. Cultivate community.  I agree with the seminary’s finding: “Leaders need to cultivate community by listening to people, loving them, and building trust within and beyond the church.”  My colleague Patrick Vaughn points out in his recent book Meeting Jesus at Starbucks, “Recent research indicates that 65 million people have fled the church. Of these, 30.5 million still want to serve Jesus, but they no longer want to associate with Jesus’ people.” We have an identity problem which must be addressed.  Both spiritual and relational vitality are needed for congregations to thrive.

3.  Innovate faithfully.  Church and denominational leaders “need a spiritual and theological purpose that frees them to renegotiate established cultural norms.”  Ministering within our context requires agility, courage, and risk-taking.  Established often lack all three qualities.  In our work with churches through Pinnacle Leadership Associates, we have discovered methodologies that encourage church transformation for contemporary ministry.  This is a new area of engagement for seminaries.

4.  Connect with diverse neighbors.  We live in a multicultural, multiethnic society.  The study rightly observes, “Leaders and congregations need intercultural competence to connect with neighbors across all dimensions of diversity.”  Failure to witness, serve, and engage in our diverse culture with humility will assure the demise of the church in the 21stcentury.

5.  Equip the saints.  The study reports, “Laypeople need opportunities to develop as disciples, ministers, and leaders.”  Although some churches have moved toward a shared ministry concept, both theology and necessity push us toward more involvement of lay leaders in every area of congregational life.

6.  Shift ministry models.  The biggest challenge may be this one: “Leaders need to know how to start, tend, and manage entrepreneurial models of structuring and financing ministry.” This requires a shift of our paradigm in how we “do church.”  We may even need to reach back into our Christian past and rediscover old models that may be relevant again.

We can receive these observations in two ways.  We may see them as overwhelming or as motivating.  If we do seek to be the people of God in this time and place, we will seek the leadership of Spirit to embrace these challenges and make the changes necessary to pursue the work of the Kingdom.








Monday, February 11, 2019

Learning to be the Church in a New World: A Review

Being the church today is a challenge, but this is nothing new according to Terrell Carter, the author of Learning to be the Church in a New World:  Recognizing and Overcoming the Challenges to Organized Faith in the 21st Century.  Rather than fearing these challenges, we should look to the Bible for clarity in how to embrace them and do the work that God has called us to do.

This more of a “why-to” than a “how-to” book.  Although Carter provides a thorough diagnosis of the situation the church finds itself in today, he takes us to scripture to find both encouragement and insight about a way forward.  As a researcher he has done a thorough analysis of the present reality, and as pastor he presents a biblical basis for engaging our world with the Gospel.  He writes from a missional perspective but in a manner that will communicate not only with lay leaders but the person in the pew as well.

There are three movements in the book. First, we must identify and be willing to navigate the challenges of being the church in the 21stcentury.  He acknowledges not only that the church has changed since the day when his grandfathers were pastors, but the rate of change has accelerated.  He discusses the cultural and demographic changes that impact churches today, then points to the significant challenges that faced the first Christians after Christ’s ascension.

The second is a call to trust in the “personalness of God.”  He reminds us that God is present but that sometimes God’s people struggle to recognize and respond to that relationship, a response that is essential for effective ministry in the 21stcentury church.

Third, Carter provides the biblical testimonies of those transformed by faith into Gospel innovators. For these, faith was “not merely an abstract principle,” but an experience with the Holy.  Their faith provided the means for them to become “overcomers.”

One way to summarize Carter’s perspective is that God can use flawed and imperfect vessels such as we are in order to impact the world.  This is what God has done in the past and wants to do with those who believe and then act on that belief.  This is the core of what it means to be God’s people on mission today.

I recommend the book for faith leaders, leadership teams, and decision-makers in the church.  This perspective is vital in order for the church to thrive in the 21stcentury.




Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

In my theological education, I was taught that the minister was the answer person.  He (and it was always “he”) was the expert you accessed for answers on life, doctrinal issues, and relationship concerns.  I often struggled with that concept.  I stopped attending a Sunday School class at one church where we were members because the teacher always turned to me and said, “Tell us what this passage means.”

