Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The mall, the church and the changing face of the world around us

A couple of weeks ago, while on vacation, I returned to the Kansas City area for a visit. Most of you know I lived in Kansas City for a little over three years in the 90s as I studied for the ministry and began my ministry career.

It was an interesting visit. I have been back to Kansas City a few times since I left school. My most recent visit was in 2006, or about 12 years ago, when I was leading a youth mission trip back to that area. Some things had not changed at all. Other things have changed a lot. New neighborhoods and establishments have been born. Still other establishments have ceased to exist as I knew them. As I observed the changes I began to observe that there was a lesson to be learned in all this.

When we arrived in Kansas City, I began to research a way to visit the "Great Mall of the Great Plains". It was one of the biggest malls in the country when it was built, which was while I lived in the area in 1997. Turns out, the mall was closed and has been demolished.

Is the mall dead?

Earlier that day, I had taken I-635 past where I used to live. I looked out where the Indian Springs Mall was, which was a mall that was struggling when I lived there, supposedly because of the difficulties of dealing with urban youth that wanted to loiter there. Here is a picture of that mall today:

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As you can see both malls, one in the suburbs and one in the city, have ceased to exist.

I currently live in a small midwestern city where we have a mall. In the last year, the mall has lost three of its anchor stores. Because of the decline of these anchor stores, several other stores in the mall have closed as well. This has been a disappointment for many folks in our community. And so, the stores, the mall, and some people blame their customer's internet shopping habits, and decry the citizens unwillingness to "shop local".

At the same time, there is a subtle effort to seek to "save the mall". People wonder how we can get new stores in, wonder if we can help them survive, so that we can keep this mall thing going. My question is, "Is it a good thing that the mall survives?" and "Are malls a thing of the past?" You see, I think it might a good thing if the mall is demolished here, and the business community begins to reimagine what consumers need today in North Platte instead of depending on a business structure and model that has been declining in relevancy for over 20 years. The mall has not always been the center of shopping experiences for consumers. Before the mall developed, people shopped in thriving downtown storefronts. Before that, if a community was not developed, they shopped from a Sears catalogue, which is not all that unlike ordering from Amazon.

Why is this important to a Baptist pastor in the middle of Western Nebraska? Becuase I think we are as tied to irrelevant methods of doing church as commercial real estate investors are tied to irrelevant ways of organizing businesses to sell their goods. Furthermore, I think many believers often conflate methods of doing church and living their faith with the real message of Scripture.

So, then, how do we lead communities of believers so that they are not investing themselves in forms and methods of doing church that will lead them to irrelevance and closure? Here are a few of my thoughts. I would love to hear yours.

1.  We need to work hard not to conflate "church" with a brick and mortar structure
A church congregation is a group of people locally covenanted together to fulfill God's mission in cooperation with one another in a particular locality at a particular time. Churches are not buildings. They are communities of believers. Yet, much of our congregation's emotional reserve and resources are invested in caring for and maintaining a building that is occupied for a limited time each week.  If your church has a building, it needs to make sure the building does not define them, control them, or guide their ministry. When the building gets the devotion and care, our devotion for the Lord is lessened and our care for other people is missed.

2. We need to work hard not conflate discipleship with service on committees
A person is not more mature spiritually because they serve on the Executive Board of a congregation. Participation on the property care committee does not necessarily mean a greater depth of faith. No where in the bible does it say that followers of Jesus will grow closer to Jesus by serving as a Women's Ministries officer. As a matter of fact, frequent attendance at church meetings can be detrimental to one's spiritual well being.

3. We need to realize that our commitment to managing church business with more and more meetings is running more and more people out the door
People are not eager to commit to institutions, especially when their primary goal is their own viability and longevity. When we welcome people into fellowship, and then try and encourage them to be involved in a number of groups that debate inessential issues for extended periods of time, we run those folks out of church that love Jesus, but don't feel attached to institutional maintenance. And, people with this love for Jesus and detachment from insitutional trappings is LEGION. Therefore, we need to focus more on gatherings that meetings.  Our committee work should not be as concerned with procedural matters as we are with equipping, training, and planning for effective person to person ministry. There will always need to be folks managing adminstrative details, but this can be done by a cadre of committed leaders with gifts in such matters, not gobs of committees mired in mediocre leadership.

5. We need to understand that efforts on making our churches bigger is not making said churches healthier, more viable, or more effective at reaching people with the gospel.
Malls were a part of the "bigger is better" model of the consumer experience. People have slowly rejecting the mall experience as desirable.  Larger is not necessarily better.

A similar dynamic will soon play out in churches. I know of larger churches that are unhealthy, and smaller churches that have a lot to offer. Four congregations of 100 are more effective at reaching the unchurched and caring for one another than one church of 400, yet we seem to place a higher value on the church of 400.

