Why Good Ministers Make Bad Preachers (and Vice Versa)

February 11, 2009

Writing is hard.

Some people have the glibness, the freedom of personality, the unencumbered stream of consciousness that allows them to pour out paragraph on top of paragraph of insight — theological or otherwise — quickly, effortlessly, and voluminously.

But for me, writing is hard. The sentence above took almost 30 minutes to write, edit, rewrite, and finally settle on.

And even then, look at what you have.

For me, writing is hard. It’s work. Hard, time-consuming, physically and emotionally and spiritually draining labor. Granted, it’s not ditch-digging, but still.

And for many ministers, it’s just not worth the effort. For a lot of the guys occupying pulpits today, the more “important” work of ministry happens on Tuesday morning in the home of the widow, during the Thursday afternoon funeral planning meeting with the grieving family, or at the youth group member’s basketball game on Friday night. There are civic club meetings, and personal evangelism sales calls outside the office, and all manner of meetings and administrative duties inside the office. Never mind the social networking that for so many happens almost instinctively.

And therein lies the rub. Ministry is a people business. But preaching is, essentially, a writing job. And for the small-church, solo-practitioner, it’s two to four writing jobs a week.

At thirty minutes per sentence, that’s quite the time requirement.

Only the rarest of five-talent preacher/ministers can do both well. Most, though, have to make tough choices about where they will devote their energies.

When it comes to ministry talent, I barely have one. And since I’m determined not to bury it in the sand, I choose to spend my days reading and writing. You see, I have never been the social butterfly, nor even someone people generally went out of their way to spend time with. Writing is hard work, but social relationships are mystifying.

For me, the choice is stark — either try to engage people socially until they tire of me and send me away all the while producing bad-to-mediocre sermons and articles, or devote my energy to producing useful material that people might like even if they don’t care too much for its producer.

If I can only do one thing, I want to do it well. How successful I am at that is for someone else to judge.


12 Stages of Congregational Committment

February 7, 2009

As I started to blog about last fall before I got busy with other, non-bloggy work, I am developing a tool for understanding church attendance numbers, particularly how they change over time. I call the project ERICA (Evaluating the Ratio of Investors to Consumers through Attendance). This idea has been aging in my brain for the better part of ten years now, and it’s almost ready to bottle.

In researching the principles behind ERICA, I came across a behavioral scientist named Desmond Morris. His book Intimate Behavior chronicles the twelve stages a couple passes through as their relationship becomes more intimate. He also notes that couples who skip steps and rush ahead often find themselves heartbroken as the relationships disintegrate.

Here is my version f the twelve steps, as they might apply to a persons relationship with his or her local congregation:

1. Awareness – A person in the community knows the church exists.
2. Recognition – A prospective member associates the existence of the church with something or someone they know in a different context.
3. Conversation – A prospect becomes aware of some basic message.
4. Consideration – A prospect forms a positive perception of the congregation and considers visiting.
5. Invitation – A member of the congregation makes personal contact with the prospect, either face-to-face or by phone, on behalf of the congregation.
6. Visitation – A prospective member walks in the door for the first time.
7. Consumption – The person begins to attend Sunday morning services regularly. If there are children in the house, they might come to Sunday School. Offering a meal also sparks attendance.
8. Contribution – The person begins to place money in the collection plate on a regular basis. The family might also bring a dish to a church potluck.
9. Conversion – The person is baptized and accepts the basic tenets of the church.
10. Commission – The person speaks favorably about the church to other prospective members, becoming the contact person mentioned in Step 5.
11. Participation – The person attends more than once a week (two or three times or more if a special event is scheduled), publicly participates in the worship service, and/or teaches Bible class.
12. Investment – The person feels an ownership stake, actively seeking opportunities to serve the congregation, even on days and at times when there is no regular meeting.

First, a few comments:

A. A person rarely skips more than one step at a time. For instance, a person might visit once without an invitation, but usually won’t be back unless someone asks them to be.

B. Informal surveys I have conducted indicate that roughly 10% of a healthy congregation’s average Sunday morning attendance will be at Stage 12. Put another way, for every person at the Investment stage, there will be 10 people somewhere between Consumption and Participation.

C. The healthiest congregations I have seen have been where 50% of the Sunday morning audience was adults at Stage 11 plus their kids.

D. People who skip steps tend to regress. That is, a person who is a regular Participant but who does not speak favorably about the congregation to his friends (Commission) is less likely to remain at Stage 11 long-term. Likewise, a person who experiences Conversion without first — and this is important — seeing themselves as a “contributing consumer” (Stages 7 & 8) are more susceptible to being drawn away than those who make some pre-conversion contribution to the church. That is, a person is more likely to “stay converted” if he sees himself as a contributing member of the congregation than if he is simply won over by doctrine.

The upshot of this is that church leaders need to get beyond nose counts and watch what people actually do. How committed are your members? Do you have too many Investors? Have your people become so committed to each other and the congregation that they have lost sight of the outside world? Or do you have too many Consumers? Has your congregation become so dependent on a select few that the rest are content to soak up whatever is offered without any sense of obligation, discipleship, or commitment?

Ask ERICA. She can tell you.

Round Up the Usual Suspects

February 5, 2009

21st Century Christian has published its latest directory of “Churches of Christ in the United States.” Two newsworthy items have come out as a result:

1 — The latest Christian Chronicle has several articles about how low the numbers are. Come on, people. Yes, the totals are off 1.5% from their 1980 levels. But when you’re talking about 1.2 million (or so) members and 1.6 million (or so) adherants, 1.5% is a rounding error. It’s not like there’s a paper trail where an independent third party has either conducted the count themselves or even set a standard about who should and should not be counted. There is even a significant number of individual congregation totals that end in 5 or 0, evidence that many (if not most) submitted a “best guess” rather than a hard count.

Memo to Chicken Little: Churches of Christ in America are not — I repeat, not — in decline. We have had about the same number of people in our midst for three decades. It’s not going up, but it’s not going down, either. The gospel is spreading like wildfire in places like India, Africa, and the poorer regions of Asia and Oceania. There is church growth out there; you just have to know where to look.

2 — The COC blogosphere exploded when the directory came out, because the editors at 21st Century decided that only those congregations that are exclusively a capella would be included. Now I’ve seen blow-ups like this before. And in the last 20 years, whatever the issue (role of women, Jubilee, instrumental music), there are those who will always be on the same side, and those who will always be on the other. What’s more, the program choices a congregation makes (Winterfest vs. CYC, Lads-to-Leaders vs. LTC, Songs of Faith & Praise vs. Praise for the Lord songbooks) are seen as “taking a side.”

This makes me sad.

The whole point of a unity movement is to give ideas a fair hearing. In my time in ministry in Churches of Christ, it seems that ideas are evaluated not on their merits, but upon who has them. I, for one, like CYC better than Winterfest. I prefer LTC over Lads to Leaders. I liked the idea of Jubilee, even if I had a bad experience there. Praise for the Lord is a vastly superior songbook over SFP.

Yet the very discussion of these questions seems aimed at pinning people down into a camp. Are you “one of us” or “one of them?”

If we in Churches of Christ were the fair-minded restorationists we purport to be, these camps wouldn’t exist. But as it is, the usual suspects are out in force.

I’m sad. But I’m not surprised.