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The Glass House

Reason 9: Fear

Black To The Future

Many of our church leaders stopped learning, stopped growing, back in the 60ís. I like to say 1965 because thatís how many of these folks act; their frame of reference is typewriters and hi-fi record players. They stopped learning, stopped growing, stopped paying a whole lot of attention to how the world works. They started walking in a rut, developing routines and habits, traditions that become engraved in stoneóthe entire congregation made to stand there while we go through tired, tired, long, drawn-out funeral dirge of The Lordís Prayer, sung half-heartedly by the bored choir and not at all by the congregation.

Thatís why many of our churches still use that tired ďdevotionĒ service, which is devoted mainly to the deacons getting attention. This nonsense of singing deacons is an ongoing battle in many of our churches, deacons believing the bible says they are entitled to drag the service to a halt while they stand there droning on the same five songs every week. This is what these men were taught, yes, back in the 50ís and 60ís. Which means, for fifty years, these men have not studied the bible past a surface, cursory understanding or beyond whatever theyíve heard from the pulpit. The fact is, many of our older congregants and shot-called have very weak bible skills and very weak understanding of doctrine. What they know is tradition. And it is the traditions they hold sacrosanct, not the biblical precepts underlying them. Challenges made to their liturgy, their traditions, are usually violently resistedóeven when you open the bible and show them how wrong something is. Many of these people simply donít understand. But, rather than say, ďI donít understand,Ē they become hostile, ridiculing and attacking. They are afraid to admit that, having spent 40, 50 years in the church, they really donít know much about the bible and really donít have a good grasp on sound doctrine. They are like musicians who play by ear. Iím not knocking musicians who play by earóI myself rarely read anymoreóbut I do know how to read and write music and studied music theory briefly. Playing only by ear develops a host of bad habits. Like the church folk, you develop a kind of oral history without understanding the underpinnings of it. As such, you harden into defending the churchís traditions without actually understanding proper biblical doctrine.

Fear: A tale of two PC's.

Mac The Knife

Fear is a big hindrance to church growth. Church growth, by syllogistic reasoning, requires change. Leadership, in our tradition, is usually done by the elders who gravitate toward leadership because they need the external validation. These people fear change because change is threatening to them, first and foremost because change requires them to admit they are no longer masters of the universe. They do not understand how the world works anymore and, worse, change may require them to admit theyíve been wrong about something or some things for a very long time. For many of our church leaders, reality as theyíve known it would be badly damaged if they were to allow themselves to grow, to evolve, to change. Itís very tough to admit youíve been wrong. Itís near impossible to admit youíve spent a half-century being wrong. Itís embarrassing. It undermines the external validation youíve grown dependent upon. Rather than let that happen, many of our leaders will fight tooth and nail to keep change from happening. Their predisposition to any overture of change is to not like it. And you can talk yourself blue in the face explaining these concepts; many of our church leaders are simply not going to understand what PayPal is. Theyíre afraid of PayPal, and they think youíre a nut or, worse, trying to rip the church off. They will demonize PayPal and demonize you for proposing it. Theyíll stop short of forming a lynch mob or dunking you in a barrel of water for heresy.

Most every suggestion Iíve ever made to a black church has met, initially, with resistance. Didnít matter what it was. From the trivial to the major. The web stuff, the PraiseNet to be specific, was met with incredible hostility, here, so much so that this ministry is visited and utilized mainly by churches out of state. Iíd imagine most pastors we talked to (and we talked to nearly all of them) found this ministry to be threatening because they didnít understand what a web site was or what purpose it served. But, rather than admit that, they hemmed and hawed and, many of them, started calling around town suggesting Neil and Henry and myself were scam artists trying to get over on churches. Pastorsópastorsóbehaving like ten-year olds. Thatís fear. Thatís what it does to you.

Fear keeps you from being you. Keeps you from admitting who or what you are, what your limitations are, what your infirmities and challenges are, what your hopes are. This meanness, this hostility toward change and growth, causes most people to shy away from even suggesting new ideas. Pastors miss out on dozens if not hundreds of great ideas every year because theyíve got Deacon So And So in place, and this guy is at first dismissive, then condescending, then ultimately hostile toward any suggestion of change. Change threatens Deacon So And So. Threatens his position, undermines the peopleís confidence in him. Because, in Deacon So And Soís mind, his having to admit (1) that he has no idea what PayPal is, though most any ten-year old could tell him or that (2) the church might benefit from having a PayPal account translates into his having to admit his way of doing things has been wrong.

Which isnít at all true. Deacon: your way of doing things isnít wrong, has not been wrong. But, times change. Itís wrong to keep using a rotary phone because you think push-buttons are of the devil. Itís wrong, dead wrong, for a churchóany churchóto not have an email address or a website or Internet access. Itís wrong to keep using a horse and buggy when we have cars now. Change doesnít mean youíre wrong or even that youíre stupid. It just means God had expanded your territory with new ideas and new advantages. Our problem is weíre too afraid to go possess that land.

