I hope your church flops

fosbury-flopAt the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City a rail-thin engineering student from Oregon State named Dick Fosbury stunned the world of track and field with his approach to the high jump competition. Rather than sprinting straight toward the bar like the other competitors, Fosbury stood to one side and ran toward the bar in a short loop. At the last-minute he turned his back and threw himself head first over the bar with his feet trailing as he fell on his back to the mat. No one had seen anything like this before; it was completely unorthodox, dangerous and possibly against the rules. Fosbury would have been laughed out of the competition except he had just set a new Olympic high jump record at 7 feet 4 1/4 inches. To this day on every Olympic high jump champion goes over the bar backwards in what is known as the Fosbury Flop. Dick Fosbury revolutionized his sport because he was willing to do something no one else had tried, to jump over the bar backwards.

The American church needs more Dick Fosburys. We need leaders who stay within biblical standards and respect the traditions of the church, but are willing to jump over the bar backwards. Too many churches are stagnant, too many church plant fails and too many people are unreached with the Gospel to continue to do the same thing over and over and hope for different results. The current models of Americna churches produce extraordinary results only when led by extraordinary leaders backed by extraordinary piles of cash. We don’t need to abandon these current models, but we have to find new models to reach new segments of society and see new patterns of success. So how do we find the “Fosbury Flop” in the American church? Here are a couple of ideas for starters:

Rethink our approach to money

One reason we cling to the existing models of church is they are safe. We have to pay the salaries and keep the lights on, so we stick with something that we know will bring in the needed funds. There is nothing wrong with this model, but it keeps us from changing. We can’t jump over the bar backwards because that’s not what tithers want. The majority of financial support in a church comes from established Christians who are very comfortable with the current model of church. When we introduce something new they vote with their bank account.

The same is true of church plants. A successful church plant is almost always backed by a substantial amount of cash, and supporters give to what they know. Church planters either figure out a way to plant with little support, or they conform to an existing model. They dream of jumping over the bar backwards, but they know they can’t really afford to make that leap of faith.

One way to change the financial paradigm is to create a very austere model; no buildings, very few staff, little or no equipment. Every few weeks I meet with a church planter who is adopting this approach under the label “missional”, “organic” or “house church”. There are a couple of challenges to this approach to finances. The first is there is little to no money to support the leader. He or she almost always has to find a “real job” to support their family. This leads to the second challenge: these churches grow very slowly leading to limited impact. This is not to say this isn’t a valid approach to church, but this is not a “Fosbury Flop” innovation that will soon change the story of the American church. There will always be a place for smaller, slow-growing communities of faith, but we also need other ideas.

Another way to approach the financial challenge of revolutionizing the model is to change the source. Basic economics tell us there are two ways to deal with financial deficits; we can decrease expenses or we can increase income. The challenge with decreasing expenses, as we’ve seen above, is it can cut off growth and innovation. Fewer expenses always means fewer resources to work with. What if instead we increased income? Again economic theory says that increased income is almost always accomplished by creating multiple streams. Rather than simply relying on a single salary, we might take a second job, invest in stocks or buy rental property. Well-resourced individuals and companies always have multiple income streams.

Somewhere along the way we decided that churches should only have one steam of income; local givers. I’ve read the New Testament many times over and I can’t find a single scripture that says the local church must always be limited by the giving of the local congregation. I have some friends who are doing some very innovative work in the area of supplemental funding in the local church context. One of my favorite ideas is combining a child care center, a Starbucks and a community center that doubles as a church on the weekends. Rather than a traditional church building with a coffee shop and daycare shoehorned in, the building is designed from the ground up to house three for-profit entities and a church sharing one location. This is just one of dozens of ideas I see churches experimenting with. I know there are huge pitfalls to when church and business are connected, but there are also tremendous pitfalls when you through yourself backwards over a high jump bar. As some of these ideas take shape I think we’ll see incredible innovation in the American church as finances take a back seat to the creative leading of the Holy Spirit.

