Drop Your Canoes!

Some of the most profound quotes come in the beginning of the book, “Canoeing the Mountains” by Tod Bolsinger.  He shares this from page 32, “Steve Yamaguchi, dean of students at Fuller Theological Seminary, says that when his spiritual director took a flying lesson, he asked the instructor why they use flight simulators so much.  The instructor said, ‘In the moment of crisis, you will not rise to the occasion; you will default to your training.’”  How many of us have been there?  When things aren’t working out, if you start a new ministry or even when a ministry has been around for some time and it begins to not work anymore, what do we all do?  Go through our files, reach onto our shelves and pull out something that worked in the past to see if it may help now. We may throw a new twist into it using the latest technology that we can afford.  The next quote from Ed Friedman really hits hard, “When any…system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem.  Conceptually stuck systems cannot be unstuck simply by trying harder.” Bolsinger goes on to say, “We are imaginatively gridlocked. We can’t see our way to a new way of being, a new response. We are growing more anxious about the decline of the church and the demise of whole religious structures. We don’t know what to do. So we keep trying harder; we keep trying our old tricks. But, of course, it doesn’t work.” (pg. 32)

What is it that needs to happen?  Remember the premise of this book…we have to leave everything we know behind and move into the future with an open mind and fresh ideas to survive.  So, guess what?  We need to re-imagine ministry.  Discover new adventures.  Start asking how God is calling us.  How is God calling our churches to accomplish God’s mission for the world.  It will require new things done in new ways. Maybe we do not know what that looks like, and that will require some imagination and reinvention.  It will require some trial and error.

If we refer back to the illustration the Bolsinger uses, the Lewis and Clark expedition, we can make the same conclusions.  Once Mariwether Lewis stepped off the map into unknown places, he quickly realized that what he faced in front of him was nothing like the terrain behind him.  And what he had brought with him to help in his travels will no longer aid in the adventure ahead.  They brought canoes because they thought there would be a water route to help them get to the Pacific Ocean.  So what were they to do?  Change.  Come up with Plan B.  Adapt.  Figure out a new way.  Friends, this is exactly where we find ourselves.  There are big mountains ahead of us, and deep valleys we must go through.  How are we going to do it?  That’s a hard question to answer, but what I do know, we can’t do what we have always done.  We must change, adapt, find a new way.  Let’s ditch our canoes because we can’t keep trekking forward carrying tools that are no longer helping us.  We have to let go, and keep moving forward.  Trust that God will provide exactly what we need along the way.  But what is evident in the book, and a great reminder for each of us, the only way to tackle the mountains ahead is by keeping the course (mission) and being great leaders who others can depend upon.

Are you ready to drop the canoe?  Do you have what it takes as a leader?  It’s a huge step of faith, but I believe with the grace of God and leaning on one another we can hike these mountains, and valleys, together!

Leave the Canoes Behind

I read this book at the end of last year, and if you have had any ministry conversations with me, I have probably mentioned it to you.  If you are in ministry right now, and especially a United Methodist (pastor or laity) I HIGHLY recommend this book!

Tod Bolsinger, the author, connects the Lewis and Clark expedition to what we are all experiencing in the Church in the US today.  I think the illustration is brilliant!  You see, Lewis and Clark set out with the expectation that the uncharted territory of land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase was the exact terrain as that in the east.  They believed that there was a water source that would connect the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, that the slight incline to the Missouri would decline on the other side and in their canoes, they would travel to the Pacific.  But they found mountains.  And when they were told by the Mandans that they would have to cross the mountains ahead of them, what reference did they envision?  Absolutely, the only mountains they knew, the Appalachians.  For any of us who have seen both in person or even in pictures, you know these were not the same mountains they had seen before in the east.  So, when exploring the land ahead of them, Lewis and Clark and company, soon learned all of the knowledge and experience they had from exploring American in the east was not going to help them in this new expedition, they were in for a bumpy ride!

My friends, we are ALL in the same position.  Let’s face it, the world in front of us is NOTHING like the world behind us.  The millennial generation is the only generation who knows what it is like to learn how to use a computer in elementary school (or before).  We get information on events seconds after things happen.  I like this quote from page 27, “[A]fter centuries of stability and slow, incremental change, in less than a generation our world has become VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.”  This isn’t going to change.  The skills we learned in school, the books we’ve read, our teachers, our experiences, nothing can prepare us for where we are in history TODAY, and how we need to move forward into the future TOMORROW.  I believe that those of us in the church are feeling this more so than in the business world.  I am asked to speak in churches and around the conference about young people.  I know everyone wants to hear about what magic program we can develop, what ministry can we pull out off of the shelf that will draw in more young people.  Canoeing the Mountains  solidifies what I have been saying…do NOT recreate anything you have tried in the past.  It won’t work.  We are in new times, with a new generation, and what worked before will NOT be successful today.

