We may be a century-old company, but we need to move quickly, take risks, fail fast and behave like a startup to keep winning. …until recently our management could make every decision in the headquarters. Those days are over.
What he describes applies to most organizations in the modern age. If you are not embracing the mindset of a startup and not prepared to perpetually live as if starting over, your survival is in jeopardy.
What good news for the church!
Most churches are small and have been struggling to find a place in a fast-changing world that still idealizes “large.” All small churches should be well-acquainted with the start-up mentality. They have probably been living in start-up mode for decades.
The problem is that this has been seen as undesirable, a challenge, or interpreted as congregations in death throes. In reality, what small churches faced decades ago was a harbinger for what was to come for all churches. They/We were on the frontline of learning to deal with fast-paced change.
Today, we are coming to understand every organization faces the challenge of change. Fundamental change.
Back to the Cities
Read the entire post surrounding this quote from GE’s leader. You’ll find more good news. GE is moving from the comfort of the suburbs to vibrancy of the city.
The city is no longer viewed as a wasteland to be avoided. The illusion of the city as festering with crime and poverty is suddenly stripped away. GE wants to be where the hospitals, research, and universities are. Immelt calls it “an ecosystem made by and for innovation.”
This movement (and GE is not alone) reveals where the Church has made major blunders. The church wrote off its urban neighborhood churches when the suburbs began to attract young home buyers. In the best cases, they neglected the cities and country, providing status quo leadership. They call it caretaker ministries. In the worst cases, they provided next to no leadership and either strong-armed the congregations or eroded the lay leadership to get the desired result—a closed church with the property and financial assets benefiting the regional body and the suburban mindset.
So here we are four decades after the great migration from the cities to the suburbs.
What is happening? City neighborhoods are once again seen by today’s young people as desirable. They are moving back to neighborhoods like East Falls in Philadelphia. They are determined to stay and not take off when the oldest child is school age. They love being close to the cultural choices and diversity that differentiates city from suburb. They are passionate and vocal. They have discovered the power of the internet.
We are seeing this in East Falls, where the newcomers to our neighborhood are so dedicated to making East Falls a neighborhood where they want to stay that they started a competing civic group with Facebook pages dedicated to the issues that concern them. It is exciting to watch.
But our denomination is behind the eight ball. They followed other denominations and worked the last two decades to close congregations, making sure any remaining wealth went their way.
The strategy appears to have backfired. The regional bodies are now stranded in the suburbs by decades of cloudy vision and poor decisions. The land and endowment funds that could have helped them regain a fold hold in the city are gone.
The city is once again right down their demographic alley. But they have sold the land—dirt cheap in many cases. They have spent the endowment funds that were given for ministry in these neighborhoods and squandered them on their own survival.
Now, if they are to regain a presence in the city, they will have to shell out at least five times their short-term windfall. Mission in the city has been made all but impossible.
The article interviewing GE’s CEO is part of a series. It goes on to talk about how GE is working to change its culture. They are working to create an environment where every decision need not be dictated or blessed by the management. Employees are encouraged and empowered to share insights and act upon them quickly—without years of jockeying to be noticed and approved. They are accepting that failure is to be expected somewhere along the way.
Did you ever hear of Redeemer Lutheran Church in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia?
The bishop of the regional synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, known as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, planned that by now the universal answer would be “Redeemer what?”
Bishop Claire Burkat was elected bishop of this struggling body of Lutherans in 2006. She set her sights on closing Redeemer from the outset. She wanted us gone—forgotten.
At the time the synod routinely approved significant deficit budgets and made up for the lack of operating funds by targeting congregations for closure. (In recent years they adopted a policy of balancing the budget. Now they just report shortfalls at year end.) This practice is made difficult but not impossible by governing rules that forbid the bishop from taking authority over church property without the involvement and consent of the congregation. It is possible because courts hesitate to get involved in church matters—truth, justice and the American way. In addition, synod governing bodies do a poor job of maintaining constitutional decorum. Checks and balances only work if people speak up!
Bishop Claire Burkat had co-authored a book about leading regional bodies before she became bishop. The book, published in 2001, was widely used in training regional leaders in several denominations. Now she was a bishop and could test her theories.
The result was a disaster all around. Her theories rely on ignoring the function of bishop—to foster mission and provide leadership support for both clergy and congregations. She concentrates on the health of the regional body — not the health of the congregations the regional body exists to serve. She also relies on the constitutional checks and balances to be ineffective. She got that last part right!
Her theory involves intentionally grooming congregations for closure—the opposite of the reasons bishops are elected. She advocates intentional neglect, placing pastors with given instructions to help the existing members but to wait for them and the congregation to die.
