The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

shortestI have been reading/thinking quite a bit about creativity and innovation and I am increasingly impressed by the regular occurrence of discontinuity and evolutionary leaps.  Few transformative changes happen incrementally.  The major shifts occur when leaders bring disparate elements together or when “tradition” and “convention” are set aside to make fundamental change rather than simple adjustment or manipulation.  Such brave pioneer souls play by a different set of rules — briefly.  Once the wisdom of the change is evident, myriad copycats appear (all claiming to be innovative, creative and avant-garde…).  We are in a weird place culturally, where we define leadership as “copying what other more successful people are already doing,” (also known as “best practices”) and we seek radical change by tinkering with what already isn’t working.

John Collins sent me this quote from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Dish.  “And thinkers like Owen Barder are among many promoting complex, adaptive approaches to projects (based on the evolutionary idea that each community/organism succeeds by trial and error and making adaptations suitable for its circumstances) in reaction to linear, command-and-control, “best practices” (logframe) approaches of aid donors.”  The search for simple and simplistic solutions to complex and contextual problems is widespread, but of limited value.  We are simply living in an age where the variables so outnumber the constants that a single formula cannot suffice.  The church cannot generate a small set of “models” that will solve all our ecclesial ills.  Counting people coming in our doors gives us something to do, just nothing of any true value.  Our problem is not one of quantity, but of integrity.

I have a screwdriver.  It is the best screwdriver in the world.  It takes care of all my screw-driving needs, plus it doubles as a mini-crowbar, a lever, a can opener, and even a cabinet latch.  I could not be happier with my screwdriver.  Do I wish I had more screwdrivers just like it?  No.  I don’t need more screwdrivers.  If I had more screwdrivers, they would sit in the drawer while I use the screwdriver I like.  I might want a hammer and a ruler and a saw and a file and an awl and a level.  The complementarity of such a toolbox makes elegant sense.  Through such diversity the breadth of what might be accomplished increases exponentially.  Beyond that, were I to fill a tool shed with lawn equipment, a kitchen with culinary implements, a closet with cleaning supplies, etc., I might generate a full-functioning, efficient household.  By filling the space with necessary and needed equipment, I maximize the potential for a particular quality of living.  The extent to which I fill household space with redundant and inactive (unneeded) defines waste and worthlessness.

If you perceive an analogy coming on, congratulations.  My profound and epic analysis of our church’s current malaise follows: the more we try to make one Christian like every other Christian, one church like every other church (even the most “successful”), one ministry the model for self-replication we unintentionally create a system of first mediocrity, then decline.  If there is not a place for every “tool” in the work of God in the world, then we foster waste and worthlessness as the defining standard of what it means to be church.  Any time we are okay with merely getting someone to attend worship occasionally, we are contributing to the downfall of organized religion.  Hyperbole?  The more people we attract to “church,” the worse it seems to be getting.  Our solution to the bottom rusting out of the bucket we call United Methodism is to put more in the bucket (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, Rusty Bottom).  The integrity of what we call church is severely compromised.  Gimmicks to put more stress, pressure and weight on a compromised system is short-sighted and ignorant.  “Vitality” is not defined by either “size” or “activity.”  Vitality is defined by outcomes and impact.  We still don’t seem to get that.

We are conditionally linear thinkers — we move in a straight line, and once we do so, we retrace that line until it is a trench, then a rut.  Coffee shops, welcome desks, and valet parking have all done wonders for some of our churches, but you know what?  More churches try these things and abandon them than try them and adopt them.  They offer nothing of lasting value or impact to make a church truly attractive.  Surveys of younger Americans indicate that they are seeking help to make their world a better place.  They want to have a clearer sense of purpose and a viable way to feel relevant and worthwhile.  Churches seek to give them clean restrooms and visible signage.  What’s wrong with this picture?

