This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Steve Cunningham

God has blessed me with an amazing wife and 6 wonderful children (no, it's not a typo... and, no, I don't have a drinking problem... yet:). In addition, I have been humbled to be in various forms of church ministry fro almost 20 years. I have degrees in Psychology and Social Work and Master's in Pastoral Theology and Church Organization and Leadership. And, best of all, God is still working on me! I love the fact that God continues to redeem me and uses me to help others find redemption as well! What a humbling and awesome career!

I’m sitting in a tire shop waiting for my car to get four new tires as I write this article. It actually seems a little fitting.  

A few weeks ago we noticed a shaking sensation as we were driving our vehicle so I took it to the shop. It turns our that our tires had something called “diagonal wear” which was causing the shaking feeling we were experiencing.  The service technician explained that diagonal wear happens when the alignment of the wheels actually directs the tires in a slightly different path than the vehicle.  The constant ‘tug-and-pull’ that happens between the tires and the vehicle eventually causes the tires to wear out quicker and unevenly – thus causing vibrations when you drive.  

What is the remedy? 

New tires… that’s why I am sitting in the tire shop writing this article, remember?

I know that your church is not a tire, but I bet you can certainly identify with the feeling of a “tug-and-pull’ between two opposing views.  You have some people who desire to go in one direction with a vision, style of worship, outreach, etc… followed quickly by another group of people who envision a completely different path. Over time, these opposing directions cause enough friction that it begins to cause issues. 

Like my car, if you are observant enough you can see the symptoms of this problem:

  • Church members tend to find themselves more in the role of ‘critics of the church’ than ‘worshippers.’ 
  • They tend to make ‘alliances’ with like-minded church-goers and distance themselves from those who hold an opposing view.
  • Folks may start giving only the ministries that they align with or stop giving altogether. 
  • Discussions about the church shifts from the mission of the church “going and making disciples” to conversations about “too much change” or “not enough change” of the methods of the church. 
  • People stop inviting friends and family to attend church with them. 
  • In general, the congregation becomes apathetic. It becomes increasingly harder to find people to teach, serve, or otherwise be involved. In fact, those who were once involved now may be distant or may have left.
  • The leadership has has very little discussion about how best to reach out to the community and, instead, tends to talk about who is unhappy among their members.   

It is in these times when the leadership, and the church as a whole, can feel the vibrations of an issue. So what do we do?

For some churches, they just keep driving down the road hoping the issues will eventually go away.  The problem is, unresolved issues rarely ever go away. In fact, they generally will lead to larger issues. 

Imagine if I never stopped and took the time to fix my tires. What would have happened if I ignored the vibrations I was feeling while driving and just kept going?  Eventually one of the tires could have malfunctioned and caused me to have an accident.  The issue with my car meant I had to do something, and timely!  

So what are we to do? Keep driving our churches down the road as is?  Hope the issues will eventually resolve themselves?  Wait for an impending blow-up and hope we aren’t around to witness it? Or, will we honestly look at the issues, address the real problem, and get back on the road?

Before I offer a few brief suggestions on ways to look at our issues and help move our churches towards our mission, I need to address a prevalent philosophy that has plagued our churches for quite a long time: “Changes need to happen slowly and naturally over time.”  This philosophy is a falsehood which attempts to lead us to the belief that, at some point in the future, there will be a time when we don’t have to do any real work, or suffer any negative aspects, in order to change. 

Change is never easy. Not now. Not ever.  But just because change is hard, doesn’t mean that it is not right.  

This philosophy not only allows the church to shirk being obedient to the mission because they become slaves to their methods, but also encourages church leadership to shirk their duties in leading the church in the Great Commission because they become slaves to church members. This philosophy is not only dangerous to the growth of the church, but at it’s core it is not even how Jesus led and taught his followers.

Allow me to explain. 

As Jesus began his teaching, he did so with the idea that his followers would follow… immediately. 

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’” (Mt. 8:18-22). 