This is a deceptive lure—like feeding the congregation Quaalude— to bring congregations under synod’s power. No congregation thinks their pastor is there to watch them die.
Her theories clearly run against the polity of the Lutheran denomination she was elected to serve. Lutheran polity gives congregations ownership and oversight of property and endowment funds.
Bishop Burkat followed her own teachings. Mission, as far as professional leadership was concerned, was totally abandoned in East Falls in what became a power struggle—an unnecessary power struggle. Redeemer had several retired pastors among its membership and capable lay leadership that successfully grew the church while the synod thought we were waiting to die.
Our assets were the goal. Power was the weapon.
A pastor friendly with our congregation in 2006 reported to us that the bishop announced in a meeting at the national church headquarters: “I have the power to close that church and I intend to close it.”
Leaders who start with the assertion of power are not likely to consider working with the people they have declared as opponents.
But at least we were warned. Even so, we were labelled, our lay leaders vilified. The abuser was fully aware no one was likely to question her perceived power. Other congregations and all pastors depend on her good graces.
Similarity to Power Crimes
The controversial verdict in the Stanford Rape Case reminds us of the travesty in East Falls.
Rape is a crime that is rooted in the need to exercise power. There are many similarities—the minimizing and vilifying of the victims, the legal attacks on the victims, the use of constitutional rights to protect the abuser while victims have every detail of their personal lives raked over.
Take away the sexual nature of the crime. The words express the way we at Redeemer feel—and will always feel. That means forever.
The bishop coyly calls us Former Redeemer as if we just disappeared because she says so. We still live, serve and worship in the neighborhood her leadership “raped” for our property.
Like Emily Doe, we faced a legal system that minimized our congregation. The courts never heard our case. The final ruling reflected not that the synod and bishop were within their rights but rather that the courts could not stop them—the bill of rights and all. It is up to the church to police itself—unlikely in a hierarchy immune from secular law.
This excerpt from an article inChristianity Today describes how the people of Redeemer feel. The way we will always feel. You don’t just move on when you have been abused as we have.
One thing certain. The failure of the other member churches to address our situation guarantees that the thinking and methodology will continue to define the synod’s relationships with its smaller congregations. And most churches are getting smaller.
From a post in Christianity Today by Lindsey Bever—June 4
Quoting the witness statement:
“My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Like a hound with a bone, she wouldn’t let it go. She demanded justice. Emily Doe’s powerful example could mark a new era for victims of sexual assault. She’s carved the long, hard path to justice. Emily said words that thousands of others could not. She said words I could not say.
When I read her statement to her rapist, I grieved I had not the same fortitude, the same clarity of my innocence, to press charges against my rapist. Like so many other victims, the wall between my assault, my pain, my violation, seemed insurmountable. I was not equipped to scale it.
Maybe they wouldn’t believe me. Maybe they would blame me. Maybe it was my fault—didn’t he say so himself, afterwards? “Too pretty to resist,” he whispered. Maybe it wasn’t worth it, to be raped again in court, exposed, violated, vulnerable to penetrating questions. Maybe it was best to keep silent and try to move on. Maybe it was best to let it go.
But the thing about letting it go is that it never goes. You can’t escape your own body, your defiled body. You can’t discard it or exchange it or undo what has been done to it. Like ruined, wasted Tamar, we carry the desolation of our violation for the rest of our lives, and our silence, our shame, allows our rapists to go free.
The case of Emily Doe could be a watershed moment if more sexual assault victims follow the path Emily Doe bravely forged. We must refuse to accept blame for sexual assault any longer. Half of perpetrators believe their victim is “completely at fault” for the assault. Sixty-two percent of rape survivors “attributed the most blame to themselves.” For perpetrators, it is easier to assign blame than it is to accept responsibility for reprehensible behavior. For victims, it is easier to accept blame than it is to admit one is a victim, stripped of power and dignity. We must trade in our shame and silence for truth.
The case of Emily Doe could be a watershed moment if the public would finally open their ears and eyes to the experiences of rape victims. Her case, presented online and in and black and white for millions to read for themselves, underscores the deep violation at the heart of uncountable other stories of abuse that so often go unheard or get deemed untrustworthy.
Throughout the Scriptures, Christians are urged to pursue justice and defend the defenseless. The mother of King Lemuel urged him, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8–9). And in Jeremiah, “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (22:16).
Emily Doe found her voice. Redeemer has been denied our voice in the church. We will always seek justice—because that is another mission of the Church.
And what came of six years of litigation and hateful behavior?
We are all losers.
