Category Archives: Leadership
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.
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.
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.
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.’
And in part two we’ll dig deeper into what this all means.
Today is a significant day in Christian history.
On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.
I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.
In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.
So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.
And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:
THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.
THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.
THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).
THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.
THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization. We are faces not a facility. When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.
THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).
THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.
THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).
In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed. In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.
If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.
Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools. Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching. If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.
Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.
So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.
I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.
Here I stand, I truly can do no other.
But it’s not fatal. It’s possible to rise out of the dissolution ashes.
Previously, particularly in parts one and three, I established how Christians largely get divorce wrong. It’s not a sin in itself (that’s a leftover of 13th century Catholic theology). Sin causes a divorce, no doubt. Jesus clearly taught adultery because it does what no other sin can do: break the Divine bonding created when a couple consummated their relationship.
In the first century Greco-Roman culture, as in Israel, divorce was common. Jesus’ father considered divorcing Mary. The Samaritan woman was likely a multiple divorcee. Deuteronomic law speaks of divorce (but never as a sin requiring restitution or reconciliatory offering). And even God himself is divorced. This is the final confirmation that divorce simply cannot be sinful. After all, God cannot sin and yet He clearly is divorced from Old Testament Israel and even pursued the dissolution (Jeremiah 3:8).
Although speculative, it’s possible the Apostle Paul was divorced. He was certainly once married, as marriage was a strict Jewish teaching and Pharisees held to the Law to the point of excess. Paul was a Pharisee and well-credentialed, a disciple of Gamaliel who was a member of the Sanhedrin. Though disputed, most Bible scholars agree marriage was a requirement for the Sanhedrin and it’s unlikely Paul could advance far in the Pharisee sect unless married. In fact, Paul’s requirements for elders in the emerging first-century church are remarkably similar to the Pharisees, and marriage was a qualification for an overseer. After all, if a man cannot lead his family, how could he lead a people?
The Roman Catholic Church suggested Paul was widowed to answer his singleness, but there’s absolutely no evidence (biblical or otherwise) to support that claim. The Catholic system simply couldn’t fathom a significant saint like Paul “living in sin” as a divorced man. After all, abandonment is not sufficient reason for annulment. Nevertheless, it’s the prominent view and still taught within both Catholic and Protestant theological training schools.
But it’s more likely Paul was divorced than widowed. First, because a Pharisee would no doubt quickly remarry if widowed (since marriage was a strict value and prized institution). Second, unlike the other apostles, we have no evidence Paul had a spouse post-conversion (suggesting his wife mysteriously went away when he became a Christian). And finally, perhaps even ironically, Paul may actually allude to his own divorced state in his letter to the Corinthians. Jesus taught that adultery freed a spouse. Paul offers a new reason for divorce to the church in Corinth: abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Is this possibly Paul’s own story? It’s certainly plausible and it makes sense a Pharisee’s wife would divorce her radically converted Christian husband. It would also support the evidence that once Paul was married and now is not.
If so, Paul’s divorce did not prohibit his Christian ministry.
In some church circles, the divorced are prohibited from pastoral leadership inciting a violation of the “husband of one wife” requirement. But this prohibition possibly misses the point. The “spirit” behind this leadership requirement is probably fidelity. It’s about being a “one woman man.” A divorced person, even if he/she never remarries and commits to celibacy is still a “one woman or man” individual (just like a widow/widower). And if a divorced person does remarry they also remain a “one woman or man” individual. Only the polygamous, homosexual or possibly multi-divorced fails to qualify. Furthermore, this requirement is limited to a select group (elders or “pastors”) in a local church. It doesn’t necessarily apply to other leadership roles like apostles (missionaries), prophets (preachers), evangelists and teachers.
The bottom line is divorce isn’t a sin nor is a divorced person in a state of sinfulness. These are manmade dogmas attached to coerce, criticize and condemn. Yes, God hates divorce. Personally, I hate asparagus but that doesn’t make the green stalk evil. Divorce is not what God intended. Furthermore, Jesus, Paul and other biblical writers never condemned divorce itself as a sin and they clearly listed all sorts of sins–including fornication (adultery)–in their teachings and writings.
Sin clearly produces divorce and divorce unleashes it’s own multitudes of sin, but divorce (or being in the divorced state) is not sinful.
It’s just one of those human doctrines we got wrong.
That’s why we need to look back to understand a few things. Today’s 21C version of the Church is vastly different from the revealed version in the book of Acts and the epistles (not to mention the first three hundred years of its history)…but WHY and HOW?
Where did the Church go wrong? What was the turning point, historically, for a vibrant, attractive decentralized Faith community (as revealed in the New Testament) to turn into an ecclesiastical, political and eventual corporate system? Well, the answer emerges fairly early in the Christian story. Somehow it doesn’t take long for man to mess up what God intended.
