Category Archives: Leadership

A Simple Outline for Engaging Culture

love_wins

photo credit www.whitehouse.gov

Culture is often defined as the attitudes, beliefs and customs of a group of people. While attitudes and beliefs shape the culture, it is primarily the customs that help to identify it. It is these “customs” (actions) that ultimately fuel the culture wars that exist in our world today. In light of the recent “flag” issue and especially, the recent Obergefell same-sex marriage case in the Supreme Court, I’ve been thinking on how people of faith can do a better job of engaging culture in a time where, in many cases, we seem to have lost our relevance.

Since the mentioned ruling, my social media feeds have looked like the Confederacy went to war with a Skittles factory (I’m sure you’ve seen the memes as well). We all have strong feelings on these issues and I don’t assume that all of us even share the same views. However, regardless of our view, if we want to help shape the behaviors of people that believe and act differently than our particular “tribe”, then we may want to think about how we engage and influence the culture around us (especially if you find your “side” in the minority, something that many Evangelicals today are having a hard time getting used to).

In the story of Daniel in the Bible (Daniel chapter 1), we observe a young man who suddenly found himself in the minority of a hostile government. Daniel willingly subjected himself to much of the culture of his new authority, but for some reason (not explicitly stated in the text), he felt that partaking of the meat and wine allotted to him would “defile” him. He had a strong faith in God and a strong personal conviction that went contrary to the culture he suddenly found himself in. So what did he do? He set out a challenge with the king’s chief of staff of whom he had already found favor (might I add, probably not by demanding his “rights”). He chose a different diet of vegetables and water and suggested that the king’s assistant observe Daniel and his friends for 10 days and see if they were not at least as strong and healthy as those who were served the king’s diet. As the story goes, at the end of 10 days, Daniel and his friends indeed appeared stronger and healthier than their peers. Because of this, they were permitted to continue on their selected diet while the others continued with the king’s demands. I think there are a few simple lessons here that could help people of faith better engage a culture that may seem increasingly hostile to it.

1. Work for the Common Good

Daniel’s objection was personal, not political. What Daniel did not do, may say more about his “excellent spirit” than even what he did. Daniel did not start out by protesting how “defiled” the king’s food was or how wicked the people were that ate it. Daniel did not demand that everyone else also believe or behave (eat) as he did (even after his diet proved more advantageous). He did not say “I told you so” when he was right. He did not rally a protest campaign among his buddies against the “king’s meat”.  He simply lived and illustrated Micah 6:8 as he “acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God.”

Daniel appealed to the common good of his captors. When we appeal to the common good of all people, it checks our motives and gives us a platform for influence. The king gave a decree for a reason and Daniel was submissive to that (political/common good) reason until it caused him to bring (personal) defilement upon himself. I’m sure he must have grown nostalgic for the “better days” of Zion and must have been uncomfortable living within the culture and confines of his new found pagan kingdom, yet, he submitted himself willingly to it’s authority for the common good with one personal exception. He also appealed to his captor’s desire to please the king and alleviated his fears by allowing for a measurable evaluation of the suggested alternative. 

2. Find Common Ground

Daniel searched diligently for common ground with his captors. He was wise enough to allow for a plan that benefited both sides. Common ground is not necessarily compromise. Through Daniel’s wisdom, not only did he keep himself personally pure, but he also helped his captors, or otherwise enemies, to benefit from his plan as well. In finding common ground, Daniel helped to spare both his life and made his adversary look good in the eyes of the king. Throughout the rest of the book we find Daniel was not only a willing participant but a leader in many aspects of the Babylonian culture, though he never strayed from his faith or compromised in his personal worship (Daniel 5:11). 