During my time as a denominational worker, I was encouraged to use the resource model for working with churches.  This approach was based on, “Tell us your situation because we have an answer for you.” This usually meant a one-size-fits-all program that was generated in Nashville, Atlanta, or Richmond. The denominational person was the answer person.

Unfortunately, I took this model into my work as a state leader with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. As I sat down to talk with pastors, I began to realize that I did not have all of the answers for what they and their churches were experiencing.  Often the church was in decline and the pastor was burned out, looking for a way out. I felt frustrated that I could not do more

Being trained as a coach broke my old paradigm and gave me a new way of looking at people and churches. I learned that the person that I was coaching knew more about their situation than I did and, with a little bit of encouragement, could come up with a strategy to address their greatest needs. They were resourceful and just needed to unlock their gifts, values, and creativity. As a coach, my role was to walk alongside them in the process of discovering and executing an action plan, encouraging and helping to refocus as needed.

In my work with churches, I have come to adopt a similar approach.  As I learned more about the missional church model, I realized that the Spirit of God could work among the people of God to provide a way forward. God had placed them where they were for a specific purpose.  Each congregation is uniquely gifted to do something in the Kingdom.  My role is to help them to go deeper, discover that purpose, chart a way ahead, and encourage their work.

I wish I had known then what I know now:  God is at work in individuals and churches.  The way forward is for the individual or church to get in touch with what God has in store, to find appropriate encouragement and support, and to press on. It’s not all up to me.



Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Collaborative Consulting

In teaching coaching classes, we point out the differences between the various “people development processes” --counseling, consulting, teaching, mentoring, coaching, and spiritual direction.  The differences are generally defined along two axes--self as expert versus other as expert and asking versus telling.

For example, in most cases, the consultant is usually the content expert who shares his or her expertise, so consulting is in the “other as expert”/”telling” corner.  Coaches on the other hand lead the process with the client as the expert and the coach asking questions; therefore, coaching is in the “self as expert”/”asking” corner.

In reality, the lines are often blurred.  Over the course of time, a mentoring relationship can take on more of the characteristics of coaching as the client or protégé accepts more responsibility for his or her actions.  In newer forms of education, teachers may become more guides or facilitators that dispensers of knowledge.  Spiritual directors use a wide variety of approaches to their work with clients based on their individual skills and philosophy.

Consulting can also be approached in a different way.  There is also the possibility for a blended approach in consulting.  The term I use for this is “collaborative consulting.”  In this approach, the consultant uses the methodology of coaching in working with churches and other organizations. There are definite benefits or the client organization in using this approach.

First, the collaborative consultant works with the congregation to discern the work of the Spirit in their midst by asking questions such as “Where have you seen God at work in your life as part of the congregation?” and “Where do you see God at work in your church right now?”

Second, a collaborative approach shows respect for the faith tradition of the church. Our doctrinal and theological backgrounds are often determinative in the actions we take, but they can also be an impetus for change.  Collaborative questions seek to discover beliefs that are essential and immutable and those that empower change and Kingdom engagement.

Third, asking questions rather than giving answers recognizes that the parishioners and staff ministers are the experts on their situation.  They know more about their context than anyone else. Although they may be satisfied where they are and resistant to change, challenging questions can help them to see their situation from a different perspective and visualize alternatives.

Fourth, similar to the observation above, good questions help the participants unlock and express their knowledge of the context in which they live, work, and minister.  Again, they should know more about situation that the consultant does. If they don’t, good questions can push them out into the community as more perceptive learners.

Finally, effective questions can lead a congregation to discover resources that they have overlooked--spiritual gifts, physical and financial resources, networks--that can be engaged in effective ministry.

Just as in coaching, asking powerful questions is key to a collaborative consulting experience.  The consultant leads a process so that the congregation and its leaders define the best way forward, discover the resources available, and monitor accountability for progress.  They come out of the process with a clearer understanding of their inherent strengths and ability to make choices.

(A version of the post originally appeared here on December 4, 2018)


Monday, February 04, 2019

The ABC Murders: A Review

A disclaimer is necessary at the very beginning of this review. The miniseries of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which is currently available on Netflix is violent, disturbing, and unorthodox, but it is worth watching.  If you are familiar with the characterizations of Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot offered by David Suchet, Peter Ustinov, and Kenneth Branagh, you will immediately understand that John Malkovich’s Poirot is cut from different cloth.