Our congregation lost our building and our offerings. SEPA lost a church that was growing (fivefold in three years) and overcoming challenges all congregations face in diversifying. Since they sold our property and squandered our endowments, the synod will have a very difficult future serving in our area of Philadelphia. Really, that’s a pretty big deal! Northwest Philadelphia has a population nearing 200,000—a small city in itself with almost no Lutheran presence.
And guess what is happening in our urban neighborhood. The demographic shifts that SEPA cited to justify their actions to the rest of synod have reversed — big time.
Young professionals are moving back into the city and embracing urban lifestyles. SEPA is no longer in a position to influence mission in the fastest developing, youngest neighborhoods in their region.
(Demographics is a euphemism to hide prejudice and justify inaction. The gospel message is for all.)
This is the first in a series of articles on the concept of agency and how it affects the church.
Agency is what people within an organization feel they can contribute without oversight.
Agency is always part of organizational structure. In the past it was more a lack of agency that characterized many institutions. But things are changing.
Agency kicks in the minute a person thinks, “If I am going to be part of this organization, how will I be able to contribute?”
People who grow up in the Church already have a sense of place. Often it has been the same place all their lives!
The Church needs newbies—not just because we need numbers to survive. Shame on us if that’s how we approach seekers. We need newbies because that is the mission of the Church.
Today’s Church challenge is to reach the vast majority who were not raised in the Church. Seekers will look at the question of church involvement far differently than those who grew up knowing what to expect.
Today’s seekers grew up with the internet.
The internet expands the concept of agency. People participate in media without editorial approval. Customers take their complaints global if business fails to recognize that they have agency to do so. Students start businesses online.
Women may have a better understanding of this new-found freedom—especially women of the boomer age. Boomer gals were witnesses and participants as women gained agency in many aspects of American life.
When I was 13 or so, I wanted to earn my own money. A newspaper route in our little town was available. I wanted that route, but girls were not allowed to carry newspapers. Going door to door, even in a town where neighbors were well known, was considered unsafe. OK for boys. Not for girls. My brother dealt with the newspaper office on the few occasions this was necessary.
Today, we recognize the dangers girls encounter are just as threatening to boys.
In school, I learned the meaning of agency when we girls were using the school gym. If a group of boys came into the gym, we were expected to vacate immediately.
When I got to college, the restrictions on co-eds were just being lifted. We no longer had to sign in and out of the dorm or hold to a curfew.
I could continue to give examples of agency in the secular world. But let’s look at agency in the church.
The topic comes to mind as I recall conversations over the last few months with a few of my friends, both men and women—all spiritual and faithful to their church. Each of them told a story about their involvement in church that was eerily similar. They even used the same words. “I was told I had to step back.” In several cases, the people were elected to congregation councils and had an obligation to serve the congregation for their term. The expectation that they should step back was bypassing the congregation’s agency. Ah! Agency can get complicated!
Some were told this by a pastor. Others (including me) by a bishop.
In every case, there was only one reason. We had earned status in our congregations over time. We had influence. Professional leaders (pastors), usually newly arrived on the scene, felt threatened.
Instead of empowering the most able members of the church and benefiting from their talents and passions, the leadership preferred no involvement from anyone that might challenge them or those above them. That leaves them to work with the least committed and less able, but that’s OK. They find comfort in knowing their leadership will not be challenged. (It also won’t be effective.)
Failure is then set to trickle down throughout the congregation. But leadership rarely recognizes the results of their decisions. It is so easy to assign the blame elsewhere. Church members learn from example. They ask themselves, If the most giving people are asked to step aside, what will happen to me if I succeed?
The Church must realize that today’s Christians live in a society where they have agency in their homes and in their secular lives. We expect agency in an organization that teaches us to let our lights shine. We are not gong to understand or relate to an institution that asks us to be less than who God made us to be.
Agency is a gift. Churches need to stop seeing it as a curse.
As a news editor, I’ve been attending many neighborhood meetings. There are rarely any pastors present. Pity! Had there been pastors at neighborhood civic meetings for the past few decades, the Church might have avoided serious strategic mistakes.
They might have had a better understanding of societal change. They might have seen new opportunities. They might have been able to adjust their mission. They might have been able to influence society.
Instead, the Church abandoned changing neighborhoods in droves.
Church planters and their more dangerous counterparts, re-planters, talk about statistics when measuring congregational viability. But they often are relying on dated statistics and impressions. Statistics show what happened—not what what could happen.
Change happens quickly today. Neighborhoods once took decades to change. Now major population shifts can happen in a few years.
The Church looks for easy places to create mission. Places that feel familiar. Places where they won’t have trouble placing the pastors who were trained to serve neighborhoods the way things were 30 years ago.
The Bible is about finding the harder places.