I realize that no one likes change, and I will be the first to admit that change is scary stuff.  I don’t agree with change for the sake of change, but Friends, let’s get real.  Leave your canoes behind.  They are not going to be useful for the road ahead.  It is time we begin to ask ourselves, “What is God’s mission for the world and how can we, as a church, fulfill that mission?”  It’s going to require new ways, new thoughts, new avenues.

I hope this gets you thinking, that it stirs something that makes you want to dive a little deeper.  Pick up the book, or just read these blogs and discuss your thoughts.  No doubt we are in for a change, and I agree with Bolsinger, our experience from the past is not going to help us navigate this uncharted territory.  Are you ready?  It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Not Safe for Church: 6th Commandment~Thou Shall Watch the Throne: Rethink Leadership

When you think about the leaders in your church, what comes to mind?  Who are they? What are the requirements to be in those positions?  What are their responsibilities?  I have seen more times than not, churches being led by mainly men, particularly white and mostly those over the age of 50.  Now, I don’t have anything against older men being in leadership positions; however, what message do we send to the generations from the post-civil rights movement if they are not represented at the table where decisions are made?  That’s exactly right…your opinion does not matter to us.

In the sixth chapter, the authors of Not Safe for Church get right to the heart of why I believe many young people are walking away from our churches.  Powe and Smothers hit on the lack of younger leadership in the church.  Think about it this way, imagine walking up to a group of acquaintances at a party.  These people are in the middle of a conversation about something you are passionate about, it could even be a topic you deal with in your place of employment.  Throughout their conversation you try to interject your opinion or thoughts, but they only politely smile and go about their discussion, never really listening, responding or including you in the discourse.  What would you do?  I know the action I would take, I would eventually walk away and find another group where I felt welcomed.  Church, do you understand that this is exactly what you are doing to young leaders?

In the United Methodist Church, we actually do invite young people to sit at the table of committees and boards, because that is what our discipline dictates.  However, more times than not, they are “token” members.  They are there, but are never actually a part of the conversation.  Or, as Not Safe for Church points out, the meetings are set at times that are impossible for young people to attend.  Again, not very welcoming.  Naturally, we ask ourselves why? Why are young people not invited or included?  The book states fear as being a probable cause.  Fear of the unknown, fear of failure.  We like things to be the way they have always been, it is easier that way.  Young people may bring a different perspective, a new way of thinking; they may bring change.  Things the church fears most.  Fear is one reason young people are excluded from our conversations, but also, I challenge it could also be lack of awareness.  Maybe young people are not invited because leaders never stopped to thing about the fact that they are missing or have great ideas.  After all, we all get comfortable in our settings.  We like the people that are around us, those that are on our committees.  They are the ones that do everything anyway, so it is just easier to ask our friends.  Young people are also seen as irresponsible, and non-comital.  But is that really true? I think not.  I see young people committing to causes all the time.  But, they have a vested interest in these organizations.  These are opportunities where decisions are being made, lives are being impacted and change is happening.

When the church doesn’t engage young people in leadership positions, they will inevitably find other places to use their gifts.  They will commit their time and energies into systems that are open to their way of leadership, their innovative ideas, and their way of thinking.  God is still going to use these individuals to further His mission.  As Powe and Smothers states, “God’s vision is larger than any of us can imagine and will come to fruition even when we attempt to thwart it.” (p. 81) I do not believe anyone would deny, the research that shows, Christianity in American today is in decline.  Our churches are slowly sinking.  No one sitting at the table currently seems to have an answer.  Has anyone taken the time to think, maybe we have ignored the very generation who holds the answers to multiplying God’s kingdom here on earth?  Are we too afraid, too self-absorbed to listen?  “If we are focused on God’s mission and not the throne, then we are opening ourselves to bringing it to fruition.” (p. 82)

Church, let’s realign ourselves to seek God’s mission for our churches, and don’t leave anyone out of the discussion.  Seek to find young people who are willing and very able to be mentored into leadership positions.  Give them an opportunity to have a voice at the table.  Allow God to use them in new and exciting ways.  Revivals in the Church have always started with young people, maybe it’s time to allow them the chance in the church to show us what they are made of, what gifts God has given them.  Maybe it’s time for us to listen, and for young people to do the talking.

