Lessons for the Church at Sears

My grandmother has this fascination with buying Christmas presents early. I want to appreciate that in her, but something has always made me shrug my shoulders when in August and September she lovingly asks, “What do you think Noah wants for Christmas.”

Now, take me back to the days of getting the Sears’ Wish Book in the mail and I can promise you I had a different reaction. We looked forward to receive the catalog each year. When it arrived, we would turn through the catalog’s pages as if it we were on a shopping spree filled with endless wonders. We would circle our desired items and eagerly wait for Christmas morning.

I still have never got the electronic football field game.

On Monday, a part of the American experience came to an end. Once the nation’s largest retailer, Sears Holdings filled for bankruptcy protection in a move that was long expected for the struggling commercial giant. The filling sets in motion a series of developments that will lead to the closing of 142 stores and other changes.

While business writers and economists will talk about what Sears’ bankruptcy filing means for the economy or, even, the upcoming midterm elections, I’m left wondering what lessons the church can take from the bankruptcy. There are warning signs for the church within Sears’ bankruptcy.

For one, at the root of Sears’ struggles is a legacy of trying to maintain its current business model without much adaptation to reach new people. Since Sears’ lost the title of “America’s top retailer” to Wal-Mart in the 1990s, the company has been trying different approaches with the same goal in mind: Get back to its once lofty position in the American consumer market.

What Sears failed to realize was how the market was changing, especially with the advent of online shopping and retail stores that were more targeted to specific segments of the economy. It struggled to adapt and maintained a large presence in the “big box” store mindset of having people come to them.

The church, especially in the United States, has a similar problem. One of our struggles is how to adapt to the world around us. We are in the midst of a historic seismic shift in the way people think and approach religion. At the same time, we are seeing changes in the culture, especially in how people receive information and engage with one another. This is a 500-year shift in how we think and approach community life that is the equivalent to the changes that took place prior to the Reformation.

In response, we are struggling to appropriately adapt to the changes. Many of our activities with the culture are centered around a mindset of “doing the things we’ve always done … but better” mindset. We are more concerned with maintaining the status quo, and often believe that if we do so that we will also reach new people. The two cross each other out. We cannot continue to do the same things, especially if they are not working to reach people, and expect them to work.

What adaptations Sears did undertake, in the last 20 years, was centered on consolidation and assuring loyal customers would remain loyal. There was limited outreach to gain new consumers for their stories.

One of the biggest decisions for Sears in that time frame, beyond today’s announcements, was the acquisition of Kmart in 2005. The merger was intended to promote a larger outreach and a renewed vitality for the retailers, but in time only led to a weaker product. Sears was left to deal with under-performing stores in bad locations. The move led to the company beginning a slow process of closing stores, while also trying to maintain its customer base.

It didn’t work.

The church struggles with the same temptation to try new things that only end up reaching the same people. A merger, for instance, of Sears and Kmart only benefited those who favored shopping at those stories. It wasn’t going to move people who didn’t like shopping in giant stores to come their way. It was an internal move that led to disastrous internal responses.

Many of our conversations in the church only pertain to those who are already part of our communities, especially when it comes to outreach. When we talk about reaching new people, often what we really mean is we want to encourage those who have left to come back home. While that kind of outreach is important and needed, what we often forget about is the important bridge-building work that needs to be done to share the love of Jesus Christ with those who believe there is nothing for them in the community of faith.

Like Sears, what often hinders us from having those conversations are concerns about resources and money. The church, today, spends a large amount of our resources making sure we have enough money in the offering plate to support our work. The conversation, though, is about maintaining what we are doing, because by the time we get to doing missions and outreach there is seldom enough time, because our focus is on making sure the church doesn’t close its doors.

Jesus doesn’t call us to a Sears-type ministry. In fact, Jesus calls us into a ministry and mission where the harvest is plentiful. To reach the generation that is in front of us will require us to adapt our missional engagements to be more effective. The message of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we reach people and share that love may need to look different in order to share that love.

If we are unwilling to make the necessary adaptations, the stories written about the church in the future may be the same written, today, about Sears: A once mighty cornerstone of the community that was never able to keep up with the times.

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Seeking the Kingdom of God in Times of Anxiety

I worry a lot.

I worry about trivial things, such as whether it is possible West Virginia University will ever win a national title in anything beyond rifle. I worry about my family, such as whether we can find adequate care for Noah’s needs. I worry about things that involve the ministry of the church, such as whether we are being faithful in our common mission as United Methodists of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There are times when being worried about something is necessary, such as when we are concerned for our family’s needs. That is true to a point, because sometimes we allow our natural worries about life’s concerns consume us. Worrying that consumes us can bring us into to a state of anxiety, which can hinder our lives by controlling our thoughts, actions, and perspectives upon the future.

I believe we are in a time of anxiety in the United Methodist Church about what may happen in February at the called General Conference. As we get closer to the called conference, we have allowed the natural concern for the church move us into a state of tension and anxiety.

This tension and anxiety is centered on several elements. It is focused on the issues of human sexuality (which we will begin conversations on later this month). There is also tension surrounding what the General Conference may decide and how it will affect our community. We are focused on the unknown.

