Monthly Archives: January 2007

“Simple Church”

Simple Church: Returning To God’s Process for Making Disciples, Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger [Broadman and Holman Publishers: Nashville, Tennessee, 2006]

At the end of a fairly prominent church leadership conference, I noticed the glum expression on one pastor’s face. “Seminars like this sometimes get me down. It’s like looking under the hood of a finely tuned race-car, all the machinery humming, everything clicking on all cylinders. And then, I look at my church and have no idea where to start.”  There is something quite dispiriting about learning lessons from the seeming complexity of a healthy, hard-charging church.

With that in mind, I was thrilled this year to welcome the latest study by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger: Simple Church. The book itself is appropriate to its title. Just over 250 pages, large print, it can be read in a single one-hour sitting. The source of its research and the impact of its discoveries, however, are far from simple. They are, quite simply, profound.

The authors researched over 400 evangelical churches [admittedly, all of them in the United States – 37 states in all – and mostly Southern Baptist congregations.] The research tool they used went deeper than the methods, styles, or programs of a church. Instead, it sought to measure the underlying process that defines the congregation. The churches selected for the study fell into one of two groups: Vibrant churches – those demonstrating at least 5% growth in a three year period, and Plateaued/Declining churches – those with less than 1% growth over the same period.

The results were astonishing. With a remarkable degree of certainty, the survey results revealed: Healthy Growing congregations are – at their core – simple in the extreme. By the same token, Churches in decay are mired in complexity.

On the surface, it may seem to defy the senses. Vital churches appear to have a multitude of options and programs which, if mapped, would appear complex. But, digging deeper, the is a simple process beneath it all. Declining Churches, on the other hand, suffer from what Rainer and Geiger call: “ministry schizophrenia” which “occurs when churches and church leaders are not sure who they are” and end up trying to glue together a hybrid of programs drawn from a wide spectrum of methods and programs.

Simple Church, as defined, is “designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth…[where] the leadership and the church are clear about the process [clarity] and are committed to executing it. The process flows logically [movement] and is implemented in each area of the church [alignment]. The [Simple] church abandons everything that is not in the process [focus.] (Page 67-68]

Four stages to a simple process: Clarity, Movement, Alignment, and Focus. Each serve a valuable purpose worth any church leaders study and attention, and as the book is packaged – each is presented with a guide for study.

There are several cautions to the book. “Simple” should never be confused with “Easy.” As Church leaders read through the book and study through the questions, they will quickly encounter the difficult challenge of sorting through the competition of values and visions, egos and agendas – in order to arrive at a common purpose. The road to a simple church requires selfless, prayerful commitment. But, the results are worth it.

Final Note: As an additional recommendation to read this book … Church leaders might find it helpful to experiment with the Process Design Survey used as the research tool for Simple Church. It can be accessed at www.ericgeiger.com. Upon completion of the survey, you will be able to review your personal results and evaluate the level of vitality in your own church ministry.

At the Origins of the Christian Claim – Luigi Giussani

Luigi Giussani, At the Origins of the Christian Claim Trans. V. Hewitt; Montreal & Kingston:  McGill-Queens University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7735-1714-6 (Cloth): ISBN 0-7735-1627-1 (Paper)

In his “Religious Sense”, Luigi Giussani laid the foundations for a defense of the inherent religious impulse of the human that requires a totalizing answer to the “utmost questions” of human life and existence.  Giussani is now prepared to offer an initial answer to the question laid bare at the end of his first enterprise, namely, does the Christian God, understood as Father, provide the most reasonable solution to this human religious dilemma?  The answer lies, as the title suggests, At the Origins of the Christian Claim.

