Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Onward" a better Call to Action?

While I do not plan to blog each week about the book I am reading, the latest book I have read, "Onward" by Howard Schultz feels particularly fitting for the church.  The book is written, with help of course, by the CEO of Starbucks who talks about how he came back as CEO as Starbucks and the economy were in the midst of a downward spiral and eventually managed to turn Starbucks around even as the economy continued to languish.

Obviously the recession was not good for Starbucks, but Schultz's feeling is that Starbucks was hurting even before then and the economic downturn only magnified or perhaps revealed flaws that were already present.  In fact he really seems to feel that the past success of Starbucks and its rapid growth became a barrier to its further healthy growth as a company.  In the midst of massive store openings and rampant success Starbucks began to lose focus on its innovation and even its core value of providing great coffee and a community environment, a "third space."

Starbucks was able to turn itself around in part because it stopped resting on its past success, it stopped allowing pressure for further such growth to distract it and instead returned to its core purpose as a company.  Could we in the church learn something from this?  One of the challenges is that denominationally and even at a local church level we lack someone with that same level of power that a CEO tends to have.  We also lack the same focus on a few core things.  While we have powerful statements like "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" they lack the concreteness that would actually help us know what we as a church are supposed to be doing.  Are we meant to be a "third space" in the community like Starbucks?  Can we even compete with companies in that realm?  How do we know when we have made a disciple or transformed the world?  While Jesus gave us really big goals to shoot for, I think to turn the church around we need to hone in on what we are really trying to do.

For the last 40 years mainline churches have been declining in worship attendance and in membership.  Why this is happening is the subject of numerous books, but perhaps just as telling is I am not sure we could actually say why this matters.  Can we actually point to the fact that our decline numbers MEAN we are failing to make disciples or transform the world.  Thanks to our obsession with reporting in the UMC we can say that we have fewer professions of faith, one measure of discipleship and we could also look at our churchwide giving to various missions, one way of transforming the world.  Do these actually tell the whole story?  Maybe we as a church need some concrete sense of what we are going to try and do, what difference we are seeking to make in people's lives, then we would know what to be focused on, what we can look at cutting, and maybe be able in the future to see how things begin to turn around.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"The Dangerous Act of Worship"

As part of my goal to read more books I have been trying to work through the large stash of books I have acquired but not read over the years.  I just finished a book called "The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice" by Mark Labberton.  In it he talks about how the church, by in large is asleep, that we are failing to respond to the call of the Gospel on us and failing to live out our full potential.  In particular he names the fact that we tend to seek worship services that are comforting rather than disturbing.  He advocates that worship should in fact be something that awakens us to the need to do God's work in the world.

On the one hand I certainly have been guilty of what he has said.  Like most people I want to be liked and so like most people I respond to positive affirmations and shy away from negative ones.  I know that no one wants to hear that they are not giving enough, not doing enough or failing to love their neighbor as much as they should.  Instead we want to hear that we have already done more than enough, that we are well on our way to earning a gold star.  Preaching sermons that challenge us or worship services that raise questions about how much, or maybe how little we are doing runs counter to these tendencies.  At the same time, my reaction is to wonder how often we need "wake-up calls" do we really need to be reminded each week of the work we have to do in the world?  In fact if we emphasized it every week wouldn't we dilute the effect and desensitize ourselves to such a message?

The more I think about this though the more I think that being reminded regularly, even weekly about the need to be doing God's work in the world is exactly why we encourage worship on regular basis.  We need to constantly have this put before us or it gets lost amidst everything else we are doing.  We might have occasional moments of awakening, but generally we become lax if we are not constantly spiritually prodded towards action.  It may be hard to accomplish on a weekly basis, but I think we need to try and make sure our worship does push us out into the week, out into the work we need to do.  Spiritual rest is important.  Sabbath is necessary, but so to is a constant call to action, a constant reminder that justice is what our work is about, loving the least, the last the lost, that is all of us, and bring God's good news into the world.  It is a regular action that needs us, something we must constantly place before us, otherwise we lose sight of it in the midst of all the less-pressing but more present distractions in our lives.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What does it mean to be in a "rebuilding year"

Bishop Sally recently raised an interesting idea in her column for the Minnesota UMC website, http://minnesotaumc.org/BishopsCorner/TheBishopsMessage/tabid/40439/Default.aspx, she raises the question about whether like many sports teams the UMC is in a rebuilding year.  While I would certainly agree that by comparison it does not seem we are positioned for a championship run, nor are we really in a perennial contender category if our continued decline in membership and worship attendance are any indicators.