The Perils of Mission by Demographics
The demographic citers visited our congregation in the 1990s. There was no hope, they concluded. The demographics indicated that our neighborhood was not demographically viable for the type of church they envisioned.
They envisioned a church of the past.
Bishop Roy Almquist’s last words to us in 2000 before totally ignoring our congregation during his second six-year term were “In ten years you will die a natural death.”
He and his staff were unaware that during those ten years that he spent waiting for our demise our congregation continued mission with little hope of ever having much in the way of professional leadership. We didn’t die a natural death. We grew five-fold—attracting a demographic our regional body never envisioned and that their demographic experts missed. Transformation happened without them. In the meantime, they were relying on failure in mission to keep their offices afloat.
The relationship of regional bodies with congregations is problematic.
Regional bodies want to place existing pastors—many of whom are graying or seeking only part-time calls.
Congregations seek pastors who can lead into the future as opposed to preserving the past.
We are stuck with one another. The result is often toxic.
Putting the Eggs of the Future in One Fragile Basket
The problems might be eased except for a second factor. Regional bodies don’t trust lay leadership. It is easier for them to place pastors when they guarantee the pastors administrative control — despite the fact that Lutheran constitutions give administrative control to congregation councils.
When lay leaders succeed against administrative projections, the success is seen as “adversarial” to the denomination’s agenda. Lay leaders share stories of how we are asked to step back, even renege on promises made to congregations who elect us to serve. Hide it under a bushel—yes!
Our congregation experienced this to a most horrific degree. The agenda was to allow our congregation to die in a way that our property would become available to the regional body to sell to support their interests. They actually amended their bylaws with wording overriding their founding promises to the congregations, which forbids this. (Creating bylaws in opposition to founding articles is illegal in the corporate world, but churches are immune from corporate law—even though they are corporations.)
Ours is only one story. This approach plays out across the country in several mainline denominations. Success is measured by how easily abandoning churches and mission is accomplished. Ideally, the congregation will fold. No fuss. No muss. Sad.
Dooming the Church with Policy
The management “wisdom” of the 1990s is dooming the Church. The short-sightedness becomes clear in civic meetings, where the focus is not on the past, but on how what is happening will shape the community moving forward.
Our area of Philadelphia is dotted with abandoned churches—many of them Lutheran. Typically, they are vacant for years before developers pick them up for a fraction of their worth at the time the regional bodies claimed them.
Creating living space in the city is profitable to developers. Squeeze the most apartments possible into abandoned church sites.
The suburbs, once filled with what the experts consider desirable church demographics, are no longer as attractive. Young, professionals of the social classes that fled the city in the 1970s and 1980s are returning to the cities. They are interested in creating community. Young people want to be in the cities. Even neighborhoods considered slums are undergoing a rebirth.
Now they are doing it without sacred space.
The land provided for sacred and community use by the earlier residents is gone, squandered. People are sleeping in on Sunday morning and cooking breakfast where our altars stood.
Short-term gain. Long-term loss.
The Church shot itself in the foot. Guns are kept loaded. They don’t know any other way. They don’t have better answers. They don’t trust the wisdom of their members today any more than they did decades ago. They still care more about placing professional leaders in communities that will not challenge them.
Yesterday I stumbled across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s LinkedIn page. They have some job listings. Here they are:
Notice something? Every job listing is about finding money.
I followed the link between every listing that says “See more jobs.”
Here are the additional listings.
Most of these jobs have something to do with fund-raising or asset management.
The Congregational Offering Plate Has Competition
If you don’t believe the Church is a business, think again. Offerings can no longer support the top-heavy structure created in better days. The Church is looking for talent that brings in money. Where do you think they will find it? Where do you think they will spend it?
The national and regional offices, struggling to survive, are creating development offices that bypass congregations and go directly to individuals. These individuals are most likely your most affluent members. The best potential donors are your congregation’s aging membership in need of estate planning.
Congregational money sent to the regional and national offices fund these development efforts.
Can your congregation compete with well-paid, high-level professionals? Your teachings about stewardship may be feeding into the message of these development offices.
Many of today’s churches are living on endowment funds contributed by members decades ago. Congregations, beware. Others in the Church have eyes on your future funding.
It gets even more complicated. In addition to the regional and national offices, affiliated church agencies also staff development offices. They have some independence but are also funded with congregational contributions. These include charities like relief agencies, seminaries, schools, homes for the aging, local agencies, and camps. Some church-related agencies have shadow for-profit corporations, less affiliated with the Church, that can attract grant giving and work with government programs.
That’s a lot of competition looking for the biggest slice possible from the same pie!
