Are you a cult leader?

John 1:35-42

“He brought Simon to Jesus…”

As John the Baptist was standing around with two of his disciples, Jesus walked by and John identified him as the one they should be following. The two disciples followed Jesus and spent time with him, after which Andrew (one of the two) left to find his brother. “Simon, we found him. We found the Messiah.” And he took his brother to meet this Jesus. Every time we read of Andrew, he is bringing someone to Jesus. He must have learned it from his first Teacher, John, but Andrew never deviated from his task of getting the saving presence of Jesus in front of those who needed it.

The great thing is that Andrew knew what he was talking about. Andrew had spent time with Jesus. He learned from Jesus. He knew Jesus. Andrew was not speaking from conjecture. He was not theorizing, he was testifying. As John did, Andrew brought people to Jesus because he, himself, had had an encounter with this Christ. His own life must have been changed by this man. His evangelism is true.

Just as his first Teacher did, Andrew made sure to always be clear what he was working for, who he was working for. I think it is a safe bet to assume that Andrew made it a priority to have all that he did point to Jesus. Knowing even the little we know about him, Andrew would have been mortified if people started to follow him rather than Jesus.

Often, we pastors are subject to a cult of adoration. Either people treat us as something to be admired, or we are fighting so hard for respect that we over-inflate our own worth. Whatever the reason, the situation prevents us from focusing on the call we have been created for: bringing people to Jesus.

And it has to be real. It has to be true. It has to be born of experience. When we say “Jesus,” people have to know that we mean it. How can we proclaim a Savior that has not saved us? This is not about butts in the pew or cash in the offering plate. This is about changed lives. If our lives have not been changed, I’m not sure we are qualified to do this work.

How has Jesus Christ has made you whole?

Can we stop it with the whole “Christian subculture” thing?

imageI have to admit to being quite troubled by the adherence to, the quest of, and the reliance upon anything that smacks of a Christian “subculture.” I’m not denying that there are not unique aspects to being Christian, just that propping up some sort of alternative web of relationships fundamentally undermines the thing we’ve been called to be.

Christ called his people the “Salt of the Earth.” Last time I checked, food could be too salty, yes? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that being too Christian might be just as bad?

Some churches care more

A recent blog post from Alan Cohen about business startups has caught my attention. In surveying what “experts” say is needed to have a successful new venture, the author found evidence of what he calls “the start-up trifecta”:

A brief (and perhaps little unfair) survey of recent entrepreneurial literature boils down to what I call the “start-up trifecta”:

  1. Doing your homework about the market/having a brilliant insight about technology
  2. Gaining sufficient investment and strong investors/advisors
  3. Finding great talent: hire “A” players.

These are the things that most companies focus on, with the belief that, if they have them in abundance, everything will be okay. Not so, he says.

In his experience, companies that succeed want it more.

The Church Planting Trifecta

In the Church, we are guilty of this same line of thinking. Whether it is about starting new churches or saving old ones, we believe that if we just get our trifecta straight we’ll be golden.

In my denomination, whenever one pastor leaves and the congregation is searching for a new one, a usual practice is to do a demographic study of the community. They download data on median income, political persuasions, crime rate, age dispersement, racial/ethnic breakdowns, etc.  They do all of this under the assumption that knowing this information will help them to know what kind of ministry they should be about and, therefore, what kind of pastor is needed to lead the community going forward, given that information. It seems sound, but I have yet to find a congregation that has actually had that research impact their search process.

Likewise, there is a big push going on now about using new media as a part of your ministry toolbox. My friend Bruce Reyes-Chow is the best at this that I know of, and I think his insights are some of the more nuanced around. But he will be quick to tell you that he’s just helping folks gain basic competency with social media. He will be quick to tell you that this isn’t a panacea.

We also think that if we can attract the right group of people, we’ll be set. I address this at length in Open Source Church, but the idea that we can bank on “experts” to show us the way is a flawed notion.

