Thursday, August 25, 2011

Church Renewal Lessons From Restaurant Impossible

I watched an interesting new show last night on the Food Network called Restaurant Impossible.  In this reality show, experienced chef Robert Irvine takes failing restaurants that are on the verge of closing and does a one day makeover, discerning what is wrong and making the necessary changes to turn the restaurant around.  It hit me midway through the show that the problems this restaurateur was facing with his declining business were the same issues many of the declining churches face today.  I thought, wouldn’t it be great if churches could receive the same kind of evaluation and makeover.

In this episode, Chef Irvine's challenge was to revive The Dodge City Restaurant, a 30 year old "western" style steak house in Pennsylvania. The restaurant had not changed much in 30 years except to add more and more western memorabilia to the decor.  So the restaurant was cluttered, dingy, dreary and uninviting, in dire need of a makeover. But the owner/manager had such an emotional attachment to the decor and western memorabilia that he couldn't bring himself to remove anything, much to the chagrin of his wife.  You think many churches have the same issues?  I’ve walked into some that remind me of my grandmother’s house.  As I watched chef Irvine throw out loads of old, dust covered keepsakes and western relics, I was reminded of our mission trip to Denver last summer.

We had an opportunity to help a church outside the Denver area that had the same problem as the restaurant.  The church was not that old, perhaps about 30 years, and it had a nice, fairly modern facility, but the amount of stuff the church had accumulated inside was overwhelming.  I imagined that the staff felt obligated to use anything and everything that was donated to them so that the halls and rooms were packed with mismatched furniture and silk plants and flowers.  One small room that was used as a parlor had three sofas, a table and several chairs - so many pieces that you could hardly make it into the room.  Fortunately it so happened that we had two interior decorators on our mission team, one with a home restaging business.  We got permission to remove a lot of stuff and restage the halls and foyer.  We also painted some of the classrooms and gave the church a new, fresh look.  Thankfully the pastor gave us license to do the makeover and hopefully the church members appreciated the changes.  How many churches across America would benefit from such a simple makeover?

The second issue that was hurting the restaurant was the owner/manager's control and inability to delegate the work.  Doug had two cooks who had worked for him for most of the 30 years but he still controlled the kitchen and the creation of all the dishes.  He wanted it done a certain way and didn't trust his employees to do it right.  For example, Doug spent 20 hours a week cutting meat when any of his chefs could have done the job.  This took away time that he could spend managing the restaurant, empowering his team and training his cooks.  When the chefs were given the opportunity to create their own dishes, they proved that they could.  One commented, "if only I had more freedom in the kitchen, I could prove to Doug that I can cook".

It's no different in a lot of declining churches.  The pastor does not delegate duties that others can do, and in doing so fail to grow teams and provide the leadership the church needs.  They would rather do tasks that a volunteer could do because it is easier and gives a false sense of accomplishing something.  But by not equipping the saints for ministry, pastors rob others of the joy of ministering and miss opportunities to help others grow their faith and abilities.  The pastor's control of ministries actually does the opposite of what they intend to happen. It puts a governor on the church growth, numerically and spiritually.

The third major problem with the restaurant was the menu.  Doug's menu had way too many items.  Customers were handed 5 different menus with almost every kind of food you could think of.  This was a steak house but you could get anything from spaghetti to Mexican food.  Doug thought that the more dishes he offered, the more he could please his patrons.  But he had so many, none of the dishes were done well and the customers were so confused that it took them forever to read the menu.  Chef Irvine immediately pared down the menu to a few items that he empowered the longtime chefs to create. And wouldn't you know, they were very good and the customers loved them.

I've seen the same problem in many churches today.  You’ll even see small to moderate size churches with programs that many mega churches don’t offer.  The belief is that more programs attract more people.  But just like the extra large menu in the restaurant, a church that offers too long of a list of ministries and programs can overwhelm members.  You end up not doing anything very well.  The problem is that many programs you start become fixtures in the church which you have a difficult time ending whether they are done well or not.  Thom Rainer's book, Simple Church, gives great insight into how to overcome the over-programmed problem by simplifying your church, showing how less is better.  The principle is to focus on what you do well, what you feel called to do by God and less on trying to be and do all things for all people.

It was fascinating watching the transformation of a restaurant in one day. I know it's not feasible to revitalize a church in one day, but a dying church can have new life if the pastor and church leaders are willing to listen to outside consultants or coaches and be willing to change.  For the owner of The Dodge City Restaurant, his pride almost kept him from allowing the changes. But in the end, fortunately for Doug, his desperation overruled his pride.  How many pastors allow their pride to get in the way as they sit and watch their beloved church die?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Taking a Strong Stand

I really enjoyed the Global Leadership Summit this year.  Those who have attended the Willow Creek conference over the years can attest that Bill Hybels and the Summit staff try very hard to steer away from politics and keep the focus on developing leaders through a Biblical model. It is a difficult proposition given the fact that sometimes they bring in political figures.  And when they have brought political personalities in, from both the democratic and republican perspective, these political figures stay close to the topic of leadership or faith.  Yet, of course when you are reaching literally thousands of people with your message, no matter what you say, you are bound to offend someone.
So it was this year, before the Leadership Summit even got underway, Starbuck’s founder and CEO, Howard Schultz, under pressure from a gay advocacy group, backed out of his speaking contract just days before the conference began.
Bill Hybels had to announce to crowd, many of whom were there specifically to hear Schultz, that he would not be speaking and why.
I thought Bill handled the announcement with grace and class.  And yet he still received criticism from religious groups for not taking a strong enough stand against homosexuality.

