When Giants Fall (What the Demise of Sears and Roebuck Can Teach the Church)

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Today is the last gasp of a retail Goliath.

Either Sears ponies up $120 million dollars and supplies a clear plan for restructure, or the store will be sent to bankruptcy and formally liquidated. It will be the end of a megastore that ruled American commerce for 132 years.

Sears was originally founded in 1886 as a watch company and within two years launched a catalog that attracted both attention and customers. Like Amazon.com would do a century later, Sears eventually began selling “everything from sewing machines to sports equipment” through its mail-order catalogs. America was largely rural and Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.

Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.

Sears didn’t open its first physical store until 1925. Let that fact sink in. For forty years the company operated purely from a mail-order model, but now began to reinvent. In 1927, they launched the Kenmore brand, followed by All-State insurance (1931) and the famous Christmas catalog (1933). Everything they did, worked…and the company was highly profitable. At the end of World War 2, Sears was topping $1 billion in sales.

By then suburbia was bubbling in post-war America. Sears led the way and built new stores all over America (1946). They pioneered credit cards and innovated fresh brands like DieHard batteries and Craftsman tools. Sears could do no wrong. In 1973 they built the world’s tallest building: Chicago’s Sears tower. At their zenith they boasted over 3000 stores, many anchored to a new shopping destination called a “mall.”

But in the 1980s the Sears brand fumbled. Despite their anchor store status, Walmart emerged as the new retail giant. People liked “super store” variety but with affordability and convenience. In 1991, Sears finally lost their “top-selling retailer” mantle to the Arkansas superstore. Three years later Sears sold its namesake tower. In 1993 they stop producing their catalog and moved the Christmas catalog online (1998). In the early 2000s Sears merged with Lands End (2002) and Kmart (2005) but profits continued to slide. Sears was in a free fall.

In the past four years, Sears has been selling everything just to keep the lights on. Nothing’s worked. In the fourth quarter of 2016 Sears lost $607 million. Christmas never came for Sears that year. Nor Kmart. Nor other juggernaut stores like Macy’s and JC Penney. The mall they anchor is also dying a slow death. Toys R Us is history. Claire’s jewelry boutiques is in bankruptcy. Even Walmart has faced difficulty.

The new retail Goliath is cyber store Amazon. It’s now the most valuable company (and brand) in the world, overtaking Microsoft computers. Originally specializing in books, this online retailer now delivers groceries (something Sears originally did) and a zillion other things. Amazon gift cards are popular Christmas presents. The online retailer continues to rake financial fortunes as it pioneers future home deliveries through automation (robots, drones, driverless vehicles).

It’s a jungle out there and it’s called Amazon.

What can the church learn from Sears’ story?

1. Reinvent or die.

For most of its celebrated history, Sears innovated and led but when it relaxed, focusing more on maintenance than mission, it lost traction. In a 21C culture that’s fluid, fast and flexible, churches need to continually respond, reinvent and reimagine “wineskins” (but not the Wine). The Message or “gospel of Jesus Christ” never changes but the models, strategies, styles and frameworks do.

Too many churches fear change, particularly in technology that creates fresh social interactions. We live in a visual culture–an experiential society that learns through screens, podcasts and videos–and yet remain wedded to passive, lecture-driven communication formats.

2. Watch the lure of success.

Pride comes before a fall and Sears is a classic tale of hubris. Too many churches build towers rather than bridges, monuments rather than movements and legacies rather than living vision.

I had a Millennial couple recently join my home group. Afterwards, the young man enthusiastically shared how he finally felt he had found a real “church.” I asked him if he attended a church (like the rest of our group does every Sunday) and he said no. The reason? He struggled with how much money the church spends on its facilities. It turned him and his wife off. They felt it was wrong. He’s the son of a missionary, by the way.

3. Know your culture.

The same year Sears sold its tower (1994) Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com. Three years later Sears finally entered dot.com world, but it was too late. Sears was tied to a dead man’s name. Amazon was the biggest river (and soon store) in the world. Too many churches overlook, dismiss or oppose cultural changes when they need to interpret, understand and embrace the opportunities change creates.

Since 1960, the modern culture has been on life support. Christendom, founded 1700 years ago, is equally fading into history. In a post 9-11 and Great Recession world, the Industrial Revolution is over. We now live in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Christian world…but the Church is still operating like it’s 2005 or 1995 or 1985 or 1975.

Want to study the “generations” and how technology has changed our world and what the Church must do to reinvent? Book Rick to come share with your church, conference or training event in 2019!

Ultimately every living thing dies.

It’s the way of the world. Just ask Kodak (another one of those giants who failed to reinvent).

Fortunately the Church is Eternal and Living.

The Wine is always fresh. Sears simply teaches us that wineskins do fissure, fracture and fail if we don’t pay attention.

Church, we truly need to pay attention.

The Great Church Exodus: Three Reasons Why They Left

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The Millennials have left the building.

Countless kids who grew up in children’s and youth ministries, who memorized scripture at Vacation Bible School, who spent summers in church camps, who worshipped in age-segregated “children’s” and “teen” churches, who served as youth mentors, participated in mission trips around the world and enjoyed the finest youth ministry resources, events, concerts and experiences in the history of the Church…no longer attend church services.

In general, they’ve been tagged the “nones.”

When it comes to church affiliation, they mark themselves “none.” They don’t attend church. They don’t appreciate church. They don’t think it’s necessary to their spirituality or Christianity. Many profess atheism or agnosticism. They want “none” of it.

Even Gen X is quitting. 

