Please know as you read this I am very aware that exceptions exist in every generality. In our case each congregation of the churches of Christ and her leaders exist as they’re own exception. What’s true for one has no bearing on another. At the same time I believe that generalities arise from our mutual fellowship, from our shared-events, from our common universities and schools of preaching, from the same speakers we listen to, from our newspapers, books, blogs and so forth. All of these things mingle together to form a collective ministry of sorts. It is to this collective and general ministry I speak here.
You should also know the tone I meant to convey here is one of pleading. Not anger. I’m not mad, just concerned. If the tone strikes you otherwise it is the result of poor writing skills.
Finally, I dedicate this post to my father-in-law. A shepherd who looks to the Chief-Shepherd. He is everything our congregations deserve there shepherds to be. His flock is large. But his sheep know his voice. They know it in their hospital rooms. They know it on the phone. They know it in their homes. And in his own home as well for my parents-in-law have fed scores of sheep, of all ages, at their table. And continue to do so despite great adversity in their lives. Cards, letters, flowers and financial help flow like a mighty river from the heart of my father-in-law into the hurts of his bleating sheep. These things are done in such a way he would be embarrassed to read these words. I just found out, from other sources, that several weeks ago he baptized an eighty-year-old unbeliever. A man he taught himself. A man he met at the hospital. A man whose wife died there. A man whose wife had a shepherd who speaks with the voice of the Chief Shepherd. May we all be so blessed.
Do you like math? I don’t. Especially when I don’t like the final equation. Like when Amy tells me how little money is left in the account where she deposits my “allowance.” Like when the statisticians tell me my church is trending downward. Neither case angers me. I don’t take it personally. Numbers are like that. They’re not personal, but clinical. Coldly so. The final equation simply is. But the “is” can be helpful. The “is” warns me I better watch my spending. And the “is” warns my church that unless corrective action is taken the downward trend will continue. If I ignore the “is” of my bank account the damage will be limited to my family. If we ignore the “is” of our church the damage will incalculable. For thousands and thousands and thousands of families.
I would hate to see my church dwindle away to nothing. I love my church. As many do. She’s given me everything that is good and right about my life. So it offends me when one of our own says of the downturn… Well, maybe that’s what needs to happen. I’m doubly offended when leaders say such things. And I’ve heard a few say it. They might as well tell me they wish my mother would die. Who might be ill, but is curable. What a stupid, selfish, short-sighted, arrogant, disloyal and damnable thing to say. Or not say, but believe.
Some of our leaders even see the downward trend as the will of God. Like He wants us to go out of business. It’s judgment for our prideful ways. “The only ones going to heaven,” etc. Unless a prophet with the necessary credentials can produce the writing on the wall can anyone believe this is true? Are we so evil God has doomed us? Is He waiting for our “priests” to rape little boys before He makes us a church of world-wide influence? This “prophecy” sounds more like it’s Satan-breathed and is profitable for nothing except avoiding responsibility and excuse making.
If an employee advocated mutiny of this nature they would be “separated” from their employment at the McDonalds I co-managed. On-the-spot if it was another manager. Why would a business retain the employment of a person who thought it best for the business to shrivel up and die? In our case I hope no one is separated from their employment. But if a leader truly feels this way about our church I wish they would leave on their own. They should find a church they can believe in. For everyone’s sake.
Meanwhile, for several reasons, our leaders should be very concerned about our current “is.” For one thing they will be held accountable for it. No matter what anyone says the vanishing church is the result of their stewardship and management. At least that’s how it’s viewed in the real world. For example, our supervisor at McDonalds cast his eye in one direction when our final “is” wasn’t big enough at the end of the month. And believe you me, once that eye spied the store manager and her assistant all eye-casting ceased. Can’t tell you how many come to-Jesus-meetings I attended. Why the focus on management? Because every issue in a business is an issue of management. Poor management. Poor employee. Poor service. Poor business. Equals poor craig!
I say that because blaming crew, customer, competition, culture or THE Clown got us nowhere when the boss demanded answers. This is no surprise to anyone who manages. That’s how it works in the real world. And in the real world- in the event of a downturn- management is “encouraged” to make corrective adjustments. Then they are given a specific amount of time to make the “suggested” adjustments. And finally they are rewarded for successfully implementing those adjustments. On the other hand, Under New Management will be posted in the lobby if the manager fails to be “encouraged” and the “is” doesn’t improve.
