Trust the Spirit and leave the bullshit behind...

Today an e-letter from my denomination was hawking a new book that they bill as "THE book to help declining churches turn around." Ok, I have to say it: BULLSHIT.  There is NO such thing as a magic bullet for declining churches nor is there any "one size fits all prescription" for helping congregations in decline. All claims to the contrary are... BULLSHIT! What's more, such hyperbole only feeds the anxieties of local congregations and pastors who are reeling and hurting in this time of realignment and discernment. (A HELPFUL book is Jaco Haman's When Steeples Cry - an invitation to grief and trusting the Holy Spirit -or Paul Nixon's I Refuse to Serve a Dying Church - or any of the disestablishment theology being done by Douglas John Hall.)

If 30+ years of practice in the local church means anything, there are going to
be countless pastors and church councils who will try to implement all the suggestions in this new text only to find themselves faltering after 18 months. And when that happens, the pastors will either blame themselves or look for scapegoats, and as is often the case, some frightened and sometimes mean-spirited lay leaders will try to hang their pastor out to dry, too. It is a viscous and degrading cycle filled with dead-end that our congregations have been fumbling with since the 1980s. So let me say to the United Church Press: SHAME ON YOU FOR TRYING TO HAWK MORE BULLSHIT! (Am I being over zealous? Dost thou thinkest the gentleman protesteth too much? Could be... I'll try to own my own shadow stuff after having tried EVERY gimmick from praise bands to worship as craft fair over the years!)

So look, there are really only three, time-tested keys to doing church renewal - and without them things just don't come together - no matter what window dressing you try:

+ First, the pastor and the church leadership MUST trust that God is in charge. They must also believe that the ONLY thing they have to share with the world that our ginned-up consumer culture can't do better than us has to do with sharing Jesus. We can't make better coffee. We can't do better movies. We can sometimes give a few performers a run for their money with our music, but we can't offer better vacations than Disneyland or more diversions than the Internet or Las Vegas. Most of the churches that I know that are in decline share some of these fundamental problems: a) they are more comfortable in their secular humanist values and words than proclaiming loyalty to Jesus crucified, died, risen and ascended; b) they rarely have a core of authentic albeit broken and sinful leaders who trust that God is in charge; for while they are all hard workers, unless the Lord builds the house all of our activity puts US at the center of the universe rather than the Living God and that is backwards; and c) they have become too comfortable being big fish in an ever shrinking pond; these leaders have come to confuse their efforts and preferences with the will of God for their church. They like calling the shots. They cherish being gate keepers. And they enjoy protecting what has become a burial society rather than the Body of Christ.
+ Second, the pastor MUST have a creative and highly skilled music person working in concert with his/her renewal plan.  I remember Jeremiah Wright once telling a small group of Michigan pastors that "after hiring a pastor who loves the Lord and has some fire in her/his belly for church renewal, the next essential hire is a director of music who is on the same page." Without this, there will be passive aggressive sabotage, triangulation rather than problem-solving and too much energy spent on turf wars that might better be used for building up the congregation, teaching the members and visiting people beyond the walls of the Sanctuary. I have been there - I have had to fire a variety of music directors - and plan strategically how to work around others, too. And without this team member - a musician who can do her/his style well and work with you as an ally - worship will remain flat and stuck.  But let's be clear: you don't have to have a rock and roll or jazz artist on staff; if you do traditional music well - and have a plan for making it lively and beautiful - that works, too. What you can't have is someone who always does what she's always done, because then you will always get what you've always got. And after listening to what passes for music in all too many declining congregations, it is amazing that they are still open! I wouldn't worship at many of our declining churches both because the worship is so bad, boring and without beauty, but also because it is clear that the music leadership is fighting the pastor's vision in the heart of public worship.

+ And third, you need allies in Christ on your church council or else those who have turned the status quo into an idol will out-maneuver you every time. You have to break some eggs to make an omelet, yes?  So you need lay leaders who are willing to break them with you - and have your back when the shit hits the fan - so that YOU aren't hung out to dry when people finally realize that you are serious about the work of renewing Christ's church through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Pastors, don't leave your relationship with the leadership to chance. Work it. Nourish it. Make the compromises you can live with early on so that you have a solid core of elected lay leadership that both trust God and support you. How did Jesus put it?  You have to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. So don't be afraid to consult with those outside of the church re: strategy. I have found over the years that both military people and small business folk - women and men who have been given authority to get hard jobs done - are goldmines when it comes to strategizing. They don't teach that in seminary. (Would that every pastor be required to work a few years in retail before taking on a church!) But do it or else you will remain stuck and discouraged and trapped in the "paralysis of analysis."
There are some great books out there - and the one in question (which I will read) is probably well-intentioned (check it out here: /MessageViewer/  ?dlv_id=86702&em_id=62922.0) - but let's get real. If the United Church of Christ (or any other side-lined denomination) really knew how to do church renewal IT WOULD ALREADY BE HAPPENING!  The stats on my tradition are staggering:  in 2014 over 45% of the members who were a part of the United Church of Christ at our founding in 1957 are gone. And another 900,000 have left since 1980.) 

There are NO magic bullets. There IS God's Holy Spirit. I say trust the Spirit and leave the bullshit behind.


ddl said…
Love it! How do I subscribe to your blog?
RJ said…
Hey there... thanks so much. Check some of the links on the sidebar re: being notified of new postings/subscription, ok? I am so grateful.

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