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Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Albert Einstein is frequently credited, incorrectly, with saying that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results. Repeatedly point out that the attribution is incorrect is likely a form of insanity, as it will doubtless still be attributed to Albert Einstein. (You can read the details on the Quote Investigator.)

I like the form given by George A. Kelly in 1955 (as quoted in op. cit.):

“… we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.”

The Quote Investigator

The phrase “… in spite of consistent invalidation” is my sort of language! I must note that I use that sort of language on people frequently, with the most common result being blank looks. Not what I was looking for. Yet I repeat.

By this definition, however, many, many churches can be diagnosed with some sort of disorder. We have churches and whole denominations diminishing in numbers, worrying about those diminishing numbers, holding meetings and conferences about them, without ever actually making substantive changes.

I’m reminded of a pastor who once told me how his church had asked him for a plan to grow their congregation and to reach their community for Christ. He labored over the plan for months, and it was presented to the church with some fanfare, ceremony, and excitement. The members agreed that this plan would bring in new people, and they thought it would reach people in their community for Christ. But they decided not to do it because their church would no longer be the church of their childhoods. They wouldn’t really like it anymore.

One disorder in the church is that we can determine the quality of some church by numbers. Mainline denominations are criticized because their numbers are dropping. It’s often considered the end of the argument: “Our church is growing, so we’re better. Yours is shrinking, so you’re worse.”

But there are large, growing churches with quite different and contradictory theologies. We’ve discussed and tried to cure our numbers problems for years. Is it possible that our obsession with numbers is one sign of church insanity? Is the number of backsides contacting the pews of our church buildings each Sunday a good indicator of spiritual health, or even of church health? More importantly, is finding what appears to be a good strategy for church growth the right way to be the Body of Christ in the world?

Why am I writing this at Christmas?

Well, I’m really writing it in Advent, and this advent season, I’d like to consider the possibility that the best strategy we can devise is not God’s strategy, the best measurements we can devise do not measure what God wants measured, and finally that God’s strategy might look totally hopeless and useless to us.

Think of yourself in the Roman world in the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. What do you see as your problem? How do you measure it?

Lots of modern Christians criticize the Jewish people for “expecting the wrong thing.” I’d like to take note of two things. I suspect if you think that, you haven’t been reading the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures with care and attention and looking at them in context. There were plenty of indications that God’s plan was to free his people politically and make them the center of the nations and to do it now! Second, Christians criticizing the Jews seem to be looking for the same things as the Jews were. We’re chucking stones through openings in our glass houses. One of the great Christian pretensions, quite insane, is that somehow we would do better than Israel did, that we are somehow better people.

And it was not only the Jews who wanted freedom from the Romans. History looks back on the Pax Romana with a certain amount of approval. As brutal as Roman government was, it did provide an unprecedented degree of law and order. Many still wanted to rebel, and the Romans provided them with many reasons to do so. One reason for their failure, however, was that people appreciate law and order, as long as they are not the ones suffering the penalties. Line the roads with people dying on crosses, and as long as one can convince oneself that one is not headed to the cross next, one will often support the oppressor.

One thing we often forget about the rise of tyrants is that it is not just the tyrants who are involved. Often a weak, divided, corrupt, and ineffective opposition is the would-be tyrant’s best friend.

So clearly I must be advocating for a good grand strategy, mobilizing the right people, making the opposition effective, getting the right weapons, and acting in a unified way.

As a member of a United Methodist congregation, the strategy should be greater grounding in Wesleyan doctrine, more advertising of Methodist churches, more money spent on hospitality and relationships with our visitors, and more people inviting others to church. Right?

That would, after all, be the equivalent of uniting the opposition to a tyrant around a clear plan, led by people who are known not to be corrupt, with plenty of financial backing, and perhaps even weapons and people with training willing to put them into action.

Good strategy, yes. God’s strategy, no.

You see, this is a Christmas post (yes, I know, posted in Advent). Faced with probably the most efficient army the world had known up to that time (at least the world as seen from the Mediterranean), with a brutal but effective means of enforcing rule, and a government willing to apply that method with the necessary ruthlessness, God did not summon up an army. Not even an army of angels. The only angels around seem to have been bringing messages or singing songs.

