The Vision – Summer 2017

Dear Friends in Christ,

Happy Summer! (This article would make a great beach-read. Please bring it with you on your vacation, or wherever it is you like to think important thoughts. 

A few years ago, I read a great article in the Lutheran. The author, Michael Rinehart, is the bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast synod. That region that has seen a lot of challenges in the last decade or more, and Bishop Rinehart shared some thoughts about change in the church.

I hear from so many people (in every church that I have served), a deep concern about the Lutheran church’s shrinking numbers. So I want to offer this article to you to address those concerns. I wonder if this article might be a springboard for the churches that I serve. I wonder how we might reach out to our neighborhoods as children of a loving God. So, please read Bishop Rinehart’s words and tell me what you think. Tell me your ideas. Tell me your feelings. I want to know how you’re thinking and feeling about the church—stuff you love and stuff you don’t love. But as you enjoy the rest of summer, let Bishop Rinehart’s words sink in….

Insiders and Outsiders by Michael W. Rinehart
Taken from The Lutheran, February 2012

Here’s my hunch. Everything for me rises or falls on this bet. I’m putting all my eggs in this basket: The turnaround of mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. If I’m wrong, fire me now. I’ll die on this hill.

What does this mean? My theory is that mainline churches have ceased to be relevant to the culture because insiders trump outsiders every time. All decisions, even little ones, are made for the benefit of those inside the church. Insiders trump outsiders.

Take hymns, for example. Musical decisions aren’t made considering what will attract spiritually hungry outsiders but what will please the card-carrying, bill-paying membership.

Time and time again church leaders receive heat from insiders upset about this or that because they are trying to re-create a childhood church experience or simply have a rigid idea of church. Leaders cave in to these insiders because they control the purse strings.

Insiders are inherently change-averse. People don’t like change, especially those who have status in the church.

Peter L. Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations (Alban 1996), taught us that every church is an emotional system. Some people benefit from the system as it currently is. Some benefit emotionally. They are revered as church saints. Or everyone seeks their approval for decisions. By receiving recognition, an emotional need is met. Or perhaps they are simply tirelessly defending “the tradition,” regardless of how new or unhelpful that tradition may be.

People in power, who have privileges in the current system, resist change and make life hard for any leader who seeks to be a change agent. Pastors are paid from members’ giving, so there is a potential conflict of interest. If they do the right thing, some leaders will end up losing their job (or up on a cross, to reference an often-told story).

Why is this happening? Church structures were set up to preserve what exists, not change it. These stable structures work well when society is changing slowly, imperceptibly. If something is working, protect it at all costs. But what if it’s not working?: What if the rate of societal change skyrockets and old patterns and structures no longer work?

Management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “When the rate of change outside the organization exceeds the rate of change inside the organization, the organization is doomed.”

What do we do about it? Change. Adapt. The church has adapted, survived and even thrived in times of tectonic change in the past. It can again.

Stable structures are a high value in a stable culture. But in a climate of rapid change, adaptability is the higher value. In a time of stability, experience is crucial. In times of change, experience can be a liability, especially if the experienced make the fatal mistake of assuming that what garnered success in the past guarantees success in the future. What got you where you are now won’t get you where you need to go in the future. Sorry. Leaders who don’t get this are in for some rough sledding.

Let’s face it, change is hard. Change, however is non-negotiable. The only constant in life is change. There is no growth without change. As someone once said, “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.”

Any kind of change creates conflict. Leaders can only tolerate so much discontent. And even a little discontent sounds loud when you’re in the hot seat. So when things heat up, leaders circle the wagons, which is precisely the wrong thing to do. Instead, leaders need to sin boldly. Lead boldly. Look at any successful enterprise and you can be certain that someone, at some point, took a huge risk along the way. Nothing great is accomplished without risk.

An article in Fortune magazine noted: “The trouble with Steve Jobs: Likes to make his own rules, whether the topic is computers, stock options, or even pancreatic cancer. The same traits that make him a great CEO drive him to put his company, and his investors, at risk.”

But risk is risky, and change is simply too difficult and painful. Most organizations won’t change until they’re desperate, like the alcoholic who won’t go to rehab until she or he hits rock bottom.

So what will give us the courage to take those risks? This takes us back to the beginning. Churches won’t adapt to the new realities until they care as much about reaching those outside as appeasing those inside.

The world is hell-bent on destruction in countless ways. It is desperately in need of a church that offers a way of peace, truth, compassion and hope, as opposed to the world’s way of power, materialism, exploitation and violence. It needs a church that looks less like the Pharisees’ religion and more like Jesus’ ministry. It needs a church that will sacrifice everything for those outside: buildings, budgets, sacred cows, traditions, structures. It needs a church that so loves the world, she’d be willing to die for it.

So here’s the plan. New policy. Every decision made by staff, council and committees is made on behalf of those not yet here. Every sermon choice, every hymn or song choice, every building and grounds choice, every spending choice is made with outsiders in mind.

When we become a church for the world, the outsider, when the pain of staying the same (and dying of irrelevance) for those already here exceeds the pain of changing (and sacrificing old ways) for those not yet here, we will be the church for which God incarnate came to this earth and gave his life.

(A big hug to anybody who made it through the whole article. No cheating—no hug until you give me a brief synopsis. HAHA! –SVH)