The Last Left Standing
As local, regional and national bodies all struggle, the Church must consider the question: Which entity should be the last standing? As decline continues, should the national church disband first or the regional body? Should they both work to get the resources from their member churches until there are only ten large congregations in each synod. (The larger the congregation the less need for synod assistance.) Should the agencies slowly forgo church affiliation (as many already have) and join the plethora of nonprofits, each with an important mission, that also court congregational members for contributions and estate planning.
This is a problem that the Church does not discuss because everyone’s status in the Church is at stake. A lot of church jobs rely on the success of development offices. In the end, the congregations, the lowest on the Church organizational totem pole (but the foundation of all funding), no longer matter. The Church as a whole looks the other way as regional bodies find ways to close churches in ways that make sure the congregation’s assets go to them. This has been going on for a while. But now, the tactic is to reach your members well in advance of them leaving their estates to the local congregation.
Congregations are funding their own demise. The Church is in the Colosseum — and we’ve been feeding the lions.
Important point: Church-related organizations are not inherently bad for looking for more funding. Everyone needs money. However, as each church-sponsored entity becomes self-focused in building its own funding base, there is less concern of how their success is impacting sponsoring congregations. The success of one agency, or the regional and national bodies means less money is available for the congregations, who are still expected to send funds their way via the offering plate. This is particularly unfair with Church social service agencies, many of whom have positioned themselves to benefit from government funding—a pie that most congregations assume they cannot tap. Objections that efforts in that direction sidetrack the prime objective of Christian community are legitimate. The proof is in what has become of church agencies who took this track 30 or more years ago. Lutheran colleges/universities have little connection with Lutheranism today. Lutheran social services take care to avoid displaying Christian connections. When our congregation rented space to a Lutheran agency for a day school, they turned around the Christian images hanging on our walls.
This post will look at how the role of pastor must change. The basic job description (much of it still important) falls short of the skills that most churches desperately need. Today’s Church serves a different world.
I have some fear that the points I am about to make might be read as unfairly critical of the Church and clergy. That’s not the intention. Clergy are important. So is the Church.
Clergy work in relative isolation and with a sense that they have no competition. They can deflect issues. Decline is the laity’s fault. It’s demographics. It’s cultural. It’s society. Real factors—but factors that can be addressed. Failure to do so has created dire problems.
The world has changed dramatically in the 28 years which constitute the entire life of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As they worked to establish an identity based on the past, the past disappeared in the rear view mirror. The desktop computer was entering the workplace as church leaders signed the agreements with old-fashioned pens. But Lutherans are not alone. Most mainline denominations have held back to the point of endangering their survival.
Churches, too, sense that they have no competition. They don’t have to change. They are wrong. Churches compete with one another and with every other nonprofit that courts our members and potential members for support. We also compete with the government who levies taxes that impact church giving.
We cannot compete without using the internet.
Job descriptions of most professions changed dramatically in the last 20 years as technology became widespread. Clergy job descriptions remain much the same. Integrating technology into ministry has not been a priority.
This becomes increasingly frustrating to laity. We sense that each year of no progress just makes rejoining the world that much harder.
If clergy and laity explored this together, clergy would find that parishioners understand the challenges. We are experienced.
A Look at How the Internet Has Changed One Profession
I’ve worked in graphic design for 35 years and in related fields for a few more. Graphic design involves communicating with words and images. My first employer in 1975 was still using hot type. That’s individual letters cast in metal and positioned in mirror image by hand before being inked and pressed to paper. Picture Ben Franklin setting Poor Richard’s Almanac. Same process, fancier machines.
I was progressive. I learned cold type—type set in a photographic process. I marked up manuscripts and sent them to a typesetter. I pasted the typeset galleys on boards with hot wax. These were then sent to printers who took photos and burned plates that were attached to printing presses. The process required multiple skills. At least ten people were involved in getting the simplest publication printed. Writer, editor, typesetter, proofer, designer, dark room staff, film strippers, press operators, binders and distributors.
All of these tasks would soon be the job description of one person.
Enter the desktop computer.
Again, I was progressive. I learned computers while many old-school graphic designers took early retirement or changed careers.
But things were only starting to change.
Another ten years passed. The desktop computer led to the internet and instant connectivity. Online communication soon outpaced print.
Things continue to change.
Today’s typical “graphic designer” job description demands skills that have nothing to do with yesterday’s job description. We are now expected to know marketing, a half dozen computer coding protocols and sales. Video and animation helpful but not required.
Ditto for most professions. Education, medical professions, law enforcement, business management—you name it, the professionals in these fields adapted technology to their work—or they found new work.
The Pastoral Job Description
This recent study reveals the slow progress church leaders have made in the last 15 years in adopting technology.
