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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A parent shares an unlikely secret to raising great teens

Studio Portrait Of Five Teenage Friends Standing In Line

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Do you have kids in those really enjoyable third through sixth grade years? If so, you are probably a bit nervous about the teen years you know are looming around the corner.

I am the parent of two teens…at least until my daughter turns twenty next month. For the most part, our kids thrived through high school. And without arresting beauty, stellar brains, or athletic prowess, our kids were both voted president of their classes all through their high school years and were pursued by quality universities…including my son being invited to the Naval Academy’s summer program. Our parenting secret? While my friends pushed their kids to learn second languages, play on club teams, and take etiquette courses, we charted another parenting course. We involved our kids in an innovative program for youth. A program that data told us is linked to:

  • Dramatically reduced rebelliousness and risk of committing a crime
  • Increased participation in high school
  • Lowered rate of premarital sex
  • Reduction in binge drinking in high school and college
  • Improved academic performance in high school and college
  • Improved odds of saying they have a “very happy life” as an adult
  • And is even linked to an 8 year increase in life expectancy!

What is the activity that gives parents these outcomes we want for our kids?

The answer may surprise you. It is active participation in a local church. No, I’m not kidding. The data comes from sources such as the Center from Disease Control, Indiana, Michigan and Duke Universities, and the Barna Research Group. The caveat, the student has to be “deeply involved” in the church. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion, “occasional attendees” have virtually no behavioral difference from non-attenders. Research indicates that regular church participation is associated with a decrease in every risky behavior that parents want their children to avoid and an increase in the behaviors that parents want to encourage.

Sometimes it is an issue of not seeing the forest for the trees. What we really want for our kids isn’t to be a great soccer player or to have a specific friend group. What we really want for our children is to have a great life. We see those other things as means to the end of becoming great human beings; self-sufficient and making a contribution to the world we leave them. The church is your number one support in your deepest yearnings for your kids.

Which brings us back to my kids: Although I am a picky parent, I genuinely like and respect the people my kids have become. I am proud of the decisions they make and the motives behind them. I am proud of how they carry themselves, a strong young woman and young man who stick up for underdogs, refuse to push others around or allow others to push them around. They are kind. They work hard. They serve others. They have stuck to their sexual purity guns. They are deep and fun. They, especially my daughter, are admirably resilient. They are viewed as leaders by their peers.

Why does it work?

To a great degree the people they have become is the result of a deeply committed walk with God. And a deeply committed faith is almost always the fruit of deep commitment to a local faith community. Regardless of what you personally think of Christian commitment, a deeply committed faith is a gift that, unlike participation in a club team, will keep giving to your child over the arc of their life.

What is the secret sauce?

Deep immersion in a church almost always includes a relationship with an older Christian mentor, aka, a youth worker. Youth workers reinforce parent’s messages from home. They do this as an influential voice a step or two older and wiser than their peers. Youth workers are role models and visible pictures of what positive choices gain one in life. They are a gift to parents that cannot be under-estimated.

As a parent, you and I have more to do with our teen’s success than anything or anyone in their lives. One of the best things we did to leverage that parental influence was to involve them in the church. At church, great young adults who love God, loved my kids. These young people, both church workers and Young Life leaders, helped my kids have a bigger vision for their lives. They helped my kids see their gifts, gave them opportunities for leadership and encouraged them to develop those gifts. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” tells us that highly successful people are the first ones to 10,000 hours in an activity. In a good church, leaders will spend a great amount of time teaching your child to serve others, speak in public, develop and articulate deeply held beliefs, discover musical gifts they didn’t know they have, and develop social skills that will bless them the rest of their lives. They will be busier, without a doubt, but they will develop new capacities, and the life skills that they need most for future life-success. And our kids are not unique in this. The kids in our small mission church’s youth program are a virtual Who’s Who of the student leaders in the four neighborhood high schools they attend.

So parents, take your kids to church. Get involved. Get your kids involved. In the end, it will do far more for them than the soccer league you miss on Sunday mornings. I promise.