Not Safe for Church: Fourth Commandment-Thou Shall Check Yourself before You Wreck Yourself. Provide inclusive worship and Bible study.

I think most of us have experienced one time or another, feeling like an outsider, inside a church.  If you haven’t experienced it yourself, maybe you have had a conversation with someone who doesn’t feel like they are welcomed.  You know, we can’t have “them” in the church, they wear jeans, have tattoos, or have a different haircut.  There are plenty of examples of those “inside” the church creating an “us vs. them” mentality.  Jesus is the perfect example of loving people who didn’t always fit “the mold.”

This chapter begins by explaining the importance for churches to not simply continue what they have always done, or to try to tweak what they always have done and package it in a new way, but to truly make a change to reach the post-civil rights movement.  If churches are going to be welcoming to all people, it needs to be ALL, not just those that look like the 99% that sits in the pews regularly.

I particularly like this from page 50, “It is one thing to eat with those who are unfit and quite another to go into their domain.  Jesus went to their domain.” This is based on Matthew 9:10 where Jesus goes and eats at the home of a tax collector.  Everything the church does seems to be focused on the masses coming to the church: worship, Bible study, carry-in meals, fall festivals, and the list goes on.  If we change our thinking to focus on the gospel and not on our own comforts and ambitions, then maybe the post-civil rights generation will be more willing to engage in the faith community.

I feel as though the church is missing the point.  In changing, it’s not about having more programs, or ministry opportunities, it about having genuine conversations, building relationships, and hearing the gospel from a personal perspective.  Our faith isn’t something we do, it’s who we are.  Once the church gets that, then maybe we can move it forward.

Not Safe for Church Third Commandment: Thou Shall Not Trip: Discuss Taboo Subjects

Boldness is a key in transformative ministry.  In order for a church to be bold, they must have courage and confidence to step out of what is comfortable and take a risk.  Humans naturally fear what they don’t know, so this is a difficult move for churches.

No one wants to hurt anyone else’s feelings, after all, we are Christians.  So we ignore taboo topics.  Churches are good at using their voices to speak at, but refuse to speak against contemporary issues.  But we are not in conversation WITH others on these subjects.  We need to be intentional, engaged and active listeners and intentional, careful and prayerful speakers.

Keep in mind that post-civil rights generations bring with them a different set of lenses then those before them.  Most of us have never been in a legally segregated classroom, workplace, restaurant or recreational area.  We have grown up with computers in our classrooms and information right in front of us.  “There are few matters about which the post-civil rights generations have not been exposed, educated or informed.” (pg. 34). However, the church is one of the remaining places where segregation still exists. These post-civil rights generations want to connect with congregations will engage in conversations instead of clichéd phrases.  “As long as congregations remain stuck, they remain unable to discuss taboo subjects and thereby, unable to be relevant and willing participants in transformation.” (pg.35)

The reason churches tend to get “stuck” is because they are fearful of moving away from the comfortable.  This means not everyone will agree, but if we keep in mind that we are called to love everyone, even those we don’t agree with, the church can move in a direction that allows them to overcome their fears.  The authors walk through a process that enables churches to get to the place where we can engage in uncomfortable places and conversations and still accept one another.

In our country today, we tend to pick a side, and then the other side becomes “wrong” or the enemy.  No longer do we engage in conversations and listen to one another.  This is counter to what John Wesley encouraged in via media, the middle way.  By living a life that is rich in diversity, people who look, speak, learn and grow differently than you, means we must learn to understand one another, not judge.  Acceptance is not the same as agreement.

One simple way to expose yourself to different opinions and ideas is through a small group study with people who are not like yourself.

Finally, the authors end this chapter with this: “Congregations must lean toward holy boldness instead of timid blandness, remembering that being lukewarm is condemned in Revelation 3:16.” (pg. 43) AMEN.

