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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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If you have followed this month’s articles on the future of Churches of Christ you may have sensed some negativity toward Churches of Christ and/or our future. I don’t really see what has been posted that way but I know some of you do. I am not much of a feeler. It is my belief we have to look our situation square in the eye in order to deal with it. When you look in the mirror you don’t always like everything you see but you still realize you are looking at you and you are valuable.

The same is true with our churches. Not everything is going to be perfect. We have room to grow and room to improve. But we still love our churches enough to bring these things up and fight for a healthy future. There is so much value here we have to keep working.

Here is where we go from this point forward – we start painting an encouraging picture of the future and outline how to navigate the challenges we face. This won’t be a negative conversation. This won’t be a bitter conversation. This will be a loving, practical conversation and I hope you will join us in that conversation.

There are some really good days ahead. There really are. In order to embrace that we are going to have to lean into God harder than we ever have before. I believe our people can do it! We may all just need some encouragement rather than discouragement and some good news rather than what seems like a constant stream of bad news.

So hang in there! I am looking forward to this conversation.

JULY 2019 E-NEWS   What’s baptism got to do with leadership?

Being a part of a tradition that practices believer’s baptism means that what I am about to say may sound a little odd, but here goes. I do not think that most of us take baptism seriously enough. Really. Of course, we want our children to be baptized, and when people make a commitment to Jesus Christ we do so in a baptismal pool in church or in somebody’s swimming pool after a Bible study. I get that – and, as Jesus says, “it fulfills all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

But after a person towels off and the chlorine smell fades, baptism all too often fades into a distant glow. Folks get on with their lives. The deed has been done. It’s time to get back to work and play and family and sorting out how to make it through life balancing some Jesus and taking care of oneself.

That is precisely where our theology of baptism fails us. Baptism becomes a mountaintop experience that recognizes our acceptance of Jesus instead of baptism becoming the first act of a lifetime of following God’s call. I believe it is far too easy for us to think baptism is about our decision to say “yes Lord” without reckoning with the part about dying to ourselves and beginning a new life characterized by Christ’s living presence within us.

In other words, we fail to understand baptism unless we understand that baptism marks us as disciples of Jesus Christ who obey his calling – every single day. Following Jesus isn’t always easy. It means that his purpose becomes my purpose. It means taking risks so that others might find life.

So at one level I would say that baptism has nothing to do with leadership. When church leaders gather it is not usually to read Romans 6 or to recount stories of persons coming to faith. Rather, leaders are often focused on questions about the health and mission of the congregations they serve. But here is the rub, which I want to say lovingly but clearly. If churches have leaders who are not fully sold out as disciples of Jesus Christ – consciously aware of the demands of being a baptized, dead and reborn person committed fully to God’s transforming work in the world – then likely those churches are anemic and more interested in remaining content.

But when churches have leaders who are consciously living with the reality that Christ lives in us and that baptism commissions us to live radical lives of faith, adventure and obedience for God’s mission in the world, I think you will find a church that is lively and full of hope.

So baptism may not have a lot to do with leadership, but baptism has everything to say about discipleship. If leaders are not disciples of the living, acting Lord … well, then our anemic baptismal theology has sadly won the day.

So remember your baptismal commitments: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2.20). Our churches desperately need disciples who will provide leadership toward God’s preferred future!

Blessings,

Carson

NEWS
Ministers’ Support Network offers renewal and discernment
“So many in ministry walk away from the call. Some are forced out due to moral failure. Others simply are work-worn and tired. Here’s the clincher: Most of us are work-worn and tired. But we press on … because the work needs to be done and there are so many souls out there who need to see what redemption and grace and love look like.” These words come from Caryn Blanchard (’10) as she reflected on her experiences on a Ministers’ Support Network (MSN) sabbatical retreat

If you or a ministry couple you know are feeling “work-worn and tired,” we would love to talk with you or them about participating in a future MSN retreat, in hopes of extending support, relief and renewal. Please email the couple’s names, email address and cell phone number to Robert Oglesby, MSN coordinator.  Lunch and Learn with Dr. Jerry Taylor

Registration is open for this year’s Lunch and Learn on Aug. 29! Dr. Jerry Taylor will be speaking on “Why Courage Matters!” Taylor is founding executive director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action and associate professor of Bible, missions and ministry. We hope you’ll bring a friend enjoy a word of encouragement and an opportunity to connect with other local church leaders and Christ-followers. Register now! New issue of Discernment available We are pleased to share the latest issue of our journal, Discernment: Theology and the Practice of Ministry. In this issue, Mason Lee (’14 M.Div.) considers the value of patience in dealing with the realities of how congregations read and interpret Scripture. Additionally, Dr. Shannon Rains (’19 D.Min.), Dr. Jennifer Schroeder and Dr. Ron Bruner (’10 D.Min.) offer a practical resource guide for scholars, ministers and church members engaged in children’s ministry.

With Discernment’s growing readership in more than 110 countries, we encourage scholar/practitioners who have completed substantial work in practical theology to consider this peer-reviewed journal as a vehicle to share their hard-earned wisdom. To learn more about how to submit your own work for review, visit the journal homepage or contact Bruner (pictured), editor of Discernment and executive director of Westview Boys’ Home in Hollis, Oklahoma. Summer Seminar: Renewing churches for God’s mission

Is your church struggling? Are you concerned about the future of the church? If so, join us August 9-10 as we explore our heritage, honestly assess our current condition and discuss ways to move forward into the future. Want to learn more about this year’s Summer Seminar? Check out this video from spiritual director Randy Harris and founding director Dr. Royce Money (’64) along with this Mosaic post featuring Dr. Wes Crawford (’02 M.Div.), assistant professor of modern and American church history at ACU and one of this year’s seminar speakers. Be sure to register by Aug. 5. Church families bridging the generations at Summit 2019
For years, churches have witnessed the divide between generations, but practical and effective solutions to this problem are rarely obvious. Churches wanting to become more intentionally intergenerational typically raise two questions: “How can we bring the generations back together?” and, more importantly, “Why?”

On Monday, Sept. 16, Holly Catterton Allen and Wilson McCoy III (’10) will address these important questions in a pathway that will draw on Scripture, theology, sociology and practical experience.

Allen teaches family science and Christian ministry at Lipscomb University and co-authored Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community, and Worship. McCoy ministers with the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tennessee, and his doctoral research focused on intergenerational spiritual formation. 

Join us at Summit 2019 for this and many other insightful pathways. Learn more and register on our brand new Summit website!

Team spotlight: Randy Harris
Randy Harris has been busy this summer as a guest preacher in several Texas churches. His recent preaching travels have included Round Rock (Texas) Church of Christ, Highland and Southern Hills here in Abilene, and Riverside in Coppell. At the end of this month, he will speak at a summer series in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Contact Harris if you’d like to invite him to your church, or contact any number of resource people who are eager to work with you as guest preachers, workshop leaders and more.

MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Summer Seminar, Aug. 9-10
Lunch and Learn with Dr. Jerry Taylor, Aug. 29
ACU’s 113th Summit, Sept. 15-18
Ministers’ Support Network Retreat, Sept. 19-22
Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative Retreat, Oct. 7-10

PARTNER WITH US
Our work in the Siburt Institute is made possible by the generosity of friends like you who support and share our mission to serve church leaders and other Christ-followers.

Give to the Siburt Institute.

Thanks for joining me for part 4 of a 6-part series I have titled, “Leadership-Lessons from Blockbuster! If you are just now joining me for this conversation, it might be helpful to go back and read parts 1-3 to catch up to speed. If you have been staying with me, here is a quick re-cap:

  • The Churches of Christ are on a decline in the United States.
  • We, as a church, can become indifferent to the world around us. As a result, the world can become indifferent to us.
  • Society is changing rapidly and, while we need to remain faithful to our mission of going and making disciples, how we accomplish that mission (our methods) much change to best reach our society.
  • Currently in our churches we see two distinct philosophies: The Craftsman Philosophy and the Apple Philosophy.  Both are trying to jockey for “who gets to decide what happens at this church.” We work best when we work together.
  • In Jesus’ ministry, he modeled for us the method of putting the attention on the lost rather than the found – which is striking different than what most churches practice.  We are typically set up to make church people happy and can forget to place our attention, focus, and decision making based on how to best seek and find the lost.