If people of faith want to gain influence within a culture that is increasingly hostile or at the least is no longer actively friendly to much of the Christian message, it may be time that we actually learn from Daniel’s example or even heed Jesus words and “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” At the end of the day, every human has the basic need to feel safe, be loved unconditionally, be respected and to feel like their life has significance. We all want the same things out of life, we just may disagree on where they come from. We lose common ground when we forget this and appear angry, whiny and selfish and we lose our ability to influence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the church and people of faith were known more for what we are for than what we are against, we may find that we regain our voice in the public square. When our lives are filled with hope, joy and a genuine concern for others we attract the right attention as people ask us “…to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15). If we’re looking for common ground, below are a few things gay, straight, black, white and most civilized people can agree on. How can we join together to help with these:

  • At least 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor.
  • About 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade.
  • Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • 6.9 million children under five years of age died in 2011, nearly 800 every hour.
  • 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
  • 1.6 billion people — a quarter of humanity — live without electricity.
  • The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percentaccounts for three-quarters of world income.¹

Maybe we can start here. I think we can agree on that.

3. Tell a Better Story

It only makes sense that (along with God’s help), Daniel carried himself in such a way that his captor, though a cultural and religious polar opposite, deep down inside was for Daniel. While it’s obvious from the text that God worked in his captor’s heart, Daniel was wise enough not to get in the way.

Dale Carnegie said “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” If you have ever been in sales at all you also know that internal pressure produces action but external pressure produces resentment. Leon Festinger formulated the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957 at Stanford University. He stated that “when attitudes conflict with actions, attitudes or beliefs, we are uncomfortable and motivated to try to change.” This means that people will naturally act in a way that is consistent with their beliefs, attitudes and values. When these all connect, we live harmoniously, but when they don’t, we feel dissonance to some degree or another. We may feel awkward, uncomfortable, upset, or even confused (take Peter and his vision of the great sheet in Acts 10, for example). To reduce this tension, we will often go to extraordinary lengths to change our attitudes, beliefs or behavior, even if it means doing something we normally wouldn’t want to do.

Simon Sinek, in his groundbreaking book Start with Whyshares how corporations and movements have created lasting influence and change as a result of their “Why”. Motive Matters. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. I can tell you one thing people definitely don’t buy is self(ish) preservationism. That’s a horrible “why”. If people sense motives of self preservation from those trying to influence them, they can sniff that out a mile away. If you are going to influence anyone, as the old saying goes, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Christians, of all people, should know that the only thing that can provide lasting hope and joy is a relationship and identity rooted in Christ Jesus. It’s time we started behaving like we actually have it. While I believe healthy marriages to be the foundational institution of society, I also know that marriage alone does not make one happy. In time, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will find that out as well, and I, for one, want to be there for them when they figure that out.

We are where we are today NOT because of a Constitutional anomaly or even judicial activism but simply because, over time, one perspective on an issue managed to tell a better story. While one side was making arguments based upon an unshared religious viewpoint and self preservationism, the other was telling the story of real people and appealing to the basic human needs of love, respect and justice. Jesus himself even said “…for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8 KJV). I wish not to make light of the potential cultural fallout of the magnitude of the Obergefell decision, however, after nearly 2 millennia, I still think that Paul, in his context of the Roman empire, was up against a steeper cultural climb than we could ever possibly know in America today. Even in the midst of all of that he leaves us these words in his epistle to the Romans (Romans chapter 1 seems to be the point of greatest conflict in the same-sex marriage issue, oddly enough):

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! 17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. 19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD. 20 Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” 21 Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” [Rom 12:9-21 NLT]

Let’s start there. Because after all, Love really does win.

¹http://www.compassion.com/multimedia/poverty-fact-sheet.pdf

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Vision, Values and Lowell Mason

Park Street Church

Boston is a great city. Every time I have the opportunity to visit, I’m brought face to face with its blend of remarkable history and its current relevancy and influence in the current affairs of today. I’m currently sitting in the Thinking Cup Cafe (hoping this really helps me!) across from Boston Common reviewing notes on the life of Lowell Mason, a great church musician,educator,entrepreneur and Boston native. I’m presenting some of this research as part of an intensive class I’m currently teaching at Boston Baptist College. Yesterday in class we were discussing the importance of having a working philosophy of music and worship for those in worship leadership. I came across this summary of Mason’s outlook on church music which I found to be interesting. This was compiled by Carol Pemberton based on a lecture Mason gave in 1826 at the Hanover Street Church in Boston.

