The Poshlost Problem: Rural Communities, Small Churches, Mid-Major Basketball, and the Death of Hope

July 28, 2011


No, I didn’t just curse at you in Klingon. Though sometimes, when I see poshlost, I feel like cursing.

Rural communities are painfully aware of their limits. They will never be home to a major league baseball team. They will never be a major tourist destination, or house a major university. They will never get on the news until something really bad happens. They have none of the built-in advantages that big cities enjoy – large populations, tax bases, disposable incomes, school systems, media outlets, political clout. Rural communities are not the sorts of places politicians come to court votes, or where families move to get jobs or go to school. But they are what they are, and for the most part people are fine with that. Poshlost.

College basketball is filled with programs that are painfully aware of their limits. They will never have their own television network or have major cable outlets bidding for their media rights. They will never have top teams angling for the chance to get on their schedules. And since the best players want to play on the best teams against the best competition with the highest levels of exposure, these lesser-known teams have significant difficulty recruiting top players. And since the ability of the players determines the limits on how successful a program can be, smaller programs are limited. They are what they are, and they learn to live with that. Poshlost.

America is filled with small, rural churches that are painfully aware of their limits. They exist in places that don’t see a lot of new people moving in and where the young people who grow up there often have to look elsewhere for jobs. Because they have so few members, they are limited in the services they can offer that might attract new members. And because in rural life religion and family are so closely intertwined, church growth tends to track more with population than church initiatives. They are what they are, and rather than aspire to be different they learn to live within their limits. Poshlost.

But real poshlost is more than just living within one’s own means, accepting and trying to make the best of one’s limited circumstances. Poshlost is much more sinister than that.

You see, what often happens in rural communities, mid-major basketball programs, and small churches, is when they become aware of their limits, they redefine their standards. And instead of trying to reach the limit of their potential and perhaps push that limit a little bit higher, they become poshlost. The standard becomes lower. They reach a state of self-satisfied mediocrity, where the desire is no longer to make the best of their circumstances, but to find satisfaction in the fact that they can be “good enough to get by” indefinitely.

Poshlost is a Russian word that doesn’t translate directly into English, but captures the spirit of a person who has settled for less than the best because pursuit of excellence will require fundamental change. Reaching and expanding the limits would require making larger investments, listening to new voices, and possibly even finding new leaders willing to push the limits rather than protect the status quo.

And to be fair, there are times when the cost of marginal improvement outweighs the benefit gained. AT&T, for instance, has decided that broadband for everybody isn’t cost effective. If you live in a place with fewer than ten potential customers per mile, they can’t recoup their investment in $10 per foot fiber optic cable, so 97% coverage will have to suffice.

But given the choice between risky ambition and contented mediocrity, poshlost resists change and seeks to drive out its catalysts. Leaders who find themselves facing poshlost are either actively pushed away, or more likely endured until he becomes frustrated with the lack of improvement and leaves. Those who would seek to be influential in a poshlost environment find that the willingness of such a community to follow them will be determined by how well the influencer preserves the status quo, and how few demands and expectations the leader places on his poshlost followers.

The catch is, the poshlost mindset – especially when found in churches – is contrary to the Scriptural teaching on the nature of the future.

The fate of the one-talent man in the Parable of the Talents demonstrates that no matter how limited our circumstances might be, our Master expects us to make them better – even if only marginally so. When predicting the end of miraculous manifestations of the Spirit, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that three will remain, and one of those is hope.

This is not to say that life is a never-ending ascension There will be upswings and there will be downturns. Along the way there will be pleasure and there will be suffering. But no matter how bumpy the ride gets, or how much the dips and drops hurt, we must never succumb to the temptation to settle. God’s will for His people is that they “grow in grace and knowledge.”

And growth, by definition, is change for the better.

May we never find ourselves so steadfast in our mediocrity, our poshlost, that growth is stunted and hope is lost.

Name Dropping

July 20, 2011

HT to Ken Jennings’ blog for the details on this story:

Romantic-era poet John Keats is buried next to Percy Shelley at the Protestant Ceremony in Rome. On the other side of Shelley is Edward Trelawney, an author who directed in his will that his body be returned to Rome and he be buried next to Shelley, with whom he had spent time in Rome sixty years earlier when Shelley met an untimely end.