There you have it, the last 3 articles in a nutshell. 

We started this series examining the rise and fall of the one-time movie rental giant, Blockbuster. In 1985 Blockbuster began providing their customers with a chance to rent VHS movies for a low price and in the convenience of their own home. By 2010, however, Blockbuster was bankrupt and, as of today, only one Blockbuster store remains active. The leadership-lesson that we will look at in this article examines the critical stumbling block that caused many of Blockbusters patrons to look for their movie rental experience elsewhere. What was the stumbling block?  Late-fees.

Late-fees made for more than triple the amount of regular movie sales for Blockbuster, pushing the income of late-fees to over 800 million in their heyday.  While this was great profit for Blockbuster, it was not great for those who would often shell-out more in late-fees than it would have cost them to actually purchase the movie. And, without paying the late-fees, a patron would be unable to rent any more movies.  The convenience of watching a movie at home quickly faded as the price of late-fees escalated.  

Enter Netflix.  When Netflix first launched, you could order movies shipped to your home for one flat-fee per month and no late-fees.  

Keep in mind that Netflix and Blockbuster shared the same mission: Making money via renting movies to customers by the most convenient means. What Netflix discovered was that by eliminating stumbling blocks for people to rent movies, those people would eventually become customers. What Blockbuster discovered is that if you remain unaware of the stumbling blocks you put in-front of people, they will eventually go where there are less stumbling blocks. 

Enter our “Leadership-Lesson, Pt. 4.” As we look at the future of the Churches of Christ: What stumbling blocks have we placed in the way of people trying to find Christ? 

Before we get to some practical applications, let’s look at the way the early church wrestled with the dilemma of how to identify stumbling blocks for those coming to Christ. 

To set the stage, we must understand the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.  In Genesis 12 we read that God chose Abraham to build a relationship that would identify His chosen people and eventually bless all nations.  The Old Testament provides the narrative of God building the relationship with Israel, giving them laws to live by, re-telling how they neglected God’s laws, suffering the consequences of their rebellion and being restored in relationship with God.  One thing that Israel learned, albeit very slowly, was that when they broke the commands of God it was never a good outcome for them. Enter our dilemma in Acts 15.  As Paul and Barnabas were traveling and making disciples they encountered a group of people who were doing the same thing, but with one exception: You must obey the laws that we have been obeying since Moses – including circumcision – or you are not one of us. The nation of Israel had accrued some 613 laws, some serving to defining the covenant and some serving to protect the covenant, since God established the relationship with Abraham. These laws were valuable for not only keeping peace and order, but following God faithfully.  It was their tradition, their history, their identity… and to a certain group mentioned Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas were jeopardizing it.

There was such a heated dispute about whether Gentiles could become Christ-followers without adhering to the law that they had, possibly, the very first “Special Church Meeting.”  You know it’s bad when you need a special church meeting to settle a fight! The arguments went like this:

A group of God-fearing Jews argued that their tradition had always been to follow the law. It shouldn’t be compromised.  If new people were going to come on-board, then they needed to accept that was just the way it was going to be. Take it or leave it.

Paul and Barnabas argued that it was grace through Jesus, not the law, that was saving people and that they shouldn’t be tying-down the Gentile converts to the Jewish way of life. 

After a heated debate, James (the brother of Jesus), spoke up and concluded:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”  

Let’s read that again:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” 

This would become a startling, and yet vitally important, conclusion for the early church leaders.  In fact, without this conclusion it is very likely that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Thats how big and important this decision would be. Their willingness to see how their traditions, practices, methods and approaches might be a stumbling block for others to come to Christ was huge.  Even bigger than that was their ability to put those thoughts into a tangible practice. 

With prayer, discernment and a short letter to aid Paul and Barnabas in their efforts of helping share the gospel with more people, the early church leaders removed the obstacles for the Gentiles down to just four. These four laws would prove to be the least obtrusive for Gentiles to follow and basically eliminated the “identity” portion of the covenant between Abraham and God. You and I can gloss this over, assuming it must have gone smoothly or people didn’t have any kick-back over the decision.  We would be wrong.  Very wrong. I am sure this more than ruffled a lot of feathers, but the church leaders were committed to the mission Jesus had given them “go and make disciples.” And, it was this mission that allowed them to see that they had placed stumbling blocks in the way of some people coming to know Christ.

Want a little hard truth?  Your church has stumbling blocks too.  It is likely that, like the early church, some of your greatest stumbling blocks might be very well wrapped up in your identity. This leaves us with two questions to ask: Can you identify your church’s stumbling blocks, and, are you willing to remove them? 

Let’s be honest, conforming to the life of a Christ-follower is difficult! I mean, how easy is it to forgive when someone has hurt you?  What about loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you? Serving others, offering yourself as a daily sacrifice to God, keeping yourself pure and keeping a tight reign on your tongue – all of these things can be difficult even to those of us who have been Christians for a long time. Why, then, should we make it even more difficult for people who are turning to Christ to conform to Gods standards AND ours? 

In-light of the decline of the Churches of Christ, we need to critically examine our stumbling blocks that serve as barriers for those who might turn to God.  Are there obstacles we have in place that prevent them from building a relationship with Jesus before it really ever begins?  

In 19 years of ministry, I have observed that we tend build our own version of the 613 laws that we expect everyone to follow. These 613 laws might sound like, “This is the way we do things here.” or “This is the way we have always done things.”  The 613 laws can include things as small as “Don’t change our church bulletin. I like it the way that it is.” to larger things like “I cannot imagine having church without our building!!” or “If we do it that way, I will leave and I wont be the only one!”

Your stumbling blocks to those who are turning to Christ might include:

  • Preaching/teaching that is irrelevant to their life. (It is not good enough just to preach the truth, I think most preachers/ pastors aim for this goal.  We must aim for truth that people can understand how to apply. Most folks understand their life situations.  Most people understand the bible. However, most people don’t understand how the bible intersects with their life situations. This is where preaching and teaching should aim.
  • A lack of authentic fellowship. (Yes, you have programs and bible studies, but do you invest in each other personally? And, is there space for new people to do that with you? How easy would it be for a visitor to find authentic community in your church? How easily can they navigate how to get plugged in to real, meaningful relationships that will help them grow?)
  • Irrelevant music. (I get it, our tribe has a heritage in a cappella singing.  And, while I understand how meaningful that tradition means to those who have grown up in the Churches of Christ, it certainly can be a stumbling block to those who might be turning to Christ. Don’t believe me? Did you know that the average 18-24 year old listens to 8 hours of music every day? Music is a BIG deal today.  I am not necessarily suggesting you get a band by next Sunday – but I am asking you to think about how outsiders view your music. If you don’t know, ask them.) 
  • An ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude. (Most churches have some kind of slogan that involves the words “Welcome to our church” or “We welcome you to attend.” The question is not if your church ‘welcomes’ outsiders. The question is do you really want them? What if you felt incomplete as a church without outsiders joining/ serving/ learning with you? What if it bothered you that you didn’t have them there, hearing their thoughts, sharing their perspective, and listening to their stories while you both grew in Christ. Most churches would welcome outsiders if they showed up but if they are honest they feel content without the outsiders being present. This develops an ‘us’ verses ‘them’ attitude which can be a stumbling block.
  • The lack of intentionality in thinking about outsiders as you plan your worship service and events. (How do you plan for guests to be at your service every week?  It should be your plan that visitors come, so are you prepared? It is likely that you have “insider language” that you do not even notice.  But outsiders do! Do you say things like “Everyone knows about ______.” That may not be true of your guests.  Simple things like introducing yourself before you speak, explaining what is happening and why, etc. helps outsiders feel like they are insiders)
  • The way your church spends money. (Where and how you spend the money at your church tells outsiders what you value most. Does most of your money go to a building, programs, or to effectively discipling others? Are you willing to yearly evaluate, without defensiveness, if what you are spending money on actually accomplishes the mission that Jesus gave the church? )
  • A lack of diversity in leadership and decision making. (Can I take a wild guess? I bet your leadership is largely reflective of the demographics of your church.  Am I right?  Do you want to become more diverse? Then allow those who are diverse [in age, gender, and ethnicity] to have serious input in making decisions. They will see things from another angle, a different perspective, and help you think about how outsiders who look like them will interpret things.)
  • The way you take care of (or don’t take care of) your church’s building. (Have you ever walked in a business and thought, “Wow, this place is out of date!” As shallow as it might sound, there may be people who look at your church’s building and think the same thing. Even worse, they may believe that our out-of-date facility is reflective of your out-of-date methods. Maybe you just have messes, boxes, and junk that have piled up that you no longer see but are very visible to a first time guest.)
  • No opportunities for children, teens and adults to learn the basics and ask questions and not feel dumb for doing so. (Not everyone thinks and believes the same way you do.  In fact, most outsiders don’t! Giving opportunity for them to be ‘questioners’ of faith without feeling dumb or judged is a must. If you give outsiders permission to question things you will build a bridge of trust. If you take the “My-way-or-the-highway” approach you will likely provide yet another stumbling block.)
  • A lack of keeping up with the mobile world (The world is moving at a rapid pace, and social media is a part of that.  Recent reports have indicated that most teenagers and adults spend 3-4 hours a day, every day, on their phone.  If you are not utilizing technology to reach out, teach, keep connected, and plug-in with outsiders you will likely find that you have placed yet another stumbling block in someones way.)