  • Church music must be simple, chaste, correct, and free of ostentation.
  • The text must be handled with as much care as the music; each must enhance the other.
  • Congregational singing must be promoted.
  • Capable choirs and judiciously used instruments, particularly the organ, are indispensable aids to services.
  • A solid music education for all children is the only means of genuine reform in church music.
  • Musicianship per se is subordinate to facilitating worship.

While some of the relevancy of his thoughts above may be questioned today (though much of it is quite valid), I would also suggest that his influence continues because he took the time to write it down and share it with others. I would like to share a few thoughts for worship leaders who are currently working out their own thinking regarding corporate worship and encourage those who are not currently thinking about this to begin to work it out in their own minds and begin to incorporate it into their ministries. If the majority of evangelical churches spend close to half of our corporate worship gatherings being involved in congregational music and expression, I believe it is important that we have a sound rationale for why we behave this way. I think there are some important things we can consider regarding working out our values for corporate worship and why that matters today.

A working worship philosophy will prevent you from being forcefully bound to antiquated traditions.

If you’ve seen the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, you can recall Tevye and his uncompromising love for “traditions….(insert Russian music)…traditions.” Like Tevye, often we find ourselves blindly bound to the way things have always been. Now, there’s nothing wrong with traditions, necessarily. They can provide us with structure and stability so that we can pour our energies into the most important things in life. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Occasionally, however, it doesn’t hurt to question these “wheels” and evaluate their effectiveness. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad the Wright brothers thought outside the “wheel” and found a better way to travel. As was the case with these revolutionaries, anytime you question established norms, you will have your critics and skeptics who wish you anything but the best. But based on principle, good information and determination, they pressed on and now most of those critics, if they were alive today, would gladly get on an airplane for a far away trip when given the option. When our traditions stand in the way of our core values, it’s time to rethink the tradition. Jesus, in Mark 7, had some things to say about this as well. The Pharisees had taken the Law and added their own interpretations and applications to it. While the creators of the traditions mentioned in Mark 7 may have had the best of intentions, by the time Jesus gets on the scene, these traditions were standing in the way of real life transformation. When our traditions do the same, it’s time for honest reevaluation.

A working corporate worship philosophy will keep you from being aimlessly swept around by passing fads and public opinion.

Most of us can probably hear our mother saying with that certain tone, “If the rest of your friends [insert rediculous metaphor here], would you do it too?”. You have to admit, “mamma” had some wisdom there, as annoying as it may have seemed at the time. Many of us should ask the same question of our leadership now as well. Often we make mistakes when we try to emulate others’ success in a different context and thoughtlessly apply it to our own. There are some exciting trends and advancements in the arena of corporate worship today. Using modern instrumentation, visual aids, creative planning and communication can all be excellent tools in sharing the timeless message of the gospel. The danger is often, that because prominent ministries are using certain tools and techniques, and have an appearance of “success”, without thinking, we assume that these same tools and techniques will work in our context as well. They may. They may not. Borrowing from the words of Stephen Covey it’s important that we “begin with the end in mind” and not get too quickly awestruck by the latest and greatest methods when they have little value to our own context or environment. At the same time, staying current with the latest trends and developments in your field can help you to be more informed and often more effective. Don’t be afraid to think outside the “wheel” on your own as well or you might might miss the next “flight”. Who knows, maybe you will be the next trend setter! Having a working worship philosophy will free you to be innovative while ensuring that you also remain effective.

A working corporate worship philosophy will provide purpose, freedom and direction for the future.

