Preacher-Comic-Musician-Social Activist Gospel Loop

There is a bit of an interesting cycle in the preacher world that is perhaps not unique but nonetheless real. It goes like this:

The preacher wants to be a comic because there is something the preforming comedy that allows you to speak truth to power with a joke and a nod.

The comic wants to be a musician because they get the crowds and music has a broader reach to get their message out.

The musician wants to be a social activist because social work can transform peoples lives.

The social activist wants to be able to inspire people’s hearts and not just their hands and thus gives speeches to crowds - looking a lot like a preacher.

 Photo by  Eduardo Sánchez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eduardo Sánchez on Unsplash

And the cycle is complete.

As I read the four gospels, I see this cycle at play. Luke is the social activist who desires to raise our awareness of the margins. Matthew is the preacher who builds the whole gospel on five sermons of Jesus. Mark is the comic being able to speak truth to power with a little joke (“Don’t tell anyone I am the messiah” - Jesus). John is among the most poetic and even dare I say, musical gospels we have.

Maybe Don't Pray for People So Much

Praying for someone or for a situation is a common Christian practice. Prayer brings us into solidarity with one another, but it also is a confessional posture. Praying for someone often suggests a powerlessness to a situation and that we pray that God may intervene. Prayer is a powerful practice that bathes the Christian life and it is good a right thing to pray for people.

Sympathy vs. Empathy - Brown and RSA

My co-pastor and wife showed the Brene Brown clip making the distinction between sympathy and empathy. Brown points out that sympathy is a noble thing, but sympathy is something that one feels at a distance from another. When a tragedy strikes we send our sympathies. These are well intentions, but sympathy can only get one so far. Which is why Brown points out the need for empathy.

Empathy is that posture of being with someone who is in the pit or dark night. Empathy requires that we sit with another. That we move toward them and be with them. Empathy is with another while sympathy is for another.

Christians are called to pray for people to be sure, however Christians have the greater call to pray with people. In order to pray with people we have to move to where the people are. We have to go out into the world and not just pray at our dinner tables for the world. We are to pray with the dying not just for those on hospice. We are to pray with the prisoner not just for the incarcerated.

I am comfortable praying for people but praying with people has changed my life.

WWJD is less helpful than WIJD

WWJD bracelets were common place when I was younger. The effort in this movement was to encourage people to consider a choices and actions through the question, "What would Jesus do?" It is noble to think about what Jesus would do in different situations and I have asked this question myself. 

I am sure this question has given numerous people reason to pause maybe make a wise choice. However, from what I know about human beings, the chances are greater this question was used to justify a decision already made or to guilt someone to a particular action. So while it is a helpful question, it is less helpful than "What is Jesus doing?"

The obvious difference in WIJD is the verb tense. It is a question asked of the present, not of the past. What would Jesus do is something we often have to guess at. What is Jesus doing can be brought into greater clarity with spiritual disciplines and community.

Practices like discernment, prayer, reflection and contemplation are all helpful for us to pause and consider what is Jesus doing right now. In our midst, at this moment. 

Christians of all denominations believe a wide variety of things about Jesus, but there is at least one thing all Christians can agree on. We all want to be where Jesus is. We all want to be where Jesus is going. We all want to be on what Jesus is doing.

So lets start asking.  

Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Muller's book, The Tyranny of Metrics, examines how fixating on creates a number of problems. The author states:, 

This book is not about the evils of measuring. It is about the unintended negative consequences of trying to substitute standardized measures of performance for personal judgment based on experience. The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics, but metric fixation.

The book reads as a cautionary tale for the Church. The more the Church reads reports that "our numbers are in decline" the tighter we cling to metrics. As the Church faces a legitimacy and relevancy crisis in the culture, there is a temptation to fixate on metrics as a way to show legitimacy and relevancy. 

As the author says, metrics are not evil. It is difficult to diagnose a problem if there are not some measurements we can look at over time to make adjustments. It was once said to me that the numbers we look at in the church are similar to the numbers a doctor looks at when you go in for a check up. These "check up" numbers do not tell you everything about your health, but they are a starting point. If your breathing is consistently slow it could mean you are a super healthy marathoner but it could also mean you are close to death.

It is the fixation on metrics that is creeping into the Church that is a cause for concern. 

So what does metric fixation look like? Muller describes it in this way:

  • The belief that it is possible and desirable to replace judgment, acquired by personal experience and talent, with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics)
  • The belief that making such metrics public (transparent) assures that institutions are actually carrying out their purposes (accountability)
  • The belief that the best way to motivate people within these organizations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance, rewards that are either monetary (pay-for-performance) or reputational (rankings)

Paradoxically using metrics as the means to gain a sense of clarity of a situation and using metrics as the primary measure of success creates misaligned incentives. For instance, the surgeon who wants to have more patients may talk about how many successful surgeries they have preformed. However, what she/he fails to communicate is that the they only take cases that have a high probably of success to begin with. Thus the "successful' surgeon may not who you want for your complicated surgery. This example might be called, "creaming" the numbers. That is the surgeon counts only the "cream of the crop." The patient and the surgeon have misaligned incentives. 

Muller points out a series of reoccurring flaws in using metrics:

  1. Measuring the things that are easy to measure (such as people in worship) 
  2. Measuring inputs (such as money) over outcomes (such as a transformed life)
  3. Creaming (counting only the best)
  4. Lowering standards (calling a gathering a worship, then add those numbers to weekly worship total)
  5. Omitting or distorting data (such as double counting a person who attends more than worship hour on Sunday)
  6. Cheating (such as when the preacher adds to the numbers because "it felt like there were more people there...")

The reality is metric fixation is killing clergy and creating cultures where churches are dominantly assessed through what is easily counted rather than through the Spirit. How we overcome metric fixation is a difficult but not impossible process. Metrics are only a small picture of reality, but because it is a number it weighted heavier. Metrics give the impression of concreteness and accessibility to situations that are ambiguous and complex. There is a desire to simplify the complexities of the world giving us a false sense of control and understanding. 

Fixating on metrics means that when a church provides their "check up" numbers, we forget that sometimes the heartbeat of the church looks good because there is a pacemaker modifying the heartbeat. Just because a church looks strong in the metrics might mean they are "juicing" in subtle (and even purely motivated) ways. Just because a church looks weak in the metrics does not mean that the church is dying or failing. 

And even if it is dying, the Church of Jesus Christ is not dead for too long because Sunday is coming.