Taking It All Too Seriously

This afternoon (May 5) I received an email that really got my gears grinding.  It was a personal note from someone of position and influence in The United Methodist Church.  I respect the opinion.  But three things were said in the missive that I can’t let go of.  And so I will try to process my feelings here.

The subject is my recent reflections on The UMC, particularly as it relates to discipleship and our denominational marketing efforts.  What follows are the three quotes from the email that I am wresting with:

  1. “You are taking all this too seriously.  The church can’t make such stringent demands on people’s time.”
  2. “It is naive to think that this (ReThink Church) or any other promotional advertising campaign is going to make that much difference.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
  3. “Vision is all about saying what ought to be, not what really is.  We need to preach a good message, no matter what we actually are.”

Taking It Too Seriously

How seriously is too seriously when we are talking about being the body of Christ?  How is it possible to expect too much of people who say they want to commit their lives to Christ?  Are “reasonable” expectations “appropriate” expectations?  Is it enough to hope the church might be good, or should we be seeking to make the church great?  What part of this am I not getting?  If we aren’t going to take it seriously, why bother doing it at all?  I cannot quite fathom how a leader in our denomination can advise someone not to take seriously the work we do as the church.  If this isn’t the most important thing in all the world to do, we ought not be doing it.

 Naive To Think We Can Make a Difference

Half the people accuse me of being too cynical while the other half say I am too idealistic and naive.  Funny how nobody but me thinks I’m a realist.  If we don’t think all this marketing work is going to make a difference, why are we spending millions of dollars, committing thousands of human resource hours, and wasting the creative efforts of artists, graphic designers, and videographers to do it?  I gotta believe we can make a huge difference on one of the bishops initiatives if we channelled all this funding in one of their directions.  I understand that successful advertising is measured in increments of 2-3 percentage points, but I’m not convinced that’s good enough when it comes to making disciples.  If we are not seeing significant benefits, I believe we shouldn’t do it.  We should do something else.  Is it naive to expect our work to transform the world?  If so, we need to edit our mission again, otherwise we’re not simply naive, we’re liars.

Vision Is About What Could Be, Not About What Is

True, to a degree.  A vision is what could, should, and with faithful commitment, will be.  It should reflect the highest truth — the truth that is emerging by God’s grace and guidance.  But vision should be our guiding light, not our advertised product.  As we live into our vision, we create what could be, by transforming what is.  To just say what we want people to believe about us is wishful thinking.  And to make it sound like the vision is our current reality is short-sighted, dishonest, and does more damage than good.  If we keep telling the world we are something we’re not, we will destroy what limited credibility we have left.  We need a vision that moves us to a new place.  If we move with integrity, that will be the very best advertising we could hope for to show the world we’re worth joining.

good-to-great-social-sectors1This whole conversation brings to mind the excellent book by Jim Collins, Good to Great (and the monograph on Good to Great and the Social Sectors).  This book, while a little overly-prescriptive, is based in a foundational premise that there is a huge difference between a good organization and a great organization.  It breaks my heart that we spend so much time trying to figure out how to be good, when our mission, our faith, our tradition, and our God call us to be great.  I want to be part of a great church.  And to do that, I think we all need to take it pretty seriously.

16 replies

  1. Dan, I want to echo Steve Manskar’s comment about the great value of your work. It seems that I will be coming out of retirement and taking a local church appointment at Annual Conference – pastoring, after a ten year hiatus. In preparing myself for re-entry, I am re-reading your Executive Summary ‘book reviews.’ I probably learn as much about the book’s themes, arguments, proposals, and applications from your critical analysis as I would from reading the book myself! Whether I’m being lazy or efficient, the quality and integrity of your work is unquestioned.

    Let us encourage one another.

    • Thanks, John, coming from you I consider it high praise, indeed. And while your retirement may suffer a bit, the UMC is much enriched for your pastoral leadership — though I know you have never really “been away.” You continue to be an inspiration wherever you serve, in whatever capacity you serve.

  2. I hope you are not discouraged Dan. You are doing important and essential work. Yours is a prophetic voice that the leaders of the UMC need to hear and listen to. The people of the Wisconsin Conference will be challenged and blessed by your work among them.