This leadership-lesson leads us to look at the obstacles we place in the way of those who might be turning to Christ.  The question is, are you ready to address and remove those obstacles? 

I am going to leave you with a practical application.  Would you be willing to pay $200 to see what obstacles you might have?  Choose, at random, several homes that are close to your church’s building and ask the family living in those homes to visit and assess your church for one Sunday. Tell them that for their honest feedback and time you will pay them $25.00.  Then, after their visit, sit down and ask them how your church does on the 10 bullet-points above. 

Ask questions like – 1) Was the preaching/ teaching relevant? Did you get anything out of it? 2) Did you feel like you could make meaningful friendships at our church? 3) What did you think about our music? Did it lift you up? Did you connect to it? 4) Did you feel valuable and desired at our church? 5) Were there parts of our service that didn’t make sense to you or parts that we didn’t explain very well? 6) Could you tell, based on your visit, what we value most with our finances? 7) Was it clear that our leadership and church values diversity? 8) How did you feel when you walked in our building? Was it acceptable? Was there anything distracting? 9) Did you have any questions about our service? Would you have felt ‘at home’ and valued enough to ask those questions to someone? 10) Have you searched for our church online? Does it give you adequate information about what happens at our church, what to expect, and opportunities to engage with us during the week?

By the end of your time with these families you will have valuable insight into some obstacles that your church has put in place that are stumbling blocks for outsiders who might want to turn to Christ.

Then you have a decision, just like the early church leaders had 2,000 years ago.  We know how they handled the decision. How will you?

What is next?  What’s in the future for Churches of Christ? Some would say that’s the million-dollar question.  I, myself, would like to know, too.  There are so many trends to observe.  There is a litany of directions we could go. The answer is, I’m sure, multi-faceted. I will not claim to have any answer, let alone the answer

What I hope to do is to help direct our current culture’s aggression that has permeated the church to a healthier place.  I believe part of our future as a people is going to be found in mourning. Call me crazy, but there’s no shortage of things to mourn in our day. Instead of taking the world’s bait and responding in outrage, perhaps we ought to join with our ancient brethren and regain the lost art of lamentation.

I’m not talking about just being “sad” at the state of the world.  I’m talking about learning how to re-enter into the middle of the messes of the world.  I’m talking about taking up the mantle of the ministry of grief again.  Co-suffering love is the cruciform symbol of our faith.  So, I believe part of the future in the Churches of Christ is relearning how to mourn with one another and for the world.

When I talk about mourning, grief and lamentation, I’m not speaking of the kind we do at a funeral. I’m looking directly at the paradox when Jesus says, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). I love how Brian Zahnd translates this passage. It illustrates the depths that Jesus was plumbing when he let this statement out into the world.  Zahnd writes, “Blessed are the depressed who mourn and grieve, for they create space to encounter comfort from one another.” I like that.  I mean that we’re intentionally entering a space to give and receive comfort from one another. 

So, just who are those who mourn? Scot McKnight says: “Those who mourn,” are those who both grieve in their experiences of sin, tragedy, injustice, death – but also those who reach out to others in compassion when they experience sin, evil, tragedy, and death, too.” That blows the paradox wide open, doesn’t it? It adds a depth that I never realized before to what I thought was self-explanatory.

Brothers and sisters, should we not mourn and grieve for our world and with our world?  There is no shortage of things to grieve over in our nation alone.  We should be falling on our knees, weeping that racism is still as prevalent, even in our churches, as it always has been.  We should mourn with the mothers struggling to feed their babies.  We should lament that our nation – the most prosperous and wealthiest in history – is tearing itself apart in anger and hatred. We should be knocked to our faces with the fact that people believe the church ‘hates’ anyone, whether real or perceived. We should mourn with those who mourn things we don’t understand – issues like race, equality, sexism, and justice.

We should sit in the candlelight vigils of those who are taken before their time in tragic circumstances. We should wail when justice is withheld because of corruption. We should mourn when people are exploited, children are trafficked, and drugs kill our neighbors. For too long we’ve sat in judgment of things we know nothing of.  It is time to humble ourselves and admit that while we might be ignorant at present of many things, ignorance is not an excuse to ignore and avoid. To enter mourning means we must first mourn the existence of our own prejudices and stereotypes.  To enter compassion, we must again embrace the ministry of grief.

The prophet Joel records God’s message on how to get there: ““Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12-13, NIV)

We must return to grief – a chief ministry of the church – and we must begin with ourselves. It is in the ministry of grief that we cut profundity into our souls and make room to be filled with comfort from one another. In this way, grief is understood, not as a reality to be denied, but as a work to be attended to by the church.

Brian Zahnd puts it like this: “In a simple-minded, paper-thin, pseudo-Christian culture where banal happiness seems to be the highest goal, we don’t want to attend to the work of grief; we put it off as an unpleasant task or something beneath our station.” That has costs. If we refuse to attend to the work of grief in our spiritual life and as a body of believers, our soul becomes a austere, infinite, dull wilderness – a kind of barren salt flat where nothing grows.

Maybe that’s been the problem. We’ve lost our ability to ‘feel’ the pain of ourselves and our neighbors.  How then, can we love them if we refuse or forget how to enter the most sacred of spaces – grief and mourning with them. Our neighbors and brothers and sisters are mourning so much:  marriages, prodigal children, lost causes, broken promises, death, injustice, racism, prejudice, anger, discrimination, and so much more.

Perhaps more, we should grieve the sin of ourselves and the world as we try and lull ourselves into a state of plastic happiness.  It is not our Christian duty to enforce a kind of dopey, all-is-well, I’m-just-fine, pretend happiness where we all say a shallow ‘hello’ and then try and get one another to ‘buck, not for their sakes, but for our own because we’ve forgotten how to mourn.

Maybe if we set aside a few times a year to come together and lament – not complain – about the state of the world, then perhaps we could learn to reinsert ourselves into the vocation called ‘mourning.’ When we learn that again, I believe our future will be incredible bright because we will have relearned what it means to truly be human.  We will reassume our God-ordained role of “grieving with those who grieve” and in that we will find that we are the recipients of the incredible announcement that, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Which do you want first? The good news or the bad news? Most people I know want the bad first so we will start there.

The bad news is church as you know it is dying.

The good news is church as you know it is dying.

The institutional church is on borrowed time. That is horrifying if you are only married to the way your wife looks today. But if you are married to her for who she is, you are going to be fine. If you don’t marry her because you know she will die one day you are going to miss out on some great things. Some people dread aging but that also leads to some wonderful things as well.

