What is the church to do in a 5-4 world?

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A Brave New World supplants the illusion of Christian America 

We now know what we have long suspected: America is not and never was “a Christian nation.” We may have put “In God we trust” on our coins and “one nation under God” into our pledge during the red scare, but those were merely the vestigial organs of an America of church attenders familiar with the scriptural imagery of Western civilization. But Western civilization is quickly fading away, swept under the rug of social change in a brave new world of neoliberalism and its deity, the self-identified eros.

Harbor no illusions, neoliberalism is a puritanical and absolutist form of progressivism. It is characterized by “tolerance” – the buzzword of an orthodoxy of the unfettered self. We are watching its fruit as our culture, unmoored from classical ideas of truth, beauty, and dignity, descends into hedonism. Regardless of the rhetoric, in neoliberalism truth is not actually relative. Truth may be a social construct, but it is absolute, and, as in all puritanical schemes, difference of opinion is not “tolerated.”

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Perhaps nowhere is neoliberalism on clearer display than in the triennial meeting of my Episcopal Church. For us, the “movement of the Holy Spirit” is determined by popular vote. To oppose the winds of change then is nothing less than to oppose God. The neoliberal “Spirit,” is a “spirit” of triumphalist glory, a big-brother who squashes dissent quickly and quietly. In the deliberations of our bishops yesterday, a small and quiet conservative minority wished to read a statement indicating their disagreement with the redefinition of marriage. They were cut off on parliamentary grounds. Neoliberal tolerance can tolerate no dissent. The vitriol, social shaming, and gloating on my Facebook after the Obergefell ruling stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric of pluralism and classical liberalism we hear so much about. Our delegates heard from a Sunday school teacher shacking up with her boyfriend who has no interest in marriage, then passed a resolution to “continue work studying the growing contemporary reality…that is redefining what many mean by ‘family’ or ‘household.'”  This explicitly includes, “those who choose to remain single; unmarried persons in intimate relationships; couples who cohabitate; couples who desire a blessing, etc).” It implicitly includes “listening” to another type of emerging family structure – polyamorous families. I report this, not to be shocking, but because our church takes its establishment roots quite seriously and is generally a reflection of where progressive culture desires to go next. And, as you will have noticed, for culture crusaders addicted to the fight, there is always a next fight…

Time magazine this week posted an article by Mark Oppenheimer arguing for the elimination of church’s tax exempt status. It is spreading through social media like wildfire. The new elite smells blood: it is the last weak pulse of traditional America. Somehow they have forgotten that orphanages, hospitals, universities, literacy, and abolition were all ideas given to the world by that enemy of humanity – Christian thought.

Somehow lost in both the sophomoric euphoria and the licking of wounds is the fact that political solutions simply do not work. We are forty years into our legislative solutions to our race issues, yet those issues are still present. And in this mess Christians are still forgiving and angry nuts are still burning down our places of worship.

How should the church respond to culture shift?

We could keep financing losing political battles. We could keep encouraging ugly rhetoric. We could fight to keep our tax exempt status’ and tax deduction for charitable giving. We could keep trying to support political parties for whom nearly half of my state has disengaged and reregistered as “independent.” We could do what many have chosen to do this week and simply remain silent. We could flip-flop on 2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition and the clear meaning of the words of scripture.

Or…

…we could go back to what the church was good at. Remember, when we were eleven scared dudes hiding out in an upper room? That group had a unique methodology unused since the faith embraced power in the fourth century…

Lessons from the first Christians

First, they gathered in remarkable unity across ethnic, cultural, and social barriers in formational, seeker-insensitive worship services – This may surprise many of my evangelical friends, but there are eucharistic pointers in every NT author. The story of God is taught and formed with remarkable clarity in the format of Word and Sacrament present in Acts and given to us as ancient practice by Justin Martyr in 150 CE. We must form Christians. This is more than sermonizing. It involves enacting and imprinting the story of God on human hearts.

Second, from their deep formation, the ancient Christians moved missionally in service and proclamation into the world. They loved, gave, and proclaimed Jesus’ to the least, last, and lost.