Rethink our approach to where we plant

When Seacoast Church launched in 1988 they were the only church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina with contemporary music, relevant teaching and creative kid’s ministry. In fact there were very few churches in the entire state that did ministry similar to Seacoast. Part of Seacoast’s explosive growth is due to the fact they were “first to market” with a new way to do church. Now there are very few communities of any size in America without a church utilizing a similar approach to ministry as Seacoast. Their approach to music, preaching or children’s ministry may be slightly different, but their template looks the same. When new churches come into the community they end up fighting over the same market share. (We never call it that, but that is exactly what it is.) When one church does the model better than others there is a migration to the new church. If the new church is substantially better at the model they may wind up on the cover of Outreach Magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America. Some new people come to Christ, but the majority of the growth tends to be among the already convinced.

We need to get honest with ourselves and stop planting the same model over and over again in the same communities. Just because your church can plant a campus that will boom because you do ministry better than the churches that are already there isn’t a reason to go to that community. Is there something about your model that will actually reach a group of people who will never be reached by the existing churches? If you are going to reach the same demographic with the same basic method as the churches already in the community, why waste Kingdom resources to simply attract a crowd? Where are the communities that do not have a church like yours (or the one you want to plant)? Where is the unique group of people you can reach that no one else is reaching? A lot of resources and talent is being wasted trying to reach the same people with the same methods over and over and over again.

I love the work Christ Together (ChristTogether.org) is doing in cities across the country as they bring churches together to collaborate around bringing the Gospel to every man, woman and child in America. Rather than competing and stepping on one another churches are learning to cooperate and saturate their city with the Gospel. We need more Christ Together type movements among churches in our cities.

Rethink our approach to weekends

There was a time in America when going to a church building every Sunday, singing songs for 20-30 minutes and listening to a 30-45 minute sermon seemed normal. Almost everyone did something similar. We didn’t wonder why church was like that, it just was. We assumed it must be the biblical pattern, though we couldn’t remember any verses that mentioned hymnals or three-point sermons.

Today that model of church seems very strange to the uninitiated. Why would you go to a church building during the football game? Why would you stand and sing songs except at a concert or a ballgame? And listen to a man (almost always a man) talk for more than 30 minutes? Shoot me now.

Of course our pattern of church isn’t biblical or anti-biblical; it’s simply tradition. But our world has changed while we cling to our tradition. The length of sermons is an interesting case in point. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was only 14 minutes long. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” lasted 17 minutes. TED Talks, which have been viewed over a billion times online, last 18 minutes. But we continue to roll out the 30-45 minute lecture every weekend even though we know no one’s attention span lasts that long anymore.

Sitting in rows of chairs or in pews is another interesting tradition. We know that people learn better in circles when they can interact, but we save that for small group. On Sundays we keep them staring at the backs of other people’s heads while we drone on and on.

Musical worship is biblical, but there’s nothing in the Bible about the length of time, standing while you sing, or singing Chris Tomlin songs every time you get together. (Although the Tomlin part might be there, I’ll have to look again.) We stand and we sing because, well, we stand and we sing.

I’m not suggesting that the answer to our woes is to sit in circles, cut sermons to 18 minutes or switch to 5 minutes of Gregorian chant. What I am saying is we do the same things over and over and wonder why the uninitiated don’t connect. We’ve created the one right way to do church, the one right way to go over the bar, and we’ve closed our minds to jumping over backwards.

Is your church ready to flop?

There was a time when Dick Fosbury was the only person on the planet who thought jumping backwards over a high jump bar was a good idea. Until he won an Olympic Gold medal he was just a goofy engineering student from Oregon, when he cleared the bar at 7’ 4 1/2” he became the trendsetter for the next 50 years. We need more Dick Fosburys in the American Church. We need leaders who are willing to walk away from what they know, from what is safe, from what is comfortable and find a new way to share the timeless Gospel. But they need to succeed. It isn’t enough to be different, you have to make an impact. Little experiments are great, but at some point you have to win a Gold medal for the world to notice you exist. We need bold, crazily talented leaders who will lead us to a new model of church based not just on the past, but on what God wants to do in the future.