Similar changes should have been taking place in the world of Church. Instead, the Church became an escape. Seminaries began attracting second career students who may not have liked the technology changes in their first career choices. Fewer young people considered church careers. The pulpit has greyed faster than the congregations!
Today, the Church needs to reach people that know little about the good old days of Christianity in America. This frustrates lay leaders. We sense that the Church is distancing itself from the world we live in.
For a while congregations could float on endowments. Time is running out.
To expect congregations to invest all their resources in one person with an outdated job description is worse than poor stewardship—it is guaranteeing failure.
Pastors need to embrace technology. They must spend time each week reaching the unchurched online. The 20-minute Sunday sermon is less important. Pastors need to attract and inspire using FaceBook and Twitter. They must create email lists addressing diverse interests. They must write email engagement sequences to introduce the Church to those who will not come to church until they know more about us from online interaction. They must find ways to connect and collaborate with other organizations in the neighborhood. They must explore alternative funding initiatives and expand the geographical borders of their congregation and find they will have to cooperate with other nearby churches. All possible via technology.
The Plight of Most Congregations
Congregations have little choice but to choose from the existing stable of denominational pastors, whether or not they can use modern tools.
Congregations are offered pastors who expect a secretary to do the typing and see a monthly newsletter as effective communication. They still wait for “seekers” to come to them on Sunday morning.
As statistics decline, denominational leadership sighs and mutters “demographics.” Pulpits are filled, using up resources, while neighborhood congregations are left to die as if this is the natural progression of the Church. It’s not—or at least it wasn’t until the modern era.
Return to a Biblical Mission Plan
It is time to return to a biblical mission plan—meet people where they are.
RECENT STATISTIC: The average FaceBook user spends 50 minutes each day on FaceBook. An increase of ten minutes per day from last year.
It will change the nature of Church. It will redefine job descriptions and the meaning of community. It will open doors that have been shut to Christians They were never locked. Christians just didn’t bother opening them.
It will force change that is long overdue. Nobody is picking on anyone. It is just how things have to be.
The next post will illustrate why this must happen at the parish level. Here’s a hint at why: Local parishes are unwittingly funding their own demise.
I have significant experience with and therefore, I hope, something worth saying. In order to join the conversation, I had to address the topic on my own platform. A decade ago this would not have been possible. Pronouncements from church leaders could go unchallenged. Challenge will be a characteristic of the surviving Church. It may take some getting used to.
The dechurched are an important topic. The dechurched outnumber the churched.
Today I revisited the post I referenced a few posts ago and read the thread of comments that I could not join. I would have been surprised at the forum’s caustic tone if I hadn’t already noticed the tendency of religion blogs to get nasty quickly.
As one commenter noted, a nerve was hit. But the commenters took off in unexpected directions effectively derailing the topic.
How did this happen?
There was no agreement on the premise of the blogger’s topic. Readers were defining the key topic (the dechurched) differently.
Lesson to be learned: lay the groundwork for the discussion carefully.
Why does the Church have problems communicating on the web?
There are bigger lessons to be learned. Communicating on the web is different from the customary communication channels familiar to church people.
The Church is accustomed to operating in its own world. Dialog is characteristically peer-to-peer or pastor-to-parishioner. Some clergy rise to a level of respect that gives them extraordinary authority. Their words carry influence.
Laity, on the other hand, have a difficult time influencing. Call it the stained glass ceiling. All of this is normal in Christianity. It’s how things have been for centuries.
The Wild Wild Web lets everyone in. The potential for evangelism is magnified infinitely. However, it calls for new communication skills. Online religious writers must nurture the dialog. Less preaching. More teaching and listening.
Bloggers must recognize that everyone can access and read their posts. You may intend to reach clergy about parish problems. You may think that your audience has basic agreement. But on the web, your audience is much wider. You will be reaching clergy with diverse backgrounds. And another thing . . . When you take the discussion online, your parishioners can find the discussions. Write and engage accordingly. This is a good thing. We can learn a great deal from one another.
Lesson to be learned: Write as if your post is being read by a diverse audience—including the people who populate the back pew on Sunday morning.
Why are church bloggers so touchy?
For the first time, the laity have the ability to participate and initiate church dialog. They have been excluded from church dialog for a very long time. Perhaps clergy have some unwritten protocols for discussion. Laity will be unfamiliar with any such protocols. Laity will use the protocols from their experience, which have been established with longer experience with the web.
Let’s look at how this well-intended post got derailed.
The post was about ministering to the dechurched. The commenters couldn’t agree on what dechurched means.
The writer offered a definition.
By “dechurched” I mean people who were at some point either briefly or for a long time involved in a local church, but have not been active for several years.
