Body Fat Percentage

As I’ve mentioned here, my church is in the process of replacing a popular pastor. It’s early days, and a certain amount of uncertainty hangs in the air. Last week, at a committee meeting, a dedicated brother spoke passionately about his perception of the present season: “We have to stop the bleeding.”

The “bleeding” that this man perceived was an apparent decline in church service attendance. Frankly, I’m not sure, in the middle of July, that we can really see a dramatic reduction in numbers, but I’ve never been good at eye-balling crowds. Let’s take his perception as true. Let’s assume that we examined the numbers and discovered that, in the wake of the pastor’s departure, we saw a 20% reduction in average attendance compared to the same time last year. Should that cause alarm?

The Bleeding

Bleeding, I’m told, is a good thing. Last week, I cleverly rammed my left thumb onto the sharp point of some garden clippers I held in my right hand. It hurt, but then it bled. That bleeding let me know that I needed to stop my work and attend to the wound. It also, so I’m told, cleaned out any of the dirt and debris that might have been injected into the wound by the clippers. Bleeding can purify.

But of course bleeding can also kill, so let’s not get too giddy over that bodily process. What I would ask my friend to consider is that “bleeding” might not be the best metaphor for what we’re seeing.

Pruning and Dieting

One of our pastoral leaders used the term “pruning.” That has the advantage of being biblical. In John 15:2, we read of God as the gardener:

He cuts off every branch in me [Jesus] that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

That would suggest that if people leave, they do so not on their own volition but as God cut them away. Pruning makes sense, but I’d like to suggest another metaphor.

Looking in the mirror this morning, I was reminded of something that has been nagging me for more than a year. I need to lose weight. At the same time, however, I find that I don’t have all of the strength that I had a couple of years back. If I should manage to get myself back into discipline and drop 10 or 50 pounds, I want to ensure that what leaves my body is fat and not muscle. In fact, I’d like not just to eliminate fat-weight but add some muscle-weight.

The Fat in the Church

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

We’re using these metaphors, both the pruning and the weight-loss ones, to refer to the entire body of the church, but we could also apply them to the individual within the church. Just as I look in the mirror and realize that I’ve allowed my physical fitness to get away from me, I can–in fact I should–look at myself as a spiritual creature and recognize that I’m not as fit as I should be.

What if every member of my church, starting with me, were to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror? What if they were to truly evaluate their dedication to Christ and to His body? What if we were to all ask ourselves some hard questions, rather than saying, “What the church ought to do is . . .” They might ask:

  • Should I be using my gifts in service more than I am?
  • Should I be spending more time in God’s Word?
  • Do I have a proper burden for the unsaved people around me?
  • Am I giving an appropriate amount of my money to build God’s kingdom?
  • What’s the state of my prayer life?
  • Am I wasting time, money, or energy on the vapors of this world that will be gone in a few years?
  • What am I doing to ensure that my church is a tool for God’s projects?

The list could continue. If 20% of our people would take seriously such a self-evaluation, if only one in five were to honestly ask and try to respond to these questions, then we would be stronger and more fit even if we did lose 20% of our total number.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, far too many of us respond to our spiritual obesity in the same way that we respond to our physical obesity. We think good thoughts, generate good intentions, and then eat a big bowl of ice cream on the couch.

Just as it was important for me to stop my bleeding last week, it is vital that truly committed Christians take seriously their own spiritual fitness even as they aim to be part of the solution for the whole church body.

That process, my friends, will begin with me. How about you?

Would You Like Fries with That?

In my more cynical teaching days–also known as weekdays–I have desired to toss certain words at some of my low-achieving students. The exchange that I pictured went something like this:

Me: You’re just not writing at a college level here.

Them: But that’s just the way that I write.

Me: Oh, okay. Then you should practice this phrase: Do you want fries with that?

Related to that response is the long-considered, never-deployed idea of stapling a McDonald’s application to someone’s pitiful paper. These are the mental tricks that get some teachers through the long, dark days of the semester.

Let’s be clear that there’s no shame in somebody working at McDonald’s. My first job was at a fast-food place. I met my wife working there. But what if either Penny or I had been content to just keep slinging tacos and asking the Taco John’s equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?” Would that have been okay?

In exploring my “Better than Amazon” idea recently, I shared my encounter with “Megan” at Sutherland’s. You might recall that Megan was a little clueless in seeking out the two items that I wanted to buy. She simply couldn’t see one of the things and wrote the number down wrong on the other.