Are we selling the VW Gospel?

220px-Volkswagen_logo_2012.svgThis week Volkswagen got caught cheating. They created software that detects when testing is taking place and changes how the car operates so it can meet environmental standards. When the test is over the engine resume emitting up to 40 times the allowable pollutants. The scandal has already cost two high level jobs and will cost billions of dollars, countless jobs, and many years to repair the damage. Ironically VW recently passed Toyota as the largest car company in the world; it is impossible to know how far they will slide in the coming months.

The mistake VW made was telling a story that did not match reality. Rather than admitting that they couldn’t make a diesel engine that met all of the required specifications, they invented a narrative of success. They convinced the public that their German engineers could do things no other engineers in the world could accomplish. The disaster for VW isn’t that their cars don’t pass tests, the disaster is that their leaders can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

We run the same risk as Christian leaders. We can be so committed to seeing our churches grow that we will “do anything short of sin” to attract people. Sometimes we present a narrative that simply doesn’t line up with realty. We preach a Gospel that says if people will simply pray a prayer their whole lives will change; their marriages will improve, their kids will behave and their finances will flourish. They will find purpose and meaning and answers to all of life’s difficult questions. We point to examples of people who seem to live the kinds of lives everyone wants, and imply that our brand of faith guarantees the same results.

It works well until the deception is exposed.

Jesus faced the same temptation. People wanted to hear that Roman domination was ending, Jewish prosperity was returning and Jesus would make it all happen. As Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead and fed the hungry thousands of people dropped everything and followed him. They thought they found the key to the happy life everyone wanted. The momentum of this new Jesus movement seemed unstoppable.

Then one day Jesus turned to a crowd of thousands and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life in you.” (John 6:53 NLT) The people were stunned. What did he mean, “eat the flesh” “drink his blood”? This wasn’t the Good News they came to hear.

Another time Jesus told the crowd, “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34 NLT) The people were looking for peace and prosperity. Jesus was their ticket to the good life. How could he talk of bringing a sword?

When people heard Jesus say challenging things like this they began to drift away. Jesus wasn’t what they thought he was, so they left and looked for another feel good Messiah.

Jesus wasn’t just doom and gloom, however. He also said things like:

“My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” 

“Come to me and I will give you rest.” 

“Peace I leave with you.”

“I will send another Comforter.”

Jesus did not tell people what they wanted to hear, instead he presented a true narrative of life as it really is. He presented the good, the bad and the ugly. He didn’t promise a life that simply doesn’t play out in a lost and fallen world. Many, many people turned away from Jesus because the narrative he told wasn’t the narrative they wanted to hear, but the men and women who stayed carried his message to the end of the earth. I love what Peter said when Jesus asked him if hew would leave as well, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.” (John 6:68 NLT)

When, as Christian leaders, we present a Gospel that is too good to be true we commit the same mistake VW made; we tell a story that doesn’t match reality. We create a narrative that may attract followers but doesn’t grow disciples, and when life doesn’t match the story we sold the followers they will turn on the church expose us as the hucksters we’ve become.

Our job, our only job, is to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. We are called to tell the truth; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our narrative is Christ’s narrative; “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)

I don’t know when, or if, VW will recover from this scandal. My concern, however, is that if we, as Christian leaders, don’t learn from VW’s downfall the damage to the cause of Christ will be much more catastrophic. Let’s agree to speak the truth in love and leave the increase to God.

Why Great Leaders Have Dysfunctional Teams and Fuzzy Goals

20131202090210902A popular conception of leadership is inspiring a group of high-capacity individuals to work as a team  to accomplish clearly defined goals and objectives. In this paradigm we focus on words like vision, mission and values while we fill our pipeline from a deep bench of developing leaders. We read books, attend conferences and write blog posts around this idealized picture of leadership. It is inspiring and fun to think about.

I just wonder if its real.

In my 3+ decades of leading and being led I’ve seldom encountered environments that match this prototype. I don’t doubt the importance of vision, mission and values, and I believe in leadership pipelines and deep benches. The challenge is that very little of what I see in day-to-day leadership actually looks like the pictures in the books.

