Thursday, July 28, 2011

Churches as generational mission labs

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You’re just entering your prime, baby.

You’re not older; you’re better. You hit the gym with a vengeance. Aches and pains? If you’ve got ’em, you’re not admitting it to yourself or anyone else. You’ve got big plans for the future. Sixty is the new 40. “Retirement” is not part of your vocabulary (you probably won’t be able to afford it, anyway).

You’re a boomer, of course. You and your generational comrades have been turning the world upside down since you were pimply teens. So you’re not going to let little things like age, gravity or mortality slow you down.

Of five emerging trends in American churches cited by LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer in the Summer 2011 issue of Facts and Trends (, this one struck me:

“Senior adult ministries in churches will experience steep declines.”

Wait a minute. The U.S. population is aging, right? Senior adult ministry ought to be a growth industry. To the contrary: Boomers don’t do “senior.”

“As the large baby boomer generation moves into their older years, they will resist any suggestion that they are senior adults, no matter how senior they may be,” Rainer explains. “Unfortunately, many churches are slow to adapt to new realities. If they do senior adult ministry the way they’ve always done it, it will be headed for failure.”

It makes perfect sense if you understand the boomer psyche. As a generation, we are deep in denial about aging. In our minds, we’re still hip, young and wrinkle-free. And to be fair, medical science has added quite a few years to our potential life spans. In many cases, we really do have more energy and vitality than our parents had when they hit 50 or 60. So we don’t need no stinkin’ shuffleboard. We’re just getting started.

In a recent column I quoted New York Times writer David Brooks, who lamented that so many young college grads are being “sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. … [They] are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”

It sounds good, but encourages boomeristic self-involvement at the expense of service to others — and to God. Here’s a thought: Instead of passing on our worst trait, what if we boomers reinvented “senior adult ministry” in the years to come? Rather than waiting for churches to minister to us, what if we turned them into laboratories where boomers mentor our successors, the Millennials, to reach our communities and the nations with the love of Christ?

Another trend Rainer highlights: “Our nation will see the emergence of the largest generational mission field in more than a century. According to our current research, the Millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000, will have a very low Christian representation. Our estimates now are that only 15 percent are Christian. With a huge population of nearly 80 million, that means that nearly 70 million young people are not Christians. … They are not angry at churches and Christians. They simply ignore us because they do not deem us as meaningful or relevant.”

In this sea of spiritual lostness, churches are floundering to stay afloat.

“The facts are, evangelical Christianity, not to mention mainline Christianity, is declining in America,” Rainer commented in a Baptist Press story earlier this year. “Why? One of the primary reasons is the church — many local churches, I should say — have become more about what we can do for our members than what we can do to reach out beyond.”

But Christian Millennials are asking, “What can we do to become incarnational in our communities? What can we do to reach the nations?”

Christian boomers, who have actively participated in the historic expansion of the Gospel across the globe in the last generation, can help them answer those questions. As a group, Millennials respect their parents and other elders and value relationships with them. That goes double for Millennials in the church — if churches make the effort to nurture that influence.

“They have learned from older people all their lives, and they don’t want to stop now,” Rainer writes. “They want to be led and taught in their places of work, in their churches and in their families. They particularly want to learn from couples who have had long and successful marriages. Many Millennials see such examples as heroes to emulate.”

That’s right, boomers. We can be mentors, even heroes, to Millennials who are searching for godly models of missional servanthood. I can’t think of a better way to defy aging.

It sure beats denial.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Strategy for victory: failure

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic won 43 straight matches over a period of six months before losing to Roger Federer in the French Open in June.

This amazing series of wins, against the best players in the world, rocked the sport of tennis. But it was the loss, and a string of bitter defeats last year during a self-described personal “crisis,” that set the stage for Djokovic’s greatest triumph to date: his first Wimbledon championship. He beat defending champion Rafael Nadal July 3 in convincing style on the sport’s biggest stage.