However, finding “experts” is often a secondary concern. The primary concern is finding givers. Yep. We want cash. I’m convinced that part of the reason we do demographic surveys when planting new churches is that we want to gather a congregation in “growing areas.” You should read that as “young, middle to upper class families.” If we go where the cash is, we’ll be able to have a successful ministry.

And, finally, my uber-pet peeve: We want to hire the perfect pastor, the “local resident church expert.” Everyone in my age range (in particular) has heard it: “We’re looking for someone that can attract young families” or “We’re looking for a person with a lot of experience and vision.”

Yes, of course, we don’t want a dolt in our pulpit, but this will not save our church. Intelligence is not fungible. We’re not hiring a CEO. We’re hiring a teacher. She will not save us from ourselves.

Some churches care more

I agree with Cohen’s point, in that the trifecta will not ensure any measure of “success.” I have seen congregations with the trifecta in abundance, and ones that are severely lacking. But the ones that are the acknowledged leaders in the Missio Dei are those that, quite simply, care more.

These congregations, their members, and their leadership never seem to let the lack of an “ideal location,” wealthy giving base, or rockstar staff/volunteers inhibit their ability to offer tangible care for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. I see this in small and large congregations; rural and urban ones. The congregations that make an impact simply care more.

There is a palpable feeling of concern for the other over themselves. There is a distinct lack of infighting. There is nowhere present the need to preserve the organization. There is a mindset of sacrifice and action.

In my denomination, there is one job requirement for being elected as a leader: A leader must demonstrate the New Commandment to love as Jesus loved as a matter of course. There is nothing that says they must be world renowned (or even passable) theologians. There is nothing about possessing a certain skill-set. They need to love. That’s it.

I spend a lot of time delving into and parsing the philosophy of ministry. However, at the end of the day, the things I write about are just tools and tips and tricks. They are not the solution.

If you want to be a vibrant disciple of Jesus, and if you want to be a part of a congregation that vibrantly participates in God’s Mission, forget programs and worship styles and whatever else. Just be Love and be a part of Love.

A Brand in Crisis, continued

A Texas pastor asked people why they don’t come to church. The #1 reason?

We’re stuck up, judgmental, anti-homosexual, non-thinking hypocrites.

It’s not that people outside the church have low expectations of Christians. It’s the opposite. They expect us to actually live out the things we proclaim on Sunday. They expect us to love our neighbor, care for the least of these and love our enemies.

They have high expectations for us, and we have disappointed them. Instead they have been insulted, hurt and broken by us.

Read the rest.

The New Evangelism: A Brand in Crisis

Christianity is a brand in crisis.

This is saying nothing new, of course, but it bears repeating.

To say that a brand is in crisis is to say that it has become muddled and has developed an inability to effectively communicate to its customer base. When a brand is in crisis, there is no longer a clear, discernible understanding of what is being offered. When a brand is in crisis, those with whom the brand wishes to do business have turned their attention elsewhere, often for a myriad of reasons, but, mostly, because the brand no longer demonstrates that it is in sync with their own self understanding.

Brands are not about the thing being offered, but the people to whom the brand wishes to be in relationship.

One thing that brands have going for them is that they are not about a specific product. The idea of a brand comes from the practice of branding one’s cattle so that your livestock can be easily identified as distinct from another’s livestock. The word itself comes from the Norse word that means, “to burn.” The cattle was the product; the rancher is the brand.

I suspect that the brand called “Christianity” is in crisis because is has believed that it is about a specific product.

There is an old saying that goes, “When people buy a drill they do not actually want a drill. They want a hole.” The thinking is that the drill is merely a means to an end. People do not, generally, wake up one day and say to themselves, “I wish I had a drill.” But, when they find themselves in need of a hole, they go looking for a drill.

I think Christianity has confused the drill for the hole.