One of the questions I’m asked most often is “where are we going with the worship program at our church?”. This is a valid question and may indicate that I have not been as effective as I need to be in communicating the vision and principles that drive us. Having a working worship philosophy and set of values that you faithfully communicate to your team can go a long way in making sure that this question is answered for your people as well as creating better by-in for your ministry. It helps to ensure that your decisions are made on purpose and can help give some of us “creative types” better confidence in the decisions that we make by knowing that we have made decisions based on timeless principles, rather than letting our desire to be creative get in the way of being effective. In those times when your creativity makes you more effective, then by all means…create away! This does not mean that there is no room for creative expression for its own sake (and for God’s glory). It simply means that in the context of community, creativity should always be employed with the responsibility to edify the church as a whole.

Your vision and values will also help give you freedom to explore all of your creative options without the fear of nullifying your current progress. Once you have effectively identified your purpose, you have the creative freedom to explore every possible option that can help you and your church express a greater love and devotion to the Lord. Our nations founding fathers knew the value of marrying freedom and responsibility. For example, the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were held in strict secrecy and consequently, anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall when the proceedings ended in order to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. A certain Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Much like the implication of responsibility in Franklin’s answer, our spiritual freedom in worship is best exercised in the context of serving and edifying the church.

In the same way our nation’s founding documents help to preserve certain values, they have also helped to provide direction and vision for the future. Your vision and values can work for you in much the same way. While our nation has strayed from many of the principles that were established early on, because of the effort of these men and the providence of God, we still have a constitutional republic that is free from tyranny and stands as a beacon of freedom and opportunity for many. Even though the early founders of our country probably could have never imagined airplanes, cell phones, or the internet, the principles they laid down helped to pave the way for the freedom to innovate in the future. Your vision and values can do the same for you. I may not know exactly what corporate worship will look like 5-10 years from now for the congregation I serve, but I do know that I am committed to the core principles and vision that will help us to be intentional, effective and creative for future generations.

What are you doing to develop and communicate your core values and vision with your team? Please share your thoughts and anything that is working for you. In the next post, I will lay out the process I have used to develop these resources for myself.

God as Creator: Implications for Gospel Creativity (Part 1)

In a recent discussion with one of our church staff, we were speaking of God as Creator and what it means for us and the local church. In many churches, and especially within the Independent Baptist movement (of which I am most familiar), we often hear of many attributes of God–holiness, grace, judgment, mercy, and so on. Of course, in children’s Sunday School we’ve been faithful to teach on the seven days of creation and that God “created the heaven and earth…”, but I have found that, often, very little application of this is made to our lives personally, as those created in His image. If God is creative and we are made in His image, then it seems that gospel-centered creativity should also be encouraged and developed as part of our formation as those who are God’s image bearers.

We are God’s image bearers

Man was created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). As such, we possess unique qualities that differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Though we may share common genetic code with the rest of the animal kingdom, we are distinct and different–creativity being one of the principle differences.Through reason and language, man has the capability of forming original thoughts and acting upon those thoughts. Though, unlike God, we do not create ex nihilo (out of nothing), we do have the capacity to see, think, reason, feel and respond to our surroundings while adding something very unique to it.

Lessons from the Creator: Creation is not God–neither are we our “creation”

God, through His own volition and desire created because He wanted to. We are not able to fully know the mind of God outside of what He has revealed, however, we know that God must have a purpose for His creation, though we may not fully understand every aspect of it. God is very distinct and separate from His creation. His creation reveals some things about Him, but it is very separate from Him.

In a similar way, we are not our creation. It is unhealthy as creative people, to wrap our identity around our “creations”. They may reveal a part of our character and be an expression of who we are, but they are not us and this is a very important distinctive. We must find our identity in our relationship with Christ Himself, because this is the only identity that is complete and fulfilling. As His creation, this is what we were created for. To find our identity in something else, whatever it may be, is unhealthy, unfulfilling and less than what God intended for us.