God didn’t find a charismatic political leader to organize a party, nor did God bring a political leader to take effective action in the Roman senate. He didn’t perform a miracle to wipe the oppressors out so that others could fill the vacuum.

Faced with a terrible, intractable situation, God went stupid. I say that with the utmost respect. Awe even. Reverence.

God sent a baby, born of a nobody, barely surviving childhood, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Donkey tracks, that is!

Not a good plan, Lord! Bad strategy! Losing, even!

This was grace in action. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s expand that. While we were still sinners, Jesus came as a baby, lived as we have to live, encountered dangers and we have to encounter them, lived through reproach, and then died the horrible death that the authorities had prepared for someone like him.

The reality is that if we’re honest, we will confess that this strategy would never occur to us and we wouldn’t really try it. As evidence, I will point out that we never seem to plan church strategies of that kind. Our strategies are not designed to give without waiting for a return.

If they were, then church growth groups couldn’t sell their services to churches by promising more members. Stewardship consultants wouldn’t be able to sell churches their services by promising a certain amount of increase in the weekly take in the offering plate.

We’ve been doing those things for years, and yes, business plans built around such activities can work for a time. That stewardship consultant very likely can increase your weekly offering.

But here’s the problem. That success is not a success of the Body of Christ, but rather of your organization, your people, and your goals. It is advertising one thing but then offering people another when they come in the doors. The greater offering intake, greater influence in the community, and better social programs don’t solve people’s basic needs. These things may make your church successful, provided what you’re selling is Sunday morning entertainment and a platform for social programs.

But if that is what you’re offering, don’t be surprised when people down the street, with any number of motivations and programs, provide a better mechanism for people to influence the social realm and even help people economically than your church does.

Perhaps we need to look at our behavior, recognize our “disorder,” and look to God for a strategy. Perhaps we need to prepare to go out into the world, build relationships, walk alongside people in their need. As recipients of God’s grace, perhaps we can be sharers of God’s grace.

Some will be saying, “But those big buildings, the money in our offering plate, and our big platform are helping us serve the world.” If they are doing that, great! Thanks be to God for that great blessing!

But if you still feel that something’s missing, or if the pews start to empty as people realize they can do as much by sending a check to their favorite charity, then consider that you may need to go out into the world in the way that God sent his son. (But remember also that people may be leaving because they don’t want to take up their cross.)

No, we cannot cure our insanity. Only the grace of God can do that. The starting point is to realize that we are insane, that we can’t cure it, but our gracious God can.

Yes, I’m a publisher. Let me recommend a book.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock 95049255. Not public domain.

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

A few years ago I heard a story about a Methodist District Superintendent who was visiting a church in his district. The church was conducting an afternoon training event. At the height of this event, the superintendent asks the pastor of the church how many people he thought were in attendance. The pastor looked around and replied, “About 400.” The superintendent said, “Oh, how many does this sanctuary seat?” “250,” responded the pastor, unperturbed.

It makes a great joke, backing up the phrase “clergy estimate,” but it also illustrates a problem that we have with the church. We have a fixation on numbers, and we’re often not quite sure what numbers we’re fixated on. We’re reasonably sure, however, that these numbers are supposed to be large.

Thus the clergy estimate. Let’s make it look like we’re doing well, because the appearance of doing well is all-important. What gets lost in the discussion and the paperwork is just what those numbers mean.

I wrote a post about the characteristics of a living church back in 2006, and I don’t see any reason to change anything I wrote then. What I’m looking at here is our tendency to measure. The health of a living church that I noted back then is not that easy to measure.

So perhaps I prefer a small church? Smaller churches have certain opportunities for community and for ministry that larger churches might not. Smaller churches are sometimes perceived as more faithful, more orthodox in their Christian beliefs.

No, not really. My problem is with our measurements of success. I won’t link to the site, but today I saw posts for ebooks that would tell you how to reach the visitors who come to your Easter service and get them to come back to church.

Inadequately impressed by the resurrection? There’s a program for that!