One finger points to Ignatius of Antioch, a late first-century/early second-century church leader who wrote extensively on congregational matters. Ignatius favored the idea of a single bishop (elder) to rule a church (some argue because he himself was a disgruntled elder). Essentially, he wanted to centralize a local church around one person and a group of churches around a single ruling bishop. A few followed his lead, particularly in Rome. For example, Evaristus (c. 105) reportedly divided Rome into parishes with a supervising priest while a hundred years later, Fabian (c. 240) further divided the city into districts (ruled by a single deacon). Still most Christian churches remained decentralized for the first three hundred years.
But then Roman emperor Constantine legalizes Christianity in Rome (Edict of Milan, AD 313). By the early fourth century, a centralized congregational frame was now widely accepted and, consequently, easily assimilated into a Roman political system. As a result, the fourth century “Catholic” church blossomed as “Christendom” (or Christ’s Kingdom). Pagan temples were converted into churches. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes emerged. Tax exempt status was granted to churches. And the wall of separation between clergy and laity was erected. Nearly all these reforms stand to this day.
So the verdict is in…you can point the finger (largely) at Ignatius and Constantine. But I would respectfully protest that doesn’t make them (or their adherents) right to reframe and centralize Christianity around a single bishop, archbishop, pope or even city (Rome) any more than it was right for Israel to request a “king”. Ironically, “Catholic” (from Greek καθολικισμός, katholikismos) literally means “universal.” And yet today is known, rather oxymoronic, as the Roman Catholic Church.
For 1700 years, including 500 years of Protestant Reformation, we have missed the point and created a centralized religion.
In fact, I continue to contend the Original DNA was (and still is) a decentralized frame of congregational government. Power spread throughout. Everyone pulling their weight. Multiple leaders guiding the vision and values, doing the preaching and teaching, in a local congregation. No single individual in charge and no single apostle, priest or pastor more important. No denominational hierarchy or headquarters. Most Christians have never experienced such a church.
It’s definitely what we find revealed in the Scriptures.
As Peter wrote, we are ALL priests in God’s Kingdom. We all have a voice and vision. We all can evangelize, preach, teach, sing and serve. Or as Paul added, there are now no more barriers between race, gender or profession. We are ONE Body. The Church isn’t a place we go to. Church isn’t defined by an address, a time or a program and it’s certainly not a “personality-driven” enterprise (which is common in so many megachurches today) or “priest-/preacher-centered.” The Church is PEOPLE. Messy, imperfect and broken people who embrace Jesus and Holy Spirit empowerment. Maybe that’s why early churches were small–a couple dozen people at best–worshipping in a home rather than like we do today, in a Christian event, service or program.
Imagine if we could RADICALLY RESTORE the Church to its Original DNA! What if we reclaimed a decentralized Body, led by multiple pastors, gathering in homes but living their faith publicly, empowering every person to “go and teach” the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why would this model be more powerful in a postmodern America? Here are a few reasons:
- Most non-churched/former churched Americans have a negative view of a church building and her leaders and a general distrust of institutional Christianity.
- Americans don’t mind gathering in private homes (for parties, reunions, etc.). It’s a comfortable place for conversation.
- House churches operate faster, leaner and better contextualized to individual neighborhoods. Change will be key to survival.
- The emerging persecution of Christians will drive faith communities underground. In persecuted countries, a decentralized frame succeeds.
In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to unpack these ideas. Just know that God IS working.
He’s always working.
Every house sits on a foundation. However, most people will confess the true appeal of a home is how its built. After all, even if a house sits upon a perfect and strong foundation, if it boasts poorly built walls, bad wiring and terrible paint will produce an uncomfortable, even unlivable, situation.
Jesus is the Foundation of the Church and that’s a good thing. But we, His People and particularly His leaders, may not have produced the best construction over the past two millennia. We often build in spite of a very clear biblical blueprint for “doing church.” We miss the mark. Create our own traditions. Wire our own rituals. Paint our own doctrines.
Previously, I stated the clear Original Desire and Design for God’s spiritual community was a DECENTRALIZED frame. The problem is, since the early fourth century, we’ve been building upon a centralized format or one that’s rooted to a central leader or leadership, to a place or a time (especially in the past 500 years). Now its time to compare the “house” we’ve built against the biblical blueprint. How is the way we “do” church different from the way the early church “did” church?
Ironically, one of the best biblical books to reveal the desire and design (Original DNA) of how to do church is Paul’s letter to a dysfunctional church in Corinth. In this epistle, Paul clearly shows how we have everything a bit backward, at least compared to the prevailing practice of the first-century Church. What we find is a decentralized practice of Christianity.