Known as the “dones” this cohort of American Christians are tired of the games, the “show,” and the politics of “churchianity.” They endured the worship wars between the Boomers and their G.I. elders in the 1980s. They suffered through the “mega-fication” of the Church, particularly in evangelical strains. They watched the quaint church of their youth evolve into malls, performance halls, schools and corporate offices. They’re now in their 40s and 50s and growing tired, cynical and cranky.

It’s why most American churches are graying fast.

The Baby Boomers are the only ones left.

I recently enjoyed two insightful conversations with formerly churched individuals.

  • Bryan (not his real name) is a twenty-something Millennial who grew up as a pastor’s kid. He attended church every Sunday with high participation in the events, programs and studies his church offered. He volunteered to lead worship, counsel and mentor. He went to Bible college but eventually dropped out. He stopped attending church recently, mostly due to work conflicts on Sundays.
  • Jerry (not his real name) is a fifty-something Gen X pastor who rarely missed a day of church until five years ago. He’s got a degree in theology, served as a small group leader, youth minister, lay counselor and elder. He and his wife moved to town a few years ago. They found a church, but not “community.” Now they stay home and “live stream” services and fellowship in a small group Bible study.

Both men are committed to Christianity. They believe deeply in Jesus, but have grown cynical of what they experience at church.

I asked them both “Why don’t you personally attend church anymore?”  

 

“It’s not engaging.”

Despite all the bells and whistles, lights and fog machines, video and sound cues, both Bryan and Jerry found their church experiences dry and “ho hum.” Bryan says most Christian music bores him, even though he played in a worship band. Jerry was more complimentary. He likes the contemporary worship and preaching, but has tired of fighting traffic to just “sit there” for an hour.

Both Bryan and Jerry say church isn’t worth their time. In fact, it’s often a waste of time.

Now before we judge that harsh view of church, let’s be brutally honest. We raised our Millennial kids in an “entertainment” church model. We suckled them on “Veggie Tales” and weaned them on Crowder and Tomlin worship sets. We incentivized their spiritual practices with “Bible Bucks,” candy, toys and money. We reduced discipleship to entertaining curriculum, youth pastor “talks,” large events, youth lock-ins and retreats, and annual teen conferences.

So it’s no wonder they’re walking away. The church will never compete with Hollywood (nor should it try). We taught Millennial Christians to conform (to the rules) and perform (to our expectations) but not to be transformed by Jesus Christ. And, frankly, if we’re honest most of our churches today are just doing “youth ministry for adults” and that’s the problem. That model failed to attract young disciples yesterday and it’s failing to retain adult disciples today.

 

“I don’t need it.”

Which produces the second general reason Millennials and Gen Xers are done with church attendance: it’s not necessary to their Christianity.

I asked Millennial Bryan where he goes to be nurtured and discipled in his faith and his answer was sobering: a small community of Christian friends, podcasts and the Internet. Gen X Jerry expressed a similar sentiment: “I can get the same experience in my pajamas at home on Sunday morning as I do in physically attending a church service.”

Again, this brutal critique has some truth to it. The modern Church, driven by Enlightenment values in reasoning and Industrial Age principles in business and operations, essentially created a conveyer belt religion that focuses on producing numbers (attendance, offerings) and things (programs, staff, facilities) rather than discipling persons. We see it in the vocabulary of the “modern” Christian: “I went to church last week” or “I’m attending church tomorrow.” Modern Christianity was about place and time, but in a post-Christian and post-modern world that’s 24/7/365 both space and time are irrelevant. We can learn without a physical school and the dying modern church is discovering that postmodern Christians don’t need a “place or time” to spiritually grow.

 

“They don’t miss me.”

Ironically, both Bryan and Jerry echoed this same refrain: after several weeks of absence their churches showed no concern.

Millennial Bryan views this as hypocrisy. He says his church was always preaching “community” and “friendships” but as soon as he stepped down from his leadership role (to ease some burnout) and missed a few weeks, he realized no one really cared about him. Gen X Jerry said the same thing. He still goes to church occasionally (“out of guilt,” he confides) but no one acts like he’s been gone. “It’s just easier to stay home and mail in the check,” he adds, “besides I find my ‘community’ in my small group and that’s good enough for me.”

The dirty secret reality of many churches today is the average church-goer moves on within a few years and many leave within months. People join a new church hoping to find friends but end up disenchanted.

Ironically, when I asked both Bryan and Jerry what it would take for them to return to active church attendance, they both quickly answered: a friend. I want to hang with people who have similar values, said Millennial Bryan. Essentially, they’re not going to church for the worship (though inspiring) or the preaching (though instructive). What they want is connection, cooperation, companionship, collaboration and community. They hunger for a spiritual experience with friends and most churches don’t offer (at least easily) these opportunities.

“When was the last time you went to church and made a new friend?” Gen X Jerry asked.

Friendships and authentic community is what’s missing.

It’s definitely what the first century church enjoyed:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

It’s the type of church Bryan and Jerry long to experience.

Come to think of it, it’s the type of church I want to attend too.

America the Divided

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America is deeply divided.

This past election cycle has only deepened and widened the chasm between the Left and Right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. The Church, unfortunately, is caught in the crosshairs with both sides claiming they alone possess THE truth, God’s favor and the right path for the church’s future.

In reality, we’re following a similar trajectory as the Civil War churches (1860-1865). Back then, both northern and southern churches claimed they alone were doing God’s Will (casting aspersion towards brothers and sisters on the other side). Both northern and southern preachers taught God was on their side. Both northern and southern believers advocated their positions were biblical, true and righteous. Our eyes have seen the glory…and God’s marching with us.