What does it mean for us to be in a rebuilding year?  In sports that can mean one of several things, it can simply be an excuse to fans while you try and sell tickets in the midst of a slump or it can be a dedicated attempt to try and build up a team from the ground up.  Usually a team that is rebuilding does not look for the quick fix of the free agent hire but instead works on building through drafting good young players and honing their skills through careful coaching and development.  In a rebuilding year the concern is less about attendance numbers, wins and lose, and instead is about growing that new base of players.  Older, popular players are often traded to acquire young talent, more draft picks, or simply to free up salary and save money since their effectiveness will be diminished down the road when the team is ready to move into a contender role.

So what does that mean for the church?  If we are really in a rebuilding time, what are the "young draft picks" we are developing?  Are these new churches? New lay leaders?  New clergy?  New ideas and practices?  What are the old standbys that we need to trade or let go in order to leave room for the new players AND reduce our costs during this phase?

I see two dangerous paths ahead for the church if we are to play this analogy out further ... we risk becoming like the Cubs, a team with an incredibly long drought of not winning 102+ years and counting.  In the last 10 years the Cubs have seemed desperate for a winning season, to take the team to the next level.  They often have signed big name players and gambled their future in hopes of finally winning a World Series title.  This does not seem unlike the UMC, at least as I experience it, prone to jumping after quick fixes and new ideas in a hope of quickly turning things around, afraid to face a long process of rebuilding and more years of loss members and diminishing numbers.  Perhaps a worse fate than being the Cubs is being the Browns, a football team known for losing, whose fans almost seem to relish the loss of hope in their franchise (I may be exaggerating here).  When a team loses so often for so long you almost become numb to the losing, numb to the defeat and truly despairing that any change will make a difference.  I hope this is not where we are at.

If we really are in a "rebuilding year" do we have the patience to see it through?  The willingness to face more loses in hopes of a greater gain?  Are we willing to trade away our current star players and favorites to have a real hope of making disciples and transforming the world?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Growing for Growth's Sake

A month or two ago I did a funeral service for someone without any strong church connection.  For that reason they chose to have the funeral service at the local Eagle Club or Aerie as I believe they call them.  Now I knew about service clubs like the lions, and I was familiar with the Elk and Moose Clubs we had in town but I had never heard of the Eagles.  While I waited for the time of the service I spent some time wandering around looking at the walls.  They had lots of posters extolling the virtues of things like Fraternity and Loyalty.  In addition there was a whole string of awards.  Every award was for growth.  Basically if you club grew in a given year, or decade you got another award for your wall, another patch for your banner.

Now, I know that clubs need to grow, that bring in new people is a healthy thing and all of that, but I walking around and just looking at things I could not figure out what the point of the Eagle Club was expect growing ... well and gathering together to share a few drinks.  I college one of my excuses for not joining a fraternity was that I did not need to pay for my friends.  This seemed a lot like that.  I realize that fraternities are about much more than just paying to have friends ... and I suspect the Eagle Club is the same way, but the message I got was that the point of the club was to grow.

My question is ... are in the church any different?  I am as guilty as the next person of wanting the church to grow just to grow.  As a member of a liberal, mainline denomination I get tired of hearing about how we are dying out, dwindling away.  I would love to be able to have some proof of growth that I could shove back at those who argue this is because of our values, our seminary education, the way we worship, or really anything about us.  I would love to have some scientific proof that our church is not in decline.  But should we be growing for those reasons?  The mission of The United Methodist Church in Minnesota is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Now disciple making implies some growth, whether it is growth in numbers or just the development of the people who are already a part of the church could be debated.  Transforming the world does not require growth.  Growth might stem from such action and growth would certainly help such action, but growth is not sufficient or even a necessary condition for transformation to occur.

If we were going to have banners and celebrations each year, maybe they should be around transforming the world ... harder to measure than growth, but ultimately what I believe we are called to do.