Confusing the drill for the hole*

Christianity confused the drill for the hole when it made being good the message of the Gospel. For far too long we have made adherence to a strict moral code the criteria for judging discipleship. Jesus, on the other hand, demonstrated with his life that his plan of action was one of service and sacrifice. The Christian Faith has little to do with us, and everything to do with whether or not we are servants of others.

Christianity confused the drill for the hole when it made influencing the decisions of others the message of the Gospel. As Andrew Root has taught us, Christ did not come to be with us to get us to do anything. Christ came to be with us to share our place in depths of our pain.

Christianity confused the drill for the hole when it made heterosexuality a requirement for receiving the Grace and Peace promised in the Gospel. In seeking to lift up purity, we forgot that when the Spirit of the Lord touches a person’s heart there is nothing to prevent them from being accepted into the Body of Christ.

Christianity confused the drill with the hole when it refused to think in an attempt to be faithful. Rather than loving God with our minds and seeking to reconcile all we have learned with the truth of God’s amazing love, we continue to deny the need to care for our planet and insist that women’s bodies can, somehow, miraculously survive rape.

Christianity confused the drill for the hole when it equated the Missio Dei with a political platform. While professing to work with God to make Earth as it is in Heaven, we have sacrificed our call to care for the poor, outcast, and marginalized in favor of political expediency.

It’s time to apologize

Someone recently asked me what I thought would be a good first step to repairing our image, of getting our brand “realigned” (so to speak). In light of the recent Pew study, we know that those whom we might call the “Nones” or the “Spiritual but Not Religious” actually like our God, our Jesus, prayer, etc. The survey’s respondents actually hold beliefs that are surprisingly close to many traditional Christian beliefs.

However, they don’t like us much.

I think the best thing we can do at this point, in light of the ways we confused the drill for the hole, is to simply apologize. Loudly. And often.

In as many ways as we can think of, we should make it known that we’re sorry for being stuck up, judgmental, anti-homosexual, non-thinking hypocrites. We should apologize for obscuring the marvelous teaching of Love that our Savior gave us by thinking more about our own rightness rather than the needs of our neighbors.

I think we should take out ads in newspapers (if anyone actually still reads them) and send emails and put up flyers and put it on our church websites.

I know that wallowing doesn’t help, but I’m not advocating wallowing. I’m advocating being honest.

We’ve really screwed up and made Jesus into something he’s very much not. I think it’s time to very loudly and very publicly come clean about that.

*These points were shamelessly cribbed from unChristian.

The New Evangelism, revisited

Last January, I offered a few thoughts on what a “New Evangelism” might look like. In that post, I cribbed the ideas from a documentary I had watched about influencers, asking if the church could reframe its thinking on evangelism in light of what we’ve been able to learn from those who have influenced our idea of culture. “What would a postmodern evangelist look like?” I wondered.

This past weekend, I was reminded of these thoughts. I was wrapping up a speaking gig on the “10 Commandments of Open Source” and some one asked what reason I had for being so hopeful about the church and the Christian Faith given my professed belief that God does not exclusively call people into relationship through Jesus Christ. Or, to ask it another way: “Why should we devote time to making a case for following Christ when there are a ton of other good offers out there?”

This is a good question, I think. Many people I know claim that Christianity is not the only religion that we could give our lives to. However, we have stopped short of spreading the Good News because we don’t want to get painted with the same brush strokes as “Those Christians.” This is totally understandable. The moment that you allow for there to be more than one option, the less likely you are to insist that yours is the best option. And, yet, I can still think that my option is really, really great and worth considering while, at the same time, being honest about its flaws etc.

So that’s what I think I’d like to devote some time and thinking to over the next month or so. What does evangelism look like in an open source world? While I’m not going to say that others have it wrong, I want to figure out how to make the case for why we’ve got it right. How do we make a case for a consistent worldview and life ethic that doesn’t insist that others are not worthy of consideration and devotion?

And so, to get us started, I want to offer some realities that I think would be helpful and necessary to acknowledge when considering our question.

