Culture in America has changed and has been changing for decades. The last half of the twentieth century probably saw more church merging and consolidation than ever before in the history of our country... and that trend is not slowing down. Oh it may be argued that non-denominational churches are on the rise, but many of the larger non-denominational churches are assimilating existing congregations into them as satellite campuses. The language of their connections may differ from church to church, but the biggest church growth among them is likely happening congregation by congregation, not person by person.
The map above is not about competition between denominations, it is about the power of generalizations. If you look at the legend, it claims that Baptists claim the greatest number of counties nationwide. That may be a bit misleading however because "Baptist" is not a denomination, but rather a collection of well over 100 distinct denominations. The same could be said of any of the major "mainline" Protestant denominations. Roman Catholics may be the closest to being exempt from this, although there are a few divisions even within the Catholic denomination. Perhaps the greatest adherents are the Non-denominational churches - every single one of which claims to be entirely independent of every other non-denominational church.
Why does this matter? If you go out and ask someone what kind of church they prefer, chances are they are not going to say Salt Lick Separate Independant Baptist Church of Holiness. They will just say Baptist. If someone attends an Evangelical Free Methodist Church but moves to a new location where there is no Evangelical Free Methodist Church, they will at least look into another branch of the Methodist Church family if one is available.
Our friend, the behavioral bell curve again shows us that the most consistent attendance from a community comes from maintaining 50% of the choice available. That means, the more specific and unique you make your particular congregation, the less influence you have in the community. This again is the strength of both the Catholic (Roman Catholic) Church as well as the Non-Denomination Church(es). If you have claim to represent a denomination, you gain the attention of anyone who chooses to align themselves with that particular perspective. Particularly as a non-denominational church, you may share no beliefs at all with the next nearest non-denominational church, but the claim to the name itself will bring people who also claim that name. That is significant for reaching those who already claim church affiliation but who are not presently attending a church. The church with ties to some kind of greater group belief will outlast the one who is a unique congregation, distinct from all other congregations. So, if you are thinking about changing your church name, it might be worth your while to keep your denomination somewhere up front, or at least claim to be non-denominational.
Today, the greater challenge actually lies with those who are not church affiliated at all. Churches are not just competing with each other for time, they are competing with work, sports, vacations, and any number of non-church activities. The growing churches are learning ways to provide many of those options themselves through church-sponsored sports, fun and fellowships activities, community meals, movie and theater presentations, and with the increase in local church technology - musical concerts. The question has moved from where you want to go to worship to where do you want to go to get great food, hear good music, learn something new, and have a lot of fun while doing it. It is not all about entertainment, but if a local church can give people just a bit of the experience of going to a theme park or concert hall, fine dining, or college class, and do it without requiring the purchase of a ticket each week, you quickly become the go-to place for many of those needs and move toward that 50% of options for their time. I think the church nowadays refers to this concept as building community.
The majority of people I have met believe they have the freedom to make at least some choices in life. Among those who disagree, most seem to live as if they do have choices on a practical level. Free will and the degree to which we may or may not enjoy it is a discussion for another day. At the moment I want to focus on the concept of discipline in the sense of intentionally shaping behavior in a positive manner.
Choices are sometimes the problem. Even the most strong-willed person will struggle more in the face of a multitude of distractions rather than one or two options. Distractions erode away at our will and desire is a fickle motivator that may be a help one day and a hindrance the next. Consider how many people set intentional goals and plans to exercise or diet as New Year's resolutions in January. Fast forward to Thanksgiving... how many of them even remember setting those goals? Things that are strong desires at one time are not guaranteed to continue over a variety of circumstances.
Mathematically, it pays to come from the perspective of choice control rather than simply boosting motivation. The bell curve on the chart above is the model that shows how often a choice is made across a variety of circumstances with the x (sideways) axis representing what percent of the choices available the action holds and the y (up and down) axis representing how often it is chosen. Notice it peaks when it holds 50% of the option, and the vast majority (95%) of any of it's actions take place when it holds between about 25% to 75% of the choice availability.