Hang with me…

I am going to tell you why in a moment but first let me tell you about my doctor. He told me a while back that one of my numbers was bad. My HDL was too low. He recommended I tack Krill oil to raise the number. I took it off and on for a few months and retested. It was still low. Low is relative. By some standards my number is okay, in a normal range. But by some stricter measures my number needs to go up. The point is, it is important that you pay attention to the right numbers. Some numbers don’t matter like how many hairs are on your head. But your blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels are crucial. If they fall to certain numbers you die.

This is where we find ourselves in terms of understanding what is going on in Churches of Christ. Some of the numbers don’t look good. Does it mean we are dying? Will we go to sleep one day and never wake up? My contention is that the institutional church (church as a place where you show up on Sunday, check a box, and go home) is dying. It’s numbers are bad. It is just a matter of time. That actually isn’t a bad thing. It can be a scary thing if you are a minister like me, who makes a living the way things are but the kingdom is more important than me being stuck on a way of doing it that may not be the healthiest, more robust or even most biblical.

What is more, specific congregations are absolutely, 100%, going to die – pretty much every last one of them.

How many of the companies on the Fortune 500 in 1955 still exist, much less still make the list? In 2017 it was 60.

In Todd Wilson’s book “Multipliers” he writes this, “For over 2,000 years, the lifespan of greater than 99.9 percent of all local churches is less than 100 years (most are less than 50 years)!” p. 15.

This makes sense when you think about it. Where is the church in Ephesus or Corinth today? Can you imagine being the last person to shut the door on a church Paul planted or even just taught at? Those congregations all died but the kingdom continued to explode. The same will be true for us. Think of the most robust congregation you know – it won’t be there some day. The facility will be a parking lot or a mall or a field – but the kingdom moves on.

It is a myth for the vast majority of us to think the congregations we currently worship in will still have people worshiping in them in 50 years and definitely in 100 years.

Churches have lifespans about like a human being. This is very important for you to know and realize. Take the numbers from Todd above – most churches don’t make it past 50 and 99.9% live less than 100 years. Actually, congregational lifespan, averages less than human lifespan and somehow we all think the congregations we are a part of will be here forever.

Their end may come sooner than you think and here is why

Stan Granberg wrote an article in the Great Commission journal that gave numbers on several important metrics on Churches of Christ. The height of our church planting days (birth of a congregation, again think lifespan numbers above) was in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. We planted 1209 churches in the 40s, 1626 in the 50s and 1205 in the 60s. These churches are now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s (all getting closer and closer to 100 and all being past the 50 mark most don’t make). Every church I have been a part of had their 50th anniversary in the last couple years. I bet your experience has been similar. So many of our congregations are entering end of life years.

According to Stan in his latest article here at Wineskins (“Three Bold Challenges for Churches of Christ” – which I encourage you to read) we are closing the doors of 6 churches per month. That is 72/year and 720/10 years and the rate of closures is accelerating. Granberg and Tim Woodroof, in the article I just linked to, predict we will be below 3000 congregations by 2050. Does that take your breath away?

How many churches have we planted in the same time frame? In Stan’s article in 2018 in the Great Commission Journal he says we have planted 102 between 2010 and 2016 at that rate we would plant 170 this decade (while losing 720). That is a net loss of 550 this decade. Remember we only have 12,000 or so congregations! That is nearly a 5% loss this decade (and accelerating, according to Stan).

Now that we have mentioned church planting I want to mention another number from Todd Wilson’s book “Multipliers,” 4% of churches are reproducing, that is planting new churches (p.15). This is broad Christianity. Let’s see what that number is in Churches of Christ from Stan’s article. He has a chart on page 95 of that article that says between 2010 and 2016 we planted 102 churches and ended 2016 with 12,237 congregations. That means 0.008% of our churches plant churches. In fact the number is lower than that if any of those churches planted more than one (which is feasible). We are at less than 1% of our churches planting new churches! 8 in 1000!

Pair that with aging congregations (most 50-79 years old) and the 99.9% rule above and you can see we are in “trouble.” Along with that, 55% of our churches are under 60 members (again Granberg, Great Commission Journal, 99).

Good news

But the kingdom isn’t at risk. What is at risk is our way of doing church (the form can be an idol). There are kingdom movements happening all over the world. We aren’t participating. The participation ribbon is not one Churches of Christ have won well over the years when it comes to even partnering with other Churches of Christ much less any other group we are further from doctrinally.

Don’t feel too bad – the church at Antioch and in Jerusalem and Rome closed their doors too one day. You can’t worship there anymore – but the kingdom keeps on growing!

My hope

We will get a sense of urgency to re-envision what church is all about and what church looks like. The way we are doing it isn’t reproducible, or else we would do it. Something in our DNA is keeping us from reproducing. Sectarianism doesn’t need reproducing. Maybe some of that is getting weeded out along with extreme liberalism (both ends of the spectrum don’t grow well or reproduce well) and maybe that is by God’s design for a healthier, more robust future for His, not our, churches.

We need a change in focus – from brick and mortar…dollars and cents…to souls, maturity and discipleship. We need a model that is reproducible and is reproducing – THIS IS KEY!

We must reinvigorate church planting movement. We must dedicate budget and people toward this effort. The generations before us did this – we stopped.

Imagine if all of our churches tithed people and money every year toward a new church – they could reproduce a one year funded congregation every ten years and train that ten percent in the meantime. I bet it would happen faster than ten years! This could result in a resurgence of growth in our fellowship. We just need to not replicate the bad DNA in order to ensure a healthier future (sectarianism, leaning toward works righteousness, combativeness, etc).

Do you have a plan? Does your church have a plan for the future? How will your legacy live on when your congregation goes away? What seeds are you planting now and plans you are making to ensure that what you leave behind can never be shaken. If you are caught up on budgets what you are building can and will be shaken and disappear.

Welcome to article 3 of a 6-part series titled “Leadership-Lessons From Blockbuster.”  Our goal in this series is to learn valuable lessons so that we can, as a church, avoid the mistakes that others have made.  If you are joining this conversation for the first time, you might want to follow the links to find part 1 & part 2 to catch up to speed.

In the last article we looked at two philosophies that are in our culture (and churches) today: 

‘The Craftsman Philosophy’ and the ‘Apple Philosophy.’  In short, the Craftsman Philosophy supposes the only reason something would need to be changed is if it were bad or flawed. It is not that people who adhere to this philosophy are absolutely against change, but they may view change as a last resort when all other options fail.  ‘The Apple Philosophy’ supposes that  change must happen to continue to make things better and prevent mediocrity. People who adhere to this philosophy are not always looking to ‘change-for-change-sake,’ but are generally looking to see how they can improve on an existing idea or context. 

We ended the last article with the idea that, as a body of Christ, we need each other.  And, while it can be difficult and even painful at times, we function best as a body of Christ when we are willing to function together.  So, what do we do in the church when we have ‘dueling philosophies?’ How do we get any traction? Who gets to make decisions? Whose voice gets to be louder?  The Craftsman camp? The Apple camp?  Before you answer that question, can I tell you a story?  

Was that a “Yes?” Great! It’s always more fun when you play along! 

Ok, to be honest, it’s not my story to tell.  The story comes from a Jewish Rabbi.  This is the story he told:

Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. Returning home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.’ I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent”  (LK. 15:4-7  NET). 

Ok, you caught me. The Jewish Rabbi was Jesus. I figured you would know that but I wanted you to read this section of scripture with fresh eyes, the way those who were surrounding Jesus heard them that day.  Oh, and who were those people surrounding him?  Luke records it as a very diverse crowd. On one side we had the sinners and tax collectors. Now, I’m not trying to be crude here, but think about what someone must be involved in to be a ‘known sinner’ in a community.  Seriously, everyone in the place knew that this was the crowd that was sitting near, listening to, and eating with Jesus.  Likely these people had fully embraced a lifestyle that everyone would label evil or against the moral code. Along with the sinners that were gathered around Jesus there were tax collectors.  This particular group of folks stood out because they weren’t just sinners, they were traitors.  They worked with the Roman Empire to collect taxes on the Jews. So, not only were they working for the enemy, but they usually inflated the taxed amount to help benefit themselves.  As you can see, this group would not only be looked down on, they were likely considered some of the most hated and disgusting people you could be around.