  1. Evangelism is not a dirty word. I have had bad experiences with the “E Word” growing up. As a Charismatic Fundegelical, we treated evangelism like selling a product and we tried everything in our power to get you to buy what we were selling. Even if it meant lying a little. I’m not kidding. But if the Good News really is good news, then we should want to make it known. We’ve got to get over our fear/revulsion/whatever of evangelism.
  2. There is no such thing as on message for the whole world. Anyone with even a passing understanding of contextualization will know that treating everyone the same is just ridiculous. We may want to say that “Jesus is the Answer,” but I think that grossly overstates what we think the question is. Not everyone is asking the same question, and if the Good News is going to actually be good news then is must be relevant news.
  3. No one knows who we are anymore. And no one seems to care. The recent Pew study is only the latest evidence to us that Christianity is seen as irrelevant, and where we’re not irrelevant, we’re often despised. We can’t trust that anything we do will be held up as important. Sure, some of us still get our names in the paper, but those stories are so few and far between that they will have no impact on our standing in the community we’ve been called to serve.
  4. Evangelism is part marketing, and its online marketing at that. We need to stop thinking that “Invite a Friend Sunday” is going to do anything to stem the tide. People are still spiritually seeking and they will give us a look-see, but we need to make it easy for them. And this means that, damnit, we need to get over our aversion to social media and accept that people are increasingly online. It seems so silly to write that statement, but so many churches are not heeding Carol’s advice that the website/FB page/Twitter account are the main door folks use to enter a church.
  5. People don’t want to interact with “First Church” but the people of First Church. Those “clear boundaries” that we have been encouraged to set up are now seen as the latest ways that we fragment our lives. Seeing church people as blank slates that only hold the church’s message is kinda silly. The fact that Jerome is the one tweeting for First Church makes a difference to how First Church is seen. And, in the end, isn’t it the people that make church worthwhile?
  6. We don’t need to spend a lot of money on evangelism programs. We just need to believe that what we are offering (Christ’s Freedom, Grace, and Peace) is worth spending our time sharing. Seriously, if we believe that what we’ve got is worth it, the rest is just tactics and logistics.
  7. We can’t control people’s opinion of us. But we can be around to help mitigate it if it’s bad. The Pew study showed us that most USAmericas love God, Jesus, prayer, etc, but they don’t like us. If we are not out and about – physically or digitally – we will have no chance of changing that impression. Did you know that we are all seen as homophobic, judgmental asses? Of course not. Because we’ve holed ourselves up and are concerned with saving ourselves, rather than help God save the lost, release the captives, and heal the sick.

I’m sure there are many more realities than that. Those are just the one I can think of right now, on a sunday afternoon. What else do we need to contend with as we think about engaging an open source world?

“As long as we reach one person…”

Any church leader who has been in charge of any kind of programming that is consistently showing a lack of success has said it. “As long as we reach one person, everything was worth it.”

Everything? Really?

To be sure, there are times when that is the case. We read the parable of the Good Shepherd going to find the one lost sheep and we feel justified doing what we’ve got to do to make sure that one person knows they are loved by God. But let’s be honest: That’s not usually what we’re talking about.

What we’re usually talking about is someone trying to justify performance in the face of what they consider unreasonable expectations. Jan Edmiston taught me that these can be classified as “how much, how often, and how many.”

Rightfully so, we find these kinds of measurements to be somewhat antithetical to the purposes God has for the Church. If the job of church leaders is to maximize attendance or contributions, certain kinds of choices will be made; choices that, more often than not, make a person feel comfortable and more likely to show up and give.

Yet, rather than try to “change the scorecard” we say that scorecards don’t matter.

But they do matter. They matter quite a bit. The only way that the Good Shepherd knew that the one sheep was lost was because the shepherd counted.

The “Moneyball” phenomenon showed us that there are objective things that coaches can pay attention to that will ensure better and better results for their teams. What are those for the church?

Because – Can we just say? – with the state of the world and it’s need for Christ’s Grace and Peace, reaching just one person isn’t good enough.