Third, they were annoyingly clear about the exclusive claims of Jesus in a pluralistic world. This made them the target of recurring persecution. A persecution which they generally embraced.

Fourth, they were not worried about their “rights.” They worried about the world’s lostness. We can stop worrying about being persecuted and start embracing and supporting Christians who are actually being persecuted. Embrace the loss of status and prestige! Let us join our African American brothers and sisters in turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute us, and forgiving the offender.

Fifth, they modeled internal civil discourse (Acts 15). In our churches we can teach the “faith once delivered.” But we can teach it as truths we are being conformed to, rather than using the faith as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into an eternally irrelevant social-conformity.

Fortuitously, these are exactly the lessons we learn from many of the fastest growing millennial-heavy churches. Millennial-heavy churches (churches with hundreds of millennial generation attenders) tend to be liturgical and artful, with deep biblically-based sermons. They are high on diversity and community. They fearlessly preach on difficult topics with a “hard on me, soft on you” hermeneutic. They actively engage in social action. They tend not to engage in political action. They even seem to have a significant number of young lgbt attendees who respect their authenticity. Or, as one millennial said when she left her mega-church that is moving to gimmicks to drive attendance, “I want to go where the Christianity is what is on display.”

So, church, do not change the “deposit of faith” to make it more “relevant” to the culture. There has never been a time that has not failed to be a losing proposition. There is a reason that the fellowships that change least account for the most of us – Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue to account for 2/3 of the world’s Christians.

The Christian faith is neither the moral improvement program that many conservatives wish for it to be, nor the affirmation of desires that many progressives seem to want to make it. The Christian faith is nothing less than a radical reorienting of the human experiment to a new master. To quote, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘mine.'”

Or, as our spiritual forebearers said, “Jesus is Lord.” 

So let us stop trying to remake a secular society in our own image. Let us instead worry about God’s priorities: “The redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101)

We have work to do. Politics is not that work.

*Brave New World photo labelled for reuse.

***I should say that I support full protection under the law for lgbt relationships, not because it is the government’s business what adults choose to do, gay or straight, but because adults have children, and children need the protection under the law afforded by the cultural values of monogamy and fidelity. I also see a big difference between what a pluralistic government protects and what the church, as recipients of scriptures and the tradition of the apostles, defines as marriage.

Justice: The Episcopal Church riding a one-trick pony into the ground?

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

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There is an old expression from the days when entertainment starved small town Americans waited for the traveling circus to show up, only to be left flat by the disappointing show: one-tent, one-clown, and a one-trick pony. The one-trick pony was a let down, even for farm kids who spent their afternoons watching summer storms roll through from the porch. Reading reports of the testimony from the General Convention it seems to me that, although we may shrink our structures, we have already shrunk our vision. We have become the ecclesiological expression of the one-trick pony. Our pony is “justice,” and we are in grave danger of riding that horse into the ground.

Our church was once characterized by evangelical and reformed theology, ecumenical dialogue through the Lambeth Quadrilateral, ancient catholic practice, and engagement with the world as a natural outgrowth of the first three. It now appears the pressures of our decline and the narrowness of our seminaries* training have left our laity and clergy unable to argue from the Holy Scriptures informed by the tradition, only from feelings and opinions. The words reported from last night’s “Special Legislative Committee on Marriage” are filled with, “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.”

We seem to be unable to view issues through any lens but the lens of social justice – to the point of public shame. Last night a cathedral dean equated the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite language to the flying of the Confederate flag over Charleston.

Here is a money quote from The Living Church’s coverage, “‘How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?’ asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. ‘Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.’”

The dean from Buffalo actually equated the language of the prayer book marriage rite (lifted directly from another “hate document,” the bible) used in a church in which 3/4 of our diocese’ have same-sex commitment ceremonies to the racially motivated murder of nine faithful Christians assembled in their church to study the scriptures? That is patently irresponsible, thoroughly insensitive, and wholly unexplainable to my African American friends.

But I cannot really blame Reverend Mebane. To quote a well-worn expression, “When your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.” When we read the scriptures only through the lens of justice, everything begins to look like a justice issue.  We seem to have reduced ourselves to this one-trick pony. And, dogonnit, we are going to ride that thing until it folds under our weight.

