When Faced With Two Options Choose the Third

I have been writing recently about reframing our current conversation about the church from one of doom, gloom, decay, and demise to one of faith, hope, vision and relevancy.  My central thesis is that we are unlikely to attract new people with the message, “Our ship is sinking and we don’t know what to do about it, but we’re rethinking it — come join us!”  Concepts like “death Tsunami” are statements of fear, not faith, and solemnly stating that we are “just being realistic” is a clear indicator that we walk by sight rather than faith.  Some call my desire to move toward a Promised Land instead of merely escaping Egypt naive.  I can see their pessimism if the only two choices they can imagine are short-sighted fatalism or insipid simplification.  I don’t believe we are limited to just these two options.  Let me share a story that I can use to illustrate my point.

A colleague of mine has been living and working in Japan for the past eighteen months.  He told me this story of the March earthquake.  He was in a busy business center on the Friday afternoon of the quake.  As the world was turned upside down, hundreds of people ran from a corporate office in a panic.  Three men, all leaders in the companies occupying the building, began shouting.  (Forgive my spelling errors, but I don’t know Japanese and am not sure I will get this right…) The first man bellowed, “Jishin! shinsai!” two words meaning “earthquake;” the second was shouting “Hashire!” or “run.”  The third man was shouting “kariya!” which means shelter, and he was leading people to a reinforced  safety bunker.  Who do you think people responded best to?

In our current church situation, we have people screaming “earthquake” (or Death Tsunami).  They are focusing on the problem.  They hope to scare people into action.  They are employing “the sky is falling” school of management.  Actually demotivational, because as anxiety and despair increase, people’s horizon’s shrink and they are crippled from doing any kind of critical or lateral thinking.  I don’t think anyone is unaware that we have problems.  People who lack solutions have no other option but to dwell on the brokenness.  Unfortunately, this is not leadership no matter how you dress it up.

Neither is the “run” option.  The “don’t just stand there, DO something,” school of management results in analysis paralysis where we confuse activity with progress.  But if you aren’t moving TOWARD a solution (Promised Land) you are simply wandering in the wilderness.  Evidence of this is a call to action rather than a call to effectiveness or mission.  It leads us to identify the same problems we identified 20, 30, 40 years ago and say, “well, this time, we’re really serious!”  Get busy, work harder, do more, rearrange deck chairs faster, hold more meetings, spend more money, hurry-up-and-produce-paper-the-boss-is-watching!!  But the measure of effective activity is outcomes.  We still don’t have clear outcomes in mind, and where there is no vision, the people perish.

We need people who have laser-focus on solutions — who don’t keep saying “we’re in crisis and we’d better do something quick.”  The somethings need to be defined and they need to be designed to produce specific outcomes.  Preserving the institutional United Methodist Church isn’t good enough.  We are not an end, but a means to an end.  We have defined our end, our purpose (for good or ill) as making disciples for the transformation of the world.”  The problem is, the system we have isn’t designed to do this — which leaves us a choice to make: 1) change our mission to fit our system (bad idea), 2) change our system to fit our mission (great idea, but painful and costly), 3) go back to square one and figure out who we want to be when we grow up (an admission that we really haven’t know what we’re doing — which is why we keep hiring outsiders to tell us who we are…), or 4) enter a period of serious prayerful discernment where we honestly put everything on the table and refuse to protect our sacred cows (gutsy, risky, exciting, scary, and requiring visionary, decisive leadership).  There may be many more options, but I merely wanted to clarify that we are not stuck in a simple “either/or” situation.