Perhaps this is easier to explain with an example. I get dehydrated easily and need to develop the discipline of drinking water regularly. Certainly there are some times that I will desire to drink water, but other times I prefer to drink coffee or soda. Still other times I don't feel like drinking anything at all. However, I am more likely to develop the discipline of drinking water if it is constantly an option for me to do - for instance if I am always carrying a water bottle with me. Some times I will drink water because I'm thirsty for water. Other times I will drink it because it will take more time or money to get something else to drink when the water is right there. Still other times I may be tired rather than thirsty, but drinking water may be a more feasible option to stay awake than taking a nap. Whatever the situation, if drinking water is continually a valid option, I am more likely to develop it into a discipline.
Eliminating other choices only works to a point. If I choose to rid my house of anything to drink but water, I will certainly be drinking more water than before, but my thoughts and desire will swiftly move towards the things I am missing. When I feel a choice has been taken away from me I tend to dwell on it more and as soon as those choices reappear, I will abandon the discipline of drinking water and fill my choices with other options. Not only will I lose the discipline, but it will be awhile before the desire for water returns.
This bell curve of behavioral choices has some profound effects upon our lives in our development of behaviors, our relationships, the choices we make in character development, and perhaps even in the history of our organizations and their growth and decline over time. More on this later...
I used to love watching the tv series MacGyver when I was younger. He was a master of adaptation and improvisation and could get out of any jam with a stick of chewing gum and a paper clip. Perhaps it was MacGyver that has inspired the generation of functionally adaptive leaders that run our businesses, governments, churches, hospitals, schools, and other institutions.
What is a functionally adaptive development? It's a term I've made up by sticking together two or more things that do not normally being together and making them work. These FADs are all the rage. Consider the last time you bought something of value. Did you ask if it was true? Did you ask if it was morally good? Or did you ask if it would work? For nearly anything you can buy in the world you can find a generic version slightly cheaper and if you really want to save money you can go online and find Pinterest and a dozen other sites on how to use things in ways they for which they were not initially created. Our MacGyver culture values functional ability above all else though... It doesn't matter if it was built for that purpose, it only matters if it works.
And it doesn't matter if it works for the long run. We care about the present moment. Will the paper clip last as long or have the same overall effect as the circuit board thing over the long haul? If someone were to shake the missile, would the paper clip hold? Probably not. But by then it won't be our problem, so we don't need to worry about it. This is what I would call a FAD Attitude.
FADs are not made to last. What do we need to do in order to create lasting solutions? We need to ask different questions. Along with the question "does it work?", ehich is an important question, we need to ask:
I live in one of the most over-church areas of the entire world, or so it often seems to me, and yet even here it is absolutely staggering the amount of struggle people have with sin and disconnect from both God and the local church. It creates strange dynamics in ministry. I recently ran into an acquaintance who said they were in between churches presently and cited the reason for looking to move to a new congregation being that their current preacher was pressing through the Gospel of John over the course of the next year.
Hearing that brought up a whole mishmash of thoughts and feelings in me. Part of me thought that was perhaps crossing the line from boldness to foolishness on the preacher's part. Another part of me felt defensive on their behalf over the issue of leaving a congregation over an issue without actually talking to the preacher about it first (probably the most common form of dealing with disagreement in our area). I don't even know who this preacher is, so I'm really in no place to judge this decision. But the conflict here begs the question: how do preachers decide what to preach?
There is a conception, particularly among non-preachers, that those of us who preach regularly simply sit down with our bible sometime during the week, pray, and then open the book to whatever passage God "leads"us. I actually attended a church where the elders took turns doing this during the worship service itself. Wherever the bible opened, that was where they began preaching in an impromptu style. I bet they preached on the Psalms a lot. That was an awesome church that has high expectations not only for pastors, but for regular members as well regarding seeking forgiveness from one another through confession and not compromising their beliefs just to fit in with the world easier.
Most preachers are not that extreme, but there is a notion that God may change your message Saturday night or Sunday morning, which makes it more challenging to get motivated in preparing sermons Mondays and Tuesdays. Why do the work out God's going to change it all at the end? I have legitimately had that happen at least once that I can vividly recall. God asked me to change my first sermon I preached in the first church I was appointed to on the Saturday night before. I have to give Him credit, He let me know He appreciated the work I put into it, but He had a story me He wanted to share instead. After preaching/storytelling, one of the youth told me that was the weirdest sermon they had ever heard. A few weeks later, a woman from a different church asked for a copy of that sermon she had heard about to use at their administrative board meeting. That was the last I heard of that sermon and have no idea why God asked me to change it or what the effects were...I was simply trying to be faithful in serving Him.
