Friday, October 7, 2011

The "Attractiveness" Factor in Church Growth

In working with a number of churches, and observing my current church assignment, one persistent question has been that of "Why doesn't my church grow?" And, I am talking about visible, sustainable, numerical growth. Let's assume that many of the assumed church growth methods of multiplication have been attempted and used. While many would say this is a gratuitous assumption, I have experienced churches who could indeed say, "Yes, we have tried this and that, but to no avail." Many of these places have good-hearted, Christ-centered, well-intentioned and motivated people who have read and re-read books, articles and internet advice from sites such as those provided by Willow Creek and Rick Warren, to name only two. Many have held sustained prayer meetings and vigils, conducted prayer walks and overall satisfied the "spiritualist" counselor who would advise, "Just pray more." Many have worked at making their facilities and staffing top-notch, engaged at community initiatives and did what their mega-church counterparts have done, but only to result in little to no numerical growth.

So, what's the problem? I would boil it down to in-house attractiveness. Attractiveness is not a function of p;rogramming, of vigorous outreach events and initiatives, of well-qualified evangelistic staff. Attractiveness is a function of the church community. Not every church community attracts people seeking God or seeking a church home. And, I am not referring to dead-end places or churches so polarizingly narrow that people avoid like a plague. A church community can exude attractiveness or exclusiveness. Not that they are trying to be exclusive or to themselves. They simply exude an air, an atmosphere of "you are welcome to attend but beyond that, we don't know." Or, "yes, we want you here, so long as you can find a place to fit in." Or, "we will help you become like one of us."

Attractiveness is the quality of aggressive awareness of the new person with an attitude and atmosphere of, "we really want you here and to stay with us." It is an unspoken, unuttered quality of acceptance, of comfortableness with someone we don't know, of ease of integration into the church body. It is not that attractiveness is easier for larger congregations, or that they have a corner on it. They have learned as a church body how to exude attractiveness. They do it almost not thinking about themselves or their programming or opportunities. Smaller churches who are plateaued or even shrinking, not due to strife or factionalism or lack of dedication and zeal, have to really work on being attractive. It is like a large family adopting new family members. It is the single-cell becoming comfortable with a multi-cell life and experience. It is learning that diversity is good and healthy and desirable. Newcomers become "comfortable" in this kind of environment and want to stay.

Attractiveness is hard to teach and model. Many church health and growth people would say that leaders and key people of un-attractive churches need to visit "attractive" churches and learn from them. That is easier to say than to do. You cannot duplicate that church community or atmosphere and make it your own. You cannot import that atmosphere to your atmosphere. You cannot give five simple rules or a relationship equation that will work. So, what do churches that find themselves un-attractive do?

First, get rid of easy answers and formulas. They don't work. Don't expect an outsider to solve your insider problems. Don't expect another church model to work for you. Too many leaders and pastors I know have been "burned" by the latest-greatest church examples or models. Second, ask God what level of attractiveness He wants for your church. This statement is anathema to many church health experts, but I have found it biblical and true. Not every church is meant to be a Jerusalem or Antioch. There are small house churches and large megachurches. Both can be attractive. The smaller house-sized church has defined itself differently than the large megachurch. Third, look at the kind of people your church has attracted throughout its history. Work with that. While some churches can expand beyond their homogeneous character, many cannot. High brow Presbyterians cannot suddenly become low-brow churches filled with people from the projects. That is not a slam against my high-brow friends. Their identification-atmosphere is different than a lower, middle-class atmosphere.

People will disagree with this latter observation and try to make the case that all churches must be equally diverse, multi-faceted and heterogeneous. I have yet to see that work on a broad scale. Some have achieved this, but only some. A fourth factor will be to understand your attractiveness level. Many churches simply cannot, without major disruption and a major in-house cultural change, become all things to all people. Attractiveness level limits the size and scope of adherents. What is your level?

This is a blog. I would expect people who read it to disagree. Cool. Write on.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rob Bell -- Who Wins in "Love Wins?"