Ken Jennings speculates that is Shelley had known Trelawney was coming, he would have directed his epitaph to read “I’m with stupid,” (with an arrow pointed correctly, incidentally).

Worse is the grave on the other side of John Keats. Joseph Severn, a painter, had traveled with Keats to Rome when Keats was sick with tuberculosis. Severn remained by his side for three months, until Keats finally succumbed. Severn became famous in literary circles as “the person who took care of John Keats,” publishing drawings and sketches of Keats and those who came to see him. During this time he also met and drew sketches of Shelley and Trelawney.

Severn’s built his 58-year artistic career on these three months. For the rest of his life, other people would want to talk about Keats, and Severn was more than happy to oblige. His pride of association was so strong that his son Arthur’s christening became a major social event. Major, that is, at least I the mind of Joseph Severn.

Sadly, Arthur died in one of the first known cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1871. Severn wanted Arthur to be remembered, so he had his son buried between the adjoining plots he had acquired for himself and John Keats.

So how do you properly remember somebody who was famous for being the infant son of somebody who was famous for being a famous person’s best friend? Name dropping, of course. The inscription Severn ordered for Arthur includes his name, Joseph’s name (in larger script, of course), and the line, “The poet Wordsworth was present at his baptism.”

What Edward Severn wanted the world to remember about his beloved son was what famous person came to his christening.

This may be all you need to know about Severn. He bought the stone and plot for Keats, and an adjoining one for himself. Keats’ name appears on Severn’s tombstone, but not on his own.

Pride of association is both sad and dehumanizing. If the entirety of your worth is summed up by the accomplishments of people you know and your social standing relative to other people, you have completely missed out on your own value to God and your own responsibilities to the world around you.

In Defense of Counselors

July 15, 2011

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” – Mark 3:1-5


Mental health is an important aspect of a person’s overall well-being. The Holmes-Rahe scale of stress is a reliable predictor of both past and future health problems. Relieving a person’s emotional stress can go a long way toward preventing flu, colds, and other illnesses resulting from compromised immune and/or cardio-vascular systems.

That said, while mental illness is not specifically mentioned as a category of sickness dealt with within the healing ministry of the New Testament church, meeting physical needs – especially the needs of the sick – is an important aspect of Christian ministry. During his ministry, most of Jesus’ recorded miracles involved physical healing: giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, and many others. One of the expectations Jesus has of His people – one difference between sheep and goats listed in Matthew 25 – is that, among other physical needs being met, “I was sick and you ministered to me.”

Likewise, when the ministry of Jesus extended from Jesus Himself to His disciples (and later the apostles and the early church), healing remained central to the work. The “limited commission” of Matthew 10 included the command to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers.” In Acts 3, for instance, the lame beggar at the gate of the temple was told by Peter, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.” Peter and Paul both had the experience of having sick people flock to them in hopes that their illnesses would be cured just by falling under an apostle’s shadow.

Healing, then, is central to the work of the early church. Even with the caveat that the healings Jesus, Peter, and Paul performed were miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, there is ample evidence that the imperative to heal did not disappear with the deaths of the apostles. In fact, James instructs the sick to “call for the elders of the church” who will pray for the sick and anoint them with what are most likely medicinal oils. When Timothy is struggling with stomach troubles, Paul gives him medical advice.

So if mental and emotional health contribute to a person’s physical well-being, and if meeting the physical needs of the suffering is an essential element of the work of the church in the world, then it stands to reason that a counseling ministry would be a part of that. In fact, rather than seeking Biblical authorization for a counseling ministry, the greater challenge would be finding a way to practice New Testament Christianity without counseling playing a key role.

The challenge faced by the church, then, is not seeking divine permission to counsel. The challenge is finding individuals within the congregation who are able to meet the need in an appropriate way. Like any medical situation, this may on occasion require the services of a trained, licensed professional. Other times it may simply require an experienced voice to offer the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of, well, living. That counsel can come from an experienced student of the word counseling an entire congregation all at once from the pulpit on Sunday morning, or it can come from an older woman at a kitchen table advising a younger woman on some aspect of raising her kids. In any case, the example of Peter at the gate of the temple is instructive in any helping situation. We don’t have to perform beyond our means, but if we will do the best we can with what we have, God will bless us.