One of many straws that broke the back of many camels for me was the week I discovered a pristine set of Macintosh G5's in a second-hand electronics store, priced at only a few hundred dollars apiece. Retail price for these workhouse Macintosh computers started at $2600 apiece. I cracked the machines open and inspected the innards and tested the motherboards to make sure this wasn't some kind of scam. These were three thousand dollar machines priced at less than one-tenth of their retail value. The church I was working with was producing terrible video through antiquated equipment and outdated software, but when I excitedly urged them to snap up this pair of gleaming aluminum towers the church's video guy balked. First he tried to bad-mouth Apple's PCs, which sounded ridiculous, then he whined that he'd have to learn new software, which was even more ridiculous. The Adobe suite, which is the gold standard of media creation, was created for the Macintosh. The Windows versions exist only as a secondary market consideration; the code was natively designed for the Mac.

Then one of the sisters who worked in the office--not sure how she even factored into a decision about the church's video production--chimed in, complaining that they'd have to learn a whole new operating system. I told them Windows XP and Windows 7 were, essentially, rip-offs of Mac OSX. The operating systems work virtually the same. Then she complained that Macs wouldn't run her PowerPoint presentations-- which was completely absurd-- Macs run MS Office exactly the same way Windows machines do.

The entire discussion became a terrible struggle, one neither the deacon in charge nor the pastor took any interest in whatsoever. The deacon ultimately sent the matter to the pastor's desk where he ignored it as he ignored most anything with my name on it. Next time I stopped by the store, the Mac towers were gone. The church continued to have lousy, grainy, desaturated, hideous video. The video guy and the office lady high- fived their victory over me and the church continued to wallow in mediocrity.

This was all about fear. This was two 50-year olds acting like children, bound and determined to mire the church in mediocrity, and about leadership too absent to notice or care.

Black To The Future

Weíre afraid of new people. White people, Spanish people, Asian people. Weíre terrified of gay people, which is why weíre so hostile toward them. Itís fear. Our sanctuaries continue to look like mausoleums because weíve still got the notion of the church sanctuary as a sacred place, as the Holy of Holies. Jesus died to end that separation, to split the veil dividing man from God. It is reasonable and, yes, right to respect our church sanctuaries, but stop bolting down these ghastly expensive heavy oak pews. Pews are dumb. They canít be moved, the room canít be reconfigured. Youíre limiting the use of that room to one purpose only and youíre doing it to ďkeep it holy.Ē There is nothing whatsoever holy about a church sanctuary; itís just a room. Use it to win souls. Put in chairs instead of those danged pews so you can re-configure the room to suit whatever is happening inside it.

Most churches I know would never allow that. Youíd get laughed out of the building for even suggesting it. Most churches I know are deep in hock (or have been deep in hock) paying for those expensive and utterly useless pews. Most black churches I know have blood-red carpet and dark hues all over the place, making the place look like a funeral parlor or Draculaís rec room. By contrast, most white churches have auditoriumsósome call them sanctuaries, but theyíre auditoriums, with chairs that can be reconfigured for concerts or lectures. They are bright, cheery places with lights that dim for music or presentations.

There is no scriptural basis for expensive, heavy, unmovable wooden pews in your sanctuary. Thatís just tradition. The early churches of the bible existed in peopleís homes. Later churches had people standing--yes standing throughout the many-hours long worship service.

As long as your church continues to be YOUR church, donít expect it to grow. Real growth requires real acceptance of different ideas and different cultures, which is not likely to happen with Deacon So And So calling the shots. Which is not to say kick our elders to the curb, but that you, pastor, must understand the challenges here: people in their late sixties and late seventies are afraid, and they bring that fear to the church with them. Usually without knowing it, that fear manifests itself as hostility, condescension and skepticism. Theyíll call a new idea bad or ridiculous not because it is but because they donít understand, at all, what the proposer is talking about. Not only do they not understand the new idea, they donít understand the culture or the background behind it. Not all of them, but most of our elders have simply stopped growing. They set the mark at whatever point in life they decided they knew enough, and that point was, likely, at least twenty-five years in the past. They are not at all well-rooted in sound doctrine but are defenders of church tradition, which they understand to the letter. Many of these people couldnít find Psalms in the bible, but theyíve memorized, to the letter, the churchís bylaws. They put their trust and faith in those bylaws, which in turn uphold the churchís liturgy and tradition more so than faith in Godís word which, for many of them, is a cryptic and impenetrable document which is translated by the pastor in drips and drabs on Sunday mornings. These folks are vital to the health of the church as younger people are too focused on themselves to take much of an active role in church leadership. However, these folks are extremely resistant to change. So much so, that many folks, imbibed with the zeal of Christ, with the dynamic thrust of Godís progressive self-revelation, just burn out. We stop even offering new ideas and many of us ultimately drift away. Your congregation begins looking older and older, with fewer and fewer middle-aged or younger members, while your shot callers rock back and forth to the pale, off-key gargling of your deacons grinding the service to a halt every Sunday with their Devotion To Themselves.

Keeping our elders, our precious resource, in place, in key positions, while policing their behavior is a tough challenge. But, just as youth can tend to be impulsive and self-absorbed, age can be intransigent and self-absorbed. Both demographics have vital wealth to offer a ministry, but both demographics need to be ministered to with a rational understanding of their gifts and their shortcomings. Many churches wither simply because the pastor either doesnít understand this phenomena or is himself too self-absorbed or disengaged to care much about it. The old folks block change every which way and the younger people drift away until you look out from your pulpit one day and see hardly anyone under the age of 60.

That, pastor, is fear. And itís one of the main reasons the church isnít growing.

Next: Disobedience

Christopher J. Priest
10 August 2008

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