Luckily, and as usual, it is the bishops who ride to our rescue. Bishop McConnell of Pittsburgh pointed out, “A substantial range of voices was excluded in this task force…” Such as the voices of traditionalists, and those of both our ecumenical partners and the other Anglicans in our world-wide communion.

We are fond of quoting our African brethren’s proverbs in our meetings, so let me suggest one: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If we keep riding our justice hobby horse fast and alone, it will do what horses ridden for too long do: collapse.

We have same sex blessings. That horse is out of the barn. Now, for the love, can we throw a saddle on something else for a bit? The actual mission of the church: the evangelism of the 2/3 of the world who are outside of the faith and the discipleship of the 1/3 inside it, would be a good place to start.

vintage-circus-show-bus

*Biblical languages, systematic theology, historic exegesis are all absent on the Courses of Study I have seen.

The Future of the Episcopal Church: Being “poised for growth” is not growth

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Old joke: “What do you call a leader with no followers?” Punchline: “Someone taking a walk.”

With General Convention just around the corner there is much talk in Episcopal clergy circles of internal restructuring schemes for our national church office. Interestingly, no one outside our tribe has ever asked me about our “structure issue.” When I speak with other clergy they ask about another issue: “What are you guys doing about your leadership issue?” They see us as having a pressing problem that most of us do not seem to be able to see: A significant number of our “leaders” don’t have many followers.

The numerical decline of the American mainline has left the offices of the historic denominations in a state of continual “restructuring” (a.k.a. “downsizing”). These efforts cost piles of money, take years to enact, and generally leave us with more of the ineffective same. There is a reality instinctively understood by independent churches: churches are neither planted nor grown from national headquarters but by local leaders and their local followers. Church planters know the leadership equation:

 Talent + Preparation + Opportunity + Expectations + Effort = Results

Or as Scott Haas the planter of Substance, a Minneapolis church exploding with millennial generation parishioners says, “The right person, at the right time, in the right location, with the right methods, with the right inner circle of leaders, equals success.”

Our results stare us in the face: In numeric decline for thirty years, we are now in numeric freefall. Episcopal churches have lost a quarter of our Sunday attendance over the past decade: 823,000-623,000 per week from 2003-2013. And, lest you believe the rhetoric our decline has bottomed out, in 2013, the last year we have statistics for, the decline was 2.6%, an increase over the 10 year average of 2.4%. Conclusion, we have shrunk, are shrinking, and the rate of our decline is accelerating.  To make matters worse, this summer our General Convention will contemplate new rounds of canonical and prayer book revisions that threaten to marginalize whole groups of parishioners, threatening yet another slow trickle from our churches. And, as if we have not had enough bad news, we are about to enter what church statistician Lovett Weems calls “the tsunami of death” as our builder generation attendance core become, paraphrasing St. Paul, “absent in the body to be at home with the Lord” over the next decade.

So, If our results do not “equal success,” where in the equation are we falling short? Is it the right people? The right location? The right methods? or the right inner circle? Because our leaders have been telling us for a decade that the Episcopal Church is “poised for growth.”

And, although the first half of this post might seem to indicate otherwise, I actually believe them.

I do believe that with our inner-city locations, historic buildings, broadly creedal ancient-future faith, communities shaped in daily immersion in the scriptures and weekly sacramental worship, our willingness to form communities that help one another strive for personal holiness with grace toward others, of agreeing to pray together rather than agreeing to sign the same doctrinal statements, that we really are poised for growth.

You should know, however, that I myself was once poised. I was a freshman in high school. It was in the swimming unit of second hour Physical Ed. I was poised on the end of the high dive. Every sinew of my skinny body twitched in readiness to propel myself off that board. However, fear won out over the desire to impress the girls below. Fear and the awareness that I did not know how to dive – I lacked diving talent and preparation. So I turned around and slunk down the steps of the board to the jeers of my pre-sensitivity era friends. The point: Being “poised” to do something doesn’t get it done. One still needs talent + preparation + expectations + effort in order to go get the results that opportunity leaves us “poised” to achieve.