For example, worship (including preaching and teaching) was originally decentralized: 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 (I Cor 14:26). In contrast, the 21C church service is led by a few leaders who control the songs, the liturgy and sermon. Ironically, this is highly unattractive to postmodern seekers and sends a potentially hidden message to the church family that only a few are important or valuable.
Evangelism was originally decentralized: Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I Cor 1:13). In contrast, the 21C church feature baptisms done by clergy. Why can’t the average Joe or Jane baptize their friend? We live in an experiential and participatory culture…and nothing is more experiential than a “new birth.”
Church gatherings were originally decentralized, meeting solely in houses (Acts 2:46; 8:3; Romans 16:5; I Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). The Body gathered outside, in public places, courts, river banks, meeting areas and later cemeteries (2nd century). There were no church buildings or centralized meeting places. God had already left the building (temple) in Jerusalem. Everything happened in homes. The “church” (Greek: ekklesia or “called out ones”) was the people. In contrast, the 21C congregation gathers in a building with a large auditorium (that sits empty most of the week). Tragically, most people–inside and outside the church–now define “church” as a place or time (“I went to church yesterday”).
Leadership was originally decentralized: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,…that there be no divisions among you,…that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. …What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (I Cor 1:10-12). The divisions followed leadership and the Original DNA was for multiple leaders to lead, not a single man. In contrast, the 21C church promotes a preacher or priest as the “face” of the congregation, and in some cases, a “celebrity pastor” to boot.
It’s hard to confess, but we simply do not resemble or look anything like the early church. This will become glaringly obvious as we address several sticky wicket issues in the 21C American church.
Now before I proceed, a moment of confession: I passionately love THE CHURCH. I want to see her move forward powerfully and productively in the 21st century, and believe Her best days are ahead IF we humbly and respectfully return to our Original DNA.
I just don’t believe She’ll look anything like what we see today in 50 years.
NEXT TIME: THE TWO INDIVIDUALS THAT PRODUCED 1700 YEARS OF CHRISTENDOM
Sometimes I fear we’ve got it all backwards. I mean, what if we’ve been missing the point for centuries? What if we’ve wandered far from God’s true Desire and Design for His Church? It’s certainly hard to believe. Most Christians, including many church leaders, have little idea about their history. We just blindly keep doing what we’ve been doing out of tradition.
One of my favorite leadership books is The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. It describes the difference between centralized (spider) and de-centralized (starfish) organizations. In nature a spider and a starfish look similar, but they possess great difference in how they’re organized. A spider’s power is centralized. Lop off a spider’s leg and it’s disabled. Cut off a spider’s head and its dead. Starfish are different. It’s power is spread throughout the body. Every ounce is alive with reproductive potential. Cut off a starfish leg and it’ll grow it back. In fact, some starfish will remove their own legs to reproduce!
Brafman and Beckstrom use starfish as a metaphor to highlight how de-centralized organizations survive and thrive. In reality, de-centralized organizations, tribes, communities and businesses have always been among us. However, the rise of the Worldwide Web has flattened and decentralized nearly everything–and this cyber culture is unlike anything that’s ever existed in human history. For up until the 1990s, centralized organizations, including national governments, have ruled. Egypt was centralized around a Pharaoh. Babylon around a king. Rome around an emperor. The Catholic Church around a pope. The Indian tribes around a chief. For thousands of years, the world has operated from its middles. The power was focused. Consequently, all institutions found centralized frames beneficial, whether in commerce, media, education or religion. We were a world of bosses, CEOs, principals, presidents, directors and head honchos.
But the emergence of a web world changed everything.
Today anyone can be a content creator. YouTube makes everyone a filmmaker. Twitter makes everyone a commentator. eBay makes everyone a seller. Consequently, the middles are collapsing. Middle class. Middle management. Mainline churches. Mainstream media. What’s exploding are “starfish” organizations, gatherings and communities. From Sturgis to Burning Man, from ISIS to the Tea Party, from Drudge to Huffington, from Facebook to Pinterest, from Craigslist to Amazon, from A.A. to Celebrate Recovery. Furthermore, every web-connected person on the planet can now access information. Online learning continues to grow. Web meetings and e-conferences are routine. TedTalks is the new classroom.
The GOOD NEWS for the Church, particularly the American Church? A decentralized frame has always been God’s desire for His People. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel disintegrated within generations of centralization (around a king). Prior to “king” Saul, Israel was a decentralized spiritual community. Leaders abounded, but no one leader controlled. Even under Moses, the community was led more by its priests and judges than its prophet. It wasn’t until Israel asked for a king, centralized religion in Jerusalem (thanks to King David) and put God in a temple box (thanks to Solomon) that everything went south.
So it’s not surprising when God relaunched His New Covenant Church in the first century, it was decentralized. Every congregation met in homes, was led by a body of elders and served by deacons and deaconesses. In the book of Acts as well as the epistles, we catch glimpses of decentralization. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and Romans how the Church is like a body (with Jesus as the head).