Seems specific, but there is room for interpretation from readers who aren’t on the same page.
I read this from my experience. I imagined people who had been seriously hurt by their involvement in church—not just those who drifted.
Other commenters determined that the dechurched were — are you ready for this — Democrats. In the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign, they saw political implications where none were intended. They saw the dechurched as actively in opposition to the Church of their experience.
In short, some writers saw dechurched as instigators while others saw the dechurched as victims.
The editor considered some of the comments to be grossly off topic and an abuse of the platform. The commenters thought they were on topic—or at least, in their experience, an extension of the topic. In the absence of a well-defined common ground, there is ample room on both sides for misunderstanding.
His only remedy was to threaten to block their participation.
The discussion quickly became defensive and smart-penned — opening the door for more misunderstanding. All this on a topic that was exploring divisiveness in the Church.
Here’s where the Church can learn from earlier adopters of the internet.
The online community calls persistently nasty commenters “trolls.” This view is dangerous in church dialog—especially on a topic that by nature is addressing division. Every dissenting comment should not be categorized as coming from a troll. Some may be the very dechurched people you hope to reach.
Dissent must be allowed. There must be a way of welcoming dissent while keeping the dialog helpful and civil.
The blogger/editor can set the tone. If the editor responds with sarcasm (difficult to interpret in writing), it will provoke.
Best Practices in Community Management
Here are some best practices in the business world for encouraging multi-sided dialog.
Keep the community rules simple. This blog has a community guide that is six pages long. That’s long enough to be ambiguous even if participants take the time to read it.
The editor or moderator should address offensive commenters offline. Public whippings discourage diverse contributions. Privately, the commenter and editor might find there is a misunderstanding—maybe even common ground.
Check ego. Assume commenters have strong opinions for good reasons and are not attacking the editor’s words as vindictive sport.
As author or editor set the tone. Assume the writer’s best intentions. Avoid sarcasm, which is difficult to interpret in writing.
Be courteous to all. Lecturing some commenters while stroking those who applaud your view is creating a class system. Both should be done offline.
Online religious bloggers should resist the temptation to censor—for their own sake. The unhappy serve a purpose in helping us define mission. Remember, many people have been excluded in church dialog for a very long time. Their venting may feed your future content. Officially censoring their view is reinforcing the hurt.
While the Church needs to develop best online practices, there is danger. If the protocols return us to the controlled forums that have defined the Church for centuries, the Church will lose the advantages of the web.
It doesn’t feel good to have your online arguments torn apart by commenters. But applause from the choir is not why thought leaders blog, is it?
The True Church. This phrase is a regular feature of church banter. Recently, I’ve read it in contexts that slough off problems within the Church. But that’s not the True Church that did that horrible thing. I can also recall hearing the term used by Church hierarchy, making claims to their particular brand of Christian doctrine and practice.
Problems with definitions in the Church are nothing new. Throughout Christian history whenever there is any measure of conflict, sides are drawn and both sides make claims to be The True Church. King Henry VIII started his own True Church when he didn’t care for the policies of the existing True Church. But he wasn’t the first—nor the last. You’d have to go back to the earliest days of Christianity to record the first claims of superiority or righteousness.
So, is the True Church the organization defined in the epistles? Is it the entity that currently holds power or can claim to be the biggest and richest? Is it the Church that projects a current popular viewpoint? Is it whatever church leaders—or dissenting members—want it to be?
This article from the New York Times gives pause. It tells the story of how church leaders in 1838 sold slaves to pay debts—not one or two slaves (not that the number makes a difference) but 272. They ignored the mandates of their hierarchy. They satisfied their consciences by demanding conditions—all of which were broken. They had only one reason. The True Church, as I’m sure they considered themselves, couldn’t pay its bills.
America was an attractive place for the religious of all sorts back in our founding days. This story dates to 1838. It fascinates because it weaves two incongruous threads in American history—the importance of religious freedom and the lack of freedom for a substantial part of the founding population. This event occurs 62 years after independence and 23 years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
It is a saga of struggle. Which is more important, founding ideals, biblical ideals, or economic survival? Today’s economically challenged churches face the similar choices.
Every writer knows: Character is revealed in the decisions made by the story’s cast. Apply this maxim to this slice of history. What does it say about the character of our nation and the character of the Church?
What decisions are being made by Church leaders today which might prove as embarrassing as this a few decades from now?
He divides the disenfranchised into two categories. There are those who just never quite fit in and then there are those who have either been directly hurt by the Church or who have witnessed an injustice within the Church. He calls the latter “collateral damage.”
The Church can be a hurtful place. Stetzer admits this. Dealing with the hurt has always been a problem. It gets in the way of bliss, a feeling many associate with church involvement.