The same site offers to provide you insight into strategic hires to help grow your church. If you follow the directions and hire the right people, your church will grow. You can sell your church service just like laundry soap or hamburgers.

There are those who will say I’m being unfair. Good business practices are good for a church. Yes, good business practices in finance and management are important for an organization. But is a well-oiled, well-running, constantly expanding machine a sign of a spiritually healthy church?

I’m going to suggest that basing our thinking on numbers is just wrong. I hear this often in comparing various movements in Christianity. We’re losing members because of too liberal, too conservative, or just too dry of theological positions. We’re gaining members because we’re preaching “truth,” however that is defined by the speaker.

Challenge one of these claims by pointing to increasing numbers in groups not on the approved group list (an amorphous thing that changes with the individual), and you’ll hear the counter that Christians shouldn’t follow the crowd, that numbers don’t mean everything, and the way to destruction is wide and straight!

It’s very like my theme picture. We’re measuring things with the wrong tool, in the wrong units. We don’t know where we’re going, but if lots of us get there, we think it’s (probably) a good thing.

The question is this: Are we growing in grace? Are we a healthy community?

Or perhaps more precisely, are we a community at all?

Once we’ve taken that step, we can ask the next question. But once we’re functioning as a real community, we might not really need to ask the question at all. We’ll be too busy being a healthy church to take time to measure the health.

Marketing Jesus

Marketing Jesus

Shortly after I separated from the Air Force I was chatting with a gentleman while waiting in line for something or other. On realizing that I was a veteran, and in fact had been somewhere that would qualify me as a veteran of a foreign war, he started a pitch to get me to join that fine organization (VFW).

His initial pitch was simply that I could. I asked him why I should. At this point he was somewhat at a loss and simply told me that they had a wonderful local VFW post where I could drink and swap war stories with other veterans. On short acquaintance he couldn’t possibly have know what a poor pitch that was for me.

Now please don’t imagine that I’m writing against the VFW, and more than I will be writing against Jesus when I talk about marketing approaches. The VFW does some fine work, which is my point. You can give a poor sales pitch for a good cause and drive people away.

Fast forward about 12 years to a time when I was looking at church congregations. I had not been a member of any church for those years and more, but as regular readers may know, I did have my MA in Religion (with that wonderful concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages). This made life a bit difficult for pastors who discussed their churches with me.

In the end, I was considering two United Methodist congregations. I had attended church and some excellent studies at both, and I liked both organizations in many ways. At one of the churches I talked to the pastors at each church. At one of them the pastor said: “We don’t care what you believe. If you want to enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome.” The other discussed my beliefs.

Now I’m very interested in openness and acceptance, and I advocate the maximum freedom of belief, but I do think an organization requires some sort of center to make it functional and useful. And a mission. That too.

Thus I joined the other congregation.

Over the course of my life I have experienced a variety of sales pitches to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, most of them after I already had. Many of these came from people who felt I hadn’t quite gotten it right. Others came from people who presented their pitch so quickly they hadn’t had time to realize I was already a Christian. One came from someone who saw me reading my Greek New Testament while waiting for tires to be installed on my car, and was convinced that my Christianity must just be a thing of the intellect. He was truly concerned that I might mistakenly think that reading Greek was a means of salvation.

I’ll call it a means of grace. I didn’t think of saying that to him. It would doubtlessly have sent him ballistic. (Then I would have needed to repent, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t think of it.)

I would categorize approaches to selling Christianity in a few broad camps:

  1. The desperate. These are the people who are afraid that if you don’t accept Christ while in conversation with them, you will doubtless go to hell. One short prayer, and you’ll at least avoid that. Flames are usually involved in the conversation (pun absolutely intended). Conservative and charismatic Christians are susceptible to the use of this approach. Liberals and other mainliners might be susceptible, but they don’t believe in hell.
  2. The cultural. Christianity is a good society, sort of like Kiwanis or the Lions Clubs. Good people are Christians and attend church every so often. Come join our church and be socially acceptable to the good people. Mainline congregations are most susceptible to this, but conservatives may fall for it in the right cultural context.
  3. The upwardly mobile. This is the home of the prosperity gospel. The pitch goes that you’re in a lower economic and social class than you’d like to be, and Jesus wants you to have abundant life, so just follow Jesus to health, wealth, and satisfaction. (No, not the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Self satisfaction.)
  4. The apologetic approach. By this I don’t mean a person who defends elements of the Christian faith, but rather the person who desires to batter down your defenses with his or her command of data.