Not Safe for Church. Second Commandment: Thou Shall Not Front: Be Authentic

“Will the real disciples please stand up?” (p. 14) Very early on the authors ask this question of our congregations.  Yikes!  Are we really being authentic to God’s mission and call in our churches?  I think that most churches have fallen into society’s expectations that we must be all things to all people.  This is a very slippery slope, and faith communities need to stop and think about where they are in their identity crisis.  For the last 20 or so years, every church has pulled ideas and concepts from this megachurch and that megachurch instead of trying to figure out where God is calling us in our situation.  I believe that each church has been uniquely gifted by people who are able to carry out the mission and vision of each individual church.  So shouldn’t ministries be based on the needs of the community matched with the gifts of the congregation?  Somehow we turn this around and create ministry then find people to fill spots.  In all of this we lose the mission and vision of our own church and focus on numbers, and how many people are attracted to whatever we are doing.  I love this quote from page 16 of the book, “We confuse church membership with Christian discipleship.  We confuse tithes and offerings with dues and tips.” We want all the benefits of what it means to be a part of a church, but none of the responsibility of what it takes to be a disciple. ” Everything we do needs to answer the question, “How is this helping us make disciples?”  If we say that is what we are about (it is part of our mission statement) then all of our efforts need to be towards discipleship making as the end result.  Authenticity is a lifestyle not something we just “do” on Sundays. Authentic congregations are focused on the community around them and are usually the go-to place for community gatherings and meetings.  Their leaders are community leaders; their pastors are community pastors. Millennials want authentic people and authentic relationships.  They also require transparency when given to charity.  They must know that what they are giving will matter and know where it is going.   Authentic faith communities are made up of disciples who know that they are students, learners and contributors to a bigger picture and a greater good.  They are not consumers expecting served and worried about their own benefits. Millennials are attracted to these authentic communities, and maybe it’s time we see that it’s time we are real with our call.


What do you thinK are marks of authentic witness and identity in your church?

Is your congregation doing everything they can to make disciples of Jesus Christ?

Are you being authentic to who you are called to be individually?  Are you an example to others?

Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations Chap. 1

Reaching a new generation is probably one of the biggest issues churches call me about right now.  I get questions all the time asking me how church can draw in those 40 and younger.  It’s a complicated problem with a very intricate solution; although, I believe a broad solution could be the answer, no one wants to hear it.

This book goes there.  The authors, F. Douglas Powe Jr. and Jasmine Rose Smothers, dig in and reveal the issues that build walls in our churches today that prevent the younger generations from engaging in our faith communities.  I am excited to share in the next 10 weeks my thoughts on this book and to hear your reactions to it as well.

I was thrilled to see that the “New Generation” Powe and Smothers refer to include those born after 1961.  I am not a millennial, and don’t think like one.  I am in Generation X; however, my opinions and thoughts toward institutions and society tend to lean more towards the millennial generation.  I appreciate the division for this book as being those post-civil rights movement because we are more willing to take risks and be more open to new ideas that change things up.  I like the Biblical comparison they use of Joshua and Caleb, because they were not just willing to look at the possibilities, but willing to actually act on them.

The first commandment is, “Thou Shall Chill: What’s at Stake.” (First of all, the chapter titles are way cool and very fitting!) So, what is at stake?  The loss of the Church as we know it today.  The authors point out, though, that those inside the church are fighting with those outside of the church to keep it going, but those outside the church are not even in the fight because they don’t care.  The biblical reference to this is from Mark 10:17-27, the story about the rich man who asks Jesus how to get eternal life…Jesus’ answer: sell everything you own, and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven and come follow me.  The man is shocked and leaves in despair.  Not the answer he was looking for!

So, taking this illustration, many of our congregations today are also busy trying to save themselves by staying in their comfort zone and never moving out.  Like the rich man, churches need to let go of their prized possessions, everything they have known to follow Jesus.  But it is too high a price.   What is at stake is saving the congregation, but it is just too high a price and unfair.  The consequences for not paying are probably the eventual death of the congregation which is the very thing they are trying to avoid.

The rich man went away grieving because he wanted eternal life, but it had to be on his terms.  The same is true for congregations.  They want to save their faith communities, but on their terms.  We need to take risks and let go of our way and allow the saving to happen on God’s terms.

How do we let go?  First, congregations need to better understand those of us born post-civil rights movement.  We love the church and are committed; however, our love is NOT to the building.  We are committed to seeing where God leads and do not allow the building to define that.  “Discipleship is about having the kind of spirit where we will follow Christ into the world and, most importantly, into our community.  Discipleship is not about creating a comfort zone where we maintain the status quo.” (pg. 7)  It is not about protecting a building.  Discipleship is about “believing in a new future with God that requires us to chill and to let go of some things.” (pg. 11)


I would love to hear your response.  Here are a couple of the questions at the end of Chapter 1:

  1. What are some ways your congregations is entrenched and not willing to let go?
  2. How is your congregation collaborative and not so collaborative with the post-civil rights generations?
  3. What would be easy to let go of? What would be hard? What would be impossible?