Numerous reviews and posts and interviews have been leveled for or against "Love Wins," a new hot-seller by Rob Bell (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, HarperCollins, 2010), pastor of the megachurch, Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grand Rapids, MI. Interestingly, on the book jacket, no one less than Eugene Peterson says the book tells about the "comprehensive and eternal work of Christ . . . without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all." I guess he should have waited for the intense firestorm that has erupted in evangelical circles concerning the book. Reviewers have weighed in, and many, if not most, deem it controversial, heterodox, wanting theologically, linguistically, historically and philosophically. (Go to news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/03/ rob_bell_book_reviews_roll_ in.html  for a summary of viewpoints, and note especially Martin Bashir's interview on MSNBC). For a most thorough negative review, see Kevin DeYoung's "God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of 'Love Wins'." John Piper simply says, "Farewell, Rob Bell."

I actually think one of the most damaging reviews comes from Julie Clawson at Sojourners who writes, "Christianity isn’t about being right or wrong, it’s about living joyously and transformatively for Jesus — and this is a message we can all benefit from being reminded of." Wow! Now the Christian faith has no universal truths, no propositional revelation, no absolute standards. It's all about how we feel, how we live, how we make the world a better place. It's about US. Thank you, Julie Clawson!!

Unlike other reviewers who dive deeply into Bell's historical and theological wanderings, I want to give a few "overview" notes to readers. First, Rob Bell seems to be well-intentioned. He really cares about people and their journeys of faith and life. He cares about people who have gotten a terrible, misguided view of God and Christianity from past bad experiences or people. The problem, however, is with the approach. If we approach God and truths about God and His Word with people-stories, we will see God through the lens of those stories and through the fog of peoples' experiences, good or bad. Of course, Bell and others would say Jesus told stories all the time to communicate truths about God. But we are not Jesus, not divinely inspired, not equipped with a comprehensive view of truth to be able to extract absolute truths by using a few tales. 

Second, to use "word studies" to definitively prove theological truth is tricky to say the least, and foolish to say the most. I know anti-Trinitarian writers who use word studies to show that the One God cannot be a Trinity. Thus, the entire orthodox Trinitarian declarations are wrong according to these studies. Word studies can be and have been used by sects, heretics and people of no faith to contravene Christianity. Linguists and semantic experts have warned about over-using word studies, as if the Bible were an atomistic collection of terms and words. Contextual studies must be used, and sad to say, Rob Bell fails to give such contextual and thorough study of the words for "heaven," "hell" and "love" itself. Simply amassing Bible verses where terms are used does not do the trick. And to the word "love," he assumes everyone knows what the phrase "God is love" means. That is pure presumption.

Third, such a book reveals Rob Bell's lack of respect and wisdom for orthodox formulations and tried-and-true exegetical studies. I had a seminary professor who warned us as fledgling pastors and students of the Scriptures to be VERY, VERY careful of publishing anything in the Christian field of studies, especially when our conclusions disagree with or disapprove of years and years of sound historical, theological and philosophical study of the Scriptures. Rob Bell has plunged in over his head--way over his head.

Fourth, and I add this note for my Calvinistic friends, Rob Bell's book will cause you either  wild laughter or the constant no-no shaking of your head. Bell's foray into human freedom and how that interrelates with God's love is ludicrous. He assumes humans have complete, untarnished freedom to choose, reject, or wait to choose God and His love. He assumes unconditional freedom of the will. While many evangelicals have no problem with this, Calvinists have serious reservations. Further, he obviously dismisses unconditional sovereign election, the ravages of total depravity, limited or definite atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. He has had problems in past writings with the sacrificial system of the atonement as well. Penal substitution and imputation have no room in Bell's musings. No wonder Piper dismisses Bell's book out of hand.

Fifth, I have problems with Bell's insistent questioning of foundational theological Scriptural formulations about heaven and hell. He dynamically interprets "hell" and maintains that hell is here and now for those who commit certain heinous sins and turn their back on humanity. So, here's my questions. If we forsake our humanness or humanity by rejecting God's love, do we become "less human?" What does it mean to be "less human?" Do we become sub-human? And what does that mean? Are we reduced to an evolutionary state of non-humanness? What may be "obvious" to Bell is not so obvious anymore, is it?

Sixth, Rob Bell claims he is not a universalist. And that is true in the historical sense and use of the term. However, his wanting to say that God's love wins in the end and that somehow all people will be loved by God forever begs the question. Other reviewers have ably and amply exploded Bell's wanting view of God and His attributes.

I feel sorry for Rob Bell. Sorry that he felt compelled to write such a book. Sorry for the sticking of his toes into very deep historical-theological and exegetical waters. Sorry that his place in the evangelical world is in question. And mostly sorry, that if he is wrong, he will stand before a holy, just and loving God and be held accountable for his deceiving thousands of people God has entrusted to his care (cf. James 3:1; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). Our church and my ministry have used a number of his Nooma video productions, and I have mostly enjoyed his post-modern edgy books and messages. But there are serious problems with Love Wins.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Are We There Yet?