What are your thoughts on this comparison. What else would you add? As you can tell from reading this, I am a still struggling to bring together this comparison of the mall and the church. I believe that there is a lot to the comparison, but I am still hoping to find more words to it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Book Review of Best Bible Books by Glynn and Burer

Best Bible Books

Best Bible Books: New Testament Resources
by John Glynn
Editor Michael H. Burer
Kregel Ministry
ISBN 978-0-8254-4398-5

Best Bible Books is, simply put, a resource that almost every pastor would love to have on their shelves. Many lay folks that love studying the Bible may like having this fine text as well.

When I first picked up this resource, I was a little unsure if I would like it. As many of my readers know, I am on the conservative side of mainline churches, but compared to many more fundamental/evangelical congregations, my interpretation of Scripture and culture may be a little more progressive. The authors clearly hail from more fundamental institutions, especially the editor Michael Burer.

The authors do rank each commentary and resource into categories of "good", "better" and "best" when they are used in the annotated bibliography. When a traditional bibliography is shared with non-annotated resources, commentaries and books that bear special consideration are highlighted. Each Bible book has a chapter, as to books and commentaries that provide studies over sections of the New Testament (Jesus and the Gospels), and other issues (cultural and historical background). This resource is really quite comprehensive. The scholars clearly share what the commentary is like, but aren't pushy toward selling one over the other. For instance, they not that Craig Keener's study on Matthew has over 12,000 references, including 10,000 primary resource references (p. 53). This lets readers know that the text is going to be quite dense, but also academically sound and well thought out.

Although Burer admits the book is "shooting a moving target" (p. 17), I think it will be helpful for me for years to come.

This book is a great idea, and a wonderful resource for many for years to come.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Thoughts on Change: Lessons from failing

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"There is a temptation for all of us to blame failures outside of our control: "the enemy was ten feet tall." "we weren't treated fairly", or "it was an impossible task to begin with." There is also comfort in "doubling down" on proven processes, regardless of their efficacy. Few of us are criciticized if we faithfully do what has worked many times before. But feeling comfortable or dodging criticism should not be a measure of our success. There's likely a place in paradise for people who tried hard, but what really matters is succeeding. If that requires you to change, that's your mission"--Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams, p. 8

Don't just embrace change, embrace a continual process of changing

While serving in Hot Springs, I spent about 4 of my 6 school years with hands on involvement in helping lead the youth ministry at United Churches. I was encouraged to do this by some key current and former leaders, and was glad to do it because our youth ministry had a lot of potential but needed leadership and guidance. 

When I jumped in and helped, we had multiple "youth groups". In some settings this is not a bad thing, but in our setting both our kids and our leadership needed accountability and structure. 

The first year we made a change to have the groups meet on Thursday evenings. Since Hot Springs had a four-day school week, this was really like their Friday. It coincided with some other church activities. It was a good fit. The group grew. There was a lot to celebrate.

The next year my wife had cancer, we had to survive sabotage by some rogue leaders (both within and without our youth group), and I gave the leadership team two options. First, go on Thursday without me, or combine our ministry with our Sunday evening worship. I was willing to serve, but I was going to limit my evenings away from family during chemotherapy. The thing is, the church grew during that season as well. The following year the growth slowed. The year after that attendance was virtually non existent. 

There were several things that played into this attendance pattern, some beyond our control, and some in our control. However, one thing I took away from the experience is that if we were to continue to remain relevant we needed to not only change for one or two years. We needed to continue to change over and over again. We needed to be committed to a process of adaptation to keep pace with the missional task of our community youth ministry.

What is true of youth ministry in Hot Springs may also be relevant to all ministry in the coming years as we seek to adapt in order to reach the world around us. Perhaps we need to begin to think of church transformation, not so much as an event or a process with a beginning or ending, but a continuing habit of our lives together. 

Admittedly, this sounds scary. I know when I lead worship if there are changes in the order of service it takes me a while to adapt. Heck, I am still adapting to the folkways of serving the Lord's supper here in North Platte. But, if we don't make continuing change and transition a habit, the changes we recently endured may be for naught.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness  -     By: Christopher J.H. Wright

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness
by Christopher J. H Wright
IVP Press
ISBN 978-0-8308-4498-2
Reviewed by Clint Walker

I am currently preaching through the Fruit of the Spirit. It is not the first time I have done it. However, when I repeat a sermon series, I often go deeper with new resources to freshen up my messages and help me gain greater focus on what I am teaching. Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit has been perfect in that regard for me.

Wright's writing is accessable and easy to understand. He has a lot of solid biblical teaching, but what he teaches can be comprehended. He often roots each of the character qualities in the fruit of the Spirit in the character of God. He researches both the Old Testament and New Testament foundations of each concept explored. Then he digs deeper into the passage, grounding each call to Christlikeness in the person of Christ and our relationship with him.