The Church has difficulty with empathy. The interests of the Church often come before the interests of the people the Church cares for. This shortcoming has the effect of magnifying hurt. Those who feel the effects of greed, power, selfishness, and other human frailties end up feeling expendable. While the Church talks about a God that sacrifices for the lost lamb, there is a growing number of lambs left caught in the briar on the edge of the cliff with no shepherd to reach out to them.
What can be done?
Stetzer’s first suggestion is to palm the responsibility for the disenfranchised off on another denomination. Maybe hurt Lutherans can hear the gospel spoken from Baptist pulpits. He calls it multiplicity—better than duplicity!.
This is a plan of avoidance. It won’t work. It just removes the problem from sight. When churches create hurt, they create a challenge for everyone in every denomination. Expecting others to clean up our messes is a bad idea. People belong to denominations for reasons with pretty strong roots. The hurt already feel rejected by people who are part of their personal life stories. What chance is there among strangers?
His second suggestion is more convoluted. He suggests giving permission to the aggrieved to express their pain. A tad condescending—especially if there is no plan to do anything but let them vent.
He talks about helping them get past the perception that true Christianity hurt them as if the hurt didn’t really happen or they are errant in identifying the source. True Christianity wouldn’t do some of the things churches do. Yet they happen—and fairly frequently. Time to admit: True Christianity must involve facing shortcomings.
True Christianity comprises people who come with true faults. True Christians can do bad things. That’s why we open our worship services with confession. What we find easy to confess to God in memorized language is far more difficult than coming up with the words to apologize to our neighbors.
A problem church leaders face is that the hurt is often very public. Solutions offered, when they are offered, are often very private. See me during office hours.
Missing from his post are some important points.
Reconciliation is a major imperative for Christians. Reconciliation starts with accepting responsibility. “Yes, we see you are hurt. This should never have happened to you. We slipped up.”
Reconciliation requires accountability and an action plan.
I’m not seeing this in today’s Church. I don’t see pastors standing up to those within the Church who overstep authority, who bypass Church law, and who justify wrong actions with one-sided rhetoric. I see pastors, who surely know better, making excuses that make those who are hurting feel even worse. I can only suspect that they want to remain in good graces with church authority—at least the earthly kind. They add to the damage. There is nothing more hurtful than a conditional apology. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have . . . ” or “This is wrong, but there is nothing we can do.”
Here’s the thought process of those who have been hurt within the Church.
They believe in God and that the Church represents the godly. They pray to God for relief. When the Church turns its back on them they feel personally rejected by God. Why should they have to look for relief from strangers in unfamiliar denominations while the people they counted on to love them avoid unpleasantness? The disenfranchised feel rejected by the people who represent God. Why should they feel like they need permission to express their hurt? They will look to Scripture to find the Biblical response. They won’t find these remedies outlined. Of course, there are two sides to every issue, but in the Church, one side has a far more powerful voice. The legions of well-intended within the Church often never know about problems. There is little dialog. Breeding ground for discontent.
Wouldn’t the True Church ache to know if there is something they can do to stop the pain?
The Church needs effective checks and balances. A private word of consolation from someone not directly involved and that will never reach the ears of the wrong-doers just continues the hurt. All too often such gestures are reported privately within church leadership and the complainer gets labeled by those who crave approval from those who created the hurt. The victim is further ostracized.
In fact, dechurching can be the desired outcome. One less thorn in the Church’s side. I heard one high-ranking church official offer to a hurting member no apology or discussion. “You need to move on.” All the responsibility for the problem was set squarely on the shoulders of the person with the least power.
If the Church believes its own message, it must accept responsibly for the disenfranchised. At the very least, open dialog.
Until the Church can truly accept responsibility, the numbers of dechurched will grow. They won’t mean to cause harm, but unaddressed hurts have a way of festering. They have families. Their families have friends. Friends have families. They have more friends. Now that’s collateral damage.
We are probably near the point where there are more hurting people shying away from Church than there are content and smiling Christians propping up the institution. We can keep on pretending fractiousness is the problem of the victims, but to what end?
The Roman Catholic Church spent years denying the pain of scandal and refusing to take responsibility. The image of the true Church was more important than the pain of the victims. Now they are seeing the only way out is to take responsibility. It is painful to be sure. But how many victims could have been saved with a more direct and timely response—by admitting the problems and treating the victims as children of God?
Be calm. Wait. Wait. Commit your cause to God. He will make it succeed. Look for Him a little at a time. Wait. Wait. But since this waiting seems long to the flesh and appears like death, the flesh always wavers. But keep faith. Patience will overcome wickedness.