Also surrounding Jesus that day was a group people knew as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  The Pharisees were a group of people that formed around the time of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.  This group started because the nation of Israel had a long track record of failing to follow the commands of God, thus leading to exile.  Therefore, this group was intent on helping all of Israel follow the commands of God as best as possible in order to avoid God’s discipline and another exile.  The teachers of the law were a lot like lawyers of the Torah. They knew the scriptures forward and backward. And, as this social and religious elite group shows up on the scene they are disgruntled by the idea that Jesus has lowered his standards and is  ‘welcoming’ of the motley crew of outcasts.  The disgust of the Pharisees and teachers of the law are what drives Jesus’ parable on the parable we just read. 

Jesus starts off with a comment that I think can be lost on you and I: “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it?”   I might be tempted to think to myself “I wouldn’t go after the one lost sheep. I would stay with the 99.  I mean, you still have 99 sheep, right? And, what am I going to risk going after one sheep?”

I would have thought that until a few years ago when we took our family of six kids to Disneyland.  At the time, our youngest two boys were four months and three years old… now that I think about it, we must have been crazy! The particular day we were there it was hot and crowded so we enjoyed a break from walking  by sitting and enjoying a Star Wars show where they ‘train’ young Jedi’s.  Our oldest son was selected from the audience to go on stage and learn the ‘way of the Jedi,’ which he was super excited about. After the end of the show, as a crowd of people were exiting the theater space and another crowd was rushing in, our oldest son was telling about his experience.  In the middle of the herd of people, distracted by listening to our oldest sons recent experience, we lost our 3 year old son.

That was the beginning of my gray hair!

We quickly instructed all of our children to stay perfectly still and stay behind with my mother, who also happened to join us on the trip, as we frantically made our way through the sea of people looking for our 3 year-old son.  I didn’t know where he went, or what I would need to do to find him… but I knew we would do whatever it took! Finding him was my first priority!  

Now, imagine for a moment that as I tell my kids to stay still while we look for our 3 year-old that one of them responds that it is lunch time and they would like to eat before l started my search.  Or, what do you think my response would have been if one of my kids stated, “My shoe came untied. Can you tie it really quick before you look for our brother?” Or, what if one of them would have said, “You promised that we were going on a ride after the Star Wars show ended!  This is not fair!” 

How would I have responded? How would you have responded?

We probably would have responded about the same way: “I’m sorry, but finding your brother comes first!”  

In the same way, imagine if I had responded to our son walking away by saying, “Well, I don’t want all my other children to get mad if I leave them to go find our missing son. I better just stay here.” Or, “Kids these days! They have no respect for staying with their parents. It’s all his fault he’s lost. There’s nothing I can do about that.” Or, “I will look for him, but only in the way and form I am comfortable.” 

Sounds silly, right? And it is, because we understand the value of a lost child. But I wonder if  there are times when, as a church, when we don’t see the value in the lost. In fact, many times they are but faceless and nameless groups that can be easily dismissed. 

I know what you are thinking, “Not my church! We value the lost!”  But before I let you off the hook with that response, I want to challenge you by going back and answering a few of those questions posed earlier in the article: So, what do we do when we have ‘dueling philosophies?’ How do we get any traction? Who gets to make decisions? Whose voice gets to be louder?  The Craftsman camp? The Apple camp?

If your church values the lost, then the response to the questions of ‘Whose voice gets to be louder” or “Who makes the decisions” is: The lost.

Ok, before you completely dismiss me give me just a few more moments of your time. 

I am not saying that the non-Christians get to define what truth is (they don’t get any more say in God’s truth than Christians). What I am saying is that those who chase down the lost must be intentional about understanding the thought processes, value systems, and basic needs of those whom they are searching for. 

In Jesus’ parable, he states that the reasonable shepherd would go and look for the lost sheep until he finds it.  Put yourself in the place of the shepherd.  What would it look like to hunt down a lost sheep? What would you have to be willing to do?  Where would you have to be willing to go?  What would you need to be willing to give up? 

Can I be honest with you?  In my history with the Restoration Movement we are typically more concerned with the comfortability of those inside the walls than we are with running after those outside of the walls.  

Ouch, I know that hurt a little.  But we need to face this truth: 

Too often the ministries we accept, keep, and participate in are mostly geared towards what the sheep in the pen enjoy verses focusing our attention on how to best go after the sheep outside the pen.  

Too often our scheduling and programming is more focused on the needs of the sheep in the pen verses the effectiveness of how we reach the sheep out of the pen.  

Unfortunately, we often make decisions about what happens in the context of our worship services based on the comfortability and agreeability of the sheep in the pen and pay little-to-no attention on the effectiveness of how reaches those sheep outside the pen.

Now, before you think I am putting too much focus on outsiders, let me point you back to Jesus’ parable one more time.  In the parable Jesus says that the lost sheep is eventually found, the owner celebrates with his friends and neighbors, and then he says, “I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.” 

Did you catch that? Where is the attention of heaven? Was it on the sheep that was lost or the herd of sheep that were already safe? 

In your church, who gets the attention?  What group is the ‘squeaky wheel’ that gets the grease? Is it the group of people who have been there the longest and put in the most time? The people who give the most?  Or, do you really give attention and action to the methods that help you seek out and bring back the lost?

Let’s end with a few questions you can begin to ask yourself, and maybe your church leadership, to see where your attention is most directed:

  • How, or in what ways, do you get regular feedback from the non-churched in your community about your congregation?
  • What does your congregation generally get more upset about: When there is a change in the methods of your church, or, when it’s clear that your church is not accomplishing the mission of “going and making disciples?”
  • Do you regularly evaluate the effectiveness of your methods? If so, can you talk about them openly without defensiveness?
  • If your church were to close its doors tomorrow, would the community be negatively impacted?
  • When you talk about the ministries of your church, do you talk more about the number of years it has existed and amount of church people involved, or, the specific people you have been able to impact through that ministry?

I want to invite you to join me for part 4 in our 6-part series titled, “Leadership-Lessons from Blockbuster” that will be coming soon! In part 4 we will be talking about Blockbuster’s late-fees, the Council of Jerusalem, and how we can avoid making obstacles for those who are turning to God! I hope you will join me! 

I take the position that the Christian community no longer lives in a favored position with its host culture. This evidence is in front of us; diminishing family life, mixed gender signals, erosion of common courtesies and on and on. To reach this culture Christians must be more like leaven than a church-centric, attractional-Sunday-center. Individually, many of us are in missional-praxis, but if the established church is to survive the next decade its leaders must start thinking with a corporate responsibility and accountability laudable in building a culture of believers who strategically “go” and seek the ‘missing’ on the missing’s turf.

I find a degree of difficulty in articulating a primary missional stance. I must concede that my failure, in the past, to expressively characterize the difference between a primary missional praxis and the praxis of the establishment church has limited the reader’s scope, breath and range of what I’ve attempted to convey. This time I hope to do better. But it’s possible you will walk away from this piece slightly confused or even thinking that we agree, when we might not. If after reading this article there are differences in our understanding, those differences will most likely be in the change needed and the corporate responsibility necessary. It falls at the feet of church leaders.

It’s important to mention that I’m not totally 100% opposed to the established church. But what I am opposed to is church leadership upholding their primary stance of ‘tweaking’ or making relevant the Sunday morning event to the point where you begin to think that they must think that people will come and rush the entrance when their doors are opened.

Faith Communities Must Become Portable

In the last half of the book of Luke and throughout the book of Acts the reader encounters a series of road stories. You find Jesus on the Emmaus road, Philip on the road to Gaza, Peter on the road to Cornelius, Paul on the road to Damascus. If you’re the least bit curious you have to ask, “Where is everyone going?”  And the answer is they are moving away from their spiritual center—Jerusalem—and out into the world.