So, in what direction will Jesus Christ cast His eye? Who will He hold responsible for our “is?” I’ll say this is one come-to-Jesus-meeting I would rather not attend. But I will be there. I’m included in the ‘their” in the title of this post. And I will give an account for my ministry. A ministry that figures somewhere into the “is” of of where we are today. I will not shield my heart from that hurt. Nor will I evade responsibility for my part. I do know my every dream was noble and my every intention was sincere. But the “is” remains. Neither have I’ve known a single minister or single shepherd without noble dreams and sincere intentions. I’ve never even heard of one without those things. But the “is” remains.
Despite our noble dreams and sincere intentions the vine is withering. The sum total of our ministry is flowing into a stagnant pond for the desperate sheep who die of thirst alone in the wilderness. For their lives let us please meet with our Supervisor with the maturity of men who accept responsibility for their stewardship. Let the weapons of self-defense remain dormant in the dark parts of our hearts . This will require great humility and skill of character. We also must not blame crew, customer, competition, culture or THE King. The church deserves new management if we cannot refrain from doing so.
How did we manage the church into it’s current “is?” Part of the reason may be due to the fact that many resources and much effort have been expended on the 99 who remain in the pen. They were given a priesthood to work with their lambs. They were given a priesthood to direct their worship. They were given shepherds who leave them free to eat whatever they please. They were given new buildings and gyms to make their pens more comfortable. They we were given small groups in which to fellowship the sheep they already like without effort. And their sermons tell them how great they are and how wonderful it is to be one of them. Somehow we earnestly believed these efforts would be enough to woo lost sheep. The very sheep Jesus Himself leaves the pen to rescue. We also thought such a friendly environment might cause new sheep to seek us out. However, in both columns increasing losses far outpace diminishing gains. We’re dying.
The thing we really need to know is what our efforts amount to for the one sheep who has taken her family’s business to Burger King. Or the one sheep who used to sit among us, but now makes his business his business at home. Often we don’t know because we don’t ask. We’re not very good at leaving the comfort of the pen to pursue the lamb who has left. Recently, however, I found one to ask. So I did. He told me our progressive efforts to engage him in the production our assembles have become are to him “revolving piles of shit.” He says he still loves the Lord. But the pen bores him. He’s not bitter. Nor did he sound in the least bit angry when he said it. And I wasn’t angry with him for saying so. Or offended. It simply “is.” I must confess though this especially grieves me because I was his youth minister. I revolved some of those piles. Today I can only hope his “is” helps me in the same way Amy’s does when she tells me how much money is left in the account where she deposits my “allowance.” Meanwhile, no one else knows about my friends “is” because this lamb of God’s is no longer sought. Which brings something up.
Believe it or not McDonalds will go to great lengths to recover a single customer. They even call it Customer Recovery. So if a dissatisfied customer calls the 1-800 number there will be a response. First, the operator will validate the complaint by simply letting them vent. This is followed by an apology and a promise to follow-up. Then an email is immediately dispatched to the supervisor, the store manager AND the owner/operator of the offending franchise. Before long the shift-manager- who was running the store at the time of the complaint- will hear his phone ringing. I know. Mine’s rung. I would then be “asked” to “make it right.” Which means call the customer NOW! Which means I’m going to get an ear-full. However, by the end of the “conversation” our apologies were almost always accepted and the customer recovered. Sometimes this process would happen so quickly that I was on the phone recovering the customer BEFORE they got home. That’s one of the reasons McDonalds is number one. And continues to expand.
Customer recovery in the church of Christ is awful by comparison. Often we’re not even aware a lamb has slipped away. That alone is a clear indication that the boring, non-engaging and non-relational nature of our corporate assemblies isn’t working. At least for the one’s who are the Chief Shepherd’s greatest concern. We cannot continue to operate like this. And the Chief Shepherd made provisions that such an operation would not happen. Isn’t that why we wanted elders who would shepherd the flock? Not the business men who lorded over our grandfather’s church? And in many places we got the elders we wanted. Yet many lambs from those places are lost among wolves week by week. Their shepherds would not only make poor business-men when it comes to customer recovery, but they also fail to honor one of the most basic requirements of all Christ’s shepherds- you leave the 99 to seek the one.
The progressive version of seeking the wandering lamb seems to rely on hearsay explanations and Someone told me they… Or the shepherds dispatch one of the ministers in their place. Which is no different than the tradition everyone keeps moaning about. Consequently, the relationship of progressive shepherd-ships to the sheep differs very little in practice from the tradition of the elderships they seek to escape. The business meetings have not been adjourned to meet with their sheep. One-by-one. In their homes. Or wherever else a lost lamb may be. They have not used their freedom from executive responsibility to become intimate with their flocks. Even as a plurality the sum total of their meaningful interactions appears limited to a few sheep. Thus they make no real effort to seek the wandering lamb they barely know. Their comfort zones are limited to the 99.
