Success or Failure in the Next Five to Ten Years

This book is a great read. Even if you don't typically like books like this.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book this week: Outliers: The Story of Success by acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell. Not only is the book an interesting study on the factors that go into success, it’s also a heck of a good read. Gladwell’s prose is engaging, easy to understand, and best of all full of reference points that you can actually understand (though there are some pretty high-minded references as well). It’s a great read for anyone who likes non-fiction.

But that’s not why I’m writing about the book.

The church where I work is settled in a little community called Grayson, Georgia, a nice little suburban offshoot of the Metro-Atlanta complex. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a Met-ATL town: grocery stores, fast food chains, sit down restaurants, doctors, lawyers, good schools, and plenty of other assorted businesses and services that make the local economy spin. It’s also got a butt-load of churches, since we live on the first or second notch of the Bible Belt, and while there are certainly plenty of people available to fill the churches, the number of people who actually go to church is smaller, making the competition to get people into your pews more severe.

Now, if this were strictly a case of business and marketing, this would be a fairly simple problem to solve. You would realign your marketing campaign and change your strategy to meet the needs and expectations of the community, challenge your leadership and labor base to double their efforts, and you’d do what you could to draw people to your door.

But the church is not a business. It’s a living, breathing organism that operates on an entirely different level than a tire shop or a pizza parlor.

All too often, we forget that truth. We treat the church as if a formulaic fix will be the perfect solution to what ails us. Numbers a little down? No problem – just change the music, or the sermon, or the dress code, or the programs. People seem disinterested? Add a new book study on “How to Improve Your Life,” or a create a self-help group that caters to the latest trend in therapy. Sometimes, instead of really looking within ourselves (and by that I mean the church’s membership as well as its community), we scan the aisles of the local bookstore and hope that someone else has a pre-packaged fix that will do.

Most of the time they won’t. Do, that is. They tend to do not, which is next to death when you’ve hitched your hopes to that pre-packaging.

Which brings me back to Outliers: success is knowing who you are, where you’re from, and what circumstances surround you. In other words, it’s about introspection and imagination and ambition and intelligence and all of the other things we sing praises to in our business classes, but it’s also about timing and luck and providence (if you believe in that sort of thing, which one would hope a church certainly does).

So how can a church in a changing community set itself up for success? And come to think of it, how should a church even define success?

The past few decades success was easy to define: growing attendance, growing budget, growing programs. If you had those things as a church, you were successful. But then someone realized: what does that have to do with the Will of God? Those were great benchmarks for a business, but lousy for a church, because a church has weightier and more ambitious goals to strive for beyond simple numerical growth. But at the same time, a church should grow.


So back to my church. We are a historic church, over 160 years in the same location, which means that the people of this congregation have always done a fairly decent job of assessing the community and the times and adjusting to both. We’ve never been “trendy” but we’ve always been accessible – and that sense of community has helped the church stay around long after others have closed their doors and vanished into the ether. Entering our 161st year, we’re looking at yet another shift in the community: the turnover from the Greatest and Boomer Generations to the Gen X and Millennial Generations.

In other words, the script is completely flipping. And in five years, it will be completely flipped.

Out will be the consumer church model. In will be the engaged church model – one where the members do more than just sit in the pews. The expectations will be higher from the younger generations because of the Gen Xers’ cynical and critical eye and the Millennials’ belief in their power to create a better world. The margin for error will be smaller, as the younger generations are accustomed to sharper, faster, clearer models of leadership that see the future well before it arrives.

Reaction won’t work with them. They’ll demand proactive measures.

So my church finds itself (to borrow a cliche) on the threshold; not yet in that world, but beyond the one we’ve been comfortable with. What will we do? How will we change? Can we survive?

Those are questions we need to be asking. Those are answers we need to be seeking – both in prayer and in research.

I believe we’ll find our way.

Dancing In The Light Of Fireflies

Hope like firefly light - the gift of my grandfather's generation.I’m going to spend a lot of my time going to funerals over the next five years.

A lot.

I said as much to my brother, Ryan, yesterday before the funeral of one of our former pastors. He agreed with me. And as we looked around the church where we found ourselves, we could count at least four or five likely candidates. It’s not morbid – it’s life.