As one reads the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, it becomes apparent that Christianity is depicted as a movement away from the center of religious activity and out into the fringes of the world. Jesus’ portability was seen in the inordinate amount of time he spent with prostitutes, tax collectors, government officials, and fishermen. Our addiction to centripetal ministries has kept us away from the people Jesus’ misses. We’ve been called to leave our temple and enter the court of the Gentiles and engage people on their turf—territory that is comfortable and familiar to them, where government officials assemble for city council meetings, where art museum curators show their prizes, and where the missing ones willingly sit with ‘people of the way’ to discuss life-issues over a glass of wine or a latte. Reaching this generation requires Jesus’ followers to step out of the boat of church life and into the streams of culture in pursuit of something unprecedented, even downright miraculous. It means we replace our preoccupation with church and begin walking the fringes of the mission field.

Stilted Religion or an Adventure with a Cause

Much of what I see in the established church today has no fire. She has become ensnared in a kind of “institutionalism” that withers in the labyrinth of its organizational structures. But maybe most serious is the people in the pew’s failure to find a worthy cause for which to live. People can live in churches for years and never discover any greater reason to live than a career, a few more possessions or a little more fame. Sad indeed.

Years ago I took my son fishing on a small creek below our home. We found a Budweiser can floating on top of the water and my son reached down and snatched it out of the creek. Inside the can was a small Rock Bass. When smaller, it must have swum unsuspectedly into the can and then, failing to find its way out, soon became too large to get out. When I freed the fish from the can, he had already begun to grow in a curve.

That story suggests the way I have experienced religion. It held out for me the promise for a fuller, richer life where problems could be handled and freedom experienced daily. In reality it brought additional problems—church politics, power plays, the resistance to new ideas and new ways to reach the lost, just one more thing to become frustrated with. Instead of finding freedom, life seemed stilted—I found myself growing in a curve. Remember Jesus? He established the greatest adventure the world has ever seen and did it in the midst of massive religious failure. We can do the same. But we must become portable. We must.

Dr. Stanley E. Granberg
sgranberg@kairoschurchplanting.org
360-609-6700

A disturbing prospect looms before us as the fact of our decline of Churches of Christ (CoC) has moved from unbelievable to undeniable. The question we must answer is no longer, “How are we doing;” our question is now, “What shall we do about it?”

Last year I published an article describing the decline of CoC in the Great Commission Research Journal (Fall 2018).[1] This year, Tim Woodroof and I wrote a paper that looks into the crystal ball of the possible future of CoC in 2050[2]. At the present, the best analysis is that each month six CoC congregations close their doors. Given the current trends, we expect that rate to double—or even triple—before we arrive at 2050. If this does occur, we could see the fellowship of CoC drop from just over 12,000 churches to under 3,000.

There are several responses leaders in our fellowship have made to our challenge of decline. Some say its time to leave and join forces in a broader, more ecumenical fellowship, advancing the unity plea of our heritage. Others are hanging onto the ways and traditions of the past for dear life, leaning into the restoration roots of our fellowship. The majority of church leaders are struggling to find some way forward that satisfies both the desire of their members for the safety of what we have been in the past and the need to present a relevant Christianity to our increasingly unbelieving world.

For the past fifteen years, as the executive director of Kairos Church Planting, I have worked extensively within Churches of Christ, promoting, calling and pleading with churches to engage the future through the planting of new congregations. From this perspective, I present here three hard challenges I believe we must address to set a foundation for our future and three bold strategies that could change the course of our future.

Hard Challenges

The following three challenges are hard because they are deeply embedded, DNA level aspects of CofC that seem to hold us back, even cripple us, from engaging 21st century America, confident that we can be useful ambassadors, harvesting new souls for the kingdom of God.

Challenge #1: reorient our hermeneutic from a closed to an open perspective. The CofC through the 20th century have practiced a case law hermeneutic described under the rubric: Command, Example, and Necessary Inference.[3] While “thus saith the Lord” is an appropriate operating principle, we have added a subtext that says, “what is not addressed is not allowed.” Our case law hermeneutic requires explicit permission to do something. Without explicit biblical command, example or necessary inference we are forbidden to do anything different, a situation that keeps us stuck within our own past.

To change our course of decline in the 21st century we must explore the other side of this hermeneutic coin, the side of freedom and openness. On this other side, unless something is expressly forbidden, we are free to explore it based upon biblical principles. This hermeneutic approach is based upon a narrative-historical interpretation of scripture, most readily expressed in our faith stream through the writings of John Mark Hicks. This is part of our faith heritage. Our cousins, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, operate with this open hermeneutic. On the mission field of Kenya, I discovered that, at our best, CofC are a fellowship that deeply desires to obey the God of the Word, implicitly trusting the Word of God to guide us to creatively engage the world of God. We are at our best when we live out of this open hermeneutic perspective.

Challenge #2: restore apostolic leaders as part of our leadership system. For a non-centralized, non-denominational fellowship, CofC have a strongly held congregational leadership system. In our most traditional form, a congregation is led by a committee of elders with deacons and teachers as permanent workers. Pastoral staff are hired to work under the oversight of the elders, who can also fire on any pretense or personal discretion. This structure creates a maintenance orientation designed to keep the system stable. This maintenance, stability-oriented leadership system is not capable of creating or releasing the innovative, growth producing activity necessary to change our decline trajectory. We must adopt the Ephesians 4:11 understanding that restores the full circle of biblical leadership.[4] This will mean a recognition of the personal leadership giftedness God provides the church.

Challenge #3: enliven the experience of God among us. CofC have typically been a heady, intellectually oriented movement. Both our places and practices of worship are designed to strip out emotional content and symbolism. The rule of “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) has been used to emphasize hearing the word of God to the neglect of experiencing the presence of God. Creating a worship experience that recognizes the power of the human senses as vehicles through which God makes himself present challenges our rejection of anything that smacks of the danger of entertainment. If we expect “not-yet” believers to find anything of worth in the sacramental event of our gathering together, the experience of God must become our new scorecard of our worship. When God shows up, lives will never be the same.

Bold Plans

History and research have proven true C. Peter Wagner’s assertion, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”[5] Timothy Keller further expands Wagner’s view about church planting,

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, parachurch ministries, growing megachurches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.[6]

If CofC expect to make a reversal from decline to growth, church planting must be our core strategic activity. Given this fact, the following three bold strategies would, from my perspective, provide the most immediate leverage to accomplishing kingdom expansion through our fellowship and congregational renewal within our churches.

Strategy #1: deliberately close older, declining churches to repurpose the resources from their lands and buildings for the planting of new churches. CofC can expect to see as many as 8,000 congregations, two-thirds of our total number, close in the next thirty years. If the average real estate revenue were just $350,000 per church (a very conservative amount), these closings would produce $2.8 billion. Investing half of that into new churches, supporting each new church with $250,000, would result in 5,600 new churches. God has already provided us the financial endowment we need to reinvest into our future! Most Christian fellowships and denominations already fund much of their church planting through such repurposing efforts.[7] As a step to accomplish this strategy, the Heritage 21 Foundation (Heritage21.org) was founded in 2016, “To partner with declining churches to help them faithfully preserve and repurpose their resources for new kingdom work.”[8]

Strategy #2: develop an apprentice leadership system to train next generation leaders to plant new churches and missionally lead existing churches. Experience in healthy, growing churches is the most predictive factor for successful church planters. We need to create a pipeline for missional leaders through apprenticeships in our healthiest churches. If our top one hundred churches would keep four apprentices in training on a two-year rotating basis, graduating two apprentices each year, in twenty-five years we would produce five thousand experienced, missional leaders. The Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas has trained apprentices within the church and its associated campus ministry which have resulted in those apprentices moving to Boston, Phoenix and Seattle to start new churches and campus ministries. A backbone of resources for apprentices called Emerging Leader Training has already been developed by Kairos Church Planting.[9]

Strategy #3: work together in regional network relationships to plant new churches. The Christian Churches and Churches of Christ effectively practice this network strategy through over fifty evangelistic associations across the United States. If CofC would work together in networks of four to six congregations, these networks could pool resources, provide a new church nucleus from members, and receive the benefits of learning how a new church engages its community. Such networks would create pockets of regional church planting.