Today, the new battlefields of the Culture War aren’t called Gettysburg or Antietam, Shiloh or Bull Run. They’re called Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Every day, Americans draw their weapons of mass instruction to trumpet their “truths” and advance their agendas. We bomb each other with memes. We rattle the Sword of God’s Word and then righteously puncture, slice and wound those who post against us. We slaughter brothers and sisters in Christ with words of angry argument and strident slander. We gloriously push our brand, often unknowingly reposting fake news and doctored evidence.

The question is WHY? Why is America so divided? And why is the Church a reflection of wider culture’s tendency toward hate and hubris?  Is it merely political, religious, philosophical or personal ideologies that separate us? Is it our chosen lifestyles, beliefs and values that drive the wedge? Is it, as some claim, a Satanic conspiracy to infiltrate the Church or an “end time” prophetic plan to usher in Jesus’ Second Coming?

Maybe. But I actually think it’s something much deeper.

I think the real reason America is divided (including the Church) is a natural tension every human carries between our need for LOVE and our desire for JUSTICE. With every choice, preference and attitude we either decide to LOVE or we choose to JUDGE. The deeper the LOVE or JUDGEMENT, the greater the resulting tension. From this tension a side is preferred, an argument is accepted and a narrative is created. When our narratives solidify into “our truth” then divisions emerge.

Every political post on Facebook reflects this tension of LOVE (“can’t we all just get along?”) or JUSTICE (“wrong is always wrong”). And if you’re on the “wrong” side of the issue, then pox be upon you. You’re ignorant, unstable, loony, uninformed or bigoted. The Left labels the Right as racist, homophobic, misogynist, hateful and evil. The Right labels the Left as socialist, anarchist, hedonist, hateful and evil.

It’s just our narratives speaking, reflecting our desire for LOVE or passion for JUSTICE.

Think about it.

LOVE is the answer and all we need is love, right? It’s true. But authentic LOVE also carries consequence, responsibility or accountability. Are we free to love anyone (or thing) we choose? Certainly. But that doesn’t negate responsibility and consequences (especially if our choice is outside of God’s desired Will). Love the wrong person (or thing) and you can suffer, even die. You see, there really is no such thing as “free love.” Even the Grace of Christ cost Jesus His very life.

JUSTICE is also desired. The truth is we’re all prejudiced to some degree. We all carry bias from which we JUDGE the world around us. We all believe our own press and suckle from sources that support, enable and promote our prejudices. There really is no such thing as “objectivity.” We all see through rose-colored glasses with biased shades.

Let me cite a couple controversial examples:

  1. Many liberal and progressive Christians today feel that being gay is okay. We should be able to love anyone (of any sex) we choose. Besides, culture has evolved and ancient biblical passages no longer apply. Conservative Christians believe homosexuality is a detestable sin that God forbids. Culture may have evolved but God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and hasn’t changed His mind. In both cases there is LOVE and JUSTICE happening. The gay Christian believes he was born homosexual and a LOVING God wants him or her to be happy (gay). Therefore, it’s divinely JUST to lift the stigma on homosexuality and cease the bigotry.  On the other hand, traditional Christians choose to LOVE the sinner but hate the sin, and a JUST God will not be mocked. Consequently, homosexuality is not right and the most LOVING (and biblical) response is to help the homosexual out of the bondage.

2. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings a sense of JUSTICE emerged. The Left argued that Kavanaugh was not qualified for the Supreme Court due to his past “partying” indiscretions, including sexual predation upon women. The Right saw these midnight charges as fabricated and false, an injustice and travesty to the long legal career of Judge Kavanaugh. Both sides wanted justice. Both sides felt an injustice was happening. But, ultimately, only one side was justified.

It’s always about LOVE or JUSTICE.

One side says LOVE while the other side says JUDGE. One side feels distressed, oppressed and suppressed (by the judgments) while the other side feels emboldened, ecstatic and enthused (by their affections). It’s why Christians, for example, can be deeply divided left or right, conservative or liberal, pro-life or pro-choice, anti-gay or gay pride, capitalist or socialist, Tea Party or anarchist, Trump or Never Trump. It’s why Christians can look at the same Bible (or situations) and walk away with completely different conclusions: our LOVES or our JUDGEMENTS drive our prejudiced interpretations and conclusions.

It’s something to consider because America has been in a culture war since the 1960s. We’ve now come to the place where everyone has taken a side. Everyone has their narrative. There’s little middle ground with neutral opinions. Furthermore, this culture war could be far more costly, ugly and bloody than the Civil War. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the worse.

All I know is JESUS CHRIST and authentic Christianity resolves this tension between LOVE and JUDGEMENT through attitudes and acts of GRACE. And this Grace is messy, nonsensical, strange, glorious and beautiful. Jesus felt this tension in his humanity but executed flawless love and justice. With tax collectors, zealots, whores and adulterous women, Jesus showed LOVE, but with religious conservatives (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees), he expressed indignation and JUDGEMENT (see Matthew 23). Jesus gives us a model to follow, even if we follow it imperfectly at times.

Civil (or cultural) wars rarely end well.

America has been here before and it took decades to recover.

America the Divided again? Yes.

And may God shed His Grace on thee!

Confessions of a Prodigal Vagabond

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Sometimes God doesn’t show up.

Sometimes prayers aren’t answered our way. Sometimes we lose, fail, stumble, break and never find restoration, healing or blessing. Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. Sometimes people die, cancer spreads, finances fail, careers end, injustice prevails, evil wins and all seems lost. Sometimes life is Hell and salvation never knocks. Sometimes prodigals never come home.

