James Bryan Smith: The Encouraging Community

"While it may be true that treating churchgoers as consumers by trying to meet their stated needs may make them feel more comfortable, by lowering our expectations of them as active participants we are decreasing the possibility of genuine transformation."... "I want a community who will take an interest in my well-being, a community who is not afraid to ask me to make a commitment to my own spiritual growth and service to others, a community who dares to offer me a reliable pattern of transformation and then backs it up by challenging me to enter into some form of accountability in order to help me meet our commitments." ... "I know three things from experience. First, people rise to the level of expectation. We fail because we do not ask for accountability and commitment. Second, people intuitively know that when things are made easy there is little chance that any good will come from it. We lower our expectations because we think people will respond in greater numbers, but in reality we do them no service, and most people sense this. Third, while not everyone in every church is ready to make a commitment to transformation, there are many who are ready and are not being challenged. Far too much attention is being paid to getting people to come to church, and far too little is paid to those who are hungering for a deeper life with God."

(James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Community, Ch. 6: "The Encouraging Community")

The First Thing John Ortberg Hates About Spiritual Formation

Leadership Journal recently published an article by John Ortberg called, "Seven Things I Hate About Spiritual Formation." It's fantastic. I count Ortberg among my heroes, and largely because of people like him, I too fit his self-description as someone who now spends a lot of time writing and thinking about spiritual formation. It is the field that I studied for a master's degree, and even if I only count the books that specifically claim to be about spiritual formation–if I were to put the ones I've hung on to over the years because they're the best next to each other on a shelf–I've got at least three feet of them. And my number one frustration with Spiritual Formation would be the same thing Ortberg lists first:

1. I hate how spiritual formation gets positioned as an optional pursuit for a small special interest group within the church. People think of it as an esoteric activity reserved for introverted Thomas-Merton-reading contemplatives. I hate that. Spiritual formation is for everyone. Just as there is an "outer you" that is being formed and shaped all the time, like it or not, by accident or on purpose, so there is an "inner you." You have a spirit. And it's constantly being shaped and tugged at: by what you hear and watch and say and read and think and experience. Everyone is being spiritually formed all the time. Whether they want to or not. Whether they're Christian or not. The question isn't if someone will sign up for spiritual formation; it's just who and what our spirits will be formed by.

In other words, spiritual formation isn't a series of retreats for those who are "into that sort of thing." It isn't one elective, among many, that a church can offer. (If your church has a spiritual formation pastor...what in the world are the other people on staff doing?) Ortberg's simple description nailed it: everyone has an "inner you," and it is being shaped into some kind of thing or another all of the time. By virtue of being humans, this is unavoidable, so we'll be wise if we pay attention to that process.

The questions of spiritual formation, then, are about what kinds of things help that process to go well and what kinds of things impede it. The issue is never if we "like" spiritual formation, because everyone–whether or not they ever read anything by John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, or any of the other authors in those three feet of books on my shelf–is inevitably getting a spiritual formation just from the experiences that come with being alive. The only issue that matters is whether that formation is a good one or a bad one. What kind of character do you and I have now because of our spiritual formation to this point? And considering the trajectory of our spiritual formation up until today, what can we realistically expect that our character be like when it's all said and done?

A few of the books in those three feet of the best of the best on my shelf are by Robert Mulholland, and he addresses the same issue:

Spiritual formation is not an option. Spiritual formation is not a discipline just for 'dedicated disciples.' It is not a pursuit only for the pious. Spiritual formation is not an activity for the deeply committed alone. It is not a spiritual frill for those with the time and inclination. Spiritual formation is the primal reality of human existence. Every event of life is an experience of spiritual formation. Every action taken, every response made, every dynamic of relationship, every thought held, every emotion allowed: These are the miniscule arenas where, bit by bit, infinitesimal piece by infinitesimal piece, we are shaped into some kind of being. We are being shaped either toward the wholeness of the image of Christ or toward a horribly destructive caricature of that image. This is why Paul urges Christians, 'Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him' (Col. 3:17, NRSV; italics added). The Christian spiritual journey is a life lived in, through, and for God.