What Megan did possess that many people who will work their lives away in “Do you want fries with that?”-level jobs was some initiative. She wanted to help me. She wanted to find stuff for me. Granted, she failed on that afternoon with me, but she’ll know where the miter-saw stands are next time. She’ll take better care writing down the number next time. Unless I miss my guess, Megan will be more helpful when next I enter her store.

Look around your church and hopefully you’ll see people of various different ages, from children to grey-heads. What’s not so obvious, though, is the range of spiritual ages. We have far too many people in our churches who have been Christians for 40 years yet have only a year or two of maturity to their credit. These people sprang up in enthusiasm at some point but then stopped growing. These are the sort that Paul spoke to in 1 Corinthians 3:

For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready,

When fast-food joints hire people, they frequently start them on the register, which makes sense. You can’t burn the register, and you’re unlikely to cause food poisoning from there. Those are the people who learn to ask “Do you want fries with that?” Ideally, they will master that task and then move on to other, more demanding assignments. Many fast-food workers “graduate” to other employment that requires more skill and discipline, paying better also.

For a new follower of Jesus, there is no shame in working the church’s equivalent of the fast-food counter. There is shame, however, in not doing that to the best of our ability, of not growing beyond it if we have the ability. There is shame in, 30 years after our salvation, still complacently asking, “Do you want fries with that?”

Customer Service–or Church–Fails, Part III

You’d think that, faced with all the poor customer service I encountered at Sutherlands and Lowes, I might have given up in my quest for the tools that would change my life, but quitting isn’t in my nature. Instead, I pushed ahead to a place that had always seemed pretty decent to me: Northern Tool.

The life-changing item I sought there was a reel for an air hose. Are you tired of have a tangle of air hose around your compressor? Are you sick of having to return your hose after inflating tires or using tools? (Envision black-and-white footage of people struggling with hoses.) Then you need the Klutch Auto Rewind Air Hose Reel! Call soon and we’ll double the offer!

Okay, there was no cheesy infomercial, but the very item I had longed for since January was on sale. With full confidence that my experience would be far better than at my previous two stops, I stepped into the store and grabbed the box.

But then I paused to wonder. How will I connect the compressor to the reel? I found a short hose that would bridge that gap, but then I paused to wonder some more. Did this hose have the right sort of connection?

One of the benefits of shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store is that you can ask the knowledgeable employees questions. So I asked a guy who seemed to be somewhat in charge. I’ll call him Nate. “Is this hose what I’ll need to connect from my compressor to the reel?”

His face let me know that my question was irritating and unwanted. “You have to know how far it is,” he groaned, not at all answering my question. He had important manager stuff to do.

“No, I’m wondering what sort of connector the reel takes. The picture shows–” I continued before Nate cut me off.

“It’ll work,” he blurted. He didn’t add the word “idiot,” but it was clearly implied. He really never looked at what I had in hand.

I tried to show him the photo on the box, but he had no interest in that. That’s when I decided to go ahead and buy the thing.

Would you be surprised to know that the hose I bought turned out not to fit? So Nate of the North not only treated me as a an annoyance, he gave me wrong information. I made a point of going somewhere else to snag the adapter I needed to make the whole thing fit.

Have you ever been in a church where people treated you like an annoyance, where the attitude, spoken or unspoken, told you that people wished you’d at least shut up and preferably go away? As I write this, I realize that I might have given that vibe to somebody in my church. He is annoying, but I’m sure that I am from time to time.

If a church is going to be better than Amazon, then it has to treat its people, whether they are long-time irritants or clueless newbies, as the valued creatures that God sees in them. How much does he value the irritant? Think of Romans 5:8:

 But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Customer Service–or Church–Fails, Part II

I felt like Odysseus recently, traveling from island to island, facing various monsters and opponents as I went in search of a handful of tools I had been seeking to own. As in the stories from The Odyssey, the encounters I experienced seemed to center around the idea of hospitality or, more precisely, customer service. Last time, I shared my least troubling encounter. Today, I’ll be sharing my adventures on the Island of the Low Conversers.

Just to bring you back up to date, rather than seeking to get home to Penelope on Ithaca, my Odysseus-like quest had me off trying to buy an air-powered stapler. My search took me first–before yesterday’s encounter with Megan of Sutherland’s–to another island. I do not want to be negative and name this place, besmirching their reputation among my myriad readers. I will note that this building supply depot is not at my home. Instead, it is the Island of the Low Conversers. (Get it?)

