This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reflections on "The Fly In the Ointment," by J. Russell Crabtree

There is a lot of good stuff in this book. There is also a lot that I have serious concerns about.

Crabtree is absolutely right when he talks about the obsolete institutional models and mindsets that are crippling the mainline churches right now. We act like we’re monopolies when people actually have options and alternatives. We act as if the role of the congregations is to support the mission of the presbytery or denomination, when the opposite is the case. Officials are good at double-speak, which gives permission not to change, as in, “we’re in a crisis… but on the bright side….” Crabtree mentions that breathtakingly ridiculous paper by Cliff Kirkpatrick, which pretends to be a “wake-up call” to the church… in 2005! If we hadn’t woken up by 2005 we’re in a coma! (He doesn’t mention Kirkpatrick’s solution, which is to have more babies… as if that were possible given our average age, and as if one of the biggest areas of loss hasn’t been our own offspring….)

He has some very good practical advice about inspiring and managing institutional change, doing leadership training, and resourcing churches. He is not afraid to be controversial, especially when he says presbyteries should charge fees for their consultant services. He clearly delineates the differences between the primary presbytery responsibilities and functions.

Crabtree does seem to understand that the mainline churches are in a death spiral, and drastic action, by which he means a change in culture, is necessary. I agree wholeheartedly.

But I am nervous when it is suggested that churches know what they want and presbytery needs to give that to them. I have discovered that what too many churches want is to be able to return to some version of 1956: pews full of people like us only younger, lots of children in the Sunday School, traditional worship, men in ties and women in dresses, and so on. They want Christendom restored. They want to keep doing the same things they have been doing for 40 years, and somehow get again the results they got on the 50’s, but which haven’t worked since.

On page 58, Crabtree talks about coaching to a vision. But it is hard to find any criteria evaluating the vision. Is it even remotely realistic? Is it based more on nostalgia than actual potential? Is it just a fantasy about the way things should be? Churches want to attract more families with young children. Fine. But (1) is an attractional model still relevant to every church? And (2) what about everyone else (which is to say a huge majority of Americans) who is not part of a family with young children? Single people, retirees, handicapped people, empty-nesters, non-traditional families, Gays, and so forth.

More to the point: what model do we get out of the New Testament? Jesus did not sit at home and wait for people to come to him. He did not institute a marketing campaign. He did not talk about clients and customers, and he most certainly did not let the latter set the agenda for his ministry. Jesus knew himself to be sent into the world. When he gathered his disciples, after training them, he sent them out as well.

I am wondering if the form of the ministry shouldn’t somehow be determined by the content of the message. Much of church growth literature, this book mostly included, is advice that would be germane to any organization that wants to grow. It comes down to basically have a clear vision and be able to articulate it to the people you want to attract. This basic model will work whether it is applied to a bowling league, a Masonic lodge, a retail business, or a branch of the KKK.

Crabtree talks about fostering “healthy, vital” churches. I think we need to speak even more basically about faithful and committed churches. Too often we let the culture determine what constitutes “health” and “vitality,” and this almost always happens quantitatively. But in the church, health and vitality can only be determined by Jesus Christ. We are healthy and vital when we are participating in his mission, when we are faithful and committed to him and the calling he gives to us. Instead of evaluating our ministry based on how many new “families with young children” we have been able to “attract,” we need to lift up those places in Scripture where Jesus outlines his ministry and commissions his disciples.

Like when Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Let churches tell us how they are doing according to these categories. Nowhere does Jesus say “go out and attract new members.” He does say “make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” So, our first task is to cultivate communities that obey Jesus. Part of this is being sent out to express the good news in the world by our actions of service, healing, and liberation. That is our attraction.

Jesus himself did not seek to attract “families with young children.” That’s because he wasn’t trying to live up to the example of 1956. He was not trying to exhume Christendom. He went to the needy, the sick, the possessed, and the outcast. He didn’t do that because that’s what his “customers,” ie. those wealthy women who supported him financially, wanted. He did it because it was what God wanted. And these women did not just mail in checks; they followed as part of his entourage.

When is someone going to write the book that says presbyteries should help churches (a) find out what Jesus wants them to do, and (b) obey him? That would be better than a “zero-based” mission model, it would be “Christ-based.”


Beloved Spear said...

I similarly struggle with the focus on getting in the "moms and dads with 2.5 kids" approach to church. That's fine for church as an institution, but it is totally meaningless to church as the Body of Christ.

In fact, that focus on the family (ahem) seems to be one of the most critical problems of the PC(USA). Honestly, it seems to me that we are so family and institution and pledge-dollars for the budget focused that we manage to ignore the young, seeking, struggling adults who once grew up in our churches. They notice that we think they are not important. And after college and grad school, they just don't come back.

And we wonder why we are waning.

Anonymous said...

"When is someone going to write the book that says presbyteries should help churches (a) find out what Jesus wants them to do, and (b) obey him? That would be better than a “zero-based” mission model, it would be Christ-based."

- My brother, If God has put the concern in your heart, then he has assigned you for that mission. Go forth boldly and help fulfil GOD's plan!