Human life is, by its very nature, spiritual formation. The question is not whether to undertake spiritual formation. The question is what kind of spiritual formation are we already engaged in? Are we being increasingly conformed to the brokenness and disintegration of the world, or are we being increasingly conformed to the wholeness and integration of the image of Christ? (From Shaped by the Word)

In my own biased opinion, I think that all seems obvious enough. But if it's true, why does church after church after church tend to view spiritual formation exactly the way Ortberg described: "an optional pursuit for a small special interest group within the church"? Even for churches that pay attention to spiritual formation, why do they look at it as if it is one thing among many that they might choose to do, rather than acknowledging that everything they do forms people's spirits in some direction–and therefore paying more attention to the destination (kind of character) to which that direction predictably points?

Spiritual formation should be to churches what science is to research universities. It is what we do, and we do it in a wide variety of contexts. Churches should be the leading centers of the world for this field, where people would naturally turn when considering questions like, "How do I become a truly good person? How do I live a truly good life?"

It's easy to go on a rant like this and ask why other people get it wrong so often. But then the answer to the questions in the above two paragraphs is significantly more difficult to swallow than those ranting sentences were to type. The answer (similar to #7 in Ortberg's list) always hits way too close to home. If what we're saying about spiritual formation is true, and those around us aren't valuing spiritual formation highly enough, a primary factor has to be that it hasn't been lived and taught well enough by those of us who do.

What Lent Isn't and What Lent Is

Two items caught my attention as Lent started this year, which reflected confusion about what it is. First, the picture above: Perhaps I've never enjoyed looking at a sign at a gas pump as much as I enjoyed this one. Promoted there, alongside the Marlboros and breakfast burritos, is, supposedly, an opportunity to repent and hear a first-century Jewish rabbi's call to deny ourselves, take up our own crosses, and follow him as he walked the road into his own unjust death.

Hey that sounds good. Oh, and let me grab a bag of Doritos to go with my three Lenten cheese enchiladas. As long as they're not meat-flavored, I think the man upstairs is pretty happy with me today!

The other attention-grabber was an article about churches offering drive-thru Ash Wednesday services. There are some good things that happen when churches begin to think beyond the way they've always done things, and much of the beginnings of my own Methodist heritage is based on how John Wesley was determined to preach in places that weren't normal. But still...

 "From dust you came and to dust you will return. Repent and believe the gospel... Yes ma'am, that means changing the entire course of your life... No ma'am, getting out of the car isn't required to do so.... Say, is that Lady Gaga you have on the radio?... Okay, have a nice day [living exactly as you always have.]"

In their defense, there's probably at least someone who has had an encounter with God right there in their car because of these churches doing this who wouldn't have otherwise. And I'm sure that I don't know the whole story here, so I'm not offering criticism of these specific churches since I'm not there trying to figure out how to minister in their context as they are doing.

But, in general, the thing that came to mind for me as I read about it was this: our methods of ministering to people in the name of Jesus Christ aren't neutral and independent of the message we seek to communicate. Instead, our methods are part of the training people are going through in what it means to follow him. So, in what kind of training are we involving people when we encourage them to begin Lent without even bothering to get out of the car? Or, to put it another way, what percentage of people receiving an imposition of ashes while continuing to sit behind their steering wheel do we honestly expect to continue, for the rest of their lives, down the road of being whole-hearted, full-throttle students of Jesus? Again, there may be some example of someone to whom that has happened, for which I'm grateful. But is such a case a natural, predictable result of the way we do things with God, or are they just strange exceptions to the rule?

This kind of thing matters all of the time, but it really matters in Lent. Lent is the period of forty days leading up to Easter, not counting Sundays, and Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Lent is a time for house-cleaning our souls, so that when we come to Holy Week and Easter Sunday, we're prepared for the resurrection of the crucified Messiah to take more of its intended effect upon us. It's a time to pay attention to how dis-oriented we have become in the ways that we have lived our everyday lives and to find ways that we can re-orient ourselves to the one who said,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

So if you and I got into the drive-thru line for our ashes to begin Lent this year, or picked up our Lenten enchiladas at the gas station, or whatever else it is that we may have done during this annual period of repentance and re-orientation, are the things that we're doing of the type that naturally help us, by God's grace, to become more likely and more able to follow Jesus with our own crosses in tow? Or are they things that just help us to feel religious while leaving the houses of our souls exactly as messy and disoriented as they were last Lent, and the one before, and the one before, etc.?