Will we Seize Our Episcopal Moment?

Will we turn it around? As “The seed that grows on its own” parable (Mark 4:26-29) taught us this past Sunday, the kingdom will keep growing. Last year, for instance, the Sunday attendance of 10 American churches grew by 2000 people or more. But we will only reap the harvest into our churches if we cast the seeds of the Word of God and wield the sickle to bring in the harvest. We will have to overcome our hesitation at using the God given tools of evangelism and discipleship if we are to bring in the harvest God has prepared. The kingdom is growing. God sees to that. But I see a potential pitfall in our (much needed) restructuring efforts: That of staying in the shed “sharpening” the tools to create what has been referred to as a “leaner, meaner, more responsive instrument.” But then never using it.

Will we seize our Episcopal moment and join God’s harvest? Or will we leave it to others?

How a backwoods battle and a leader you’ve never heard of changed history

Photo of the Battle of Cowpens in the Charleston Custom House.

               Painting in the Charleston Custom House.

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You probably haven’t heard of it. I hadn’t. It is known as the Battle of Cowpens and it isn’t in most high school history books these days. Here is the backstory: America was losing the revolution – badly. The British, well funded, well mannered, and well dressed, had established forts in the southern countryside and were converting loyalists to their cause as the patriots, hungry and ill equipped, hid in the woods. American General, Daniel Morgan, had 300 regulars and was trying to elude a British trap.

Morgan was a veteran. He had proven himself at Quebec and Saratoga. At Cowpens, in the face of a far superior force, Morgan did everything right and modeled leadership under pressure.

What did Morgan do?

  1. He analyzed the situation accurately: Morgan had 300 Continental soldiers. The British under the ruthless “Bloody Tarleton” were marching 1000 crack troops to surround the Americans and wrap up the frontier campaign.
  1. He recruited aggressively: Seeing the hopeless mismatch, Morgan sent out the call to “meet at the cow pens!” This produced 650-ish militia to meet him to attempt to turn the tide.
  1. He motivated passionately: The night before the battle, Morgan went among the untrained militia imploring them “just give me three good shots and you can go home heroes.”
  1. He chose his battlefield carefully: A brilliant strategist and realistic leader, Morgan chose “the cow pens,” as the place his untrained men would make their fight. It is a high and open ground with a road the British would travel down right up the middle. He stationed his Continentals on the uphill side of the pens, an open spot one hundred yards wide by five hundred long. The cow pens were surrounded by dense woods and streams. This prevented flanking. Even more, the swollen Broad River at their back gave his men nowhere to run.
  1. He formulated his plan brilliantly: Three lines of riflemen. Each would shoot at the officers and dragoons and then melt behind the next, each line providing cover for the other and leading the enemy deeper into Morgan’s midst.
  1. He estimated his foe wisely: He knew Tarleton would press the battle, confident of the open ground and anxious for a decisive blow.
  1. He led his men courageously: When the battle began to fall apart, Morgan was right there. He rode among his panicked troops, rallying a right flank in disarray, until it resembled a purposeful wheeling/pivot movement backwards from his right.
  1. He pressed the victory brilliantly: As the British came forward on their left, Morgan’s best men, mounted “Dragoons” were waiting in the trees. They came galloping down, surprising and surrounding Tarleton’s troops. This is known as a “double envelopment.” 120 British troops were killed and 800 surrendered en masse.
  1. He finished honorably: It is often difficult to be a good winner. Morgan was. The American colonists (most of whom were not trained, disciplined ‘regulars’) were very angry about the atrocities and brutal tactics  of “Bloody Tarleton.” They wanted to show no quarter and cut the British down. When the British laid down their arms in surrender, it was Morgan who forced the Americans to overcome their adrenaline and put an honorable end to the fighting. Morgan would never again lead a significant fight. Eight months later ill health would force him to resign his commission. A great leader finishes well.
  1. He did his part faithfully: Morgan was a small part of a big picture. The defeat at Cowpens deprived British General Cornwallis of his offensive weapon. Forced back to Virginia, Cornwallis was pinned on land by Washington and at sea by the timely arrival of the French at Yorktown, thus winning U.S. independence. But it was Morgan, faithfully doing his small part in the back country, who set up the famous surrender at Yorktown. We have the America we have today because of someone most of us have never heard of faithfully doing a job that needed to be done, in an out of the way spot, in the face of great adversity and terrible odds.

