• Skills Training vs. Education

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    It appears to me that we are living in a time when the majority Christians (particularly new Christians) are more interested in “skills training” than “education”.   I think we are more interested in learning “how to be Christian” rather than “understanding what it means to be Christian” and developing a broad and deep understanding of God’s relationship to God’s people.

    If it is true that we live in a short-term, highly intensive sprinter culture, then it makes sense that we would be focused on immediate results.  Often, we only ask “Why?” when we have trouble with the “How to” or when we engage in something enough times that we want to understand it more completely or to improve.

    If this is true and if we accept the fact that our culture won’t return to a focus on education without a massive cultural shift, then this has major implications for how we teach confirmation, how we do faith formation in congregations and what entry points will be the most effective in connecting people to the mission of Jesus Christ.

    (*Thank you to Pastor Bill King at Luther Memorial, Blacksburg, VA for suggesting the skill training vs. education framework)

  • PEW Perspective – Conflict does not have to define a congregation

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    Observations going from pulpit to pew

    After an interim of over two and a half years, my wife and I are visiting congregations looking for a church home in our community. Each week, I am seeing church life from a PEWspective.

    I went to the first church we attended with deep reservations. I knew the story of conflict within the congregation that had resulted in a serious split where many left. To her credit, my wife was not concerned about the conflict and didn’t want to know the story that I tried to share. She merely wanted to attend so I stopped trying to tell her what I knew and we went.

    Conflict has always made me feel uneasy even though I have faced it head-on in my two interims. From the moment we reached the front steps, I discovered that I was in for a wonderful surprise. This was the friendliest congregation I had ever attended. People went out of their way to speak to us and make us welcome. They did not just speak, but shared their stories and one woman even invited us to attend a Bible study that she said “made a difference in my life.” The most telling moment happened when the two women on the pew in front of us were talking to each other after we had talked. They were discussing a women’s event held the day before and one of the women then said, “Isn’t it wonderful to be part of a happy, helping church again.”

    Could it be possible that out of the conflict and split that the people were beginning to discover anew what it meant to be the people of God at this place? I had not expected that reaction. The two women continued talking about what it meant to be happy and helping. I immediately wondered if the people who had left might be saying the same thing–”Isn’t it wonderful to be part of a happy, helping church again.”

    Conflict is a black hole that absorbs all the energy and enthusiasm leaving no time for anything else. Taking a side in the dispute is more important that listening to God’s call to mission and ministry which gets pushed to the side as the conflict escalates and is played out.

    I’m sure that both sides in this conflict will face difficult times ahead but I was taught an important lesson. I was defining the congregation in terms of conflict but they taught me that conflict does not have to define a congregation. When we begin to concentrate on reaching out in our Lord’s name, we begin to move past conflict to a happy and helping fellowship of believers.

  • Help Starting a New Road

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    I spent last week end as a chaplain at New Road 31 at the Kinard Camp and Conference Center near Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina.  The event, held for the 31st consecutive year, is for people who have recently lost spouses.  The gathering was valuable for me when I lost my wife, Nancy, but it had been 11 years since I had been able to serve as a chaplain.  These are my reflections about what I relearned or saw from a different perspective.

    · The experts in helping with the grief and loss associated with the death of a spouse are the people who have gone through it and are able to share their experiences in a helpful way.  The emphasis for me is on helpful.  Each leader for the small group discussions had been through a previous new road and had been willing to return as a brother or sister guiding the way.  They were great at listening and guiding the experience in a super-supportive manner.  Around 20 other past participants came back to provide help in a variety of different ways.

    · Almost all the participants shared their anxieties as they thought about backing out and not attending.   Just coming in to register was daunting.  At a previous New Road, one man could not bring himself to go in on Friday evening when he arrived so he spent the night in his car in the parking lot..  The next morning, he decided to walk in for breakfast.  The event is now so important to his new road that he was one of the helpful team leaders this year.

    · The death of a spouse is traumatic enough but so many happenings around the death create even more trauma.  The issues were difficult and different for each person ranging from the burden of finances to unhelpful family and friends.  The bottom line is that most participants were dealing with numerous other significant issues in addition to the death.

    · Guilt is alive and rampant in the lives of those who have lost a spouse.  We have learned exceptionally well to accept guilt  and my experiences would suggest that guilt becomes magnified under stress.  Guilt never helps.  Repeat that to yourself over and over again.

    · Advice from experts can be helpful.  We had significant sharing from a hospice chaplain, a psychologist who works with grief and loss, an estate lawyer and an expert in Social Security.  Not all needed everything that was said but all needed some part of everything that was said.  You have to be the expert and know what is helpful to you.

    Every one of the participants with whom I spoke told me how much they had benefited from the experience.  As one woman said to me, “I feel like a new person.”  Not only was she a new person but she now has a new road.

  • What does your brand stand for?