“[L]osing that really epic semifinal against Federer — a great match — I managed to recover and to come back … and to win Wimbledon for the first time in my life,” Djokovic told reporters.

Winning is great, but losing helps you get better — if you learn from your mistakes. Any good athlete or coach will tell you the same. Compete with bigger, faster, better players, they advise. Pay the price of losing repeatedly in order to gain the skills to win.

Wise parents and teachers instill the same approach to life in children. “Helicopter parents” who anxiously hover, terrified their kids will stub their toes or not get into the school play, are only ensuring greater failure down the road. If you don’t fail once in a while, you don’t grow. And you fear taking on something really challenging.

Churches, ministry organizations and mission teams often make the same mistake. They stick to the script, the proven program, the best practice. But some brave soul has to discover for the first time what works, usually by repeated failures.

Pastor/author Rick Warren reminds leaders at his church “that they have my permission to make at least one mistake a week,” he wrote in a 2004 Baptist Press column. “I don’t want [them] to fall into sloppy habits, but I do want them to feel free to fail because that means they’ll also feel free to take risks! My point is that if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re probably not trying anything new. And if you’re not trying anything new, then you’re not learning, and if you’re not learning, then you and your ministry will quickly be out of date, perhaps even irrelevant. The secret to being innovative is not being afraid to fail.”

It’s also the secret of faith, Warren added. The unprofitable servant in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-29) was also the unfaithful one. He took no risks with the money his master gave him. Peter, on the other hand, recklessly stepped out of the boat to walk toward Jesus on the stormy sea (Matthew 14:22-31). He began to fail, to sink. His faith was small. But it was greater than that of the other terrified disciples huddling in the boat.

Every business and management book published in the last 25 years probably has a chapter titled “Freedom to fail” or something similar. It sounded great — until the U.S. economy failed spectacularly in 2008 because of foolish risks taken in Washington and on Wall Street. Now investors fear spending their money on new ventures. Businesses hesitate to hire new workers. The economy will never truly recover, however, until people in a position to change things risk failure and show some faith in the future.

“At this point, freedom to fail probably ranks right around freedom to remove your own appendix,” observed business writer Megan McArdle in a recent article for TIME magazine (“In Defense of Failure”).

“That’s a pity, because failure is one of the most economically important tools we have,” McArdle wrote. “The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate failure; it should be to build a system resilient enough to withstand it. … The real secret of our success is that we learn from the past, and then we forget it. Unfortunately, we’re dangerously close to forgetting the most important lessons of our own history: how to fail gracefully and how to get back on our feet with equal grace.”

Too many organizations, however, insist on punishing failure.

“I once taught a workshop in a large organization and included an activity where I asked the delegates to think of the ‘second right answer’ to a problem,” says Mark McGuinness, who coaches organizational creativity. “They looked like rabbits caught in the headlights. When I asked them what was wrong, they told me they were always expected to come up with the right answer and were severely punished for making mistakes. No prizes for guessing how creative they were. And yet — when they relaxed a little — they showed me they were perfectly capable of thinking creatively. It was the fear of punishment that stopped them from using this ability at work.

“People and companies that succeed through innovation take a very different approach to failure. They accept it, or even encourage it, because they know that failure holds the key to success. … Encourage people to try new things and learn from their inevitable mistakes. Reward them for being open and honest about mistakes and failures — so that these are not swept under the carpet, causing even more problems. If you’re going to punish anything, punish failure to learn. If you don’t, the market will.”

Are you listening, ministry leaders? Disciple makers model how to follow the Lord, just as Christ did with the Twelve. He sent them out two by two, let them learn the hard way (see Peter and the boat) and patiently taught them day by day. I’ve lost count of the number of Christian leaders I’ve seen sabotage their own ministries by refusing to allow their followers to grow through failure.

If you want hundreds of examples of victory coming through failure, defeat, loss and despair, read the Bible. The ultimate “failure” of all time was the shameful death of Jesus at the hands of those who misunderstood and rejected Him.

It resulted in eternal victory over death itself.