Breakfast with John

Sat down with John for breakfast yesterday at Mocha Jo's. He's planting a church. I think it's his second. It's delicately poised at the moment. They've gathered a team and have begun connecting with people in the community. I've planted churches and I've been around planters for a long time. Not everybody makes it through this stage. So I ask John, "How do you feel right now? Nervous?" But no, John hasn't given it a second thought. He just knows he's called to do this. He feels excited.

You wouldn't want to be a church planter without a healthy dose of faith. I guess that's why it's the movements with faith that plant the churches and the denominations with the resources that maintain them.

Closing down sale

Images-1Collins Books are in trouble. They're selling off or closing down stores in an effort to survive. The reason? Competition from Amazon and newcomers to the Australian market like Borders.

Collins had a secure place in the world of bookselling. But the world changed. Collins has been left behind. It happens all the time. Proud businesses go out of business.

Most declining churches are shielded from this harsh reality. They survive for decades on artificial life support.

If you're not in that category, you may like to know what successful change looks like for a church. Here are my three commandments:

1. Thou shalt be conservative

Too many attempts to "modernize" or "post modernize" the faith erode the non-negotiables to accommate a godless culture. If you want a case study you can't go past the mainline churches that modernized in the 60s and 70s. Once trendy, the party is now over. Their churches are in free fall. No one's listening. Along the way they lost something.

2. Thou shalt take a risk

In a changing world, if you're not moving, you're being left behind. Core beliefs are your anchor while you change everything else in order to get the job done. Keep making that innovative return to tradition. Again and again and again.

3. Thou shalt keep the best

Ruthless evaluation. I love the first two commandments. I hate this one. Hard choices have to be made. At the end of the day is this innovation true to our core beliefs? Is it working?

Here are my biases: - Are people coming to faith in Christ? - Are they growing in obedience? - Are disciple-making groups and communities multiplying? - Are we developing godly and effective leaders? - Are healthy churches growing and multiplying? - Is the surrounding community and culture being transformed by the presence of the Kingdom?

If the answer is "no" - do something about it. Make an innovative return to tradition. Try lots of stuff and keep doing what works.

If you don't, eventually the Owner of the business may visit you and close down your store (Lk 13:6-9).

Either you're crazy or ......

Ashley, Anji and Amy Barker outside their home in a Bangkok slum

When I first met Ashley he was twenty-four years old. I was used to church planters seeking me out for coaching but Ashley was different. He didn't want to just start a church. He wanted to start a missionary movement that would multiply churches among the poor in Australia and throughout Asia. As Ashley shared his dream I told him, "Ashley, there are two possibilities. Either you're crazy, or God has his hand on your life." Over the years I've watched Ashley build Urban Neighbours of Hope into an effective missionary order among the poor. Eventually I gave him my verdict, "Ashley, you are crazy - and God has his hand on your life!"

"My house is in ruins. Restore it!" was the cry that Francis of Assisi heard in his vision in the church of San Damiano. Movements are born because something needs to change. A wrong has to be put right. An opportunity neglected has to be grasped. They are born out of dissatisfaction. Out of the discrepancy between what is and what should be. They are born in discontent. They are born because people care enough to what to do something that will make a difference.

Theodore Modis uses winter as a metaphor to describe this phase of development. The leaves have fallen. It's cold and desolate. Something is dying. Yet in the midst of death and decay something is ready to be born. The stagnation of winter is preparing the way for something new to burst forth upon the world.

The situation looks grim. Hope is in short supply. There is a need for new beginnings and creativity because spring is coming. Many of the new forms of life will not survive. The greater their number, the better the chance that some of them will survive and grow and pave the way for the sunnier seasons ahead. If early winter is the time for creativity and diversity, late winter is the time to choose from among the new directions.

I was corrupted in my denominational theological college through the study of Church History. Denominations and church structures that appeared to be, if not eternal, at least permanent, were shown to be "accidents" of history. From the perspective of history, each form of the church is constructed in response to a particular historical situation. No one church tradition can claim to be the "True Church" in isolation from all other expressions. No one form of the Church is relevant across time or geographical and cultural boundaries. The true Church is in a constant state of flux and change. Old forms are passing away. New forms are emerging. That's the one constant in church history. The church is the living Body of Christ that adapts itself to new cultures, new eras, new challenges.

Therefore it should not surprise us to find that throughout history God renews his church through the emergence of new forms of the church expressing themselves in new movements. Those movements are formed in the "winters" of church history. When all looks grey God is preparing for spring. "Surrender All : A Call to Sub-merge with Christ" (Ashley Barker)

Technorati Tags: Apostles, Innovation, Missions, Movements

Don't feed the ducks!

Don't feed the birds!

"Wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger and love of the world in all its branches.... Is there no way to prevent this - this continual decay of pure religion?"