I am spending more and more time looking at alternative faith groups as they pop up in almost every region of the United States.  What are some of the most common features?  They are small — rarely more than 12-20 people.  They have one or two defining passions — helping the poor, healing the sick, teaching/mentoring, or community organizing.  The don’t moralize or worry much about what NOT to do or who NOT to include.  They are focused on producing the positive rather than avoiding the negative.  They work together, they play together, they eat together, they sing and dance together, and they learn together.  They teach each other.  They inspire each other.  They take care of each other so that they are all better prepared to care for others.  They don’t go to church because they are so busy being church.  While you and I hear preachers talk about Acts 2 churches, these people are creating Acts 2 faith communities.  I meet young people almost every week who are connecting with these groups and they have no interest in what we offer in the way of congregational life.

I feel the time has come to stop worrying about institutional preservation and our own survival.  We need to stop trying to do good work for God and open ourselves that God might do the work that needs doing through us.  The shortest distance between where we are and where God needs us to be is not a simple straight line.  The shortest distance is whatever it takes to go where God wants us.

7 replies

  1. In case you doubt that Christianity has a place in America, go to You Tube and find “Wesleyan pastors update from Dr. Lyon (2014)”. This is the annual video report from the General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church. They had “another record breaking year”; I think it is the third consecutive year the denomination has experienced record growth.

  2. on further consideration, you really ought to go to and read the Daily Text dealing with Epiphanies. During the last couple of weeks, JD Walt has had some profound reflections on having epiphanies. The quote I included above was one of several.

  3. Read your thoughts with interest. Finally dawned on me that you are talking about a people who are in relationship with and have submitted themselves to the authority of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After my experience of being a “good Methodist” for more than a few decades, I am willing to bet most of the UMC have been very welled schooled in “churchmanship” and “churchianity” rather than discipleship and Christianity. I have spent the better part of a year learning how much I did not know about basic orthodox Christianity.

    I think you would appreciate this

    There are three groups of people involved in the scene unfolded for us in today’s Gospel text (Luke 5:17-26). First there are the authorities, those for whom the status quo is working. It’s interesting to note what the scripture points out here: These Pharisees and Scribes had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. That had to be more than a few people. They are guarding their power and their posture reveals as much. They had the most to lose.

    Next there is the crowd, the people who packed themselves into the house to get what Jesus had to give. They needed something. Jesus was healing people. The impersonal crowd ever drifts between the authorities and the Authority. They will go with the power.
    Then there are the friends who believe the impossible. This is who Jesus seems most interested in.

    Which group do you find yourself in these days? J.D. Walt, “The Difference between Authority and authorities: Epiphany Day 34”, Daily Text, February 9, 2014,

    One thing I have learned is that within the church there is a mix of people: there are those that are truly seeking to respond to God but then there are those that different authors have called “bugs”, “critters”, “rabble”, “those that are here for the benefits”. I now have a different perspective of my local church, and I truly wonder “who is in charge?”. There is no reason not to wonder the same thing on up the hierarchy.

  4. I love your take on things as it always stimulates thought. My gravest concern in hearing you describe the alternate faith groups was the absence of any reference to the Grace of God or the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Without those they sound like social service clubs. Was that just an oversight in your description or are the alternate faith groups truly avoiding the theology behind the sociology. (Of course I will concede that there are several traditional faith groups that neglect this as well)

    • Most (but not all) are more faithful in prayer and study, more committed to corporate formation, and better integrate faith with action than the majority of regular church attendees I know.

  5. The implications of your analysis are unsettling. We’ve spent a lot of time creating huge buildings (and church structures) that once revolved around programs, attractional models of church, etc. The trend is away from that, as you’re seeing with these alternative faith groups. Even in my small town, I’ve seen that play out. I keep returning to the same unsettling conclusion that you do. Personally, I know how I need to respond, and I think ever more in prophetic terms as a leader. I do wish there was more support, understanding, dare I say nurture in navigating to the point where I (and we) need to be. But the truth is, there isn’t. At one time, I thought that was a pretty bad thing. Now, I’m rather inspired by all the people out there who made the leap and seem to be saying, “Come on over!” Thank you for confirming that by way of the examples you cite…and your willingness to put yourself out there.

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