Growing up in a conservative home and then developing my faith foundation in the Baptist church, one of the values that was instilled in me was to never be neutral. I was taught to take a stand and stay out of the middle, the moderate zone, that those who affect change in the world never reside in the middle.  Change agents are always on the fringe.  With that in mind, I think there are those Christians who would criticize Hybels for being in the middle, for not taking a strong enough stand against homosexuality.
I would say that if Hybels is in the middle on this, it is in the center of the will of God.  Where you stand on any issue all depends on your ultimate goal, your desired outcome.  If Hybels' objective was to teach that homosexuality is a sin, or to make a political statement, then he did not accomplish his goal, that he was not polemic (actual dictionary word for today).  But if his objective is to reach the lost with the message of Christ, which I believe was his intent, then he was a long way from the middle, he was on the edge.  If he cares more about evangelism than behavior management, about building relationships and bridges to allow one to share the Gospel than teaching right or wrong, then he met his objective.  Those who are critical of this do so because they have a different focal point and they want their cause to trump others.
Whose cause is more important?  Go to scripture.  You tell me, what would Jesus do?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is good enough really good enough?

Recently I read the book Deliberate Simplicity by Dave Browning of Christ the King Church which argues the point that good enough is good enough in ministry, that the pursuit of excellence that many pastors and leaders pursue in churches may actually be a stumbling block to ministry.  Now that's a new one.  And it really got me thinking.   

I've grown up with the mindset that we should always strive for excellence in our work for the kingdom, citing Colossians 3:23 "whatever you do unto the Lord, do it with all of your heart", as my reference verse.  I recall being asked the question several years ago, why would anyone come to our church over the one down the street.  My answer was that we do things better, with excellence.  As I look back now I realize that is certainly one way to attract people to your church but probably not the correct way.  Now I agree with Browning that excellence should not be our goal after all. 

It is a very real struggle to keep up with not only the world, but also churches in our neighborhoods, to always come up with the bigger and better.  And there should always be a tension and desire to do things better with "all of our heart".  We shouldn't ever do anything half-hearted for Jesus.  The church has been notorious for lacking quality in ministry, doing it without creativity, imagination and inspiration.  But should excellence be the goal of the church?

As I look back on my thirty years in ministry, even though I thought I believed in the concept of doing everything with excellence, I didn't do ministry by that standard.  Not until I read the book, Deliberate Simplicity, did I understand that excellence was never my goal.  What I desired all along was transformation and it does not take excellence to transform someone.  Actually the pursuit of excellence in ministry often times becomes a stumbling block to transformation.  Rick Warren wrote, "You have heard it said, 'if it can't be done without excellence, don't do it'.  Well Jesus never said that.   The truth is almost everything we do is done poorly when we first start doing it - that's how we learn.  At Saddleback Church we practice the 'good enough' principle.  It doesn't have to be perfect for God to use it and bless it.  We would rather involve thousands of people in ministry than have a perfect church run by a few elites."  

Doing things with "all of your heart" in Col. 3:23 does not mean with excellence.  It is a motivation to do things with a heart for Christ, not to please people or reach some man imposed standard of how things should be done. When my motivation is transformation to Christ-likeness, then when I am putting together a mission trip, I am more concerned with having a team of individuals that need transforming, that are willing to be transformed and those that can help transform those in which we are ministering to.  I'm not trying to put together the perfect team that will get the task done with excellence.
A worship leader struggles with the tension between excellence and good enough every week.  Do I limit the team to just the three or four best singers, or do I include others who don't quite meet the excellence standard?  If you are more concerned with the sound than with transformation of your team members, allowing them to grow and use their giftedness for Christ, then you will exclude those who don't measure up.  It is ironic that it is easier using only the top singers each week, not having to develop less than great talent.  

An unhealthy focus on doing everything with "excellence" can take your focus off of relationships and put it on the task.  It can cause volunteers and staff to avoid risk, to avoid taking chances and innovative things.  We seldom do things quite as well the first time.  It will limit the number of people who are involved in ministry because we are prone to do it ourselves or use the experts and paid staff.   This is a real issue in churches.  Pastors and staff must deal with the tension between effective ministry and "excellent" ministry on a regular basis

In a new church plant, with limited resources, you try to stretch every cent as far as it can go to reach people for Christ.  Most new plants worship in less than excellent spaces, use less than excellent sound systems, have less than excellent children's and youth ministries.  And yet  church plants have a much better evangelical effectiveness than large, churches.  Excellence has no bearing on the evangelical effectiveness and that is the point.

Should you always "do your best"?  Of course, but with the proper goal in mind.  We can't keep up with the world's insatiable demand for bigger and better and we don't have to, if we keep our focus on the true prize; transformation into the likeness of Jesus. Then we can let go of the burden of "excellence" and be satisfied with good enough.                    

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