Struggling ashore at this island, I made my way through a forest of plumbing supplies where I did not find what I sought. Then, traveling by dead reckoning toward the front of the store–or island–I ventured into the perilous Aisle of the Air Tools. They had many treasures, mostly chained and zip-tied to the display. Clearly the lord of the Low is security minded. After pushing past finish nailers and framing nailers, I spied my quarry, the elusive crown stapler. I tried to take the tool from the display to inspect it, but was foiled by the zip-tie. Still, I determined, this was the item I wanted to own.

My eyes jumped around looking for a non-display stapler to buy. None were found. Then I decided to seek the help of one of the locals. Three residents of the island stood not 20 feet away. They knotted together and talked. And they talked. And they talked. Clearly, they were either utterly unaware of or apathetic to my presence. I could have interrupted their super-important conversation, but I elected not to.

Let’s consider what this has to do with the church and leave this belabored Odyssey parallel alone. Not long ago, I had a very pleasant conversation with two fellow deacons in the time before the Sunday service began. It was good to talk with Kevin and Michael, but I recognized that we could have made better use of the time. We could have been meeting new people or catching up with others. Instead, we just stood there and talked among ourselves.

How can a church hope to be better than Amazon if it isn’t connecting with potential “customers.” People can be ignored while streaming a service on their computer. Why would they get in their cars and visit the bricks-and-mortar church only to have the Low Conversers ignore them. That apparently wasn’t what the early church did:

Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house.–Acts 2:46

The church is not intended to be a place where the insiders gather up and ignore the outsiders. All that Lowe’s–er, make that the Island of the Low Conversers–lost was a smallish sale. We as a church can stand to lose immeasurably more.

Customer Service–or Church–Fails, Part I

What do I do for fun, when I have a free day and a bit of extra cash in the budget? Yesterday, I indulged in some tool buying. Over the course of the afternoon, I visited three different stores to grab up some items that I’m convinced will make my life amazingly easier.

Although I came home with a car full of nifty items, I also found something amazing at all three stores: incompetent customer service. In reflecting over the afternoon, it occurred to me that the ways in which the employees at these places fell short reflected some of the ways that we can fall short as a church.

I’d like to start with the best person of the day. Sutherland’s is a Kansas-City-based lumberyard and hardware company. In the tool department at their Independence store yesterday, I encountered Megan.

When Megan asked me if she could help me find anything, I resisted my habit of blowing off help.

“You had these miter-saw stands on sale,” I noted. “Where would I find those?”

Megan’s brow furrowed. “Yeah, I was meaning to find out where those were.” She walked past me and looked around. Then she went back the other direction. No luck. I happened to glance up and see a similar item, all assembled, atop the shelves.

“Is that the thing?” I asked.

She couldn’t see it, which I found strange. I moved over to that section of shelves and saw a likely-looking box. “Is that it?”

Finally, Megan realized that this was the thing. She grabbed a cart for me to wheel my new, unassembled miter-saw stand to the car. “Anything else?”

I hesitated, but then asked if she had a certain air tool, a stapler. I pointed to the display item. She again knotted up her face and wrote down a number. Then she looked and she looked some more. To the left and the right she looked. After a couple of minutes, I glanced up, saw three boxes with the right brand name and realized that one of them seemed to be the proper device.

“Is that it?” I queried.

Again, she couldn’t see it. Finally, she realized that this was the item and that she’d written down the wrong number. She grabbed a ladder and fetched my stapler.

Megan was very nice and willing, but she wasn’t terribly helpful. Her level of customer service, although the best I experienced yesterday, won’t send me back to Sutherland’s in a hurry.

A church can be like that, filled with nice and willing people who don’t have a great deal to offer. Recently I argued that the church needs to be “Better than Amazon,” and I have to feel that a Megan-style church is problematic. No matter how affable, no matter how well meaning, a church that does not know things, spiritual things, that I don’t know will offer me very little. Such churches litter our land. They’re filled with nice people, by and large. Often they do valuable services for the community. That’s great, but such a church is essentially a Rotary Club with a pipe organ. It’s certainly not better than Amazon.

I’ve Found Our New Pastor (or at least his age)

Having gone sleepless the last two nights, since my church’s pastor announced his upcoming resignation, I’m ready to share my brilliant plan for church leadership, pastoral succession, and the alignment of the stars. Allow me to trot these ideas out for you so that perhaps somebody can suggest any possible flaws in the plan.

First, I’ll note that our intrepid executive pastor and current HGIC (head guy in charge) Jeff shared a podcast from former Lifeway CEO Thom Rainer. In this five-year-old recording, Rainer speaks with church-leadership-search expert William Vanderbloemen, who brings a host of interesting tidbits to the table. One of his suggestions is that church’s tend to “hire too fast and fire too slow.” I’m not sure about the second of those, but when people hear my great idea, they’ll know that we can’t possibly hire too fast.