The first step to radically restore the Church is to confess we’ve got our frame wrong. It’s like God gave us the blueprint and we built the house our own way regardless. It’s not that buildings, lead pastors, priests, popes, or programs are bad and that God can’t use them. He does. It’s just not how He planned it.
God designed the Church to operate as a STARFISH and we converted it into a SPIDER.
It’s time to RESTORE authentic Christianity and reclaim our STARFISH design. A Church of the people, by the people and for the people. And the real good news is I believe the American Church will lead the way.
After all, at the heart of decentralization is autonomy, freedom and democracy.
And that is the American way.
NEXT TIME: WHAT A DECENTRALIZED CHURCH LOOKS LIKE
It seems like a few do most of the work. And yet, there’s energy and enthusiasm when everyone’s working together as a team. There’s an old church sign that read: “CH_ _ RCH? What’s missing? U R!” It’s true. Church isn’t a spectator sport. We all have a ministry. We all need to find our place to serve, even if its only for a year, a month or a weekend. U-R needed.
In part one of this blog, I shared how Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20) reveals why a church struggles to attract and retain guests. Essentially, the hard and shallow soils represent an inability to meet intrinsic human needs for security, pleasure, connection and community. And if a plant can’t root, it’ll never grow fruit. Consequently, I suggested churches have to create stickiness or natural attraction through relational strategies so they’ll be ready for deeper discipleship and leadership development.
In part two, I introduced how many teachers and leaders plant thistles in their seeding of spiritual growth by employing incentives (rewards and punishments) that asphyxiate discipleship. We think these are innocent strategies to motivate but they backfire to create a consumer faith rooted in perfectionism. Consequently, many average Joes and Janes in the church operate rather spiritually anemic, struggling to understand God’s Will and how to use their spiritual giftings.
Which leads us to the final soil. For even if we properly and purely motivate, leadership development requires providing choice, releasing control and allowing contribution. After all, deep down, we’re all control freaks. We all want to be large and in charge. In the good soil, we discover the need to produce fruit.
GOOD GROUND: Regular attenders/mature disciples. NEED: Ownership. The average churchgoer will change churches every 3-5 years. Very few individuals root or, if they do, produce lasting fruit. Of course, some of this is due to our transient culture. We move a lot more today than 30 years ago. But it’s also due, I believe, to a church’s inability to mature and empower leaders. We have plenty of plants but few of them are producing fruit. We seemed to forget Jesus’ ultimate test for a disciple was his or her fruit. A motivated, producing leader won’t change churches unless absolutely necessary.
Most churches can effectively produce followers but fail miserably to move these individuals into leadership. Why? I think the good ground gives us the key: everyone leads differently. The good soil, Jesus said, produced different harvests (30, 60, 100X). Most churches treat every leader the same or want every leader to perform at the same pace, level or commitment. We have to think different. Every person is a leader (in some way) and every leader is UNIQUE. Every leader has different needs, desires, experiences, education, skills and feelings…and potential. One leader might be ready to go now. Another leader in 3 months or 3 years.
This is why you can’t take “no” or “not now” for an answer. WHY does the person say “no?” Sometimes they’re busy (but will they always be busy?). Sometimes they’re afraid (but can’t you help them overcome fear?). Sometimes they feel inadequate (but can’t you train for competence and confidence?) Sometimes they’re burned out (but what if you promised rest and relaxation as part of future service?). You see, every excuse can be EMPOWERED to give emerging leaders (and all people are leaders in some form or fashion) ownership.
The parable of the soils summarizes the process of attraction, retention, mentoring and empowerment. All programs, events, services and activities need to be “sticky” (relationally-rich, pleasurable and create security) for the seeker and spiritually sensitive, but they also must “empower” through environments loaded with grace, self-worth and ownership. There are no shortcuts. You can’t microwave Christian maturity or fast-track leadership skills. Incentives that bait or beat, reward or punish, only cheat the process. It took Jesus three years to empower a group of misfits, fishermen and average Joes into world-class disciples.
And He did it through feeding real needs. Jesus mentored with Grace through community, recognized individuality, allowed choice, fostered pleasure and created security.
It’s no wonder the seeds he planted eventually changed the world.
Finally, don’t forget the rule of 3s:
- A guest will decide to return within the first three minutes
- A regular guest will decide to commit to solely attend your church after three visits
- Every regular attender will decide about membership within three months
- Every member will decide to stay for the long haul and serve through thick or thin within three years.
The process of discipleship and leadership development can’t be manufactured. It’s a natural thing, just like growing a plant. As leaders and teachers, we have the responsibility to break up the hard ground, deepen the shallow, pull the weeds, fertilize and water the good soil for maximum spiritual growth.
It won’t be easy, but the harvest remains plentiful.