Defining Ministry Success

I was in full-time Christian ministry for 11 years (9 of them in churches) and felt successful at very little of what I did. And I'm not entirely basing this on feelings. Though I did have some times where the implicit criteria for success was something like, "Well, Daniel, all buildings and children are still standing, so it looks like you're doing a great job!", in the times when it was anything more defined than that, my report cards usually weren't very good. Sure, there were some highlights along the way, but for the most part, I set a lot of goals and accomplished very, very few of them. If you analyze the paragraph above, you can see a partial definition of success: the ability to set good goals and achieve them. I don't have any problem with that, but it reveals the tremendous importance of being wise about the goals that we set.

As I think about the 11 years in full-time ministry (particularly the 9 in churches more so than the 2 as a missionary), I don't think many goals were set wisely, and since I accomplished so few of them, it's easy to see why I felt so unsuccessful at the time (and why I don't really carry any guilt about those report cards).

The tricky part is that every goal I ever set was something good. It's not like I ever had a goal of intentionally doing anything damaging or that would lead to a waste of people's resources and time. ("By next January I'd like to decrease participants' involvement by 50%, and put undue stress on those helping me.") No, of course every goal was something that if you looked at it, you'd say, "It would be good if that happened."

Yet those good things I wrote as goals almost never came to pass. It wasn't because I went through the process poorly. (For those of you familiar with such processes, I could BHAG and SMART with the best of them.) It wasn't because I was unwilling to work hard to accomplish things. There was a lack of talent for some of the things I tried to do, but that's not enough to explain how rarely I accomplished the SMART BHAGs I wrote down.

So what was the issue?

For me, the entire process was flawed because it seemingly had to start with a poor idea of success, which almost always boiled down to making something bigger and (of secondary importance) better. From this point on in any ministry efforts, I've decided to never again feel like adopting the bigger/better premise is the only option available.

As is often the case, this paradigm shift is due to running across a simple statement from Dallas Willard. In a 2010 interview in Leadership Journal, he said,

Success in ministry is to develop a vital relationship with God and the capacity to pass it on to others.

I have been part of a lot of goal-setting processes, but never one that implicitly or explicitly began there.

How would your church be different if every staff person and volunteer viewed success in their role through that statement?

If a staff member resolved to define success in this way, what resistance might they encounter?

Would this view of success bring up fears in anyone? What would they be, and what does that tell us about ourselves?

What kinds of goals could someone write down based on this framework of success? Do you believe those are worth a person's whole-hearted pursuit, really? Would the culture of your church/ministry allow it?

REVEALed: A Lot of People Have Been Here a Long Time Without Growing

[This is one of a series of posts related to the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey. To see the others, click here.]

In the previous post in the series, I talked about how, although we knew a lot of folks had been in our church for a long time, we were surprised at how high the tenure numbers were: 45% of our congregation had been here for a decade or longer. There were certainly important insights and conclusions given to us from this number, but it isn't even getting into the uniqueness of what REVEAL does. How long people have been here is an easily observable, external thing. Whether they've matured during that time is much harder to quantify, but it's exactly the kind of thing that REVEAL is designed to do.

A core feature of the REVEAL Survey is its Spiritual Continuum Profile, which helps a church's leaders to get a glimpse of the spiritual maturity of their congregation, based upon four segments:

  • Exploring Christ: These people are connected with a church to some degree and exploring what it means to be a Christian, but have yet to make a Christian commitment.
  • Growing in Christ: Despite the segment's name, these people may or may not be experiencing growth. They have come to profess the orthodox Christian beliefs as being true, but still have yet to arrange their lives around their faith in any significant ways, perhaps with the exception of church attendance.
  • Close to Christ: Characteristics of this group include that they participate in spiritual practices with some regularity, and they exhibit higher degrees of love for God and others.
  • Christ-Centered: Their relationship with Christ is the most dominant factor in shaping the lives of these people. It profoundly influences their use of time and resources, their attitudes, their practices, their levels of love for God and others, and their willingness to sacrifice anything for Christ.