Vanderbloemen suggests that there are some age issues with pastors. He claims that if he looks at a long-time pastor and the growth chart for his church, he can with fair accuracy identify the pastor’s 40th birthday and 55th to 60th birthday. Essentially, he’s saying that most pastors really hit their stride at around 40 and that their effectiveness plateaus or drops off in the late 50s. Hearing that, despite my sleep deprivation, I had a flash of insight, developing my system.

We start by soliciting applications from any interested parties, but we immediately eliminate anyone who is younger than 36 or older than 40. The perfect candidate will be stepping into our pulpit on his 38th birthday. That will give him two years to get to know the church and make whatever changes he needs to effect before his performance magically jumps into overdrive at age 40. I know that this sort of move has the potential to raise issues of age discrimination, so we might need to create another rationale. Regardless, I think this move is utterly essential.

After we identify our candidate, we do not sign him up with an eye toward keeping him until he limps into his 80s. Instead, we offer him a contract that is understood to terminate when he turns 60. I realize that his peak years might end when he’s 55, but we have to hope that if he makes it that long, even a decreased effectiveness won’t be too bad.

“But wait!” you protest. “What if our pastor is super awesome even into his 60s?” I have a plan for that as well. We maintain the option to renew him on a year-by-year basis. At 61, maybe he’s still good, but at 62, we show him the door. I’m sure he’ll understand. There is a precedent for this. School bus drivers, in Missouri at least, once they reach 70 have to retake their test every year. Given the similarities between pastoring a church and piloting a bus full of unruly kids, this seems relevant.

Clearly, as William Vanderbloemen would surely agree, the way to find the perfect pastor is to follow not the Holy Spirit but data and science. In fairness, I don’t think that’s at all what Mr. Vanderbloemen would suggest, but it was fun to consider the idea.

Is It Better than Amazon?

My mother asked recently if they sell a certain something on Amazon. I chuckled and then informed her, “Short of a live elephant, I think you can buy just about anything on Amazon.” And it’s true. Yesterday, I bought an air-powered stapler locally, but I just checked and found the same exact model–two dollars cheaper–on Amazon. The staples for that tool are available in just about length and quantity. Obscure books, pointless Valentine’s gifts, and whatever this is are similarly available.

Amazon is amazing. They have everything. You don’t have to worry about some part being in the wrong bin or the price being mis-marked. With free shipping, it’s just about perfect. No wonder bricks-and-mortar stores are suffering so much.

There are, of course, some reasons why I might go to my local big-box store rather than scrolling through Amazon’s offerings. Let’s consider some of these.

  • I can actually see, feel, try on, or otherwise experience the item before I buy it.
  • I can talk to somebody about the item before I buy it.
  • I can get the item right now rather than a day or two from now.
  • I’m lonely and I just want to get out of the house.
  • I can do the right thing by supporting local business.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking about my church in relation to Amazon. Why should a “customer” come to my church rather than experiencing church online? I can watch Joel Osteen on TV. Better yet (for several reasons), I can stream Steven Furtick on my computer. Why wouldn’t I opt for this instead of going to the trouble of heading to a bricks-and-mortar church?

And it can be trouble. You don’t have to find parking at the Amazon church. Your kids won’t embarrass you there. There’s nobody with too much cologne or not enough deodorant sitting near you there. You don’t have to pretend to like people. No one will judge your clothes, your hair, your family situation, your lifestyle, or anything else. These are real obstacles.

Of course, I know the various reasons why I shouldn’t opt for the Amazon-era church. There’s Hebrews 10:25 and all that, but they didn’t have broadcast capabilities in the first century. How can I convince a potential church “customer” that my church is better than the one they can see comfortably and readily on a screen. And that question is only relevant if I can convince someone of the need to “shop” for some sort of church experience at all.

For the bricks-and-mortar church to thrive today, it needs to be better than Amazon. We, as dedicated church people shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t find our church body compelling if it does not offer something like what’s listed in the bullet points above.

We are not the Amazon church. We shouldn’t aspire to being the Amazon church. But in an age when Amazon is carving a path through retailing, we need to see them as a cautionary tale. If retailers don’t offer something that Amazon can’t, they’ll go the way of K-Mart. If the church doesn’t offer something that the Amazon church can’t, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see our attendance, our budget, our effectiveness, and our witness declining in the culture.