My new definition of leadership looks more like this:

Helping slightly dysfunctional people perform mundane tasks to accomplish fuzzy goals. 

Before you write me off as an old curmudgeon let me break down my definition.

Slightly dysfunctional people

Everyone I’ve ever worked with is dysfunctional is some way. (I’m dysfunctional in a multitude of ways.) The myth of leadership is that with we need to find better people to accomplish bigger tasks. I believe we need to learn to work with the dysfunctional people we have to help them accomplish more than they think possible.

Look at the great leaders in the Bible. David led a group of misfits and rejects. Moses led a mob of complainers. Jesus led a mismatched group of fishermen, tax collectors and thieves. There are no greater leaders than David, Moses and Jesus, and they each spent years helping dysfunctional people perform mundane tasks to accomplish fuzzy goals.

Complaining about the people we work with, and constantly trying to upgrade, are a waste of time. Any leader can lead a team of A-players, it takes an incredible leader to lead the rag-tag group you inherited.

Perform mundane tasks

Leadership literature is littered (I LOVE alliteration) with images of “taking the hill”, “burning the ships” and “winning the war”. These are inspiring images, but they have very little to do with what we do day-in and day-out as leaders and as team members.

Rallying the troops to charge the hill is a piece of cake compared to inspiring everyday people to faithfully complete the 100s of mundane tasks that make an organization run, grow and win. I love Jim Collins image of the 20 mile march in Great By Choice. The successful leader isn’t necessarily the one who can excite the crowd, it is the leader who can maintain the pace.

Accomplish fuzzy goals

We love sports analogies in leadership; scoring the touchdown, moving the ball, winning the game. We all want to win, we all want to hit the target. The challenge is that the “win” isn’t always clear. In fact on the twenty-mile march it is seldom clear.

I spent the first 10 years of my career in student ministry, and it was always difficult to know the right scorecard; big attendance? raised hands? bringing back as many kids as I took? We always set goals, but on a day-to-day basis it was often hard to know whether we were winning. In reality I didn’t really know if we “won” at all until 5-10 years after I left student ministry.

My point isn’t that vision, values, mission, pipelines and benches don’t matter. They do matter. They are tools that help us improve and inspire. My point is that any leader with a team of A players can get a well-defined, short-term win. Exceptional leaders inspire teams of B and C players day after day after day, even without crystal clear goals, to accomplish more than they imagine possible.

Remember when you are frustrated with your team, bored by your tasks and unclear on your goals you are in the trenches of real leadership. This is where the important stuff actually gets done.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.

Galatians 6:9 (NLT)


The atomic bomb theory of leadership

nagasaki-bomb2I just finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which may be the geekiest sentence I’ve ever written. Be that as it may the book, at least the parts I understood, was fascinating. One story that jumped out was the last stage of arming the second atomic bomb ever built. The U.S. government spent over $2 billion (that’s billion) over four years to build two bombs, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the one dropped on Nagasaki. The last step before loading the Nagasaki bomb onto the plane was to wire the detonator to the power source. When the physicist assigned to this delicate task attempted to make the connection he realized that someone had installed the wires backwards; the male and female ends were reversed. To reinstall the wire would take at least another 24 hours, extending World War II and leading to the loss of hundreds, or even thousands, of additional American and allied lives. No one else was around, he had a decision to make.

Without consulting his superiors he decided to fix the wires himself. Because of the sensitivity of the bomb no heat source was allowed anywhere near; there weren’t even any electrical outlets in the room. It was late at night by this time, so the physicist was alone in the building. He scoured the lab and found an electrical extension cord and a soldering iron. At the risk of killing everyone in a 5 mile radius, he very carefully soldered the connections onto the correct ends of the wires and wired the detonator to to the power source. The next day the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki effectively ending World War II.