    As for the points raised by the email you are reflecting upon, it seems to me that the writer, and much of the UMC leadership are operating out of what Juan Segundo called “The General Rule of Pastoral Prudence.” It goes something like this: “The absolute minimum in obligations in order to keep the maximum number of people.” This paradigm confuses mission with getting and keeping people in the church. The way to get and keep them is to offer programs and activities that are attractive, don’t demand much in the way of commitment or change in life-style, and are entertaining. Such a church is a purveyor of religious goods and services designed to help their members live comfortable lives and to be nice people. This, of course, has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ or the biblical mission of his church.

    Rather than do the hard work of shifting the culture of the church from that of an “attractional” to a “missional” orientation, we develop marketing campaigns (Igniting Ministries/Re-think Church) and produce more programs.

    My experience traveling and working with local church leaders, lay and clergy, tells me that the people are tired of trying to market our way out of decline. They are hungry for discipleship and mission. They want to follow Jesus and his way in the world. When they learn about the missional DNA of the Wesleyan tradition they are excited and energized. But that energy is soon dissipated by leaders who insist we can’t ask too much of people or expect that they participate in a small group for mutual accountability and support for discipleship.

    When we give people low expectations, they will always live up to them. Conversely, when the church gives people the clear expectations contained in the Baptismal covenant, and provides the means for them to live into them, they will do all in their power to live into their promises and the promises of God.

    Thanks, Dan, for your work.

    • It takes a lot to discourage me. I am so grateful for this rich electronic community in which to explore and discuss these issues. Even those who disagree are more than entitled to their opinions. If only the church at large could disagree so civilly. You and I both have had the privilege of travelling and seeing the church in all its many faces, facets, and facades. There definitely is a groundswell of people — young and old, long-time members and newbies — who are tired of the status quo and are looking for something better. I like serving as “a raspberry seed in the teeth of the denomination,” stirring things up, irritating where I can, provoking, poking, and challenging anyone and everyone to think. I don’t have such a big ego that I think I have the answers or that people should agree with me, but I am very confident that some of the questions I raise have value and that the church can benefit by examining, exploring, and struggling with them. I know my own heart, and I am passionate about God, God’s people, and this flawed, yet beautiful church called United Methodist. I never mean to disparage the good that we are doing, but I cannot rest from challenging us to be more. No one has found a good way to shut me up yet, so I’ll keep on keeping on (for good or ill).

      Thanks, as always, for your keen insights, your kind words, and your enduring friendship.

  3. …and these are comments from someone of influence in the UMC? OMG!!!! What about ‘take up your cross and follow Me’? I guess that shouldn’t have taken up too much time, either? If marketing programs designed to bring in new members aren’t going to make any difference, then why waste so much time and expense in promotion?
    Dan, your thoughts and writings bring a balance of common sense to the insanity of the corporate upper management of the UMC.

  4. How can we not take the issue of people’s eternity seriously! Part of the problem in the UMC is the upper level leadership, i.e. Bishops and General Secretaries. I agree, if we’re not going to take this seriously then get out of the game. I think the marketing piece is only there to give some people something to do, to feel they are contributing. Most of what they put out doesn’t have any effect anyway. What we need are people to get their hind ends out of the pews and begin to be disciples. But maybe that’s expecting too much of their time. Keep on doing what your doing, Dan. Keep on being a conscience for what once was, and still could be, a denomination that makes a difference for the Kingdom.

  5. Dare I say that the comment about stringent demands is rather unbelievable! It seems to me that I remember some comment by the Rabbi from Nazareth about counting the costs, and being willing to take up our crosses to follow him. I guess his marketing folks, Bishops, and General Secretaries would probably tell him that he was taking this all too seriously.

    “Get thee behind me Satan…”

  6. I’ve been wondering when you would start getting e-mails from people saying you need to ease off. They be telling you that your blog is hurting the church sooner or later. Criticism that can be ignored is. Criticism that can’t be ignored is labeled subversive or damaging.

    The discipleship comment is the one that strikes me as most telling. The facts do seem to confirm your correspondent’s point. Most people will not commit and are not interested in becoming disciples – as you noted in a recent post.

    But, we are stuck with this pesky mission statement and Wesleyan heritage – and there is this guy named Jesus who seemed pretty serious about discipleship.

    If the church thinks discipleship is just pie-in-the-sky silliness, then why, indeed, do we do any of this? The more I mull this over, the more agitated I get about it.

    I’m going to go stew about it and try to come up with something intelligent to say.

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