But that’s a short (and shallow) view of life.

God is ALWAYS working a Purer Plan, weaving my blues into His Majestic Quilt. Ultimately, it isn’t about my puny prayers being answered to MY good or for MY glory, but rather to HIS Grand Desire and Great Design for my life. Therefore, I don’t need to be right, first, avenged, healed, placated, patronized, lionized, or have all things work out to my needs, desires or purposes. I believe in God even if there is no blessing, no healing, no reconciliation, no restoration. I believe in God even if all I ever experience is Hell on earth.

The secret of life is there is no secret. If anything, maybe it’s answering a simple question: Do you know YOUR birthright? 

For whatever years I live, with whatever blessing I enjoy, I am but a homeless heir to a tycoon Dad desperately wondering where in hell I am. I am a filthy rich vagabond, sometimes selfishly lost in my own agendas, ever seeking God through my own rose-colored glasses, but always positioned with a Father patiently waiting my return. I just have to remember MY place and keep walking Home.

Because what is won’t forever be. Someday this wretched and weary, tried and tested, soiled and surly soul will top eternity. Someday I will stand before the King who haunted my heart. I will praise the God who pursued me relentlessly and recklessly, willing to harbor the grandest hypocrite and secure the greatest sinner. Someday I will completely understand the Mystery, fully recognize the Reality and absolutely accept the Promise.

That’s when EVERYTHING will make sense and my Reward finally revealed.

I will, in that moment of Truth, see my life for what it was, what it is and what it will be.

That’s when I know I’m Home.

That’s when I will relish how God used me for HIS good, for HIS gospel, for HIS glory…,even in my trials, troubles and tragedies…even in my poor choices, pathetic sins and pitiful perspectives.

The truth: I am not the center of any universe.

I am merely a moon that reflects the Son.

But what a moon I am! And so are you.

Designed to Leave: Creating Space in the Church for Postmodern Generations

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The world is changing, Church.

Blockbuster Video is down to it’s last store in Bend, OR. Toys R Us closed it’s doors in June 2018. Meanwhile, Sears and KMart continue their selloff. Everywhere you look there’s change and if we can’t adapt in this new culture we’ll fare no different than Kodak, Betamax or Tower Records.

Maybe that’s why this New York Times article caught my eye: “Sorry Power Lunchers, This Restaurant is a Co-Working Space Now (July 9, 2018).”

I was particularly attracted to this quote by the Millennial co-founder of Spacious, Chris Smothers:

“Actively consuming isn’t what we want to do with the space in our neighborhoods anymore…Retail spaces are designed for you to come in, make a transaction and get out, and that’s why you feel weird in a coffee shop all day, because all of these spaces are designed for you to leave.”

As I read that last sentence all I could think about was what “church” has become in the past thirty years, especially those of the evangelical non-denominational type.

After all, thanks to the “megafication” of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, churches of all sizes and stripes reimagined their Sunday mornings into an event (featuring a full-band worship and culturally-relevant sermon). These events were specially-hosted inside an auditorium that’s “designed for you to leave.” Pews were out, theater chairs were in. The larger churches, with multiple services, are particularly prone to this mentality. It’s why we build performance halls, hire specialized staff, study people flow and focus on traffic patterns. We need to get people in and out…fast.

I call it “drive thru” churchianity. We’ve designed “church” as a space to come…and leave.

This shift, led by a Baby Boom generation returning to their spiritual foundations in the 1980s, turns out to be nothing more than adoption of consumer culture. We built our churches on biblical purposes that were guided by business principles. It’s why we focus on body counts, offering totals and ecclesiastical CEOs. We mass disciple like we mass market. Our facilities look like warehouses, our services like concerts, and our programs like fast food menus. This attractional model certainly was successful with boomers and many Gen Xers, but has fallen flat with Millennials.

Millennials aren’t looking for a passive show. They seek an active experience. They want to interact, collaborate and share. They were early adopters of social media, from Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Snapchat. And now these same Millennials are reinventing the workplace, especially through companies founded by Millennials (Spacious’ co-founder Chris Smothers is 30 years old, by the way).

But I still can’t get that quote out of my head: “designed for you to leave.”

Is that what we did to the Millennials? Is that the type of Christianity we gave them? It seems so. We designed a faith experience that was easy “to leave.”

Maybe it was the gimmicks we used (and still use) to motivate Millennial faith development. Instead of leading them to memorize God’s Word, attend Sunday School or bring their Bibles because it would be helpful and beneficial to their faith as adults, we bribed them with candy and prizes to invoke their participation. As a result we gave them a faith that was easy to leave. After all, if the prize is no longer “helpful and beneficial,” then let’s move on.

Maybe it’s how we programmed Millennial youth ministries. In the 1990s, we shifted from a discipleship (Sunday School, small group, retreats, personal discipling) to an entertainment model (Wednesday night worship and preaching, festivals and large youth conferences) to better reach this postmodern generation. Consequently, we reduced Millennial’s biblical learning to clever PowerPointed messages packed with hip clips from movies, grooved by youth culture lingo, and delivered by cool dudes (and dudettes) with grunge fashions, body piercings and tattoos. As a result, we gave Millennials a fashionable faith that wore terribly thin when reality bites.

But it’s not just the Millennials who have headed to the door. Gen X is just about “done” too. For decades they’ve waited in the wings for their opportunity to lead, suffering through various battles and changes that Boomer elders engineered to create the ideal church. But now, as aging Boomers overlook Xers for younger voices (especially to hire), Gen X has grown apathetic, disillusioned and tired.