"There are churches that make a difference, and there are churches (and ministries) that do not. To which do you belong?" These words have reverberated in my heart and mind ever since I heard them from E. V. Hill in the summer of 1988. And, I have sought to be part of ministries and churches that "make a difference." After 38 years in professional ministry as a senior pastor, executive pastor, discipleship pastor, evangelism pastor, youth pastor and small groups pastor, and 12 years as a church health consultant, I must say that I have yet to see the American church making any real, lasting, significant and kingdom-sized difference.  

To be sure, there have been pockets of significance and individual churches who have made kingdom-sized differences, but out of the 360,000 or so North American churches, few have made these kind of differences. Yes, I will be cited as a killjoy and someone will whip out the "starfish illustration" (that saving even one starfish in a beach littered with them is important, at least to that one), but we have an American and Western culture going to hell, literally! And the church has mostly failed to engage, challenge, inform and change the value systems, thinking, presuppositions and lifestyle of most of secular culture. If we are not arguing with ourselves, we are attending conferences that don't translate into kingdom effectiveness at home, or we are attending prayer summits that make us feel good but produce little to no fruit.

Specifically, what are the problems? Why hasn't the church made a kingdom impact? Here are several causes I have seen. First, we have "compartmentalized Christians" in our churches. Christianity in many peoples' mindsets has been reduced to getting people "saved," that is, delivered from eternal punishment to eternal life with Christ. Consequently, salvation is seen as a portal to heaven with very little to do with earthly needs and realities, except maybe to escape them. In addition, many churchgoing people really do not have any idea of why they should or how to integrate their faith into everyday thinking and practice. No matter the multitude of Bible studies out there, the vast majority of Christians simply see little to no connection between their vocations or jobs and the Christian faith. The sad truth is most people get up on a Sunday to attend a church service or class not really expecting what they hear or discuss to vitally impact or change or challenge their Monday to Saturday lives. And, they would not know how to do so even if verbally challenged.

Second, churches have preached and taught a "narrowly focused" gospel message. Evangelicals have dipped their toe into social needs, but few have dived into the social morass of today's world. Sermons are either a popularized form of Christianity, Christian psychobabble, or, on the other extreme, a verse-by-verse carefully devised exposition or explanation of a Bible passage. The application of the truth is left mostly up to the minds and inventions of the hearer to figure out. And that is hardly ever done, and when it is, done badly. Visions and goals and mission statements are too narrowly conceived. Out-of-the-box thinking has not been encouraged and adopted.

Third, many Bible-based churches and ministries have a defensive, "against them" policy and rhetoric, with more emphasis on what we are against, rather than what we are for. So, Christians in the congregation know what not to do rather than what to do at work and play and in their schools and gatherings.

Fourth, many Christians are just plain lazy! Rigorous application and infusion of the faith to daily life and work is hard. New paradigms have to be formulated, tested, applied and used. Actual life-changing and life-challenging truth that their secular worlds have to face are not generally known or even available. 

So, what to do? How can we tackle the kingdom-sized needs around us? First, we need to grow and migrate our theology to become kingdom-theology. "Salvation" needs to be seen as a whole-life faith-and-obedience to the resurrected Christ as Lord of heaven and earth--and our lives. Second, we need to develop kingdom-minded Christians in our churches. Instead of allowing people to make the same-old, same-old weekly trip to a compartmentalized faith experience, church must become the place where the focus is on how to help them make world-and-life Christian choices in their schools and jobs. We need Christian mathematicians teaching math teachers how to teach mathematics in a Christ-centered way. We need Christian counselors teaching people how to counsel others with the Word of God. We need Christian ecologists teaching farmers and gardeners Christ-centered ecological lifestyles and viewpoints. We need Christian political scientists teaching politicians and citizens how to think and act in Christ-centered ways in our political systems. In other words, churches need to become "equipping places" where Christians are equipped to live for Jesus Christ as Lord of their work, school and play.

And, we need to expect Christian men and women and students to actually follow through in making Christ Lord of their thoughts and lives, actions and desires, attitudes and frames of reference. Lack of expectation now fills our churches. Churchgoers are not accountable to anyone or anything in their daily and weekly lives. Small group accountability helps but does not often get to the root of peoples' lives. Lack of church discipline allows people to get away with Ephesus-like lovelessness, or Laodicean-like lukewarmness, or Sardis-like smugness and deadness. 