I believe we are too constrained by fear, self-interest, and survival to step out in true faith to become a new thing.  We will rethink ourselves to death before we will make deep change.  We are exploring some significant cosmetic changes, but the analogy that comes to mind is liposuction as a solution to obesity — getting rid of the fat changes appearances, but it does not necessarily bring health.  Until a proper diet, regimen of exercise and rest, and a fundamental shift of values occurs, all you have is the same old sick organism in a slightly different sack.  I think we can make the necessary changes to become the church we need to be, but don’t really want to.  If we make the leap, we will be smaller (numerically), disposing of a large number of inappropriate facilities, training leadership differently with significantly different structures of accountability and evaluation.  We will deconstruct the monolithic super-structure and help conferences develop indigenous leadership to do what the “experts” do for/to us presently.  We will collaborate more, legislate less; engage more, spending much less time and money on meetings.  We can make these, and other truly transformational changes, but only if we set the self-interested, survivalist institutional preservation mindset aside.

23 replies

  1. Superb post. Does that smaller group already exist? If so, how have they dealt with a leadership more interested in preservation? If some left, where did they go? For those who stayed, how do they maintain their attending to our core process?

  2. I know we have fine leaders doing their very best for the church, but why aren’t more of them saying what you are saying and taking seriously the issues you raise? I read what is coming from our bishops and our Connectional Table and I shake my head and wonder if they are really serious. Then I read your blog and you put into words my precise frustrations, and I keep thinking, “Well, we have someone who is asking the right questions and is offering some very profound solutions. Why isn’t he included in all these discussions?” Then I answer my own question: “nobody wants to listen to a prophet.” You obviously make those in power very uncomfortable. Please, keep it up!

  3. We do have good leaders, and I don’t intend my critique to imply they are “bad.” I guess for me the best way to explain my concern is to say that there are two competing paradigms: one is the institutional preservation paradigm, aimed at survival and maintenance. The solutions offered in this paradigm haven’t worked before, and they are unlikely to yield different results now. The second paradigm is a spiritual enlightenment paradigm which is more about God than institutional church or organized religion. To engage meaningfully and well in this paradigm, radical renewal and transformation must occur, displacing old systems with new. Little being suggested currently is appropriate to the new paradigm. Hence, we are applying solutions — from the ridiculous to the sublime — to the wrong problem. If the destination is Pittsburgh and leaders are taking you to Denver, it doesn’t actually matter how well they take you to the wrong place.

  4. The “institution” is made of human beings. Preservation of the institution for many is about self-preservation.

    Sacrificial leadership may be necessary to get any real change.

  5. We all know what needs to be done. You covered the key elements succinctly in the final paragraph. The real question is: “Do we have the courage to move proactively to becoming the church you described?”

    If not, we’ll continue a decline into irrelevancy regardless of what we say.

  6. Hmmm. Didn’t Methodism start as an extra-institutional movement focused on a combination of individual and corporate spiritual growth? Wasn’t radical renewal and transformation the result? Are we talking about an UnChurch? What else would the “unchurched” body of Christ create? The Anglican Church didn’t die, but something else was born. The United Methodist Church won’t die, but…

  7. what you are talking about sounds a lot like the ‘Emergent Church’ movement and/or Evolutionary Christianity in a sense. And it’s not JUST the Methodist church who is feeling the coming of a huge paradigm shift in thinking..it’s pretty much all of Christianity who have segregated themselves and called themselves: Methodist, Baptist, Luthern, Episcopal, etc. When Christian folk begin to REALLY R-E-A-L-L-Y understand what Jesus was trying to teach, rather than being wrapped up in mostly only all the praise and worship of Him, or all the fear and guilt that has been used to control people(and how does all that help one “make disciples who will transform the world?”)transformation will begin to flower within each heart and a huge Aha! will be heard through all of Christendom. That is when REAL transformation will take place. It’s starting slowly and you can find it in blogs in books, hear it on CD’s and in seminars and talks from our modern-day prophets. …”ask and you will receive; knock and the door will be opened…” Then “Be still and know that I Am…”

    • What I am talking about sounds like the original Methodist movement, two Great Awakenings, the rise of Pentecostalism, the Jesus Movement, emerging church… There is nothing new or profound in what I am saying. Instituional religion regularly spawns movements that want to get down to the pure core and make faith relevant. I simply wish we could do it within our communion rather than watch it happen all around us while we merely survive.

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