Growing the Monoculture of the Church

Behind all the clamoring of the decline of the UMC and mainline Protestantism in general there are conversations happening about the future of the UMC. Some feel that if we could just get back to some earlier form of Christianity then the church will recover numbers. Some feel that if we got our theology straight then we will see the pews swell. These conversations about what the #NextMethodisim will look like are interesting and worth considering. 

 Photo by  Jenny Hill  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

As interesting as these conversations are, I would like to offer up at least one way the UMC will grow if we continue doing what we are currently doing. The UMC will grow in our monoculture.

Monoculture is an agricultural term used to describe when one crop is grown in a field at a time. In Texas, many ranches are massive, but they are only raising cows. While there are clear benefits to the monoculture of raising cows, there are also so great drawbacks. Rampant disease in monoculture ranches forces cows to require a good amount of antibiotics in order to live and grow to a healthy weight. These ranches are efficient in some respects but also highly problematic in others. 

When we focus exclusively on growing our churches we will more than likely be interested in working with the populations that will give us good outcomes. A church has only so many resources that churches are incentivized to direct those resources to areas where there will be a "big bang for the buck" or a decent ROI (return on investment). We see this in the amount of time and resources churches direct toward children verses what is directed to prison ministries. One group is easier to work with than the other. It also happens that we can count children in worship and when they are baptized, but counting prisoners is much more difficult.

Efforts to grow a church are well and good, I am in favor of growing church! The point is not to turn a blind eye to growth but to say that eyeing growth as the paramount value leads to monoculture. And monocultures are not very sustainable.

So what does more sustainable growth look like? Maybe it looks like the "three sisters." Who are the three sisters? Answer coming soon....

If They are Fruits of the Spirit the Stop Looking for Veggies

In a lectio divina group Estee and I are a part of, the eight  participants reflected on a section of John 15. In this "divine reading" an insight came into focus about Jesus talking about bearing fruit. Beginning with the thought that Jesus does not say we are to bear vegetables but fruit. Which on the surface seems silly, then the conversation opened up the metaphor.

I am not a farmer and know very little about growing produce. What I know is that to grow, say corn, one would plow the soil, sow seeds,feed and water the seeds and when the harvest comes, you cut the corn down and then you begin the process over again the next year.

What is great about growing vegetables is that there is an almost immediate return on the work. You plant a seed then later that year you get corn or carrots or beans or squash. This is why kids are always introduced to gardening with growing vegetables - you do not have to wait too long for veggies.

This is not the case with most fruits. Peaches, apples, olives, cherries all take a number of years before food is produced. At the end of the process, being a farmer of fruit looks like being a farmer of vegetables. However, in the beginning fruit farmers do not get to 'eat' from their labors in a few weeks. They must wait years. However, fruit farmers also do not have to take time each year to till and plant - the vegetable farmer has to.

It is a simple thought but one that has larger ramifications for spiritual formation - are we like vegetable or fruit farmers?

Vegetable farmer spirituality might look like we are doing the same work work year after year. Vegetable farmer spirituality might look like we are always busy getting ready for the next season that we cannot abide in the presence of God. Vegetable farmer spirituality might look like we are being fed, but not patient enough to discover the sweetness of fruit. Vegetable farmer spirituality has some risk but only short term - because there is always a new season to try again. Vegetable farming spirituality looks like one who does not feel a need to trust very deeply, because in just a few weeks you just start again.

Fruit farmer spirituality might look like we are engaged in the hard work at the start then we must trust that fruit will come - never knowing if all the years of waiting will lead to any fruit. Fruit farmer spirituality might look like we are barren for a long time. Fruit farmer spirituality might look like we are not doing much as we wait but we are busy developing trust. Fruit farmer spirituality might look like silly because you may not eat for a while. Fruit farmer spirituality might look like one who, after a long time, cannot help but be deeply rooted and continue to grow fruit even if the farmer dies.

On a side note, fear seems to be a component of developing vegetable farmer spirituality. Friends, I can tell you there at this moment in the church and world, there is an abundance of vegetable farming going on.

Originally posted on May 14, 2012

A Case for the "Leader as Joke"

There are many ways to be a leader in the Church. Scripture points out that some are called to be Apostle, Prophet, Teacher, Evangelist, Pastor (Ephesians 4). The body of Christ needs all the parts in order to dance. One of the ways of being leader that seemed to be ideal in the early church was that as the leader as joke. Here are some example stories of a joke of a leader.'