Oftentimes, it has been my experience, that our shepherds excuse themselves from the example of the Chief Shepherd by foisting responsibility upon that poor lamb to feed himself. This a world-view that is American in practice and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Mind-of-Christ. A Mind He made plainly known in Word and deed. He seeks the one. Relentlessly. No matter what. And He fully expects his shepherds to do the same. As a result every shepherd in every congregation will have their own come-to-Jesus-meeting. And on the table between them will be their church directory. And they will give an account for every single lamb whose name is recorded therein. Even those they blithely dismiss for staying home because they feel like the sheep pen is full of “revolving piles of shit.”
The point is the way we do church as ministers (including me) and elders is boring and ineffective because it is a model that no longer works. Strangely enough it’s also impeding the ministering of ministers and the shepherding of shepherds. Our own model works against us. When will we, including the 99, get it into our heads that the Sunday morning assembly is no longer appealing to the teenagers sitting among us? Or young adults. Or young families. Or unbelievers. They are so far ahead of whatever our latest progression may be that they are in a wholly different universe. They do not care what we add to, or subtract from, the assembly. Or how it’s arranged from week to week. They would be UNFAZED this Sunday if worship was led by a rocking band, the sermon preached by a woman of a different faith and dancing elephants served the Lord’s Supper. They might be impressed with the dancing elephants, but that’s all. And the appeal of dancing elephants would last about a week. Which begs the question- What will we do next week? The most radical elements of change my generation can imagine- or dare to dream for their assembly- are ALREADY dead on arrival. D.O.A. That’s how fast the ground is shifting beneath us.
In any event what turned out to not be your grandfather’s church is also not your children’s church. Or their friends. Or our lost sheep. Or for millions under the age of forty. So they are either leaving or staying away. Or they presently sit on pews completely disengaged because the content of our message is irrelevant to their real lives. They are also too smart for our rhetoric. They hear us talk about being Spirit-filled, in ways our grandparents denied, but they wonder aloud (if we’ll listen) how Spirit-filled preachers and Spirit-filled shepherds have lead their Spirit-filled churches to a place where divorce among Spirit-filled people is no longer surprising. Is that the best the Holy Spirit can do?
To make matter worse, for all our efforts, our time of worship is barely tolerated by their Youtube sized attention spans. They can’t wait to hear the preacher say “finally” and they secretly hope no one responds. Towering over all of this is the fact that something very fundamental to them is missing in the precious time they’ve granted us. But that’s for the next post. For now it’s enough to know that if we are to reach our young adults and young families and lost lambs we cannot afford to squander their time by offering them a theology and practice which exists as a reaction to past traditions. They have no idea what we are talking about. Nor do they care. For all the change bell-ringers clanged for, as far as the ones we need to reach are concerned, the result is merely a rearrangement of furniture. The same familiar, boring furniture. We simply remodeled the model we inherited. We need an entirely new model.
If the 99 left in the pen (including me) and their leaders (including me) react to the “is” of our sum by becoming self-defensive then I fear the church as we have known her will cease to exist sooner rather than later. Not because it’s what needs to happen or because our gracious God is judging us for the prideful ways of our grandparents. It will be because current management (including me) failed in their own right. Failed to heed the Supervisor. Failed to train their employees in the fundamentals. Failed to offer excellent customer-service. Failed to understand the market. Failed to retain the loyal customer-base. Failed to bring in new business. Failed to listen to crew and customer alike. Failed to practice customer recovery. Failed to accept responsibility. Failed to adjust accordingly. Failed the Owner/Operator.
The bells for change are indeed ringing. They ring from the phones of every leader in the churches of Christ. It’s the Owner calling. Maybe we can’t hear the phone ringing because we’re too focused on ringing the bells that please our own ears. Or perhaps the sound of bleating sheep fills the air. If we ever get around to taking that call I hope we have the courage to act like men- I hope we absorb the blows to ego with humility-of -spirit. And I hope we have the strength-of-will to change however we must. Failing that I pray God will remove us from leadership and empower a generation of men and woman who will nurse my mother back to health. A generation who will do and lead and live church in such a way that the “is” of their sum is beyond the ability of mankind to count.
I’m talking to Chase and Caleb and Brad and Tori and Logan and Suzel and Daniel… And hundreds and thousands of others like you. I have great hope for our future because of you. Our current “is” results from what was. For my generation- and those immediately above mine- our unhealthy obsession with the past clouded our present, filled our pulpits, spilled on our literature, defined our theology, confined our thinking, limited our options and virtually paralyzed all forward movement. I’m glad you are free of the baggage that unnecessarily weighed so heavily on our hearts. This means you are free to do what my generation failed to do. To be a church like Christ. I beg you not to leave us. Lead us.