Watching the Future Emerge Together

Watching the Future Emerge Together

I am fascinated by the things that turn out to have retro appeal. People warn you not to get rid of your old clothes (the classic case being bellbottom jeans), “because they’re sure to come back in style again.” The whole business model for the cable channel Nick at Night was based on assumptions about the retro appeal of old cartoons and sitcoms to a new generation of children.  Technologies developed for Baby Boomers turn out to fascinate Gen Xers and Millennials. In The Postmodern Parish, I wrote about the first time I saw someone with a new Polaroid camera.  Although I couldn’t have imagined it at the time I wrote that passage, Polaroids are now experiencing a comeback. The cameras and film are being manufactured again, and young adults flock around this “old school” technology in the same way some younger music lovers now prefer vinyl over digital downloads. I remember how exciting it was to watch the image emerge on that first Polaroid picture.  As soon as the picture was taken, a completely blank piece of photographic paper shot out of the bottom of the camera.  As you watched, the yellow part of the image appeared on the paper, then the red part.  Finally, the blue portion emerged, and you could make out the whole image clearly. We are in a “Polaroid” era in the life of the church.  We all sense that the Holy Spirit is revealing new ways for churches to be faithful in our rapidly shifting American cultural landscape: showing us new “images” of what a post-Christendom congregation looks like. Our problem is that...
What’s Right with the Church?

What’s Right with the Church?

Sometimes a book ends up in your hands at just the right time with just the right words.  Reading that kind of book is like meeting with a mentor or friend.  You read a bit and think. Maybe you write something in the margin.  It becomes a conversation.    A book like this ended up on my desk about 30 years ago. I had served enough churches that I had faced some challenges and some discouragement. I was coming to grips with my own limitations.  I had even had a conversation with a trusted counselor about doing some coursework to prepare to take the MCAT to apply to medical school.  I wondered if I really should continue being a Minister of Music.   Fortunately, there were many voices that encouraged me to find a way to do more than survive, but to thrive in local church ministry.  Among those voices was a book by William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church? [1]  You see, part of my struggle was I had been taught to love the church in theory but I didn’t have much practice in loving the church in practice.  My error:  loving everyone but not every one.   Willimon’s book helped me to begin to reframe some of the resistance I had experienced from church folk.  (I’m sure it had nothing to do with my “I-have-a-graduate-degree-in-music-and-we’re-only-doing-great-music-here” attitude.)  There was much to appreciate, to value and to love about particular people and places.  To quote Robert Webber, “All worship is local.”  Yes, I could honor the gifts and callings bestowed on me but when I was at my best...
Who’s Your Scrum Master?

Who’s Your Scrum Master?

PierreSelim / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL The game of rugby uses an iconic formation called a Scrum, players with arms linked around one another in a tight formation, working in concert to move the ball a few feet forward against an opposing group from the other team. From a spectator’s view, it looks like an unruly knot of violent pushing and shoving with no real goal. In reality, the actions of the scrum are governed by strict rules of conduct and the participants are specially trained players with specific roles. Those requirements not only maintain the competitive fairness of the situation, but protect the players from serious injury. While we see only their hunched forms in a large tangle of bodies, the players are doing what they do best – responding to an ever-moving ball in a tightly controlled situation with a very specific goal in mind. Similarly, the field of software development adopted the use of the word scrum to describe project development teams and their methods. A project scrum focuses a team of highly skilled professionals on a goal-oriented outcome which may continue to change and shift as the project develops. This is a relatively new method of project management. Traditional project management principles center on the development of a long-range plan which includes a detailed, clearly defined finished product, and which attempted to identify every change and pitfall that could occur along the way. That sort of plan usually leads to confusion and frustration, as project goals and external circumstances begin to shift as soon as the project begins. By contrast, a scrum attempts...
Are we a movement or a program?

Are we a movement or a program?

For the last half of the 20th century in America, local churches functioned as programmatic centers of activity. Embedded in a supportive churched and Christian culture, their role was to provide offerings that inspired, entertained and educated those who chose to attend. Those who attended a local church tended to look alike racially and socio-economically. They were the “good people” in the community. Churches knew their place in the social order. They were the privileged majority, with Sundays and Wednesdays reserved for their activities. They benefited from their status and their employees were accorded a place of authority and respect in the community. Attractive buildings and professionally trained staff were important, as attenders had many options to choose from when it came to churches. Denominational headquarters churned out a vast array of material, themes, and conferences that reinforced and dictated local church programs. Extensive training at multiple levels was provided to assure the purchase and implementation of denominational curriculum and emphases. Denominational staff members were superstars who were accorded immediate respect and status. The system was funded by local churches, which were expected to funnel larger and larger amounts of money up the economic food chain to support missions or various ministries. The seeds of the demise of the programmatic era of local church life were sown in the 1960’s. Cultural norms regarding race and sex began a season of societal upheaval that continues today. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King signaled a brokenness about our culture that was undeniable. Trust in institutions and leaders began to steadily erode. Though it...
Dreaming of Vitality

Dreaming of Vitality

A friend recently had surgery and we wanted to send flowers as she recuperated. Kathy asked: “What do you think…a bouquet of flowers or a plant?” Knowing this friend has a new house and could later use the plant in the landscape, we decided on a beautiful azalea, in the hopes that they would enjoy it for many years to come. That exchange reminded me of other thoughts and conversations having to do with healthy churches and ministers. I recently was talking about a national religious organization and the person I was talking with said with a grimace: “I think that group is a cut flower”. “ What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m afraid they’ve peaked and the future for them is going to be one of slow decline” he responded. Ouch. My mind went immediately to a wonderful book from a few years ago by Bob Dale. In Cultivating Perennial Churches, Bob makes the case that healthy congregations have more in common with perennial plants than annuals. He does a great job unpacking that metaphor and offering case studies of perennial churches. Most home gardeners have learned that planting perennial flowers means you will plant once and enjoy years of sustained growth and color with proper care and feeding. Annuals, while often brighter and more prolific, are a one-season plant that must be replaced each year. While they certainly have their place in the garden, they are best used as accents to the plants that will reappear each year. When it comes to churches and other religious bodies, our goal is to create viability, sustainability and long-lasting...
12 Healthy Trends Emerging in Revitalizing Churches

12 Healthy Trends Emerging in Revitalizing Churches

There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe churches: Vibrant churches, mega churches, healthy churches, dying churches, transitioning churches, and emerging churches, just to name a few. While some may propose that vitality and relevance only exist in new church starts, there are many churches typically considered to be traditional churches, flagship churches, or big steeple churches that are undergoing a healthy process of re-vitalization. There are a multitude of reasons that contribute to the need for revitalization.  Almost every church is faced with generational attrition, a more mobile constituency, cultural shifts, increased diversity, and adjudicatory or denominational restructuring.  Additionally, many churches have been adversely affected by natural disasters, congregational conflict, unpleasant leadership transitions, and changing neighborhoods. Churches should be careful not to fall prey to quick fix strategies of church growth or canned programs that often cause more harm than good. Most churches actually need to focus on church health, which leads to the right kind of growth. There are no shortcuts to revitalized church health. I have observed that healthy congregations grow in healthy ways, and unhealthy congregations tend to grow to be more and more unhealthy. Revitalizing is the process of restoring a healthy vision, good congregational morale, and a sustainable model for engaging in mission and ministry. What is a revitalizing church? A revitalizing church is a congregation wisely and discerningly upgrading its mission and methodology to contextually engage and serve its culture and community. A revitalizing church recognizes that the matrix for assessing effectiveness is no longer based on “budget, buildings, baptisms, and butts in the pew,” so a revitalizing church is in...