Although I am using this for a sermon series, it would be great for a small group or a study group wanting to understand how to make room for the character of Christ in their lives.

One of the most thought provoking concepts of the book was the first word in the title. "Cultivating" is a unique word in discussing spiritual growth. God does the planting, the watering, and makes us fruitful, but we are called to "cultivate" our lives to be receptive of his ministry. Good stuff! This is something we all should consider.

Also, look for the links to the videos that accompany this resource!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Book Review of Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory
by Tod Bolsinger
ISBN 978-0-8308-4126-4
IVP Praxis
Reviewed by Clint Walker

Some reviews come quickly, others take forever. That is for different reasons. As far as my interactions with "Canoeing the Mountains" goes, I have been digging into this book since I recieved it nearly three years ago. My interest was then deepened by my local denominational leadership becoming heavily invested in this text. Then, I went to a 6-7 workshop where the information in this book was presented by Tod Bolsinger. He preached the next day at the same training event. Let me tell you, I think this is really good stuff!

The book is about what is called "adaptive" leadership. It uses the metaphor of the journey of Lewis and Clark to talk about the task of ministry leadership in the 21st century. The thesis is this: We are called to lead into a frontier that we were neither trained for or equipped to lead in, so we are going to have to learn to lead people in and through "uncharted territory".

While Bolsinger bases his study in his pastoral and institutional leadership experience, he is also strongly grouned in research. First, of course, he is grounded in research about Lewis and Clark. Furthermore, the book draws heavily on the research and writing of Ronald Heifetz. Heifitz advocates that leaders and organizations face challenges with adaptive solutions instead of "technical" fixes. Quick fixes don't work, but coming to terms with your identity and environment, and then adapting who we are to survive and thrive in a changing world offers promise.

In order to lead "off the map", Bolsinger advocates leading "on the map" to build trust and demonstrate competency to those that you are leading. When one demonstrates that they are skilled and competent in doing the expected work of being a pastor, then the pastor can begin the process of leading them forward to a new place. However, if someone has not demonstrated enough competence to the congregation, the congregation will struggle to trust that leader to lead them into a scary and unknkown future.

Step by step, Bolsinger offers persepective and guidelines for transformational leadership. He leads readers through a process of adapting, of clarifying vision, and of surviving the sabotage and push back that ultimately comes with any effort of transformational leadership.

I cannot say it enough, this book is excellent, and a necessity for most pastor's libraries. I come back to it over and over again.

I have two copies in exchange for an honest review from IVP. The expanded edition has a very thorough and expanded study guide and is in hardback, while my earlier copy is in paperback. I have kept both copies.

Quotes from Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger

Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harde. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, the spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first--Edwin Friedman

Now we are called to minister to a pa. ssing parade of people who treat us like we are but one option in their personal salad bar of self-fulfillment. To do so will require a significant shift in thinking about pastoral leadership.--Tod Bolsinger

It is not so much that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world--Christopher Wright

Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world--Tod Bolsinger

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Book Reveiw of Sacred Resistance by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

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Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent
by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
Abingdon Press
Reviewed by Clint Walker

In Christians circles, as a pastor, I am a conservative in my denomination and mainline circles, and I am a liberal in more evangelical circles. I am committed to social justice as an expression of my faith, especially in regard to racial and gender equality. So, when I had a chance to pick up this book I found the title and premise intriguing. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed in what the author said, not because of her position on the issues, but in the way she describes the Christian faith.

Don't get me wrong, I believe standing up and being counted as defenders of persons being oppresesed is part of what Micah 6:8 says to "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." Resistance to power is sometimes necessary as a believer seeking to live the will of God in our lives in an unjust world.

What disturbs me with this book is not the author's stance in relation to the authority of God. This is most evident is the changing of the word "The Kingdom of God" to "Kin-dom" of God. The very language puts human beings as the authority, and the mission the glory of a particular kind of Christian community. The language of "Kin-dom" may remind us to love our neighbor, but it subverts the Great Commandment to that fillial love. A theology that is not grounded in the authority of God, whether one uses the word "kingdom" or the more gender inclusive "reign", is a bankrupt theology, no matter how well intentioned.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Learning to Welcome (newspaper article)

Image may contain: 6 people, including Clint Walker and Jennifer Adler Walker, people smiling, people sitting and outdoor
The Lost Art of Hospitality
I went to college and seminary in Kansas. One thing I loved about living in Kansas was the hospitality I experienced there. As a college student in a small town, people in my church and in the community would invite me into their home. I had a family that hosted me through a hospitality program initiated through the football team I played on. I was a part of a church that invited me to sit with them for dinner on Sunday, and a group of about 7 of us that took me out for supper on Tuesday nights. Seminary hospitality wasn’t quite as structured, but it was present as well. Invitations to Thanksgiving dinners when I was away from family. People offering to let me house sit while they were gone for a week. All this was not awfully unusual because I spent my high school years in Alaska, where everyone has a hospitality story of moving north, living with a friend (sometimes someone they just met or hardly knew), and then getting settled in their new home.