A lot of Gen Xers and Millennials now stay away on Sundays and prefer to find faith community in small Bible fellowships, spiritual mentoring and Christian service. Faith, they have found, is better lived out on Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. If they follow a particular pastor or church, it’s done so through live stream, vidblog or podcast.

Remember, if we created spiritual spaces that are “easy to leave” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people no longer come.

What’s happening in the urban restaurant industry is something churches should heed and consider. Essentially, Millennials aren’t taking lunches like their elders and the lousy noon time crowds have dried up the profits for local eateries. Enter Spacious. It’s a company that reimagines a restaurant into a working “office away from the office” space for individuals and small groups. Now these struggling restaurants are booming with Millennials sweating away on smartphones and laptops.

Church, did you hear that? Once struggling restaurants are attracting (and growing) with young people because they moved from a delivery and sales model to a communal, interactive experience.

You see, Faith was never intended to be a ninety-minute once a week presentation (which is one of the reasons postmodern generations find the Sunday-only event so spiritually anemic). Rather, authentic Faith is best experienced within a dynamic collaborative “working” environment. Which begs a question: What if Sunday morning looked more like a gym or practice field (with coaches and mentors) than a concert and lecture hall? What if our worship experiences resembled what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Paul’s description reveals the collaborative, interactive and experiential nature of the first century church. It’s a far cry from what we see delivered on most Sunday mornings. After all, Church was meant to be more than one person from a stage with a microphone.

But there’s another kicker: What if a church reimagined itself into a collaborative space the rest of the week too? It’s a shame that we have buildings that sit empty Monday through Saturday, except to house the staff and an occasional meeting or extra service.

It’s critical that we get more “spacious” in our gatherings to reach postmodern audiences.

The Church of Christ is alive, moving and interactive.

And that’s attractive to any generation.

Sticky Church: The Rule of Threes

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I love sticky stuff.

The world loves sticky stuff. From Velcro to Gorilla glue to duct tape we like to stick things together. And yet, one of the least sticky things on the planet is Sunday morning church. For whatever reason, we prefer Teflon tactics and smooth strategies that slide people in the front door but also skate them right out the back door.

The problem is we don’t understand the “Rule of Threes.”

These standards are the social “stickers” that guide and guard how we attract, retain and empower individuals. It’s how we draw and join them into authentic community. All of these “stickers” are deeply rooted to human needs for grace, relationship, ownership, worth, laughter and security. Meet the right needs at the right times and you will naturally be “sticky.” Do them long enough and you’ll grow your small group, Sunday School class, children’s/youth ministry and church like crazy.

3 MINUTES (FIRST-TIMER):  When a first-time visitor darkens the door of your church (or class or small group), you only have three minutes to scratch the two most primitive human needs: security and pleasure. People want to feel emotionally and physically safe. And they long to participate in enjoyable experiences.

I attended a church recently for the second time. I knew few of the unique traditions of this church. Other than personal family, I knew nobody else. I was handed a bulletin with an order of service and sat down. I needed to visit a restroom but didn’t know where it was. Nobody gave me any instructions. They just expected me to know.

And then the church service began and, frankly, it was one of the most boring experiences in my life. They sang songs from hymnbooks like funeral dirges. They gave long announcements about stuff of no interest (even to the faithful). There were few smiles, no laughter and little joy.  Seriously, it was that bad and boring.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It only takes minutes for a visitor to decide if he or she will return. It’s why guest relations or “front door evangelism” should be a church’s highest priority.  If you can’t get them back, everything else is for naught. When a church fails to meet the security and pleasure needs of visitors it produces discomfort and that’s enough for anyone to look elsewhere. The “one and dones” are sending a message: you’re boring and I don’t feel safe (emotionally, physically or spiritually).

3 VISITS (FOLLOWER): When people enjoy their visit and sense security, they’ll return, but it”ll take these returning guests three positive and productive experiences to decide to “camp.” And that means a new need starts to surface: the longing to belong. We all hunger to connect, collaborate, cooperate and commune. We want to go, as the old sitcom “Cheers” used to promote, to a place “where everyone knows your name.”

Followers are doing just that: following. They’re interested, but they’re not fully committed. They’ve got one foot in and one foot out. What they’re looking for is a friend. Humans are wired for relationship and we naturally seek community. Unfortunately, churches are more interested in producing a “service” or a “show” on Sunday morning. We’re lousy at connecting people. And it’s why we lose so many guests. They like what they see but don’t like what they feel.

When a church fails to create social connections and spark friendships, it generates disconnection and early exits.

3 MONTHS (FRIEND):  If a church can get a person to attend faithfully for three months, a “member” is created. People feel a part. They understand and agree to the basic rules, traditions and doctrines. They probably have made a friend (or two or three.) Of course, the problem today is many church growth analysts define a “regular” member as someone who attends Sunday services once or twice a month, but this isn’t true.

The reality is regular, faithful attendance shows a deepening commitment to community. Such individuals sense security, enjoy their experiences and have found friendships. Now the needs shift to grace and dignity.

To be honest, this is the stage that many churches, including celebrated megachurches, fail. Many, perhaps most, churches are pretty good, even excellent, at attracting newbies and fostering irregular guests, but when it comes to producing a committed regular member, they fall short. It’s because these congregations fail to meet a person’s deepest spiritual need for freedom and forgiveness (grace). We preach these topics well but don’t live them well. Instead a lot of churches can foster judgmentalism and legalism in a process that only creates clones and robots. We also fail to meet our deep need for dignity. Every regular member wants to know: Is this church a place where I can be me (grace) and be valued (dignity)?