Book Review — Developing the Leaders Around You

July 12, 2011

For my class on Ministerial Leadership, the book I chose to review was Developing the Leaders Around You by John Maxwell. I’d appreciate any feedback.

Developing the Leaders Around You, by John Maxwell

review by Ben Wiles

Developing the Leaders Around You, by John Maxwell, was published in 1995 by InJoy, Maxwell’s leadership and motivation company. The book, including end notes, runs 215 pages, and is divided into ten chapters. John Maxwell is the author of 60 books on various topics related to leadership and ministry, and is the founder of EQUIP, a leadership development ministry. He was also served in leadership capacities in various churches during a thirty-year ministry career. Dr. Maxwell is a graduate of Ohio Christian University, Azusa Pacific University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, where he earned his Doctor of Ministry degree.

The strongest point of Maxwell’s book stems from its premise – that a leader must never undertake his task alone. Citing numerous examples form Scripture, the business world, and especially the world of sports, Maxwell demonstrates that individual leadership happens most effectively when that leader surrounds himself with other leaders he can trust. The book is also very interactive, making extensive use of a workbook format where the reader can assess his own situation based on the teachings of the chapter and be guided in decisions going forward based on the results of the tests and quizzes administered. Key points are given additional visual illustration with full-page diagrams, inset quotes, and even different font sizes.

That said, there are two significant weaknesses that stand in the way of a full-throated endorsement. The style of writing in the book makes it sound less like a piece of writing and more like the transcript of a seminar lecture, with text filled in around notes, handouts, and projection images. In a more recently-published book, Charlie Wetzel – the ghostwriter who collaborated with Maxwell over fifty times – calls him a “speaker who writes.” It makes sense, then, that Developing the Leaders Around You would make a great sermon series or corporate seminar, with the printed material supplementing the lecture on the stage.

But it isn’t a sermon series. It isn’t a lecture. There is no audio component whatsoever. There can’t be, since it’s a book. In trying to be something it should never have been designed to be, Developing the Leaders Around You disappoints. For someone who purports to know so much about communication to miss the fundamental differences between written and spoken media undermines much of what he tries to say about the importance of knowing your format and your audience. In fact, on second reading, a reader can glean the primary value of the book just from the highlighted and interactive portions while ignoring the “filler” text – the actual, written book – in between.

The other area of weakness in Developing the Leaders Around You lies in its tendency toward tautology. At one point, Maxwell says, “Momentum is the greatest of all change agents.” Well, yes. Given that momentum is defined as the susceptibility of an object or person to change, then yes, momentum would be a great change agent. Or, put another way, change changes things, and leads to more change, so to change things, start by changing things. Along the same lines, there is the tautological nature of leadership development itself. According to Maxwell, what makes a person a good candidate for leadership development is attributes like positiveness, growth-potential, loyalty, and integrity. In other words, to be a better leader, start by being a good leader. And the best candidates for leadership development are those who possess the traits that would cause them to grow as leaders whether or not anyone intervenes.

Developing the Leaders Around You is a useful book to certain readers in certain circumstances. For the solo-practitioner in ministry who might be tempted to carry the entire burden of leadership alone, this book is a reminder that there are other influential people within the congregation who can help him. For the inexperienced leader, Maxwell provides an accessible, workable format in which to analyze the strengths and weaknesses both in his own leadership and in other potential leaders within the organization.

But to the serious student of leadership theory, or the experienced leader looking for new ideas on how to accelerate the maturation process of his subordinates, Developing the Leaders Around You falls short. The skeleton of a good leadership book is there, but there is no meat on the bones. Maybe if Maxwell had put together a team to write and edit this book instead of trying to do it on his own, the finished product probably would have been better.

After all, the best leaders never undertake important tasks alone.

Resurrection of a Blog

July 10, 2011

Here is where I try to bring my blog back to life. I can’t promise I’ll do much better now that I did last time, but here goes.

I’ll be posting school assignments, bulletin articles, and other stuff. I’ll also be cross-posting stuff form the Pleasant Grove website.

Close Encounters with an ESPY winner

July 21, 2009

In my time at Lipscomb my path crossed Don Meyer’s three different times.  Here’s what happened.

For Those Who Came Looking For Gospel Meeting Recordings

July 17, 2009

Still working on it.  I can duplicate audio tapes for about a dollar a piece if you’re really anxious, otherwise I beg your indulgence.