Jesus makes it clear that following him means being willing to leave everything else behind.  Everything must come second to being obedient to the rule and reign of God.  Even when that something puts us out of our comfort zone. 

Now imagine for a moment that Jesus, in his earthy ministry, took the approach that some churches take when it comes to re-setting their course and implementing change. 

He wouldn’t have flipped over tables in the temple, he would have waited for the group of people to grow old enough that they didn’t care anymore before starting a new practice.

He would have told his disciples to make sure to follow all the law and prophets, because the religious elite might get upset.  

He wouldn’t have healed the man with demons, sat with the woman at the well, forgiven the paralytic of his sins, called out the Pharisees in areas that they were wrong, disrespected the teachers of the law and chief priests, spent time with the tax collectors and sinners, or claimed to be the king of the Jews. Instead, he would have stuck with the status-quo. 

But that wasn’t what he did, was it? Jesus had 3 short years and he wasn’t willing to waste time.  He wasn’t going to get bogged down with the non-essentials. He had a mission and he was going to accomplish that mission.  

I think we can lose sight of this. In Matthew 28, Jesus gives an instruction to his follower to “go and make disciples.”  As the church, our mission has been set, but you and I both know that there are difficult obstacles in the way, things we need to address, conversations we need to have, things we need to let go of or change completely in order to most effectively pursue our mission.  Unfortunately, instead of doing the hard work, addressing the problems, or re-correcting our path, we are tempted to just let go of the mission.  I think there is a great reason for this: 

We tend to idolize our methods long after they have failed to help us accomplish our mission. 

Read that sentence again and allow it to sink in. Seriously, do it… I’ll wait for you.

A great question to ask ourselves is: “Is my method of going and making disciples actually working in the culture around me?”  If you haven’t asked that, you should.  If what you are currently doing is not replicating disciples, then it is time to take your church in to “the shop” to see what the problem is and address the issues.  

I mentioned earlier that I would offer a few brief suggestions on how to look at our issues while helping our churches move closer in-line with our mission. So, without further ado, here are a few things we, as the church, need to take to heart.

  • How and when do you critically evaluate your effectiveness: If we are honest with ourselves, we tend to like the things we do so much that it blinds us to whether or not what we are doing is effective.  Are you, and your church, building a space where you can honestly and openly talk about your effectiveness in all areas on a yearly basis? If not, how can you begin to make this happen? Are there any methods that have become idols? Can you call them what they are? If they have become an idol, it is time to remove it.
  • Address the problems, not just the symptoms:  It’s easy to address symptoms. “People won’t volunteer,” or “Folks are just not committed anymore” or “Our society just doesn’t value church.”  These are just symptoms of a problem.  The problem is that you have lost connectivity with people.  Most of the time, it’s because you are speaking a different “language” than the world around you. If people are not showing up to your Wednesday evening service, it may be because your Wednesday evening service is not helpful to their life situations. Folks don’t just want information, they are craving transformation. Can you change what you are doing to help them transform?  If people are not volunteering, it might be because you have not given them a powerful enough vision to get on board with you.  If outsiders are not joining you, it might be because they don’t think you really care about them. 
  • Change for the mission, not for the sake of change: There are a lot of great churches doing a lot of great things.  And, if your church is in decline, it might be tempting to start grabbing at straws and start changing things just so they are different. Or, maybe you are the rare-breed that enjoys change.  Regardless, changing things for the sake of change will never get you closer the the mission of God.  Your mission is to reach out to your community and the only way to know how to do that best is by knowing how to communicate the gospel to the needs of your community.  You have to be willing to know your communities needs, their language and their obstacles. Therefore, change what needs to be changed in order to best fulfill the mission that Christ has called you to. 
  • Changing at a snails pace may make you feel better, but it doesn’t make you more godly: In the book of James, Jesus’ brother has a strong warning about the short span of our life. In fact, he compares our existence to “mist that appears for a little while and them vanishes.” James’ point is that we are not guaranteed tomorrow, so why boast about it? He concludes his thoughts here by saying, “As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (Js 4:16-17).  My guess is that you probably already feel the areas of your church that are not riding smoothly.  My guess is that you probably know that you are not effectively ‘going and making disciples.” The question is, what are you going to do about it?  If you are hoping that your church’s issues will eventually work themselves out if you ignore it long enough, I want to challenge you that you are avoiding the right thing to do! The right thing is to put the mission of following Jesus first! It comes before the traditions, the long-standing ministries, and the awkward and difficult situations.  If you know the good you ought to do, and don’t do it – you are leading in sin. I know – it’s tough… but Jesus never promised following him would be easy, right? In fact, he said it would feel a lot like a taking up a cross.
  • Knowledge rarely equals action, but it is still valuable: We know a lot of good things to do, but if we are honest we rarely ever do them.  Think about it: you know that eating fast food is bad for you and exercising regularly is good for you, but for most of us, the knowledge of these things rarely equals action. This often applies to the church-world as well.  It is likely that you will want to teach/ communicate with your church body about changes you need to make (and you should, we will talk about that soon), but don’t expect that the knowledge of a need to change will actually make some people want to change. It’s likely that people may know they need to change something, but still not desire to do it.  Regardless on whether or not everyone will desire to change, you must spend the time with people educating them, teaching them, and communicating with them why the mission of “going and making disciples” is larger than any method your church currently employs.  They need the reminder! You need the reminder! In fact, the more you teach and preach about this, the easier you may find it to be to place the mission of God first in your life and first in the church. 