Will we empty churches with this philosophy of ministry? I think not. I believe God's people want to live for Christ, but don't know how. They want to make a kingdom difference at work and school, but don't know how. They want to be accountable, God-centered citizens of the kingdom of God but don't know how. Let's show them how!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Farewell to a Powerful Christian Model

A fond Christ-centered farewell to a beloved professor of mine from college days took place last Friday, Mar 4, at Second Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, PA. His name was Philip Lockhart, retired professor of classical languages from Dickinson College. A bit of his bio is included below.

Dr. Lockhart was one of my first Christian professorial contacts at Dickinson College in my freshman year there in 1965-66. I did not know he was a Christian at first, but found out about his love for Christ and for the biblical faith very quickly. With another student friend, I even took an introductory course on New Testament Greek with him--which my friend at the funeral reminded me about, since I had forgotten it. Amazing that now I teach an online introductory course to New Testament Greek!

Dr. Lockhart was much more to me than just a professor and adult friend. He helped stabilize my life as a freshman kid who was literally scared of college, and of a secular institution like Dickinson. I thought for sure I was going to be swallowed up by nonChristian, atheistic thought and that I would lose my faith moorings. He assured me that was not going to happen, and that I could relax and I would "grow up" in my college years to become a self-assured, stable Christian man who would be well-trained by the liberal arts. That really happened! My years at Dickinson were great years, and I look back with fond memories of my classes and professors (most of them anyway) and am thankful to God for the training, insights and help I received from them.

I was sitting at the memorial service on Friday praising God for such a positively oriented Christian professor and churchman. Dr Lockhart lived out his faith on a secular campus--and made friends doing it, as the testimonials showed. I would lke to die this way--by being a real light to Christians AND nonChristians by making the Christian faith a positive, enlivening, powerful witness and not a defensive and destructive one.

Philip N. Lockhart, emeritus Asbury J. Clarke Chair of Latin, died on February 20, 2011 at the Forest Park Health Center in Carlisle. Phil is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Ayer Lockhart, son, Dr. Bruce Lockhart, daughter, Betsy Wood, and her husband, Jeff Wood.

Phil, a native of Pennsylvania, earned his B.A. in English with honors, and Phi Beta Kappa distinction, from the University of Pennsylvania in 1950. After his undergraduate work, he received his M.A. in comparative literature from the University of North Carolina in 1951 and went on to receive his Ph.D. in classical languages and archaeology at Yale University in 1959. 

Before joining the faculty at Dickinson in 1963, Phil was a missionary teacher at the Ezel Mission School in Kentucky and also taught at the University of Missouri, the Ohio State University and at the University of Pennsylvania. He was appointed the chair of the department of classical studies in 1965 and was appointed the Asbury J. Clarke Chair of Latin in 1971. After 27 years of teaching at Dickinson, Phil retired in 1990 at which time he was awarded professor emeritus of classical languages and emeritus Asbury J. Clarke Chair of Latin. 

Phil was beloved by students across the years for his expertise, lively and challenging classroom, and his deep interest in his students. Under his tutelage the study of the classics at Dickinson grew and flourished. He established a curriculum founded on Greek and Latin majors and insisted that the study of Biblical Hebrew be included in the curriculum. This earned him quite a reputation in the field, and he was often invited as an outside evaluator and consultant for undergraduate classics programs across the country. 

Phil received many awards and honors during his career including Honorable Mention by the Distinguished Teacher Award Committee of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church in 1974. He was also the first winner of the Constance and Rose Ganoe Memorial Award for inspirational teaching in 1969, which he promptly used to assist in establishing the John David Wright III Memorial Scholarship in Classical Studies. He went on to receive the Ganoe Award two additional times in 1973 and 1981, making him the only three-time winner of this student-voted prize. 

While at Dickinson, Phil served on various committees and also served as Faculty Secretary in 1966-68. He often assisted in preparing the Latin wording for the honorary degrees that were given at Commencement every year as well as assisted with the planning of the Baccalaureate Ceremony. Phil also established the Philip N. Lockhart Book Prize in Classical Studies that is still awarded to an outstanding graduate majoring in classical studies today. In addition to these and many other commitments at Dickinson, he was president of the Philadelphia Classical Society and the Pennsylvania Classical Association, a member of the American Philological Association, a founding member of the South Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America, and served on evaluation teams for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction. 