This second part of Giussani’s trilogy amounts to an investigation into how the ultimate questions of the earliest disciples were decisively answered by the totalizing message of Jesus Christ the risen Lord.  This was a conclusion at which they arrived simply because life “spurs reason to search for a solution.  Indeed reason’s very nature implies that a solution exists.” (Introduction, p. 9)  The “religious creativity of man” [sic], which is the “entire expression” of human imaginative efforts to “possess the mysterium tremendum” has left us with a “spectrum of hypothesis” regarding the “truth” of any one religion.  1)  Either we must know all religions in order to make a rational and dignified choice or; 2)  Know at least the major religions and risk the loss of any truth in minority religions.  3) Perhaps we should aim at a form of enlightenment syncretism which synthesizes the best of all religious truths or still; 4) Allow for the truthfulness of all religious on an empirical basis, requiring adherence to ones native religion only.  All of these options, which express our human imaginative attempts at grasping the divine, require us to posit a freedom on the part of the “mysterium tremendum” which transcends, interrupts and challenges our “religious imaginations”.  That is, human reason must be “confirmed by revelation”.  Reason cries out for it and launches itself toward this hypothesis, “which is so rational and so much part of our nature that, to some degree, it always emerges.” [p. 21]  This impulse toward revelation is inherent in our drive for knowledge, our need for mediators of knowledge, our experience of proximity to God, our common appeal to revelation, and our western appeal to the faith of Israel.  If there is a crime that can be leveled at this universal religious impulse, as conceived by culture today, it would be that of the claim to “exclusive truth.”  Yet, Christianity does just this.  For Giussani this is a claim that can only be justified or not, when we return to the “origins of the Christian claim.”

Considered on its own merits as a human construct, Christianity would certainly be wrong to make such a claim in the face of other religions.  If, however, we understand the Christian claim to be an expression of the “enigma” as a fact within the history of this human religious trajectory, then this fact must be regarded or examined on its own merits.  Were we to suppose that the enigma (mystery, God) became flesh then this “supposition would correspond to the need for revelation”.  To deny this would be irrational and contrary to the human religious sense.  Were this to be the case then could not Christianity prove to be “a more human synthesis, a more complete way of valuing the factors at play.” [p. 30]  Taken in this way the Christian claim is no longer an hypothesis but a problem that must be solved.  Announced as a fact of history, the Christian claim must be taken seriously as a problem to be solved, not as a “despotic irrational claim”.  It concerns a question of fact, i.e. incarnation, not opinion.

Given that Christianity, as a factual problem, has a history, the place to begin solving the problem is with an attuning to the singular event of Christianity, the Incarnation.  “The mystery chose to enter the history of man through a life story identical to that of any other man.”  As imperceptible as this divine entry into time was in terms of recorded history, nevertheless history records a certainty on the part of the disciples of having found the Messiah.  The imperceptible became perceptible as a conviction among a few which produced a “profound certainty over time.”  If one follows faithfully the “itinerary” of their conviction one comes to the certainty that this incomparably great man of power and goodness was a master to be followed in freedom as the Messiah, indeed as the forgiving one whose new ethic inaugurates a new kingdom.

So the origin of the problem as a fact of history lies not so much in the event itself as in the “perceptive experience of the earliest disciples” and their careful formulation of the primitive “Christology” or Messianism.  While the event is a mystery, almost imperceptible, the conviction is the fulfillment of humanities deepest longings, needs and questions.  It was, as such, a totalizing event.

But Giussani is not satisfied to lay all the weight of the exclusive claims of Christianity on the basis of the experience of the earliest disciples.  He takes great pains to point out that Christ himself, through a “slow pedagogy”, taught his disciples to think of him as “God”.  Jesus’ claim is simply a fact that lays bare “the basic position of the human heart – whether closed or open – to the mystery of being.” [p. 79]  As such the Christian problem is resolved in the same terms in which it presents itself:  “either we are dealing with madness or this man, who says he is God, really is God.” [p. 79]  Our free decision to penetrate this mystery “is a decision with hidden roots bound to our attitude to reality as a whole.”  It is that “supreme something” which sees Jesus as the ultimate good and worth our free commitment.

To understand this Christian claim we must be educated into “Christ’s conception of life” which is an education in “morality for understanding”.  What is at stake is the “correspondence of human existence as a whole to the form of Christ.” [p. 83]  Jesus own outlook on the value of humanity, dependence on the Divine, self existence, sin and human freedom answers the ultimate questions about these core human realities in a definitive way.  “Following Christ (faith) thus generates a characteristic existential attitude by which man walks upright and untiring towards a destination not yet reached although sure (hope).” [p. 83]  Thus, the event of the Incarnation, as mystery, is an “ethical urgency”, and an “education to the ideal”.  It was “an extra ordinary historical reality” in which Jesus moved his disciples from “awe to conviction” because the answers he gave to the questions of ultimate concern convinced them that he was the “God-man”.  The greatest task of Christianity is to announce, with the same conviction that was present “at the origins of the Christian claim”, that Jesus of Nazareth is God.  Furthermore;

“The task of the Christian is not only the greatest, but also the most tremendous in history because it is destined to provoke unreasonable reactions; yet it is supremely reasonable to face and to verify an hypothesis on its own terms, and here is precisely an event which happened in history.”