Setting aside the argument over the morality or immorality of using atomic weapons to kill tens of thousands of people, there are some fascinating leadership lessons in this story:

Assessing blame is seldom the best first step

I would imagine the first instinct when the physicist discovered the mistake was to find the idiot who wired the harness up backwards. This certainly wasn’t the physicist’s fault and he shouldn’t have to make up for other people’s incompetence. He knew, however, that blame at this point was meaningless. The key was to find a solution as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Angry leaders who spew threats and recriminations in the midst of crisis are ineffective and slow down everyone around them. Great leaders are more concerned with solutions than with blame. They are able to block out frustration and anger when they encounter a crucial problem, and focus on finding the best path back to success.

Highly trained, competent people can make horrendous mistakes

The people assembling atomic bombs in 1945 were the smartest men and women in the world. Brilliant scientists like Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi created systems and checks and counter checks to ensure that everything worked exactly as it was intended, but in the highly intense environment of war, staring down the barrel of the most lethal weapon ever created, men made mistakes.

Great leaders know that the very best people can make the worst mistakes. They create an environment where mistakes are not encouraged, but tolerated. Whether you are building an atomic bomb, mixing sound for a church service or writing copy for a website there will be mistakes. So the next time someone on your team screws up remind yourself at least they’re not building a nuclear weapon.

When lives are on the line always check your systems

It is likely that in the rush to get the bomb ready no one thought to include a checklist item to make sure the connectors were on the correct ends of the detonator wiring harness. It is also likely the next time they built a bomb that was a well-documented step. I imagine this is the last time anyone used a hot soldering iron on an armed atomic bomb.

Great leaders know that high expectations should be backed up by efficient systems. People can only perform to standards they are aware of in systems they understand. Every mistake is an opportunity to tweak the systems and reinforce the standards. Chewing someone out when they mess up is not a standard nor a system.

High capacity leaders sometimes take jaw-dropping risks for the good of the whole

No matter how good your systems are or how well-trained your staff there will come a time when you have to make a choice. Will you risk everything? Will you step outside of policies and procedures, put everything on the line, to take a leap of faith? We’ll never know what would have happened if the physicist would have postponed the bomb for another couple of days, or if he’d dropped the soldering iron and ignited an explosion. We know that he decided to take initiative and fix another man’s mistake. He took the risk.

Leaders who habitually bet the farm are reckless and a menace to the organization. Leaders who are too timid to step outside their comfort zone are ineffective. Great leaders look at potential disaster and decide to find a soldering iron.

Would the Apostle Paul fly the Confederate flag?

S.C.-Confederate-flagThe first century Corinthian church has a significant problem. Some of the new believers are shocked and offended that other church members are eating idol meat. This is tantamount to idol worship, something clearly against God’s will. The meat eaters respond saying the newbies don’t have clue; the idol is just a hunk of wood so why not grill up a t-bone? Symbolism is destroying the unity of the church, so they write to the Apostle Paul to get his take on the issue.

I love Paul’s answer:

While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. (1 Corinthians 8:1-3 NLT)

Paul goes on to say that it really doesn’t matter what we think the meat symbolizes, what matters is the impact our actions have on others. He says that if eating meat causes harm to his fellow Christians he’s willing to become a vegan (my paraphrase).

Facebook’s current kerfuffle is over the fate of the Confederate flag flying near the South Carolina state capital. Some say the flag symbolizes racism and that it must come down. Others say that it is a symbol of heritage and pride and it should stay. I strongly believe if we could ask the Apostle Paul his question would be, “Does flying the flag causes others in the body of Christ pain? If so, regardless of its symbolism, we should take it down.” I believe he would say the same principle that he gave the church at Corinth 2000 ago still applies today; it is love that strengthens the church.

If I am a Christ follower it doesn’t matter that the flag was never the official flag of the Confederate States, it doesn’t matter why I believe the southern states seceded from the Union and it doesn’t matter if the flag makes me feel proud of my heritage. If my brothers and sisters in Christ say the flag is a painful reminder of the hatred of racism then I say take it down. To again paraphrase Paul, I’d rather be called a Yankee than cause more pain to my fellow believers.

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