After I left school, I moved to Montana. I loved Montana, and have missed it terribly since I left it. However, after living in the Last Frontier and the rural plains, I began to experience hospitality withdraw. I sat down with the denominational leader that helped place me in the church. I shared with her that I was concerned I wasn’t being welcomed. My senior pastor was hospitable, but outside of visits where I invited myself into people’s homes, they did not seem very welcoming. I thought it was maybe something I was doing. I received a little advice, and some encouragement from my friend and mentor. She told me that folks in the Rockies were not generally as hospitable as folks in the Plains, and that I should take my time. She encouraged me that things might change. They did. I found myself around folks at the right time, and I became more welcome in people’s homes without having to feel like I was pushing my way through the door for a visit.

I was a single guy in my twenties then. I am a married father of two young children in my mid-forties now. Regarding hospitality I have grown to learn two things. First, our culture mitigates more and more against welcoming our neighbors and friends into our lives through acts of hospitality. This lack of hospitality with one another and with strangers is, I believe, harming our churches and our society as a whole.

Secondly, I have grown to understand that offering welcome and hospitality is central to discipleship in Christian lives individually as well as in community. The Bible teaches us not to “neglect showing hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2), and to “show hospitality to each other without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9). The Bible teaches that when we show hospitality to others we show hospitality to Christ (Matthew 25: 34-46), and lists hospitality as an essential character quality for church leaders (Titus 1:8, I Timothy 3:2).

Learning to practice hospitality for our family has been awkward at first, but fun. We are not as tidy as we would like to be, and we are busier than most, but we make room in our hearts and homes to welcome folks in. It has been a great opportunity for us. Missionaries needed a place to stay between stops on furlough, and they crashed at our place for a while. And last Sunday, a friend and colleague was on their honeymoon and coming through town, and we were able to throw some burgers on the grill and share some time together before the continued their journey to the mountains of Colorado. We are growing in this area, but here are some tips for growing in hospitality

1.      If you wait until you have things all together to be welcoming, you won’t do it. So become comfortable with people seeing the messy parts of your life as well as the tidy parts
Come visit us, especially if you do so in a more spontaneous fashion, and you may find dishes in the sink, and dolls on the floor in the living room. Because we don’t have a laundry room, our laundry baskets will often be on the floor by the back door, where the washer is at. If everything looks picked up, it may be because we have thrown our mess in bedrooms and closets. If we wait until everything is perfect before you get into the door, you will never come in. We have learned that if we are going to be hospitable, we have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to let you see that we don’t always have stuff together.

2.      Because hospitality is countercultural, don’t expect your welcome to always be reciprocated
When I was younger, I was the recipient of hospitality, but I could not reciprocate as easy. I was a single guy in a small apartment that I basically slept and watched late-night television in. Other folks have home maintenance issues, or don’t have the means to welcome you into their homes. They can find other ways to be welcoming, but it will take time.

3.      Step beyond your comfort zone in welcoming people into your homes, lives, and churches
A lot of times it is easy to welcome folks just like us, but it is harder to welcome folks who live a different lifestyle than you do. I still remember the moment where we hosted a small group in our home, and the wives/girlfriends had run upstairs. As we kept visiting, I realized I was the only guy in the room without a criminal record and had not spent time in jail. I felt honored that each of the families felt comfortable enough to be at our place, eating our food, and seeking to learn about walking with Jesus.

4.      Being hospitable doesn’t mean not having boundaries
We got to know a family in one of our previous churches, and became friendly with them. We talked with the parent about their kid coming over for about an hour after worship. When the parent wouldn’t answer phone calls and showed up three hours later, we began to rethink how we shared hospitality with that family.

5.      When we offer hospitality, especially in our homes, we are better able to deal with hostility and conflict
I had a friend who hosted leadership meetings around his kitchen table. It was amazing how folks had better manners and were more willing to listen to each other, even in vigorous debate, when they sat around a table instead of in a boardroom. One time we experienced a difficult conflict with people in our congregation. They invited us over, and shared their concerns. Reconciliation was much easier in that context.

My friends, God commands us to be hospitable. We are blessed when we receive it, and when we offer it. As we welcome others, we welcome the Lord as well. Find ways to welcome others into your homes, yards, lives, churches, and community. You will find your world becoming a better place.