What kind of leader will you be?

In your life you will likely be called upon at some point to lead. Will you accept the call? And when you do, what kind of a leader will you be? Today it is fashionable to tell young people, “Follow your passion.” Frankly, that sets up a world that begins and ends with the self. The world was not built on such little thinking. And it is no coincidence that as our culture follows that line of thinking it is running right off the rails. You see, the men and women that you most admire were not people who did what they “wanted” with their lives. The great acts of history, the great leaders of the ages, and the great works of literature were all forged in the fires of difficulty and conflict. I am fairly certain that Dr. King would rather not have been writing from a Birmingham jail. I am fairly certain Lincoln would have preferred not to have to write an address for the slaughter at Gettysburg. I am absolutely certain that the New Testament would not be what it is if Jesus was not crucified and if his followers, Paul and John, were not writing from prison cells and penal colonies. Difficult times produce great humans. The world does not need you to follow some narcissistic “passion.” It needs you to find a need, step into that gap, and do something. Something small or great, that needs doing. To do that thing that is part of the bigger picture. To fight your battle, so that whether or not anyone else notices, you will have contributed to the great victory of leaving the world a better place than you found it. That is leadership.

The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

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Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.

 

[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)

 

Changing your church: The difference between attractive and bizarre

 

photo credit: oddee.com

photo credit: oddee.com

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I had a great case of teenage acne. My doctor prescribed one tetraclycline tablet per day to clear up my skin. It worked; my skin began to clear up. A big dance was on the horizon, though, and I wanted to ask a girl that I found to be particularly fetching. In my internal dialogue I wished my face looked better before I stood before this beautiful thing to ask her out. I thought, “If some tetracycline is making my face better, a bunch of tetracycline would make it much better. What I didn’t realize was that too much of a good thing has some pretty ugly side effects – such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and my skin turning yellow.

In his old book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the unintuitive fact that the difference between abject failure and runaway success is razor-thin. Gladwell powerful articulates that success is not additive but multiplicative-like a flu epidemic. He gives a dozen cases of small ideas that became iconic (like Sesame Street, Gore-Tex, and Hush Puppy shoes to name a few) when they “tipped.” He exposes the small tweaks that were key to getting diseases, social trends, events, and companies to “tip.” We have much to learn from Gladwell in the church – in particular his genius for mining data for what is actually there rather what we expect to see there.

Another area we could use Gladwell’s help with in the Episcopal Church: The razor thin difference between being attractive and being off-putting for the majority of seekers. Both involve change. But one change creates a fragrant aroma that draws you in. The other is a bridge too far. One is like cookies baking in the oven. The other like someone forgot to take out the trash. The first makes one interested in stepping further in. The other repulses.

Here is the principle that stands between the two: one standard deviation from the expected makes something attractive. Two standard deviations makes it bizarre. As an example, young men right now are really into big ol’ lumberjack beards and mustaches. But when one does what the fellow in the photo at the top of this post does with it, it is one standard deviation too far. It goes from attractive to bizarre.

You can see this in churches: A church that changes its music or preaching grows wildly. Change them both to something that runs counter to the expectations, and you become a bridge too far and are preaching to an empty room. You can become a socially engaged evangelical church (like Mission Community in Queen Creek, AZ) and explode, or liturgically evangelical (like New City in downtown Phoenix). Do both at the same time and it closes the front door rather than opening it.

You can see this in seminaries: A seminary that teaches the standard, expected evangelicalism starts an “Anglican Formation” program. These have become the fastest growing programs at more than a dozen evangelical seminaries across the country, while our seminaries continue to struggle for students. Why? One reason is that our seminaries tend to teach experimental theologies, community organizing, and a minimum of the expected biblical languages, scriptural foundations, and exegesis courses. We are two or three standard deviations past “attractive.” This makes our seminaries “scary” to gifted but unaffiliated students.