The fact is we are at a crossroads between decline and advancement. Our generation, those of us who currently sit as elders within our churches or stand as preachers in our pulpits, have one, vital question to answer: What will we do with the inheritance which God has given us? We have been gifted with a valid spiritual heritage, a storehouse of financial resources and spiritually endowed leaders to use for His great purposes. While we could debate the need of God’s kingdom for a continuation of the entity we know as Churches of Christ, I believe God has invested Himself deeply in us. I would rather stand before God’s judgment throne having used well these talents God has given us rather than burying them in extinction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


[1] Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006-2016,” Great Commission Research Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (Fall 2018), 88-111.

[2] Tim Woodroof and Stanley E. Granberg. “Churches of Christ: Losing Our Hope, Seeking a Future”. Available to read at http://www.kairoschurchplanting.org/cocstudy2019.html, 2019.

[3] Williams, Stone-Campbell Movement, 159.

[4] This idea of APEST leadership from Ephesians 4:11 is thoughtfully engaged by Alan Hirsch, http://www.alanhirsch.org/books. A circle model of leadership that has strong research support is described by Stanley E. Granberg, “Circle of biblical leadership,” Kairos Church Planting, August 31, 2011, accessed May 29, 2017, http://kairoschurchplanting.blogspot.com/ 2011/08/circle-of-biblical-leadership.html.

[5] C. Peter Wagner, Strategies for Growth: Tools for Effective Missions and Evangelism (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1987), 168.

[6] Timothy Keller, “Why plant churches?” Redeemer.com, 2009, accessed May 29, 2017, http://download. redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf.

[7] Olsen, American Church, 126.

[8] Heritage 21, https://www.Heritage21.org.

[9] Stanley E. Granberg, Spiritual Formation (CreateSpace, 2015) and Sharing Faith (CreateSpace, 2015).

Jason Locke

Jack Whittaker’s huge Powerball jackpot cost him just about everything.

The drawing was on Christmas Day 2002. The Powerball lottery had reached frenzied proportions for what would be the biggest, undivided payout in history. Occasional gamblers like Jack Whittaker only played when the jackpot was a couple hundred million or more. At his regular morning stop for coffee and biscuits in Hurricane, West Virginia, he bought what would be the winning ticket.

Whitaker was 55 and already a wealthy, successful businessman. Happily married, he and his wife were described as the “life force of the entire family” (“Rich Man Poor Man” by April Witt in Washington Post Magazine, January 30, 2005, p. 25). When news of Jack’s big win hit the local press, he vowed to donate millions to his family’s favorite churches and pledged to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. He even bought a house for the clerk who sold him the ticket. Overnight, Whitaker became more popular than anyone else in the state.

His good fortune began to collapse within weeks—even if the money didn’t run out. Jack began to stay out late and visit area strip clubs. He stupidly flashed his money and groped women at a nearby casino. It wasn’t long before these escapades made their way into police reports and the local news.

Even worse, Jack’s granddaughter Brandi died from a drug overdose just two years after the jackpot win. She had been Jack’s pride and joy, and he doted on her with thousands of dollars in cash on a near-daily basis. Her spending habits quickly spiraled out of control—clothing, a new car, junk food, drugs and shady companions.

The Powerball jackpot did something odd to Whittaker. Instead of the responsible man who had built a business and a family, he reverted to the poor hillbilly who grew up drinking, carousing and fighting. His sudden wealth produced destruction and death. Jack put tens of millions in the bank, but his granddaughter died in squalor. More than one person connected to Jack said, “That lottery ruined our lives.”

There’s a dark side to such a record windfall. It’s not that money destroyed Jack Whittaker’s life. It’s that Jack Whittaker was unable to handle his good fortune. Call it naivete. Or foolishness. Or a heart of poverty despite external riches. Simply put, Jack Whittaker was unprepared for his winnings.

There’s a similar dark side to grace. As the lottery revealed Jack Whitaker’s inability to manage great wealth, so too has grace unearthed deep dysfunction in Churches of Christ.

Let me be clear on what I am and am not saying. Grace is a good thing. Period. Stop. How can it not be good? More than good, grace is a wonderful gift. Our generous God wants nothing more than to provide us with overabundant mercy and love. It’s the jackpot of jackpots. We just have to scratch and play. Grace is amazing!

Managing one’s good fortune, however, is no easy task. With great wealth comes enormous responsibility. To live well after winning the lottery requires you to live like never before, work like never before, and take personal responsibility for your actions like never before. If you strike gold yet live with a mindset of poverty, you will quickly fall down to a level that matches your state of mind.

That brings me to the predicament of Churches of Christ. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Churches of Christ widely viewed themselves as the one true church. Not only did they view the Christian world through their own narrow lens, they also saw themselves through the most rose-colored of glasses. They believed themselves to be the fastest growing church in America, the church with the right plan for the times. They took the can-do mentality of the American frontier to the zenith of productive proselytizing. While other denominations were experimenting with new techniques to reach new demographics, Churches of Christ were proclaiming their pattern as the one and only way.

Then in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these churches discovered grace. It did not happen suddenly, and not every church joined this discovery. Change came gradually, but Christians and churches slowly awoke from their impoverishing legalism. Freedom came bit by bit.

It was like releasing trapped miners from an underground cavern. The sunlight and fresh air were startling at first. But the reality of grace began to sink in. It eventually felt like winning the lottery.

To deal responsibly with the riches of grace, however, requires you to live like never before, work like never before, and take personal responsibility for your actions like never before. But in Churches of Christ, our decades of legalism left us unprepared for the jackpot of grace. We changed from productive Christians, driven unhealthily by guilt and fear, into unproductive Christians, resting on our laurels and going into early retirement.

We have often been reckless with grace. If we were the only ones whose lives were ruined, that would be bad enough. But our children and grandchildren have ultimately paid the price. Despite having “heavenly riches in the bank,” we wasted our wealth irresponsibly, leading our heirs to believe grace was cheap and church work unnecessary.

With grace comes the obligation to work. Paul made this clear in the Ephesian epistle. In the first three chapters, Paul detailed God’s incredible grace, the jackpot all Christians did nothing to deserve. But then Paul moved from grace to work with this sentence, “I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own” (Eph 4:1, CEV).

As a Christian, you have won the lottery. Your ship has come in. You’re rich beyond your wildest dreams. So live your life worthy of a jackpot-winner.

I know a guy who preaches for a church. His church has shrunk down to less than a 100—well below their high-water mark of several hundred. They’re a grace-centered bunch of Christians, very welcoming and non-judgmental. They love each other. There’s a big problem, though. He would like them to take on a few projects to reach out and grow. They, however, are content just the way they are. Decent Sunday morning services are all they aim for. The years of legalism left them wounded. Now, they want to bask in the glow of God’s grace. And nothing more. With that mindset, they will close the doors in a few years.

We need to learn how to combine grace with work. Yes, enjoy the goodness of grace. God is generous! We have won the greatest jackpot ever! But we have work to do. We must be moral people. We have a battle to fight and people to reach.

If Churches of Christ are to have a future, we must accept grace with the responsible approach of mature Christians who have work to do. We must turn from the dark side of grace and embrace the work of God’s glorious future here and now in the present.

If you are just joining me on this journey, I want to let you know that this is 6-part series which I have titled “Leadership-Lessons From Blockbuster.”  I know, it’s a weird title.  But I think you and I can see the value in learning lessons from others, especially lessons on how to avoid the mistakes that others made.  I’d like to suggest to you that it might be helpful to read these articles in order as they will build on one another.  But, hey, I won’t know what order you read them!  So if you are a natural-born-rebel, then knock yourself out.

In the last article we looked at the decline of the movie-rental giant, Blockbuster.  For the executives at Blockbuster, the decline took them from hero-to-zero in a matter of just ten short years.  Their decline had absolutely nothing to do with the cultures interest in watching movies, which was what the business was founded on. Instead, it had everything to do with the way the culture was accessing movies, aka- the “method.” For the Church,  I believe we can learn a lot here.  