Thanks for joining me on this journey! We have one more “Leadership-Lesson” to walk through together as we take a look at how our society has shifted away from the “brand loyalty” that we once use to embrace and how that is effecting the Churches of Christ. 

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?

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! 

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!    

I recently went to the movies with my wife and kids to watch ‘Aladdin.’  The theater was full of young families eager to snack on popcorn, sit back, and enjoy a fun (and nostalgic) movie.  After picking up a few bags of popcorn, some drinks and our tickets, I shelled out what seemed to be a small fortune (hey, we have 6 kids) and we headed to our seats to watch the movie.  Maybe it was the smell of irresistible movie theater popcorn, looking down at my children kicked-back, smiling and having a good time, or the realization that this trip to the theater cost me more than my first vehicle, but whatever, it was a thought hit me, “The movie business has GOT to be raking-in-the-dough!”

It turns out I was right.  

Over $11 billion dollars were spent last year on families ‘going to the movies.’  $11 billion!  That’s like 22 large popcorn tubs at the movie theater, am I right?

Yet, while people were willing to shell-out $11 billion in movie entertainment, I’d be hesitant to give up your day job to enter the ‘movie business’ just yet!  If you don’t believe me, just ask David Cook.  

Oh, who is David Cook?  He is the founder of Blockbuster Entertainment.  In 2000, Blockbuster easily sat atop the video rental industry as the ‘top-dog.’  If you or your family wanted to experience a fun and inexpensive Friday evening at home, you would just swing by the local Blockbuster store, rent a movie or two, grab some microwave movie-theater popcorn on your way to the check-out stand, and you were set.  Everyone who was anyone had a ‘Blockbuster card” which seemed almost as prevalent as drivers licenses.  But, by 2010 Blockbuster filed bankruptcy and as of 2018, there was only 1 Blockbuster store left in the United States (located in Bend, Oregon).  That’s right, hero-to-zero in just ten short years! 

With the movie industry producing over $11 billion dollars in sales, you might tend to think that it would be difficult to not make some money in the movie rental business… and that is where you are wrong.  You see, despite being the leader in their industry, Blockbuster executives failed to understand the wisdom of Solomon: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecc 3:1).  

In 2000, just a year after it’s inception, Netflix founder Reed Hastings met with the executives of Blockbuster looking for a merger – some sort of way to join forces.  The merger never happened.  The executives, despite overseeing a well-oiled machine, overlooked the subtle changes in society that were allowing people even greater access to their wishes from the comfort of their own home.  That decision would cost them dearly. 