In this presentation, Poirot has seen better days.  He finds himself graying, at loose ends, alone, and marginalized.  An extraordinary string of murders brings new focus to his life but also unearths some hidden demons.  Even if you are familiar with other versions of Poirot, a few minutes of Malkovich’s performance will cause you to see the detective in a new light.

Without giving too much away, there is a theological dilemma that burdens and motivates the great detective. He is obviously a religious person, a Roman Catholic, but he refuses to confess or accept the sacrament.  Screenwriter Sarah Phelps has given us a new origin story for Poirot, but it is one with emotional and ethical impact.

Some reviewers have complained about certain excesses in this presentation.  The characters are more Dickensian, some parts are just plain grotesque, and the material is definitely adult.  They complain that this version is too revisionist and departs greatly from Agatha Christie’s vision.  In reality, the British television presentations of the author’s Poirot and Miss Marple are fun, but they are fantasy and often fail to fully depict the darker side of her work.  They often departed from Christie's original sources.

Certain aspects of the series will cause the viewer some disorientation.  For example, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) is all grown up and playing an initially dismissive Inspector Crome.  For another, the insertion of a proto-Nazi anti-alien movement seems too great an effort to address a contemporary issue.  

Although the overall mood of the series is dark and a bit depressing, the coda is challenging. Even the world’s greatest detective is something of a mystery.




Friday, February 01, 2019

Transforming Churches: Shifting the Paradigm

What do you see?
The first time I learned about paradigms and paradigm shifting was through Joel Barker’s book on the topic. Barker helped us to see that if we can shift the way that we look at something, we can change our entire perspective on the subject.  He used optical illusions as an illustration of this concept.  If you look at something once, you see it in one particular way, but if you concentrate, you may see something new.

Barker also pointed out that this idea applies to business.  Those who started laying tracks and placing locomotives on them thought they were in the railroad business when actually they were in the transportation business.  One approach led to a dead end; the other opened up new possibilities.

The same is true of the church.  Hans Kung and David Bosch applied this to the work of the church through two millennia. Building on their work, we can identify seven major subdivisions or “paradigms” of western Christian history.

  • The apocalyptic paradigm of primitive Christianity.  This approach to doing church was based on the expectation of the imminent return of Christ.
  • The Hellenistic paradigm of the patristic period.  What do you do when the Messiah doesn’t return? You start finding a way to use the dominant culture of the day to share your faith.
  • The medieval Roman Catholic paradigm.  The church assumed the role of purveyor and protector of culture and civilization, providing stability in changing times and legitimacy for civil authority.
  • The Protestant (Reformation) paradigm.  Although this movement changed the face of Western Christianity, the Reformation initially did not bring as many social changes as one might think. Church continued to be tied to the secular ruler, providing mutually credibility for each.
  • The modern Enlightenment paradigm.  The role of faith evolved in light of the rise of rationalism and the scientific method.  Western thought and methodology birthed the modern mission movement, often with secular support.
  • The emerging ecumenical paradigm.  This was relatively short-lived but encouraged denominational mergers, interfaith dialogue, and a search for common ground among Christians.
  • The Postmodern paradigm. This is the era of the disestablishment of the church and the relativism of truth and authority.


In every case, the shift was neither neat nor immediate, but changed the face of Christianity.  We can learn from these attempts to make the gospel relevant to the prevailing culture.

First, the church is always in the process of being reformed. Things move along at a healthy rate until a time of decline sets in.  At this point, someone comes in with a new idea that rejuvenates and refocuses the church.

Second, the new idea usually comes from the margins of Christianity.  Whether the innovation was monastic orders, the establishment of hospitals and orphanages, the birth of missionary societies, the Sunday School movement, or the use of radio and television as a means of propagating the faith, the innovator was often criticized by the established faith community.  Of course, once their approach was successful, it was embraced by the institutional church.

Third, the strength of the Christian church comes not from building an institution but in embracing an organic approach to discovery, ministry, and growth.  Change is not only to be expected but embraced.

How does this apply to church transformation?  A healthy, growing congregation knows what is essential to its faith and holds onto it while experimenting with new possibilities to engage with its culture.  Failure to do this leads to stagnation and death. By embracing change, the church provides the Spirit of God to work in its midst.