In most churches, the second segment (Growing in Christ) is the largest, and that was the case with us. However, as it was with how long people in our congregation had been here, even though we weren't surprised that this was our largest segment, it was eye-opening to see how large the percentage of our people in this segment was: 46%.

So far in this post and the previous one, I've only mentioned information which REVEAL directly tells us, but what follows is my own analysis of the combination of these first two statistics.

So, our tenure numbers indicated that 45% of the people in our church have been here for a decade or longer. Then this number indicates that 46% of our people profess the right answers regarding their beliefs, but still have yet to arrange their lives around their faith in significant ways.

Certainly, although those percentages are very close to one another, there's nothing to indicate that they represent exactly the same group of people. In other words, there's no reason for me to walk down the halls on Sunday morning, pass by someone whom I know has been around for more than a decade, and assume that because they're part of the 45% who have been here for a decade or longer, they must also be part of the 46% who profess the beliefs, but need to start letting it affect their lifestyles. They can't be exactly the same groups of people, but the percentages are large enough that we can safely conclude there's a significant number of people in who would be counted as a part of both groups: people who have been here a long time and haven't grown.

So although we can't put a number on how many people have been here a long time and haven't moved forward, here's my best non-scientific shot at quantifying this group: there's a lot of 'em. There are a lot of people who have made our church their home for years, even decades, without experiencing any significant change in their beliefs and attitudes about God, without growing into greater levels of love for God and others, without maturing as followers of Jesus, without experiencing the abundant kind of life that Jesus said he came to offer us. (I'm using "them" here, but don't worry- I realize "they" aren't the biggest hurdle to our church doing great ministry.)

So what does this teach us, and what can we do about it? REVEAL gave us another great insight that helps to explore those questions, which will be the next post in the series: A lot of people have been here a long time without growing, and don't even know that they should be.

REVEALed: A Lot of People Have Been Here a Long Time

[This is one of a series of posts related to the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey. To see the others, click here.] One of the first things that was quickly obvious from our REVEAL results was how high our "tenure" was, meaning how long people have been a part of our church. According to the survey, 45% of the adults in our church have been here a decade or longer.

By itself, the fact that the percentage was high didn't surprise us. We're a very established congregation, having existed for more than 125 years. But I was surprised at how high. 45%! (And on our second survey, two years later, it's up to 47%!) Almost half of our people have been here longer than a decade.

While a positive note about people's loyalty and commitment over time can legitimately be drawn, I think that number should also raise some potential red flags for us:

  • If that many people have been here that long (combined with the data that said 59% of our people are above age 50), it becomes obvious that our church is going to face some major challenges in the next 20-30 years. History reliably shows that nobody can keep coming to church here forever...
  • Having that many people who have been here that long likely means that people are pretty accustomed to and happy with the status quo. Leading change is always difficult. Leading change in a church where half the people have been there over a decade is a monumental task.
  • At an earlier point in our history, these numbers must have been different. Perhaps people have changed, and our methods of bringing in new people haven't. Perhaps earlier generations simply placed a higher value on bringing in new people. Whatever the explanation is, I'm sure it's a combination of a lot of factors, but this number is serious. (Think of what it would say if we were a sports team: If half of our roster had been in the league 10 years or longer... It may be possible to still be good right now, but we won't be good much longer.)
  • It would be one thing if we had these numbers in a small, rural town where the entire population is aging and there are very few people moving in, but that's not the case. While we're not in a huge city (our population is about 110,000), we're a rare area in the country that has a thriving economy and plenty of growth.
While there are implications such as these that can be drawn from this statistic, this first insight is really just a demographic number. REVEAL really starts to do its work on the next insight it gave us: A lot of people have been here a long time without growing.