In another example, I started a church that had a difficult time generating momentum for a host of reasons. One significant issue was trying too many things at once. We were multi-ethnic and liturgical. Either one of those was attractive in our context. But being both liturgical and tri-ethnic in our leadership teams was a very difficult balance that kept many who were game for either/or but not both away from us. In addition, we had a third deviation from the norm: we were in a neighborhood of immigrants who had never heard of the Episcopal Church. And a fourth: We were a training ground for young adults in leadership, so our service quality was pretty uneven. Being “different” made people want to come. But we were often a too different for folks.

The church often gets lured into the fallacy that more of something successful is better. “Progressive politics helped us, so lets have progressive liturgies, and progressive theology.” (You could very easily substitute the word “conservative” here. Or most any other word, for that matter.) How do we avoid becoming bizarre?

Take aways:

-Ask good questions.

-Listen to both what those who are and those who are not visiting your church are saying.

-Know your culture.

-Ask the question, “What do we offer the body of Christ that is unique to this place and time?

-And don’t get lured into thinking that if a little of something works, a lot of that something is even better. More isn’t always better.

 

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The Leadership Dilemma: Questions to ask before giving someone a position of influence.

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All spring we will hear sports personalities argue Florida State’s Jameis Winston versus Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in the upcoming NFL draft. It is a conversation that happens every few years: an incredibly gifted, NFL ready talent with character and maturity questions, versus a good talent with character and maturity. One young man is a freak: So physically gifted he became the youngest person to ever win a Heisman trophy. The other is very, very good – good enough to win the Heisman trophy this year. Two players who will be asked to play the most difficult position in all of professional sports. If you land one of the eight or nine humans who have freakish talent combined character and maturity your team will be relevant for the next decade. How big of an issue is landing one of the “right guys” for an NFL team? They become the face of your franchise. They might mean a billion dollars in revenue over the ten or twelve years they play.

A similar conversation happens in the church: Talent versus character. I had a friend (with character issues) telegraph those once when he said, “I was having a conversation with another pastor. We decided our tradition has all of the gifts and yours has all of the character.” I could have very easily told him of the people in our tradition who have not exhibited character. Instead I cut the conversation short and wondered how long until his indiscretion was revealed. (It took less than 60 days. Four years later I remain hopeful that he develop character and be restored to grace in his own heart.)

Maybe you are on the team searching for a senior pastor. Maybe you are a pastor looking for coveted leaders for your ministry teams – People of spiritual passion and the gifts necessary to reach your community. You know the temptation when the gifted, articulate, personally charismatic person shows up on your radar. They start coming to your church, or you meet them at a ministry conference or a coffee house. They have obvious talent and fill a need you have been praying for the right person to fill. And they have “the stuff.” You know, that intangible thing that makes others want to follow them. The big question: Can you trust them?

Here are a few questions to ask before putting someone in leadership:

  • Is what they have holy fire or arrogance?
  • Do they submit to authority
  • Do they complain about their previous leaders?
  • Do they follow through on tasks?
  • Do they have a teachable spirit?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Do they have a past? (Do they flop churches when under accountability?)
  • What is their end-game? (What do they want to be doing in 10 years?)
  • Do they have a positive demeanor?
  • Do they have self-control under fire?
  • Are they a good fit? How does the rest of the team view them?
  • How much supervision do you want?

And for sure check their references!

When all of those questions are answered to your satisfaction, give them 6 months before you put them in charge of anything!

Make the process take a while. Make sure they know you like them and see their gifts, but that you want them to be part of your family before leading the family.

If you hire on character alone you end up with Tim Tebow: A great guy who could not get the job done. If you short circuit “due diligence” on talent you will wake up to find yourself in the position of the Cleveland Browns who got caught up in the hype last year and drafted “Johnny Football.” Now the Browns are stuck with a distraction who has shown little indication that he has the ability to turn into a dependable leader. In football that costs you wins and money. In the church it costs us the souls of those we have been charged with tending.