This task is the reason for the Church’s existence, from which place the message will be proclaimed and worked out in society.

Some Reflections

Once again Giussani has surprised us with his unique ability to combine profound concepts with a well illustrated and very readable style.  As with The Religious Sense, one has the feeling of not being in the classroom but rather sitting by the fire listening to the sage expound on the most important events in life with story, poem and prose.  Catholics, whether clergy or laity, should embrace this almost folksy rendition of contemporary Catholic Christianity with enthusiasm and a desire to go deeper with Giussani.  Though this work is shorter and less detailed than the previous volume, The Religious Sense, it is no less a serious call to reconsider the Incarnation as a natural, historical event that gave rise to an historical consciousness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  Similar treatments in the history of Christian theology from Schleiermacher to Schillebeeckx have taken many more pages and done it less justice than Giussani’s brevity.  As with the previous volume, this one will have to be reckoned with by Protestants and Catholics alike; whether scholar, clergy or lay person.  It will be intriguing to see how such a religious sense is worked out in the Church, the bearer of the historical claim to answers of ultimate concern.

A serious question remains, however.  Despite his brevity, clarity and intellectual power, Giussani has still failed to answer the question of the relationship between revelation and experience.  The Incarnation as event is almost eclipsed by the disciples experience of it.  The attempt to uncover the “religious sense” of today will always be a dubious exercise because of the gulf between our time and theirs.  Without a clear starting point in revelation as the event of the Word of God, we are left with only a surmising of how that event affected the first followers.  Their experience must be secondary to the event and not constitutive of it.  Giussani needs to be clear on this.

When Emerging Leaders Go BOOM!

Over the last three years as I’ve been seeking to create instruments to empower home-grown leaders, I’ve noticed that the greatest personal interest being shown comes from people of a certain age. Let me share an example: “I am an engineer, 50 years old, chair of our church board … my wife and I have been praying about our future plans to devote ourselves to full-time ministry in the next 5 years.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover a cultural phenomenon that is creating a huge impact in the church – the Baby-Boomer generation in transition. Over the last month, it has not been hard to collect a significant amount of research. This movement has been tracked by researchers for over a decade.  Consider a few of the details:

  • 1 baby boomer retires every 7 seconds in the US.
  • Baby Boomers [those born after WWII through early 1960’s] make up 25% of the total population of North America.
  • Baby Boomers in the US number 82 million. In 2001, the leading edge of this group turned 55.
  • Financial planners have recorded a significant shift in retirement planning indicating a significant rise in early-retirement, and active retirement.
  • Baby Boomers have the highest volunteer participation rate of any demographic group.
  • There are 12 million self-described Evangelical Christian baby boomers according to the Wall Street Journal.

The age wave is beginning to break over society with surprising impact. While Boomers have been sometimes branded as the most selfish generation, there is evidence that as they age they are proving to be much different. A study from the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2005 revealed that Boomers are not only more active in volunteer participation, but fully expect to extend their volunteer commitments to more mature – even career – levels.

This surge is being felt in a number of arenas. It has created an impact in the world of missions. In late 2005, Wycliffe Bible Translators built a volunteer mobilization center in Orlando, Florida in an attempt to keep up with their largest sector of missionary growth. Since the year 2000, Wycliffe has experienced an average of 40% annual increase in the number of “Boomer Missionaries.” Martin Huyett, Wycliffe’s vice-president for volunteer services explained, “these people have a certain amount of freedom and control … they want to do something significant, not just write checks.”

Along with Wycliffe, many mission organizations have begun to realize the value of the Boomer generation as the most healthy, well-financed, and highly educated retirement generation in history. According to Martin Huyett, “today’s 60-year-old is mature and needs far less training in living skills than his or her younger counterparts … a person in his or her 50’s and above has triumphed through their productive years and has built-in strategies for success.”

One organization, The Finisher’s Project, was founded by Nelson Malwitz as a way to match Boomers with the growing list of ministry opportunities provided by Mission agencies. Currently, the Finisher’s Project is working with 100 organizations, has placed over 1,000 people in full-time missions, has 1,000 people in process, and has an additional 1,200 people expressing their intention to make a transition in the next 2 years. Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity said, “Most mission agencies are trying to work with this trend … that 20 years ago was unwelcome.”