It’s why churches must exercise caution in rushing people into leadership roles too quickly. These “regular members” (of only a few months) might be energetic and enthusiastic but they haven’t been tested. And if they aren’t prepared well for service, they’ll burn out fast. When churches fail to scratch our deep spiritual need for grace and our desire for dignity and self-worth, they produce disappointment. And that means bad attitudes, complaining, criticism and unexpected departures.

3X3 or NINE MONTHS (FAMILY):  In reality, if you can groom and grow a member to be a regular part of the church for nine months, you now have an individual ready for leadership roles. This is a person who not only understands the routines, traditions, core beliefs, traditions and values of your church, but can communicate these ideas and ideals to other people. After nearly a year of regular attendance, a person feels a part of the family.

A “family” member senses security, enjoys attending and feels connected in the community. They feel safe enough to make mistakes, fall short, create messes and miss the mark without getting judged, criticized, condemned or excommunicated. They also sense they’re liked, wanted, valued and appreciated. So now the need shifts once again to empowerment.

This new “family” member wants to know: Is this a place where I can grow, contribute and make a difference? And, once again, a lot of churches (especially larger ones) surprisingly turn these potentially productive persons around and point them to the door at this juncture. It’s all a matter of politics, personal agendas and cliques. Every church has it’s political forces and if a “new family member” doesn’t see a pathway into leadership and contribution, they’ll begin to disengage and retreat.

3 YEARS (FAN):  The most productive churches know it takes three years of positive contribution and leadership to create a raving fan. Jesus clearly modeled this discipleship time frame. He worked with his troops for three and a half years before they were ready to reproduce the values and vision He inculcated into their lives.

For a lot of churches, this is too long a frame. We want to microwave faith and discipleship. We want things done fast and immediately, but spiritual growth (like physical development) isn’t something you can engineer. Spiritual maturity happens on it’s own time and in it’s own contexts. Churches need to exercise patience as they grow people in their spiritual communities, otherwise a person can lose heart, discourage, tire or burn out.

A “fan” is a highly committed, productive leader. They exude enthusiasm and energy. They spark attention and affection. They invite others to embrace the vision and fan the flame that replicates this “sticky” process. They are a church’s most valuable (and sticky) people, essential to it’s continuing growth and success. After all, when a church no longer has “fans” (and many don’t today), it begins the death process.

The Rule of 3’s.

It’s how a church becomes and stays sticky.

When Love Came To Town

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Two thousand years ago human history was friended by God.

For three and a half years, those who followed this Galilean guru saw the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dead rise. With a word this man could calm seas, feed thousands, forgive sinners and call out demons. No one who met him left unchanged.

And yet, the religious elite didn’t believe him. The lawyers sought to trap him. His hometown didn’t want him. Even his own disciples betrayed, denied and left him.

Nevertheless, this man still loved everyone regardless of his or her status, religion, circumstance, behavior or past. He loved the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the prejudiced, the homeless, the young, the old, the injured, the oppressed, the sinner and, yes, even those critics who didn’t like, want or understand him.

He loved because he was LOVE in the flesh.

Then one dark Friday this man who claimed to be God surprisingly, willingly and purposefully gave up his life. He was charged with crimes he did not commit so one day the truly criminal (you and me) could enjoy Freedom. He was abused with obscenity so one day the horribly profane (you and me) could experience Peace. He was punctured, beat and whipped so one day those who get crucified by life (yes, you and me) could embrace Healing, Joy and Hope.

Basically, he died so that you and I could truly LIVE. For those who accept this Truth and follow His Teaching, death no longer stings. Death no longer separates. Death no longer has power. And that makes LIFE worth LIVING.

Yes, many religious leaders have proposed to know the way to God, but Only One Man claimed to be The Way. Many prophets have proclaimed they had found special truth but Only One Man professed to be The Truth. Many spiritualists have promoted soul work to improve your life but Only One Man testified to be The Life.

How do I know? Because This Man did something they couldn’t.

He backed up his claims of Divinity by His Own Resurrection. I know, that’s crazy, right? But He did. Check it out for yourself. His tomb is still empty…He has RISEN. Indeed. And He is still Alive!

Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully God.
He is the Messiah. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
You can believe it, reject it, deny it or mock it.

But everyone will one day will face the Truth.

No one gets out of here alive.

Except this Jesus…and those who trust Him as Lord and Savior.

It’s unbelievable to consider. It’s amazing to comprehend. It’s beautiful to embrace…and IT’S OUTRAGEOUSLY TRUE!

That’s why if I was the last voice to confess Jesus is alive, I would. If it meant losing everything to share Jesus is The Way and Truth, I would. If it meant dying to proclaim He is The Life, I would. What can anything or anyone do to me? I fear no man, no weapon, no challenge, no demon, no trouble and no circumstance. My Faith is in GOD alone. My life is not my own. My sin is forgiven. My Calling is clear. My Joy is complete. My Hope is secure.

I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Do you? Will you? Can you?

I hope so.

Today is a very good day to start.

It Is Finished (Why Good Friday is so GOoD!)

it-is-finished

What’s truly “good” about Good Friday?

Could it be something as simple as three little words?

“It is finished.”

It. Is. Finished.

These three words were proclaimed at exactly 3 p.m. on Friday of every Passover week. The Jewish high priest stated these words after thousands of lambs had been slain for sin sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people. They were the words of a religion that operated by rules, revealed imperfection, demanded justice and offered sanctuary. This phrase of “it is finished” signaled both the END of the week’s sacrifices and the Passover festival itself.