I was not preaching on a weekly basis until my second appointment where I discovered it is a lot more stressful to do the Saturday night work up a sermon thing every single week. Some Saturdays are just as difficult to come up with sermon material as Mondays. So I started experimenting with another end of the preaching preparation spectrum: sermon series.
My first sermon series were not topical, they were based on preaching through books of the bible. In fact, my first sermon in my second appointment was on Luke chapter 9 which was the lectionary gospel text for the day. The next week I just went on to the next passage (which followed right along with the lectionary for quite awhile). When I finished one book I would set about looking for a new bible book to preach through and usually checked the lectionary first. Over time I began to see certain topics or themes developing within the texts themselves and began to highlight them, so I guess I was preaching topically and book by books at the same time.
Planning it all out ahead of time freed up my time and lowered my anxiety immensely. My freedom from worrying about God changing it all up on me was reduced by the fact that I was preaching so often, if I messed up once I would get plenty of opportunities to make it right later. The frequency of pressing opportunities may be one of the biggest influences on how a preacher prepares their sermon. But this really is a much more hands on, be-in-control kind of method as well and it has the track potential of pushing God out of the preparation time.
Today I still preach in prepared series of sermons, although sometimes they are more topical and use a variety of scriptures, although they are usually rooted in some particular book or passage. I have come to a place of peace with this presently because of two things I have learned.
1. You can and you need to commit to the scripture text. I learned from Dr. Ellsworth Kallas that you can't preach well if you constantly bounce between texts through the week. All of scripture is God's Word and He can use any of it so just pick your text Monday and commit to it. Let God change your stories and illustrations, but commit to the text.
2. God can lead you to the right message on Monday as well as He can on Saturday night. He can even lead you to the right message 6 months or a year ahead of time if you are truly open to His guidance. Just recently this was affirmed as I had a 6 week series planned out with two breaks for guests speakers preaching in my place. I felt good about all but the last week, which was preaching on the topic of death, and it was scheduled for a day we were going to be celebrating with a lot of guests. It wasn't bad, it just felt awkward. God had other plans though. The first guest preacher, without knowing it, preached on the very next topic in the series, even using some of the same scripture, so that it would have been redundant for me to preach the same sermon again the following week. Therefore, all the weeks were moved back. God affirmed preaching this series He just had someone else in mind to preach that fifth sermon besides me.
God is at work in our planning when we invite Him in. We can hear the rumblings of His movement even from weeks away if we are willing to set aside the time to be still and listen. God connects our days and weeks together in a greater movement and He invites us to see the currents flowing beneath the waves if we are brave enough and committed enough to take the time to swim down deep enough in Him. How is God connecting your days and weeks and what greater movement is He doing in you?
The Bible may be the most famous book written, but it has also been used and abused probably more than any other book as well. Some people treat it like a hammer, to beat other people down or into a particular shape they want. Others use it like a surgical knife to cut and tear apart ideas that come their way. While the Bible itself does speak of scripture as a two-edged sword that cuts, I'm not sure that is the best way to understand or use it. In fact, I think we run into a bit of danger when we are the operators and the Bible simply becomes our tool.
The last several decades has shown an increase in the attention to narrative and "metanarrative" (or over-arching storyline) in the Bible. I have come to see the whole Bible as a story of God's movement(s) and the world's movement(s) in response to God. There is a dance through the pages of God picking us up and setting us in place, then following us as we fall away, and picking us up and setting us in place again...over and over. God breathes out and we breathe in. We breath out and God breathes in...over and over. God moves, and we move with Him, whether we realize it or not. I'm not going to quote any particular verses here, but instead invite you to pick up your own Bible and turn to any page and see if you find any page where this movement is not taking place. Big movements across nations, across all of creation and tiny movements between the hearts of individuals and the heart of God.
In looking for the place of scripture within a ministry context, I believe it is not as justification, nor as a tool to get a job done (preaching, teaching, etc.) but as an invitation to this movement. We go where we see God moving. When we see God moving in the scriptures, we go to Him in the scriptures. We allow Him to use scripture to move us, rather than us trying to use scripture to move Him. Where He breathes out, we breathe in. We engage the scripture as it engages us. We connect with the scripture where it connects with us. We equip ourselves with the scripture as it equips us and sends us out in new movements as our movements of sending out the scripture into the world become an intricate part of the great dance God has created in our world.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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