You see, the problem for Blockbuster wasn’t that the culture no longer enjoyed movies.  They did…and still do! 

The problem for Blockbuster wasn’t that people no longer were willing to pay for movie entertainment. They are apparently willing to spend about $11 billion a year on them.  

The problem for Blockbuster was that society was changing the way they were accessing movies, and the executives for Blockbuster were either largely unaware, or, they thought that those changes wouldn’t or shouldn’t have an impact them.

They were wrong.  

So why the dissertation on Blockbuster?  I think we can learn some things from them.  And, if we are not diligent in looking at the future of the Churches of Christ, it can experience the same fate.

Let me begin by saying that I both grew up in the Church of Christ and have a deep appreciation for the purpose, heart and direction of the Restoration Movement. I treasure the attempt at unity that the Churches of Christ are founded on.  There are many things that I value as a part of the Churches of Christ.  But with that being said, we, like the executives of Blockbuster, need to heed the words of Solomon and know that, apart from God, there is a season to every activity under heaven.

Much like the fact that people still enjoy, value and spend money at the movies, we do not need to feel threatened that the message of Christ is no longer valuable to our world.  It is extremely valuable! And, even better than that, people still value it, see its purpose and want to be a part of God’s kingdom work in the world today.  The method, however, is seasonal. Like the wise words of Solomon, our methods will have a season or shelf-life.     

There was a time where the methods that the Churches of Christ employed to reach out, share the gospel and bring people to Christ were working.  In fact, during some of the earliest years, the Churches of Christ were among the fastest growing churches in the United States.  But culture and society changed.  And the question is, have we?  

Carey Nieuwhof, a Canadian author/ pastor/ speaker, recently posted about church growth.  In his post, he stated, “What happens if you’re oblivious to the culture around you? If you’re indifferent to the culture, it should be no surprise that the culture is indifferent to you.”

One question that we have to ask is, “Is our culture indifferent to us?” Notice that the question isn’t, “Is the culture indifferent to Jesus?”  We don’t have to ask that question just just because there are plenty of churches which are growing. And, before we dismiss their growth too quickly, most of the growing churches in the United States today are bible based, place Jesus first, are committed to growing disciples, etc.  Unfortunately, the Churches of Christ have steadily declined over the last many years.  I won’t go into all the statistics on the decline of the Churches of Christ in this post, but if you would like some information on the decline of Churches of Christ in the United States, check out the following articles: http://www.michaelhanegan.com/blog/the-state-of-the-churches-of-christ-a-case-study;   https://wineskins.org/2019/04/13/churches-of-christ-in-decline-seven-things-we-can-do-to-transition-to-a-better-future/

I believe that we, like Blockbuster, have become indifferent to the world around us.  Maybe even worse, we are completely oblivious to them and to our own decline.  And, like Blockbuster, if we don’t take a closer look to see if our methods are ‘hitting the mark’ with the world around us we will become a relic of the past. 

But, here is the good news – it doesn’t have to be that way! You see, Blockbuster had a chance to branch out and grow.  It didn’t mean leaving behind the movie business. It didn’t mean leaving behind everything they had every known. But what it did mean was changing the way they would be in distributing movies. It meant that they would need to learn how the culture was accessing and viewing them.  For Blockbuster, their chance came and went.  They failed to grab it and, therefore, they failed.  For the Churches of Christ, our time is now.  

So, how do we do that?  Well, I’m not an ‘expert’ in church growth … but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn last night. 

Ok, I didn’t actually sleep in a Holiday Inn last night.  But, after almost 20 years of ministry experience and a couple of gut-checks along the way, I have seen a few areas that we should consider as we look towards the future of the Churches of Christ.   

Over the next several weeks I will be posting 5 articles dealing with how we can, in a very practical ways, begin to think and act differently so that we don’t end up like the next Blockbuster  – a valuable item that no one sees as relevant. 

I hope you’ll join me on this journey!

You can read Part 2 here – Dueling Philosophies