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    Seth Godin asked this question in a blog on May 30, 2013 and I immediately found myself thinking about the church.  I know that religious folks can bristle when a word like “brand” get applied to faith and ministry, but I hear this question as a call for the church to take a careful look at itself and to ask ourselves – “Do we have something unique to offer to the world?” and if so, “How can we share that gift in a way that allows people to hear it?”.

    This question of “brand” is nothing new for the church.  The early church decided that the “Nicene” brand of Christianity was more faithful than the “Arian” brand of Christianity.  Orthodox Christians and Protestants long ago rejected the Roman Catholic brand of Christianity and in more recently times, non-denominational congregations have rejected the traditional mainline brands of Christianity that arose following the Reformation.

    In today’s world filled with spiritual options, helping agencies and competing ideologies, the good news about Jesus Christ is increasingly one message competing for space in a crowded and distracted world.  To proclaim the good news about Jesus in today’s context, I am convinced that God’s people need to be clear about who we are and what we believe.  We need to make sure that our teaching and our actions proclaim the same message.  We need to identify what makes the message of Jesus unique and lift that up for the world to see and to hear.

    We need to know what our “brand” stands for because once we know, it will be much easier to share this good news with the world and for the world to hear and to understand it.

  • Active Participants in the Congregation

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    George Bullard posted an interesting article last week on his blog which invites leaders to rethink how they measure participation in their congregation. Instead of simply tracking average worship attendance, Bullard suggests measuring the total number of households participating in the worship life of the congregation. Since attendance patterns and average household size have changed over the last twenty years, it is possible that you may have fewer people in worship on an average Sunday, but more total people participating in the worship life of the congregation.

    Here’s an example of the type of change Bullard is seeing in his work. “First Church has decreased in weekly attendance by 35 percent in the past 20 years. The average size of the households connected with the congregation has decreased from 3.4 people to 2.6 people. Twenty years ago 147 households were present on a typical Sunday, and now 163 households are present on a typical Sunday.” Average attendance has dropped, but the reach of the congregation has actually grown over the same period of time.

    Certainly there are cases when declining average worship attendance is an indication of a weak or dying congregation, but l think Bullard makes a compelling case that previously reliable statistical measures like average worship attendance and, I would suggest, membership totals, no longer provide a complete picture of the health and size of a congregation. In today’s world, total number of households present in worship or total number of active participants in the life of the congregation is probably a far more helpful statistic to track.

    You can read Bullard’s complete article here: Is Attendance in Your Congregation Declining? Think Again

  • 6 Ideas for Being a Missional Church Today

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    Dr. Peter Steinke offered the following six suggestions during a workshop entitled, “Life is a Mission Trip” on May 23, 2012 in Waynesboro, Virginia.

    Six Ideas for Being the Missional Church Today

    1. The proclamation of the Word

    • Essential to the mission of the church

    2. Recruit – bring people into the family

    • Church growth is a part of the church, not the goal of the church.
    • Church offers a sense of belonging and gives a sense of purpose.

    3. Mission of the church has much to do with healing

    • A key to growth was the early church’s willingness to be a part of healing.
    • Early Christians were different than the rest of society.  They touched the sick and buried the dead.
    • Today, healing ministries are very important to the health of the church - 1/5 of verses in Gospels are about healing.

    4. The church is the means not the end

    • The goal is not to preserve the entity.

    5. Peace making

    • Being advocates for the marginal
    • You can’t read the Old Testament and come away believing that God isn’t concerned with the poor.
    • Bishop Tutu said – The poor are God’s stand ins – recalling Jesus’ teaching that what you do to the least of these, you do to me.
    • Proclamation and demonstration go together.  People read the Gospel of our lives.

    6. Faithful Presence

    • As a church, we prepare people for their time in the secular world to exhibit a faithful presence.
    • Be the 67th book of the Bible
    • Be a disciple of Christ in the world.  Who we are has a lot to say about what we believe.
    • We need to devote more and more time preparing our people to let their lives speak.
  • Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

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    I was at a continuing education event last week with Dr. Peter Steinke. He offered a variety of statistics to illustrate the changing nature of religion today, but the research he shared from Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers was by far the most interesting to me. After interviewing teenagers all across the country, Smith concluded that regardless of religious affiliation, most teenagers were Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Steinke summed up Smith’s findings in the following way, Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:
    1. God created the world, but is on inactive duty.
    2. God wants you to be nice and share your marbles and bread.
    3. God wants you to be happy. God is overly invested in your happiness.
    4. If things do fall apart, you can contact God. God is there for emergencies.
    5. If you have been good, you can go to heaven.

    I first encountered Smith’s research several years ago, but I never really paid much attention. Upon hearing it again, I am struck by the fact that the teenagers who were a part of the study in the early 2000′s are now the young adults the church is trying to engage. If Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the cultural religious base for young adults in the world today, then the church shouldn’t be surprised that traditional emphasis like sin, redemption and repentance are not points of connection and areas of interest. For all intensive purposes, we are offering answers to questions that aren’t being asked.

