The trend is unmistakable. The American Church is waning and few among us are even talking about it. It’s our 800 pound gorilla.
This isn’t just another “millennial issue.” It’s symptomatic of a much larger concern; our problem is systemic. You probably don’t need to see the statistics to know the American church is shrinking, but should you be a “doubting Thomas,” just choose any of the recent Gallup, Pew, Lifeway or Barna surveys. They all validate the existence of our large primate friend.
It’s like we have an infectious disease. Many outside the church don’t like us much right now, so they keep their distance. While we seem fairly healthy among our own church crowd, non-churchgoing people have heard typecast caricatures of Christians so many times and from so many sources, that they believe them to be true. Yet, we know that’s not who we are.
The good news is that we can transform our current persona. We possess everything we need to reclaim our true identity, and send that gorilla packing. Consider the source of our identity, Jesus, who was able to love and not compromise. (Note that this kind of love never condones sin, and never embraces a watered -down gospel aberration. It is, however, characterized by some of the innovative strategies described below.)
To reclaim our true identity, we need more than creativity, we need inspired innovation. That’s because innovation requires we get out of our safe zones and into the real world. The acronym L.O.V.E. describes the innovative strategies we need today: listening, observation, viewpoint and engagement.
Jesus listened. He started many conversations with questions and listened to the people he was speaking with before responding; even though he already knew the answers. Our first step is to become better listeners. We can learn to stay present in conversations, to be empathic, to avoid interrupting even if we have a solution, and to ask clarifying questions before responding.
Listening Action Plan: Go on a listening tour beyond your inner circle. Engage the communities you serve and invite others, even those with dissenting opinions, to converse. Listen to what they care about.
Jesus always observed what was going on around him, while keeping the big picture in mind. He constantly looked beyond the obvious. Paul instructs us to observe like Jesus when he says: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)
Observation Action Plan: Get out of your office, observe and address an unmet need of some non-churched, hurting people within your community. This will prompt the question we desire most, “Why are you doing this?”
A viewpoint is a particular attitude that affects the way we approach people or situations. If we resist a person or opinion, our reaction can be fearful, defensive or limited. Jesus was able to respond so effectively to all he encountered because he knew who he was. He showed us how to love people; especially the undesirable, unlovable and unworthy.
Viewpoint Action Plan: Reflect on fear and love and decide, in advance, how you are going to live it out in your personal and professional life. Who can you process this with today?
With renewed listening and observation skills, and a healthy viewpoint, we can encourage believers and non-believers alike. With positivity and a firm understanding of who we are in the risen Christ, we can confidently take action. Nothing will speak louder.
The spirit behind engagement is not about trying to be popular or getting non-believers to like us. The intention of engagement is to glorify our Father in heaven, magnify the name of Jesus and help people really know their Messiah.
Engagement Action Plan: A smile, positive expectation and an encouraging word go a long way to remedy a frowning face and a defensive posture. Speak life into your online and offline conversations each day. What action can you take today?
We can individually and collectively change how our friends and neighbors respond to Jesus and his church through our daily interactions. By simply choosing to L.O.V.E., people will begin talking about us again; but this time they will have new labels like “grace-filled, generous, big-picture thinkers.”
Hey, what ever happened to that gorilla?
Originally published in the Christian Leadership Alliance Higher Thinking Blog, Summer 2015.