Phil was a member of the Second Presbyterian Church in Carlisle and served several terms as an elder as well as 40 years as a member of its Sanctuary Choir. Additionally, he taught in the community Sunday School teacher training programs and served on the Presbytery Committee on Christian Vocations and Candidate Review. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CHURCH STRATEGIES: A Bag of Chocolates or a Chocolatier?

I read a very interesting article the other day by Gregg Mader in ImageSource magazine (Vol. 13, Feb. 2011). He was talking about successful business strategies versus struggling or unsuccessful strategies in the business world. He used the difference between an "off-the-shelf, mediocre product" and "a dedicated one-of-a-kind product that meets the individual tastes of their clientele" to point to why managed service providers are the most successful in the business world. The difference between a bag of chocolates and a chocolatier. His points: a program tailored to the client, based on what they know about the client, combined with expertise and creativity.

Churches that are "successful" are those who do similar things. They offer ministries and programs tailored to their target base of people. They work to really know to whom they are ministering and their audience's particular needs and points of interest. They offer programming with expertise and creativity. They are chocolatiers, not just providers of chocolate. Mader says, in the business world, "you have to invest in the client if you are going to truly be a value driven organization." Well, a similar thing can be said in the church world and the church marketplace. 

O.K. Someone is bound to cry, "Dumbing down the gospel again!" "Just trying to please people rather than preach the whole counsel of God!" "Making the gospel message man-centered rather than God-centered!" The truth of the matter is that while some megachurches are a mile wide and an inch deep, many are seeking to offer a ministry that takes people from non-faith to fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. And, the other side of that truth are churches barely surviving or just "getting along" that cry the loudest and offer little in way of teaching the "whole counsel" of God. They are like one-stringed guitars that play as if they have a full complement of strings. Whether it is a particular doctrinal hobby-horse, or a political-sociological point of view, or a specialty end-times philosophy, they claim to teach and preach the whole counsel of God but fall miserably short. Finally, I'm NOT writing from a megachurch, but a medium-sized church. So, with that out of way, let's look at "successful" churches from Mader's viewpoint.

First, they tailor their ministries to a target audience. Whether it is seniors, or young adults, or professionals, or blue-collar workers, or farmers, successful churches have a target and seek to hit it in their advertising, promotions, ministry programming and teaching and preaching. They preach the whole counsel of God couched in terms, language, and venues that meet their target audience. Churches that try to do "everything" or "be everything to everybody" fail. The old adage is that if you try to hit everything, you will miss it! Healthy and growing churches limit their target audience to "clients" they are gifted and equipped to reach. Is that a description of YOUR church? Are you a bag of chocolates or a chocolatier?!

Second, they work hard at really getting to KNOW their target base. They not only exegete the Bible but the culture as well. They understand what ethnographics is all about. They not only DO demographics; they study their client base to understand how they think, what makes them tick, how they respond to certain things, what kinds of music they listen to, how best to help them listen and learn. The VALUE their target or client base. They believe, as Hybels has taught, "people matter to God." And, if they matter to God, whatever our target, they must really matter to us. They value people and their needs. Is this a description of your church? Are you a bag of chocolates or a chocolatier?!

Third, they diligently labor at expertise and creativity. One of the most frustrating things about many churches and their programming is that they "make do." They put the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong times and for the wrong reasons. They "get by" because they think, "Well, these are the folks God has given us, so we will use what we have and not complain." So people who can't sing, sing publicly (and usually too loudly and off-key). And the congregation takes it in stride because after all, it is the "best we can do." Teachers are mismatched with groups or classes because we "don't have enough of them." Care pastors are asked to do administration, and do so badly, because we "can't (or won't) afford" an administrator.

Successful churches take pains to discover, develop and use the gift-mix of their church population to do ministry with expertise and creativity. They work at not mismatching or misplacing people in ministry spots. They don't do a ministry if they don't have the gifting to do it well. They end a ministry if it has outlived its usefulness to the kingdom of God. They start ministries that better use and distribute their giftedness.

And, successful churches not only do the right things, but they do things right. They place excellence as a high priority and cultural value to their organization. Because God deserves our very best. 

Mader is right--both in the business and church world. Is your church, your ministry, a bag of chocolates or a chocolatier?!