It is finished.

These words also carried heavy memories.  Its utterance reminded Jews of an ancient story of deliverance. It taught the Israelites that no captivity lasts forever, even a brutal slavery four centuries long. God instituted the Passover as an eternal reminder of His Power, Provision and Protection. Every plague leveled against mighty Egypt was an attack upon one of their “gods.”  The final plague attacked the favored first born, who enjoyed special privilege. The Israelites had escaped every plague to that point. Now they were commanded to generously swab lamb’s blood across their door frames, prepare a frugal meal and be ready to leave the land. With this deadly plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go…and Israel plundered Egypt of its riches when they did (Exodus 12).

It is finished.

No more slavery. No more Egypt. No more Pharaoh. No more pain and suffering. No more longing for something better.  “It is finished” were words of freedom, victory and fresh starts. These three words gave Jews a sense of shalom, a presence of Peace. From that point forward God dwelt among them, as a cloud by day and fire by night. He rescued them at the Red Sea. He fed them manna and quail in the wilderness. He supplied water from a rock. He gave them the Law on Sinai. God fought their battles and gave them a new land, flowing with milk and honey. The end of Egypt meant a new beginning for a young Israelite nation.

It is finished.

These three words were also the last words uttered by Jesus upon the cross, but they were certainly not the last words He would breathe as a human.

It is finished.

Jesus said these words at exactly 3 p.m., just when the high priest would’ve proclaimed the same inside the Holy of Holies. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was now the Final Perfect Sacrifice. It’s no wonder that those three little words had the power to tear a thick temple curtain, to split the earth with an earthquake and even open tombs to resurrect dead people (Matthew 27:50-52).

“IT IS FINISHED.”

With Jesus, those words signaled the END of the sacrificial system. The END of the Old Covenant. The END of a system of religion. The END of captivity by sin and Satan. The END of the way things used to be. Ironically, just forty years later (the same amount of time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness), Jerusalem and her temple would be destroyed by Rome. Jesus prophesied the end was coming for those who rejected Him and the religion they held so dear. Since AD 70 the Jews have not had a temple, a Holy of Holies, a priesthood or a sacrificial system. God had left the building.

IT WAS FINISHED.

From that point on, Jesus has been “making all things new (Revelation 21:5).”

Jesus was creating a better Covenant with man, a new Covenant of Grace. We are now His temple. We are the resurrected ones participating in a Kingdom not of this world. Jesus has opened a New Jerusalem for His People to enter, experience and enjoy. A Heavenly Jerusalem that lives up to its name: City of Peace.

IT WAS FINISHED.

Similarly, when Jesus’ blood is applied to the door frames of our heart, the “death angel” passes over us. Death no longer carries a sting. The grave no longer holds. We LIVE eternally. We LIVE with God as His People. Like Adam and Eve in the garden and like the ancient Israelites, God now dwells personally with His People, the Church of Christ. We are a Spiritual Nation with no boundaries. All people of all nations are welcome. We are free. We are protected. We are blessed.

IT. IS. FINISHED.

And “it is finished” means it was finished.

Trust me, those three little words truly change everything.

It’s what makes Good Friday GOOD.

(Still) Stuck: What Church Leaders Need to Know About Gen X (Part 2)

 

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In the early 70s, Stealer’s Wheel had an AM radio hit titled “Stuck in the Middle With You.” There were clowns to the left and jokers to the right but the singer was still “stuck in the middle.”

Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

It could be Gen X’s generational theme song.

As I documented in my last post, Gen X (b. 1961-1981) is the “Jan Brady” of American generations. It grew up sandwiched between two great American generations: the older Boomers (b. 1943-1960) and the younger Millennials (b. 1982-2004). Stuck in the middle is never easy and Gen X has naturally grown up a bit chippy and grumpy.

As leaders, particularly elders of local churches, it’s critical to understand the generational dynamic of a congregation. As you survey your church do you see a predominant generation? If you’re like many churches today you’re probably seeing more gray, white, blue and no hairs. In my studies of churches in the past 35 years I’ve noticed when the average age of a church exceeds 50 that it’s a potential sign of decline. Healthy churches mirror the contextual age of their community and unless you’re in a retirement community you need to stay below that “age” watermark.

Which brings us to another sobering generational truth: while the fast-graying Boomers are finally retiring and the 20- and 30-something Millennials play their entitlement cards (with some success), Gen X is now getting passed over.

It’s very evident in the job market. The Great Recession (2007-2012) hit Gen X the hardest. The emerging digital and cyber economy shuttered middle management and ended industrial-era employment. Many 40-something Gen Xers lost full-time jobs and never got them back while Boom elders worked past the traditional retirement age of 55. To survive, Gen X downsized, moved, and chose bankruptcy. Unlike the Depression generation, who eventually recovered, in a post-modern, post-industrial world Gen X can read the writing on the wall.

In the church this truth is equally evident.

The Boom generation first tasted leadership (as elders) back in the mid-1980s thanks to a leadership vacuum left by the retiring G.I. Generation. Many of these leaders were still in their late 20s and early 30s when they assumed eldership roles. These young Boom leaders launched an ecclesiastical revolution, sparking the infamous “praise versus hymns” worship wars. Boomers, particularly in megachurches, reinvented Sunday morning into an “event” where PowerPoint, bands and pulpit-less communicators took center stage.