Engaging “seniors” [according to Win Arn, Boomers prefer the title “middle adults”] in ministry may have been “unwelcome” 20 years ago. Now, they appear to be absolutely crucial to the life of the church. Jim Hughes, professor of Aging at Abilene Christian University, has questioned several conventional thoughts that may stand in the way of propelling Boomers into service. One has been the emphasis on youth ministry – with the conventional wisdom being that youth are the most open to faith commitments. Considering the level of interest in “significance studies” reflected in books like Bob Buford’s Half-Time, older adults are proving to be extremely responsive to issues of faith.

Another idea is that age, for older people, equals inertia. The reality of the Boomer generation is that there is an eagerness for change. Life passages such as retirement, the “empty nest” syndrome, are no longer viewed as debilitating. Instead, Boomers are proving to value mobility and the freedom to pursue creative options. Nelson Malwitz of the Finishers Project described this attitude: “as you hit 50, you no longer count your years from the time you were born, but you count the amount of time you have left. The BIG idea [of the Boomers] has to do with finishing well.” Backing up his comments, a survey sponsored by the Finishers Project among 600 evangelical Boomers reported that 61% are planning to retire early [as soon as possible as no later than 65] and pursue a second career. 54% said that they would consider a second career in missions. 81% expect to be able to pursue this service together with their spouse. 

As I reflect on the growing body of statistics generated by the explosion of the Boomer generation, I find myself almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of implications. Apart from the fact that many of them are intensely personal [since I, too, am a Boomer] each seem to have a consequence for the future of the church. Let me share three quick discoveries:

1. The Boomers are ready – use them or lose them: Jim Hughes of the Abilene Christian University writes, “many churches look to younger people to fill significant roles, leaving older adults to trivial tasks.” Many Boomer post-retirement plans are being built around significance, mission, and impact. With their proven record of life-skills and initiative, if their Church won’t match their intentions in a serious fashion, they will find other avenues to influence their world.

2. The Boomers are capable – adapt and enjoy: One of the things I have noticed as I’ve sought to empower emerging leaders is that very few of them have aspirations for what the church would consider conventional ministry. Very few 50 year olds are eager to become Senior Pastors. Instead, one of the reasons that they are considering a more mature level of ministry is that God has stimulated a burden in their hearts for specific ministries – some of which are unique and exceptional. Todd Johnson, of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reports that the Boomers are more interested in being active than just giving money. They have a passion to “start NGO’s, orphanages, business centers, health clinics, all at local levels.”  Churches that strategically empower Boomers are discovering themselves suddenly engaged in ministries beyond their imagining.

3. The Boomers are passionate – put them at the nozzle: I discovered one subtle, but profound, comment that revealed the Boomer attitude. Their vocabulary reflects a difference in generational attitude. When it came to management and administration, Boomer’s parents would frequently use the word “delegate.” On the other hand, when Boomers speak of management and administration, they more frequently use the word “empower.” The difference between the two words reveals, I think, the key to mobilizing this generation in the local church. Since they already possess a history of initiative and responsibility, when it comes to initiating Boomer ministries – they should be set free to identify the target and aim the flow of ministry.

Those are just three quick, off the cuff reflections. You may have more – and I’d love to hear them. Better yet, maybe your church should hear them too.

Sources: Articles:

“Retirement: Retirees May Become Ministry Cutting Edge”, Andy Butcher, Christianity Today Online, 16 June 1997  [http://ctlibrary.com/1140]

“A Boom for Missions” John Kennedy, Christianity Today Online, February 2007 [www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/February/18.20html]

“Boomers: The New Wave of Volunteer Missionaries” Alex Coffin, Christian Newswire, 14 November 2007 [www.christiannewswire.com/new/356371502.html]

“Issue Brief: Baby Boomers and Volunteering: An Analysis of the Current Population Survey”, Corporation for National and Community Service, December, 2005 [www.nationalservice.gov]

Books:

FutureThink: How To Think Clearly In A Time Of Change, Edie Weiner and Arnold Brown, Pearson Prentice Hall, Toronto, 2006.

Organizations:

Finishers Project: www.finishers.org