    If you want to read a more complete discussion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Smith wrote a helpful article which is posted on the Princeton Theological Seminary website: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.

  • Charismatic Organizations, Charismatic Leaders

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    I came across an article last week, but a writer named George Colony entitled: Apple=Sony: Brace For The Coming Post-Steve Jobs Decline. The article describes Apple as a charismatic organization and then proposes that the organization will coast and then start declining within 24-48 months unless they find another charismatic leader to replace Steve Jobs. While we will have to wait and see if Mr. Colony’s prediction will actually happen at Apple, I have seen it happen numerous times in congregations led by charismatic pastors.

    According to the article, “Sociologist Max Weber created a typology of organizations in his 1947 book The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. He described three categories: 1) legal/bureaucratic (think IBM or the U.S. government), 2) Traditional (e.g., the Catholic church) and 3) Charismatic (run by special, magical individuals).

    Charismatic organizations are headed by people with the ‘gift of grace’ (charisma from the Greek). ‘He is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.’ Followers and disciples have absolute trust in the leader, fed by that leader’s access to nearly magical powers. ‘Charismatic authority repudiates the past, and is in this sense a specifically revolutionary force.’”

    In today’s world, many growing, vibrant congregations are led by charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs – individuals who have a strong sense of their connection to God and a clear vision for ministry, individuals who have gift for leading and connecting to others, and individuals who have the skills necessary to effectively manage a growing organization. While these leaders, like Jobs, can help congregations and individuals experience tremendous grown, when they leave or retire, it can be extremely difficult to fill that’s leader’s role in the leadership system.

    Colony continues later in the article. “When Steve Jobs departed, he took three things with him: 1) singular charismatic leadership that bound the company together and elicited extraordinary performance from its people; 2) the ability to take big risks, and 3) an unparalleled ability to envision and design products. Apple’s momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation.”

    Replace the name “Steve Job” with the name of an outstanding, charismatic pastor and you have an accurate description of what has taken place in hundreds, perhaps thousands of congregations. As Colony notes, “One of the primary challenges with charismatic organizations is succession.” Congregations face the same problem and unfortunately since our system of call typically relies on a bureaucratic or traditional approach. It often doesn’t do an outstanding job of identifying the next charismatic leader for a congregation and without that next charismatic leader or a complete change in the organizational structure of the congregation, the congregation loses momentum and slowly goes from great to good.

  • Leave the Past in the Past

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    One of my favorite magazines is Fast Company. I’m about a month behind in my reading but I finally got to the February 2012 issue and was intrigued by the article on “Generation Flux.” At the bottom of the sixth page of the article, I read the words and sat up shouting a loud “Yes!” I scared my poor cat Scottie who had been asleep on my lap so badly that he jumped straight into the air, leaving the room is a flash of fur.

    For years, members have shared their ideas of the best oldies programs that worked in churches so well in the past. They were convinced that these programs were the “silver bullet” to resurrect their church and any church. Over the years, I even tried some with no success. After struggling with these suggestions for over 25 years, I finally came to the conclusion that we should leave the past in the past.

    The author of the Fast Company article wonderfully described the phenomenon that I had seen as nostalgia

    “Nostalgia is a natural human emotion, a survival mechanism that pushes people to avoid risk by applying what we’ve learned and relying on what’s worked before. It’s about as useful as an appendix right now. When times seem uncertain, we instinctively become more conservative; we look to the past, to times that seem simpler, and we have the urge to re-create them” (Fast Company, February 2012, page 67)

    Don’t fall into the trap of attempting to recreate the past. It doesn’t work. Be at peace when someone suggests this fantastic old program. The suggestion deserves a “Thank you” and then lay the suggestion to rest in the closest cemetery. That’s where it belongs.

  • And now we have an approved IPhone confession app

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    The headline, “IPhone confession app gets church approval,” intrigued me even though I do not have an IPhone. The article explained that the app approved by the Roman Catholic Church had a custom examination of conscience based on your age, gender and marital status as well as a confessional walk thru including a place for people to add their custom sins. All of this for only a cost of $1.99.

    For a person who pushes “O” constantly while listening to pleasant recorded messages giving me every option but talking to a real person when I call most businesses, the app reminded me how impersonal our society has become. Just this week I was reading about the high school football star who chose a different college than his mother wanted him to attend so he texted her the news and didn’t tell her in person or even by a call because he knew she wouldn’t approve. He took the easy way out which is what apps, texting and email can become.

    I sincerely hope the IPhone confession app helps some people realize that they have moved away from God but I am convinced that our Christian faith is best demonstrated when we share it in person—when we can laugh together, cry together, talk together and support each other. I know the world is changing but our personal witness is still the central starting point in the midst of all the transformations happening in the world. That is something I never want to forget. Apps and modern media can help but they can never replace each of us personally sharing the faith.

    And just so you know, pushing “O” constantly usually get me to a real person much quicker than waiting for it to be a last resort.