This fact also frees us to create imperfect creations. This may sound a little counterintuitive, however, as imperfect creators, this is all that we can produce. Creativity for human beings can be (and should be) a constant pursuit of excellence for the sake of the gospel, however, “perfection” will always elude us because we are not perfect creators. This is when we rest in the grace of the gospel to redeem our art because of the finished and perfect work of Christ. Christ frees us to create imperfect creations out of a pure heart and offer them to a perfect Creator as an act of worship for Him. The gospel frees us and gives us the ultimate reason to offer our very best, while at the same time, freeing us from perfectionism. We are free to create and, yes, even make mistakes, because we are not our creation and we find our identity in Christ who has already finished the most perfect work on our behalf on the cross.

How has the gospel influenced your creativity and what would you add to these thoughts?

The Importance of Vision for Creatives

visionIf you are a pastor, you know that pastoring creative people can be a challenging task all on its own. Hiring them on your staff can be a journey to a whole new level of joy, frustration, and bewilderment, often all at the same time. This week I had the privilege of sharing in our team’s vision for a couple of days of off-site planning and strategy development. Being a “creative” and a leader of other “creatives”, I would like to share with you a couple of take-a-ways from this time. I am blessed to work with a great pastor who has an incredible vision for the lives of our people and for those in our community. Here are a few of my take-a-ways as it relates to the importance of vision to the creative people that you lead.

First of all, for fear of stating the obvious, vision provides direction to your team. Being able to see clearly what your church is all about, and what your team is trying to accomplish, helps keep the “big picture” in mind. This may seem obvious to most “type A” leaders (they would never think of doing anything without purpose, right?), but the creative people on your team will create, often just because they can. While creative people will often justify this attitude by claiming they serve the same God that created the platypus (and what purpose does it have?), they are freed to be more valuable to the team when they have purpose and direction to aim their creativity. While there is room in the Christian life for creativity for it’s own sake (when done with a pure heart as an act of worship toward God–it seems that God did), we will have more value to everyone in our world when we have direction and purpose for our creativity.

When most of us think of vision, we think of concepts like “out of the box”, “liberating”, and “defying the odds”.  Vision can definitely be associated with all of these things, but one of the areas that is probably most crucial to the success that vision can provide is the idea of boundaries. This may seem counterintuitive, but without them, most ideas remain just that–ideas. Ideas by themselves benefit no one until they are shared and put into action. Boundaries help us clarify what is really important and what resources should get the most priority. The fact that many of us usually cringe when we hear this word, we usually realize that we need them. While it may be fun to day dream about what we might do if money, time, and people were not a limiter on our ideas, the bottom line is–they are. None of us have unlimited time, money, or human resources. Vision helps us shape the boundaries that are necessary to put the best ideas into action.

Focus is crucial to the success of any worthwhile project. For me, this is probably the most difficult obstacle to overcome. My wife keeps insisting that I be treated for adult ADD. While I do admit that my mind can run in a million different directions at the same time, it seems that clear vision can help me focus in ways that no medication could. When we keep the main thing, the main thing, it is much easier to remain focused even when our pursuits seem derailed. When you are sure of your destination it is a lot easier to take the “quit” out of your vocabulary.

Having vision and direction to aim creative pursuits is an incredibly freeing experience. While using words like direction, boundaries, and focus, may sound nothing like the freedom of flying freely through the forest of our dreams,  for most of us, it is much easier to approach the “blank canvas” of our art when we have a clear vision of how we can benefit the team. A clear-cut vision can truly give wings to your creativity. One of the ways it does this is by refueling the sense of purpose that all of us have inside (whether creative or not). Like in aerodynamics, it takes several distinct forces acting in harmony to produce flight. Any of the necessary forces (gravity, lift, drag, etc.), when by themselves, can be dangerous, limiting, or worthless, at best. Clear vision can act like the heading and lift that not only makes flight possible, but worth doing at all. People are much more productive when they know that they matter to the team. Clear vision will give your creative team wings to be able to fly to the future of changed lives–both theirs and everyone they touch and inspire.

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