John Wesley

John Wesley knew how to generate and release resources for mission. He encouraged his followers to, "Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give away all you can." He also knew that money played a key role in both the rise and decline of a religious movement.

Movements make history. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, especially if that idea is embodied in a group of people committed to it's implementation.

Successful movements mobilize people around meaning. People give their time and their money to advance the cause. The vast majority of new movements never get off the ground. They die premature deaths due to lack of resources. If a movement succeeds in mobilizing people and money and building up assets it faces two new and far less obvious threats.

1. The Threat: Secularism I like to remind my friends in the Salvation Army that at the beginning of their history the Salvation Army consisted of William and Catherine Booth sitting around the kitchen table with nothing more than a dream and the call of God. History is made by people passionately committed to a cause beyond themselves. Sooner or later those people need to learn how to harness resources. But money does not make a movement. Passion, commitment and faith do.

In fact as movements become successful in accumulating material resources they inevitably become "secularized". Their faith become more "this worldly" and rational. The movement puts greater emphasis on formal education for its leadership and a clergy "class" emerges with interests and a position in society to protect. In the course of history the process is near on inevitable. Successful movements seek to protect their stake in this world. They become less concerned about life in the next. They develop "weak and vague conceptions of the supernatural".

The early English Quakers had a passionate faith that at times was expressed in bizarre behavior. When was the last time you rode naked through a town as a prophetic act of God's judgement? But they quickly grew from nothing to sixty thousand followers. Eventually their work ethic and reliability enabled them to dominate the British steel industry. They founded Barclay's Bank, Lloyds of London, Rowntree and Cadbury Chocolates. By that time their faith had become far more respectable, but the growth of the movement had long come to a screeching halt. Prosperity had tamed their faith.

Response: White-hot Faith A movement that wants to stay dynamic will ensure that its vision continues to outstrip its resources. Its leaders are more concerned with the world to come than accumulating prestige and wealth in this world. That what drives the movement forward is faith, passion and sacrifice of dedicated people. Systems, resources and money are powerless without these elements.

2. Threat: Paternalism As a movement becomes successful and resource rich it seeks to create a safe and risk-free environment. Bureaucracy is not so much a problem of organizational structures. It is a collective disease of the soul. At the heart of the move towards institutionalization of a movement is the longing we all share for security, predictability and control.

Bureaucracy results from the desire to create a risk-free environment. Mistakes are made and the assumption is that regulation, control and inspection will ensure the appropriate outcomes. The only thing they do ensure is that those living under their power no longer take responsibility or ownership of the organization's mission.

Dependency and paternalism are another consequence of the desire for security. They are the outcome of "the belief that it is those at the top who are responsible for the success of the organization and the well-being of its members." The responsibility of those in power is to ensure control, consistency and predictability in the organization. Ordinary members choose dependency due to their belief that safety, self-esteem and freedom are in the hands of others. Both dependency on the part of members and paternalism on the part of leaders are required in order to create and maintain a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The price of security is that followers yield sovereignty to those in positions of power. The payoff for the ordinary member is the unspoken promise, "We own you, but don't worry, we'll take care of you."

If the central organization raises all the funds then ultimately it will want control. The movement will attract and retain people who want to be dependent. This dynamic is an important component in failed attempts to indiginize a ministry.

Response: Rapid Mobilization The only way to combat dependency and paternalism is for everyone to choose to be responsible for their personal futures and that of the mission of the organization.

Give someone a fish and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime. This saying has been done to death but it captures the empowerment paradigm. The only way to deal effectively with paternalism and dependency is to empower people to fish for themselves. As we teach church planters, "the resources are in the harvest. Don't keep looking back to headquarters." Movements empower ordinary people on the front line to take responsibility for themselves and their mission.

The control mechanism is not organizational systems and who holds the purse strings, but our common calling, values and mission.

Conclusion Methodist movement was one of the most dynamic forces for mission that the world has ever seen. Yet John Wesley's prophecy of the ultimate decline of a movement came true for the movement he founded. Despite his concerns, Methodism eventually settled down to enjoy and protect its achievements. The process may have been inevitable but it took generations to unfold. As it declined in vitality it gave birth to other movements such as the Salvation Army and Pentecostalism and the process began again.

Who Killed the Encyclopedia Salesman?

Encyclopaedia Salesman-1As a young boy I remember the men who used to go door-to-door selling the Encyclopedia Britannica. I don't remember the exact price. But I do remember that it cost thousands of dollars to buy the set. You couldn't buy them in any store. You had to wait for the salesman to come knocking on your door. His job was to convince you to make a serious investment in your children's future by purchasing a set of Encyclopedias. Our family never could afford that investment. Which is probably why I never became a brain surgeon!