In fact, in all of these approaches there’s some truth. Being a part of a caring community can, in fact, improve your standard of living, your sense of joy, your peace, and many other things. Not quite in the way the prosperity preachers tell it, but it can help. Being part of the church can be a good cultural and social move. Considering your eternal state is likely worthwhile, and studying the data behind your religious faith is constructive.

There’s an effective temptation to attack every good intention or work. The desperate evangelist is driven by a desire to help. Believing that eternal hell fire is in your future if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, he feels compelled to make you. This sense led to some theological support for the burning of heretics. What was a few moments of torment in this life compared to what God would do to them in the next? If the torturer could bring this eternal punishment to their minds forcefully enough, perhaps they’d repent and be saved. The temptation here is to take away from God the power of salvation and judgment. Most humans are susceptible to it in some way.

Then there is the Jesus way. I was hit by it this morning as I was reading texts for next Sunday’s lesson.

Jesus was saying to everyone: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Now there’s an “ouch”! No promise of prosperity. No threat of hell. No social acceptability. In fact, if you read on through the end of the chapter, it gets even worse. The facts of the situation were present in the Person.

I wonder how a church growth program would work that called for people to lose their respectability, give up their comfort, become socially unacceptable, experience pain, and ignore ridicule would work. I’ve never seen one of those.

Other than in the gospels.

Let me look at some other texts from this week’s reading list.

9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because strength is made complete in weakness.” I now gladly boast in my weaknesses because Christ’s strength is all over me. 10So I am pleased in weaknesses, when insulted, when in need, when persecuted, when in hardship, for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

I guess Paul wasn’t up on the latest pitches and methods of evangelism either. And just to add to our feeling of injury and annoyance:

If we suffer together with him, we will be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17b)

I was somewhat surprised after reading the scriptures to find that the lesson author managed to write the whole lesson without mentioning suffering. He had some good thoughts, but somehow avoided that one.

So just what is it we’re proclaiming (or selling)? Are we doing it right?


(Note: All translations are my own, and are sometimes intentionally loose. Featured image downloade from Pixabay.com, which doesn’t require attribution, but I’ll give it anyhow.)

 

A Couple of Links on the Purpose of the Church

A Couple of Links on the Purpose of the Church

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
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A few days ago I posted a quote on the purpose of the church, particularly church growth, and between the comments to that post, Twitter, and my RSS reader, I’ve found a few to add to it.

First, Jimmy Davis, a former student (for one year of Hebrew) and now an associate pastor in Texas, provided a link to his article, When Your Church is Really Parachurch. The critical conclusion:

Organizations, much like individuals, are prone to have “me-first-hearts” rather than “you-first-hearts.” I am not saying that organization is bad or unnecessary; indeed, it is necessary and good (the first six chapters of Acts describe how the church organized itself as it grew). But the attitude of the church’s pastors, programs, polity, and place toward the church’s people should always be one of “at your service.” As I examine my own experience in the pew and the pastorate I am convinced that though Jesus has called the organization to serve the organism, I and many others have led our churches to have an “organization-first-heart.” Our churches must learn to live the cruciform life of dying to the glory and good of the organization in order to live for the glory of God and the good of people.

Jimmy has a book coming out soon, Cruciform: Living the Cross-Shaped Life which he says will be released April 1st (no foolin’!). (No, I’m not the publisher on this one!)

Pastor Steven Furtick (I’m not sure where I gleaned this from), admonishes us to be fishers of men, not keepers of the aquarium. It’s an excellent way to make the point! I have often noted how churches that concentrate on taking care of the people inside tend to diminish. Often in order to properly care for those inside you need to be looking outside.

 

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