But before we get to that, allow me to tell you a quick story:

When I was growing up my dad had a large red toolbox that sat inside our shed.  It was filled with all kinds of screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets and the like.  The tools were all Craftsman brand.  I remember going with him to Sears department store to pick out new Craftsman tools and hearing him talk about why Craftsman tools were the best. “They have a lifetime guarantee. If anything ever happens to it, they’ll replace it for free!”  It’s true! In 1927 Sears & Roebuck began selling the Craftsman line of tools with a lifetime warranty: 

If for any reason your Craftsman hand tool ever fails to provide complete satisfaction, return it to any Sears store or other Craftsman outlet in the United States for free repair or replacement.

My dad was right – that is a good deal! And that good deal spoke into the heads and wallets of a a lot of people.  In fact, I think it helped shape a way of thinking which I call the ‘Craftsman philosophy.’ The Craftsman philosophy goes something like this: ‘We have a great design.  It’s so great that it is meant to last a lifetime! If it doesn’t, it means there is something wrong or defective.’  The focus here is that the only reason something would need to be changed is if it was bad or flawed

Someone who tends to adhere to the Craftsman philosophy might make statements like:

“They sure don’t make them like they use to!”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“I don’t mind change, as long as it doesn’t effect me.”

Do those statements sound like you?  If so, that’s ok! That is a philosophy that you share with a lot of other people.  There is nothing inherently wrong with the Craftsman philosophy… except that people who adhere to that philosophy generally come in conflict with another way of thinking – the “Apple Philosophy.”

As you might know, the Apple Computer Company was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Ronald Wayne and Steve Wozniak. Since that time, Apple has continued producing more innovative, quicker and more improved devices.  They are continually working on the next iPhone  – at which time people will run out to purchase because of the latest upgrades and improvements.  In 2018, Apple became the first U.S. company with a market cap of over one-trillion dollars. Yes, you read that right… one-trillion!  They have hit success with something I refer to as the Apple philosophy, which sounds something like this: ‘We have a great design, but we know we can make it better. We will continue to challenge ourselves to improve and develop what we have. If we don’t, it means that we have become stagnant and unable to push ourselves to make things excellent.” The focus here is that change must happen to continue to make things better and prevent mediocrity. 

Someone who tends to adhere to the Apple philosophy might make statements like:

“How can we make this better?”

“When is the last time we changed ________?”

“What have you been reading/ listening to/ watching lately?” 

Do those statements sound like you?  If so, that’s ok too! It’s a philosophy you share with a lot of other people.  

As I have mentioned, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these philosophies, yet, if we are not aware of how these philosophies operate in our life, culture, and even in our churches, we can run the risk of having some serious issues.

The executives of Blockbuster had developed a Craftsman philosophy.  They were a well-oiled machine and sat atop of their industry for a long time.  Their demise happened, however, when they discredited the voice of Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, who encouraged them to take their methods of distributing movies and think about changing it and making it different.  

For the Blockbuster executives, there was no reason to change what was not broken.  They still had customers, we doing well enough financially and needn’t bother with thinking about how the culture was shifting and how that might eventually effect them.

Have I set the stage for you to begin to see one of the issues we are facing as a church? It probably doesn’t matter where you attend church, you can see the two ‘camps’ of people.  Those who don’t want change because, for them, change equates a defect or problem (and as they see it, there is no problem) and those who are begging and pleading for change because, for them, a lack of change means that things have become stagnant and mediocre.

It is likely that you fall into one of these two camps yourself.  

Maybe you are the person who is sick of seeing the articles written about why Millennials are leaving the church and you wonder why we can’t just all go back to how things were in the church years ago.  You might even believe that all the changes the church has made in the past decade or two has actually led to the deceased in church attendance, giving, faithfulness, etc.  You don’t understand why it feels like people are constantly trying to “change things up” at your church with the songs/ order of worship/ ministries/ etc.  These things were good enough for your parents and for you – so why couldn’t/ shouldn’t they be good enough for people today?  Maybe it feels like a constant barrage of “change this and change that” and you just want it all it stop for a minute. You don’t see yourself as stuck-in-your-ways, you see yourself as being faithful to what has been passed down to you.

Maybe you are the person who is so ready for change because, inside, you feel like you are slowly dying. You believe in God but struggle with the idea of the church because, from where you sit, she seems so broken, stagnant or mediocre. You aren’t wanting to offend people at your church, but what you see and experience there is not something you would feel comfortable inviting your friends or co-workers to.  You might be tired of feeling like there is endless ‘red-tape’ to changes in the church, constant pushback to any new ideas, and even the “new songs” your church sings are a far cry from being new.  You don’t see yourself as being a change-agent, you see yourself as wanting to present to church as a relevant source of hope to the world around it.

Often times, when these two camps reside in the same church at the same time if can feel like a divorced couple sharing a house.  There is tension in the air and almost everyone feels it (including your visitors). No one is happy, joyful or really even focused on the mission of “going and making disciples.” They are just trying to see how long they can outlast the other camp.

No, I haven’t been spying on your church.  It’s just clear that these are the two camps the church is facing today because they are prevalent in our society. 

So, what do we do about it? Believe it or not, there is a better answer than just to part and do things our own way.  I believe Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, was on to something when he tried to merge with Blockbuster.  Maybe he was keyed in to a truth that we understand from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part.”  The truth is, while it can be difficult and even painful at times, we function best as a body of Christ when we are willing to function together.

Can I give you just a few words of advice and then I will stop meddling? 

Let me talk to those of you who identify with the ‘Craftsman philosophy’ camp.  I see your heart and I understand your fear.  I know that you want to be faithful, so my question is: “Are you being effective in the mission God has given you?”  You have a mission to “go and make disciples.”  But the problem is, the current culture doesn’t seem to be drawn-in by your service, your style, your ministries. Essentially, your “methods” are not helping you achieve the mission.  You and I can remember when the methods were working well.  But, my friend, times have changed! I beg of you not to change the mission, but consider changing the methods.  One of the best ways you can begin is by surrounding yourself with ‘Apple philosophy’ camp folks.  Ask them questions, sit and listen, and don’t get defensive.  When your toes start to curl with the thought of changing things, think about the executives at Blockbuster.  They had the opportunity to join forces with something outside the box that would have helped them grow into the future, but instead, they closed their ears (and the door) to the ‘make it better’ mentality.  Craftsman philosophy camp, if you want your church to grow in the next generation, it’s time to begin turning over decisions to them.  Walk alongside of them.  Encourage them. Support them.  Defend them.  Empower them. You may not always see the need for change, but that is why God placed these people in your path! You need them, and God wants to use the, to help the church reach out and grow into the future. 

Now, for my folks ‘Apple philosophy’ camp. I see your heart and I understand your frustration. I know that you want to make the church a better place, but my question is: “Are you complaining about the church more than you are praying for it?” It is easy to complain when things don’t go the way you think they should, but it is more spiritually beneficial to pray/ serve/ and build up your church!  The truth is, no matter what changes happen with your church it will still be full of broken people and things will never be perfect.  So, if you are waiting for the ‘perfect church’ to come along you are going to be sorely disappointed. I know you hate this word, but be patient.  After all, when Paul describes the church as a body he stated that love was the greatest gift we could possess… and “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4). That doesn’t mean that you should give up on making the church better.  But it also means that you cannot give up on people. There is a generation before you who paved the way for the ground you are standing on (Hey, some of them even taught your bible class when you were in diapers). Can you view them for more than just “obstacles in the way” of what you hope your church will become?  They are brothers and sisters in Christ.  And, if you take time to listen to them and build relationship with them you might find that they can add significant depth to your own personal walk with Christ.  

As we have already covered, the Churches of Christ are on a decline. But we don’t have to continue that way. It is time to ask ourselves the difficult questions: “Are we more attached to our methods than our mission?  Are we actively measuring if our methods of “going and making disciples” are being effective?  What do we need to do, as a church, to grow as we go in the future?  We need to simultaneously affirm, love and respect those who have paved the way before us while empowering and supporting the next generation to take the baton and move into the future.  

As I have mentioned, this is a 6-part series and I hope you will join me with part 3 coming soon as we will look at the parable of the lost sheep and discover another Leadership-Lesson from Blockbuster!