Like good middle children Gen X complied and applauded these ecclesiastical cosmetic changes, then waited in the wings for their turn. By the 1990s, as Boomer senior ministers still held tightly to their pulpits, frustrated Gen X youth ministers launched a new “emerging church” brand that featured hipper music, better visuals and TedTalk sermons. The reason was simple: Gen Xers (unlike the Boomers) was AWOL from church and they wanted to get their peers back.

During the ‘2000s, a new reality emerged: the Millennials shocked everyone and left church altogether (becoming known as the “nones” for “no spiritual affiliation”). A decade later, Gen X grew restless and is now leading a new absentee cohort known as the “dones” (as in “done with church”). In many congregations Boomers are now the predominant regular attenders-aging fast and passing away.

The best solution is to reenergize Gen X, but that’s not happening.

Instead the American church is passing over Xers for the younger Millennial creating both angst and anger. Furthermore, countless older Gen X pastors, still capable and desirous, are tragically overlooked to lead as elders or hire as preachers or staff.

The Boom-led congregations want youth and Gen Xers no longer fit the mold. Meanwhile Gen X-led churches are also hiring the Millennial, even over their own peers (more affordable and moldable).

Gen X is caught in a proverbial catch 22.

So what can church leaders do?

First, aim for balance in your leadership and church staff. If one generation is dominant, there’s room for change. Second, survey the generational attitudes of your congregation. What’s the older Boomer wanting? What’s Gen X thinking? What’s the younger Millennial seeking?

It’s also time to think differently about Gen X altogether, especially those 50-somethings who’ve been out of work for awhile. They may be your best hire. They’re experienced, willing, capable and enthusiastically affordable.

Yes, Gen X is getting long in the tooth but that doesn’t mean they’re done or can’t lead a church to its best days.

The “stuck in the middle” Jan Brady generation just wants the chance.

 

Stuck in the Middle: What Church Leaders Need to Know About Gen X

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Gen X is the “Jan Brady” of American generations.

And for leaders, particularly elders, in the local church this is a significant insight to understand. How we view a generational cohort impacts the way we lead, the decisions we make and the legacy we leave.

Jan was the middle Brady Bunch sister, stuck between the popular, beautiful Marcia and the innocuous, precocious Cindy. Jan was constantly trying to fit in, speak out and move up in the family dynamics. She created new personas, chose compliance and voiced dissidence. Nothing worked.

In fact, as a middle sister she was frustrated, hurt and angry.

Gen X (born 1961-1981) knows that feeling well. We’ve grown up as a cultural “Jan Brady” between two great American generations.

As kids of the 70s and 80s, Gen X watched the Boom Generation (born 1943-1960) relish their popular status in American culture. These post-WW2 “Spock” babies were celebrated Disney kids—donning coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears—who later fueled a rock ’n roll era that produced beatniks, Black Panthers, Jesus freaks and flower children. Later, the Boomers enjoyed a 1980s Reagan economic renaissance fostering yet another moniker: yuppies (young urban professionals). They also found Jesus and seeded a megachurch movement that reimagined American Christianity.

Everything the Boomers did was big…and the shadow was long.

The problem is Gen Xers grew up beneath a different American psyche. Gen X was labeled and libeled as slackers, goonies, exorcist kids and bad news bears. Abortion, the Pill, the latchkey, daycare and divorce tattooed this 70s and 80s generation as did cultural events like Watergate, Iran hostages and the Challenger explosion. Consequently, Gen X has always nursed a cultural chip on their shoulders. Gen X was widely defined as cynical, lazy and snarky and so they’ve always felt like an outsider. To a breakfast club generation reality bites.

And then those innocuous Millennials came along in the 1980s.

Like precocious Cindy, this “baby on board” generation (born 1982-2004) was everything Gen X wasn’t. They were wanted, protected and venerated. With a cultural blessing from Hollywood to the White House, the Millennials could do no wrong. They were suckled on Disney, celebrated as “Spy Kids” and enjoyed “Home Improvement” family ties. The church showered Millennials with the best in children’s and youth ministry programs, events, curricula and facilities.

And now older Millennials are beginning to assume church leadership roles.

So, what do these generational contexts mean to you as the leader of a church?  Actually, quite a bit.  Take a look around your leadership “inner circle,” particularly your eldership.

How many are over the age of 56?  These are your “Marcia” Boomers.

Do you have any elders younger than 35?  These are “Cindy” Millennials.

The rest in the middle, in their late 30s to early 50s, are the “Jan Brady” Gen Xers.

From my long observation of churches in America today, if your church is under 300 members and at least 15 years old, chances are the majority of your elders are Boomers. Rural churches tend to lean towards boomer elders too.

Larger churches that were birthed pre-2000 tend to lean Boomer while emerging churches of the past decade tend to have Gen X and even Millennial elders.

All of these generational contexts are critical to how a church is led.

A primarily Boomer eldership will be more neo-traditional whereas a Gen X eldership will be more progressive. Boomer leaders and elders view change as a necessary evil while Gen X leaders and elders view change as inevitable.  Millennial leaders and elders, if they have a seat at the table, remain in the minority but they view change as constant. They are quite comfortable with fluidity and nothing is sacred.

Boomer leadership possesses an optimism that engages and attracts younger Millennial leaders. To the contrary, Gen X elders carry a cynicism that drives churches to think outside older formats, including the “mega” models popularized by the Boomers.

As the Boomers age (and it’s happening quicker now), they are starting to step down as leaders and elders. The problem is, in many American congregations, the Boomers are the only ones left. Many U.S. churches do not have a strong Gen X or Millennial population in their church and it’s created a leadership vacuum unlike anything we’ve seen in three decades.

As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin.’

He’s right.

And in part two we’ll dig deeper into what this all means.

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