Today, my children have no excuse. We have the Encyclopedia Britannica. Not the leather bound edition in multiple volumes in a nice cabinet but on a single piece of plastic called a CD Rom. Not for thousands of dollars but for $49.95 on special. Overnight the paradigm shifted. A new reality emerged. A new world was born. Overnight Encyclopedia Britannica sacked its worldwide sales force and reinvented its strategy to fit that new reality.

There are a lot of Churches and Christian organisations that are still employing door-to-door encyclopedia sales staff in an age of DVD and CD ROMS. In an age in which we will blink and DVD's and CD ROMS will be obsolete. Dynamic movements practice "sanctified pragmatism". They are willing to change everything about themselves, apart from their essential identity, in order to fulfill their mission.

Humanly speaking, the Reformation under Martin Luther could never have taken place without the technological advances in printing made by Gutenberg (ca. 1400-68). Gutenberg provided Luther with the means to communicate with the masses who were increasingly becoming literate. The Lutherans developed great skill in communicating its message of reform to the people by means of inexpensive pamphlets adorned with woodcut illustrations and cartoons. Without the publicity the printing press provided, Luther could not have rallied the popular support that enabled him to withstand the forces of the all-powerful church and state aligned against him.

In the 1970's Paul Beasley-Murray produced a study of church growth in British Baptist Churches. Interestingly he found a correlation between the growth of a church and whether it made use of an overhead projector. Churches that employed the relatively new tool of an overhead projector were more likely to be growing than those who did not. Three decades later we would probably find a similar link between the use of the more sophisticated data projector and church growth.

At their best, institutions operate like well-oiled machines. But the problem with even the best machinery is that it's not alive. It cannot adapt and respond to a changing world. It cannot reinvent itself in new circumstances.

A dynamic movement is more like a mountain stream than a machine. A stream has a driving purpose to find its way to the ocean. In pursuit of that relentless goal it is continually adapting to its environment, changing its environment, choosing new tactics, overcoming obstacles. A diversity of structures emerge as temporary solutions that facilitate its mission. As soon as they lose their effectiveness they are abandoned. The stream takes on an infinite diversity of forms and yet remains essentially the same in its identity and purpose.

I'll fight!

Gen William Booth

While women weep as they do now,

I'll fight.

While little children go hungry as they do now,

I'll fight.

While men go to prison in and out in and out,

I'll fight.

While there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God,

I'll fight. I'll fight to the very end.

General William Booth Salvation Army Founder

My sport in high school was rowing. During the season we trained three nights a week and all day Saturday. There were other school sports that demanded far less but there was something worthwhile about rowing. The experience changed me. I had a cause to live for. I built relationships around a worthwhile common goal. I learnt I could push myself beyond my limits and become stronger as a result. I learnt what it meant to make a serious commitment to something. I look back on those years with pride and satisfaction even though in five years of competition we never won a major regatta.

If, during my rowing days, you had asked me to join a crew that would require much less of me, I would have turned you down. The sport would be easier but the rewards would have evaporated. I would have rather given up the sport altogether than row in such a crew. It’s not that I liked being hot and exhausted after training. But I knew there were spin-offs from commitment that would be lost if things were easier. The costs of participating in a demanding sport were higher but so were the rewards. I hand discovered the fulfillment of living for a cause beyond myself. The sense of being a part of a team, of pursuing a worthwhile outcome, of being tested and found true.

Lech Walensa

In 1980, a 37 year-old electrician climbed over the barbed wired fences of the Gdansk shipyards in Poland to join his comrades in their opposition to the Communist regime. Within ten years Lech Walensa had been elected President of Poland and the Berlin Wall had crumbled under the onslaught of demonstrators while East German guards watched. The Communist grip on the Soviet Union and its satellite states was broken. The Communist empire was not overrun by a foreign army. There was very little blood shed. The Communist powers could have obliterated their opponents with military and nuclear might. They were vastly superior to their opponents. Yet the Communist empire dissolved as quickly as it had once emerged. Proving the maxim, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come” (Victor Hugo). History is made by people who are committed to a cause for which they are willing to lay down their lives.

In his study of religious movements, Dean Kelley found what enables religious movements to take hold is not their rationality but the demand their systems of meaning make upon their adherents and the degree to which that demand is met with commitment. “The most reasonable, most credible, most logical ideas in the world - without such demand and commitment - can never generate enough movement in human society to get one handcart over the hills to the Promised Land.”

Dynamic movements are comprised of people who have made a critical decision: they decide to 'live divided no more.’ They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts the beliefs they hold deeply on the inside. Without such commitment, nothing would change.

What cause are you committed to?

Digging deeper “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion With a New Preface for the Rose Edition (Rose Series)” (Dean M. Kelley)