Now, we will most likely be wrong in our predictions – the people you think are most likely to go usually hang around an extra decade or two – but it doesn’t change the fact that many of the people who populated our childhood will die within the next five years. The Greatest Generation is marching, inexorably, towards their Greatest Adventure.

We will lose a lot when they are gone. An entirely different America, in fact. The nation that they helped to shape, the nation that they represent, will vanish when the last of those WWII-era citizens passes. America as a producer. America as an industrial giant. America as an international power. America as a single nation. All of these truths that I grew up hearing about our country will go to the grave with the generation that held them closest.

Because, let’s face it, we no longer believe in that America. We believe in a nation where opportunity comes with a price tag, where the fix is in, where government, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become synonymous. We live, sadly, in an America that couldn’t rise from the ashes of the Depression and win a World War. We don’t have the collective optimism or hope that is required to do that sort of thing. We would piss and moan about the hardship and struggle, and while we would be right about the challenges, our attitude alone would doom us more than our circumstances.

Which is exactly what I never fully understood about that Greatest Generation, my grandparents’ generation: their attitude. How could they not see the things my generation sees? How could they be so naive? How could they hold onto the American myth and push so stridently for its hoped-for outcomes? It couldn’t have been stupidity – they figured out more challenging problems than that in their sleep, and if you don’t believe me, try keeping a victory garden alive and flourishing for more than three days. I mean, I can’t even keep a plastic plant alive that long.

I could never fathom why my grandparents held the beliefs they did about America. Why they could stand and sing the anthem without shame. Why they could talk about this country as if it had never done anything wrong. Didn’t they understand Watergate? Didn’t they know about Hoover’s FBI?

How could they be so blind?

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now, as my grandfather has been suddenly confined to a hospice bed in his own home’s front room, and I don’t think they’ve been blind at all. I think they just understood that it’s better to live with hope than whimper in fear. I see this attitude at work in Pop even now.

I’ve been to visit him a few times now, and where I would feel like a fool set on display for the pitying world, he just looks out the window, smiles at the company, and sleeps whenever he needs to. He doesn’t rage against the health care system. He doesn’t rail against the government’s failure to take better care of veterans. He doesn’t even care to hear the latest news, except for weather reports – and even then, why does the weather matter to him? He can’t even go outside!

I’m living through this with him and while my heart sometimes feels like it’s going to explode from the chaos and madness and seeming inequity of it all, he’s never uttered a word of discontent.

I asked him the other day if he was ready to go to Heaven.

“Yep,” he replied. “But I’m not gonna go get a shotgun and rush the trip along.”

“Don’t you get tired?” I asked.

“Yep. But the Lord has me here for a reason. Might as well live for it.”

When he said that to me, I thought, Fatalism. Whatever will be will be. It seemed the coward’s way out, blithely just taking whatever comes your way and not expecting anything more.

But my grandfather is not a coward. You can’t be a coward when your sickbed is the center ring of your last days and everyone comes to see the show and pay their respects. It takes a courage that I don’t possess to let your brokenness be on display and to live each day for itself.

That’s the kind of spirit that overcame a Reich. That’s the kind of spirit that conquered the pitfalls inherent in the American Dream and allowed goodness to shine through. That is the kind of willpower and faith that innovates and imagines and invents solutions to problems that others would run from. That is what led Tom Brokaw and others to coin them the Greatest Generation, and they are dying, one by one.

It’s like when I was a kid, and the fireflies started blinking. You knew the evening time was near, and you only had so long to play before you had to come inside for the night. We danced in that firefly light, savoring every flicker, because we knew that when the night had reached its darkest those fireflies would light the way. As long as we could see one little light in the blackness, we felt safe.

My grandfather’s generation still lights the way, as they have for some fifty years. Long since past the events that defined them, they have been flashing reminders of what is good and beautiful in a darkened world. But soon, the last of those beacons of childhood security will go black and we’ll find ourselves alone in the dark. America will have lost her soul, her spirit, to the passage of time. We will face future events without a large part of who we were as a nation.

And what we do then will define our generation.