ONCE when Friar Juniper was going to Rome, where the fame of his sanctity was already noised abroad, many Romans, for their great devotion, went forth to meet him? and, seeing so many folk coming, Friar Juniper bethought him to turn their devotion to scorn and derision. There were there two little boys who were playing at see-saw, that is to say they had laid one log across another log, and each of them sat at his end, and thus they went up and down. Friar Juniper went and lifted one of those boys off the log and got up there himself, and began to see-saw. Meanwhile the people came up and marvelled (sic) to see Friar Juniper playing at see-saw; nevertheless, they saluted him with great devotion and waited until he should have finished his game of see-saw, to the end that they might thereafter attend him honourably (sic) to the convent. And Friar Juniper cared but little either for their salutation and reverence or for their waiting, but took great pains with his see-sawing. And, after they had thus waited a long time, some of them began to grow weary and to say: "What fool is this?" Some, knowing the ways of the man, increased in devotion toward him; nevertheless, in the end, they all went away and left Friar Juniper on the see-saw, and, when they were all gone, Friar Juniper remained full of consolation because he had seen some who made a mock of him. So he gat (sic) him up and entered Rome with all meekness and humility, and came to the convent of the minor friars. - The Little Flowers of the Glorious Messer St. Francis and of His Friars: Done Into English
THEOPHILUS of holy memory, Bishop of Alexandria, journeyed to Scete, and the brethren coming together said to Abbot Pambo: Say a word or two to the Bishop, that his soul may be edified in this place. The elder replied: If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words. - The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions) by Thomas Merton
On one occasion a certain judge wished to pay a visit to the abbot Sisois. Some of the clergy went beforehand, and said to him, "Father, prepare yourself, for the judge has heard of your works and your piety, and is coming to visit you. He desires also to receive your benediction." Sisois said, "I shall do as you desire. I shall prepare myself for his visit." Then he clad himself in his best garments, took bread and cheese in his hands, and seating himself with outstretched feet at the door of his cell, began to eat. When the judge with his retinue arrived and saw him, he said, "Is this the famous anchorite of whom I heard so much?" So, despising Sisois, he departed. - The Wisdom of The Desert by James O. Hannay

These are just a few stories of church leaders who were seen as jokes. They see-sawed all day long. They refused to speak to people of power or if they did speak to these potential powerful allies, they looked a fool by eating with legs spread all over the floor! These leaders knew that if people were drawn to them, then they would be the center of the movement and not Christ. These "joke leaders" often put themselves into positions that diminished(!) their standing in order to elevate Christ. 

There is a need for all kinds of leaders in the Church, but perhaps in the age of the celebrity pastor and measuring success by the number of twitter followers or pew sitters, we need to reclaim the pastor leader as joke.

How You Know Someone Does Not Trust You

Trust is the lifeblood of relationships. This is obvious in personal relationships but there are many types of relationships. When you pass someone on a two way road, there is trust that each will stay in their lane. Without trust in the other then there can be great damage and hurt. Again, I say, trust is the lifeblood of relationships. 

We know when we don't trust another person. You can try to put it into words and sometimes you can articulate why you don't trust someone. Maybe they wronged you in some way and broke trust. Maybe they just look like someone you don't trust (this is sometimes the implicit bias that leads to misjudgments and prejudice). But for many of us, we know when we don't trust another person. 

The question is how do we know someone does not trust you? We can all put on a nice face and be pleasant with one another, so it is easy to miss that someone does not trust you. However, here is one way to discover someone does not trust you: The other person does not give the most generous interpretation of your actions. 

If you find yourself in a conversation and the other person is not giving you the most generous interpretation of your actions and words, then maybe the conversation needs to stop being about the issue but pivot to trust. Talk about how to rebuild trust between yourselves. The conversation about trust is paramount because even if you resolve the specific issue, unless trust is present, there will be another issue in the near future. 

The "thing" is rarely the "thing". More often there is a "Thing" behind the "thing." Many of the conflicts in the world come from a trust vacuum. Broken relationships, broken churches, broken nations and broken systems result a hemoraging of the lifebloood of trust.