I know this anxiety and I have experienced it myself. There have been moments when I’ve felt my own anxiety about what will happen come February. My conversations with friends and family can easily turn towards General Conference and the back-and-forth dialogues that are taking places on social media in the perspective caucuses of the church.

None of this is helpful. None of this has been helpful in my own life. None of this is helpful for us as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 6:25-33. He says there is nothing that can be added to our lives through worry and anxiety. We can only cripple our lives when we are consumed by worry and anxiety.

When we think about the life of the church there is nothing that can be gained towards our mission of making disciples if we are worried about the unknown. The only thing that happens when we worry is it leads us to fear, distrust, and discouragement about where God is leading us. None of these are values that are helpful for the mission of the church today or in the future.

What is helpful is to find the places of hope and to seek the kingdom of God. It is the life Jesus invites us into when we are filled with worry and anxiety. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says it is the kingdom of God that should be our focus and not things that can easily distract and consume our lives.

It is not always easy to do this. That is because when we focus on our worries and anxieties all we see are the negatives. The kingdom of God’s focus for us can get lost through our concerns about what is wrong. When all we see are the negatives we lose sight of the work of the kingdom in our midst and where God is leading us.

We are at our best when our primary focus is not on our worries and anxieties – as real as they may be – but on where God is leading us as a community to be the hands and feet of Christ. The main thing of making disciples of Jesus Christ must be our primary concern. When we take our eyes off of this and place it more upon the concerns of the moment we lose sight of the people Jesus calls us to love – the hurting, the lost, and the forgotten.

The kingdom of God is here. We are a part of God’s kingdom and called to live into the realities of God’s leading, even as we await what may happen in February. No matter what happens in February there will be work of sharing love, planting seeds of hope, and extending grace to the people of Princeton. As long as there are people who need to know God’s love there will be work for the church to do in our community.

Let us make our focus the work of sharing God’s love and seeking the kingdom of God. Nothing can be added to our church and witness by worrying about what may happen. When our focus, though, is on the kingdom of God we will see the possibilities of sharing God’s love all around us and the work that needs to be done to let our community know, truly, that God loves them and so do we.

Walking into an Unknown Future

Recently, the Commission on a Way Forward, a 32-member team tasked with discerning the future of the United Methodist Church, released its initial proposal aimed at resolving questions within the church regarding homosexuality. This team has worked since the middle of 2016 on a plan, which will need approval by a called General Conference in February 2019.472017_436765336365086_256924354_o

According to the United Methodist News Service, the options on the table include:

  1. Keep the Book of Discipline language regarding homosexuality, and place an emphasis upon accountability.
  2. Remove language regarding homosexuality from the Book of Discipline in order to allow for contextualized ministry. The plan would also protect those who would not be comfortable with ordaining or marrying LGBTQ individuals.
  3. Would provide a unified set of doctrine, services, and Council of Bishops, while also paving a way for different groups within the church to have its own values, accountability, and mission.

As is often the case, when receive new information on something that is unknown we want to know more. What does this mean for Ogden Memorial? What does this mean for the Kentucky Annual Conference? What does this mean for the church as a whole?

Many of those questions we cannot answer, at least not yet.

That becomes the struggle of living into the unknown. We want to have all the answers before we take a bold step into an unknown future. The same is true for us, as a local church, as we discern where God is leading us within a changing culture and ministry context. We want to know what will happen, when it will happy, and how it will happen.

I get it, because I am just like that. Sometimes I am more like the Israelites walking with Moses than I care to admit. I want to be like the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. More often than not I ask questions, want all the information, and hesitate to act before I am confident I know what is going to happen and when, just as the Israelites questioned Moses’ leadership continually, in part, because they weren’t sure what would happen next.

Faith, however, is the willingness to see the unseen and trust that God is at work, even when we do not have all the answers. No matter what happens within the United Methodist Church, there are some constants that will not change.

We will love Jesus.

We will love our neighbors.

We will make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world here in Princeton.

So, even though we don’t have all the answers we know where God is calling us to go and who to be: love the Lord, love our neighbors, and make disciples. That is our greatest purpose as we walk into a new future.

Reflections on Hope in Times of Fear

I’m a father. One of my desires for my son is to leave this world in a better place for him and children like him.

I wonder if I am doing a good job at that.

I don’t wonder about whether my son knows I love him, he knows; I don’t worry about whether my son knows I care for him, he knows; I don’t worry about whether he will have a quality of life much better than my own; he will. I wonder about other things.

I wonder if I am doing a good job of leaving the world in a better place for him, because there are times when I attend a conference meeting, know he is in school, and worry if this will be the day there will be a shooting there. It is irrational, and I know this, but I worry about this.

I wonder if I am doing a good job of leaving the world in a better place for him, because there are times when I have more fear inside of me about the state of our world than I do hope.texas-church-shooting

I’m a pastor and I’m admit that I fear the world we are giving our children. It is not a fear that forces me to lock my doors and hide, but a fear of the unknown. The fear of the what’s next and will it happen here can dominate my thoughts more than I care to admit. I recognize this within me, and I acknowledge my own weakness in leaving the world as a place of hope, peace, joy, and love for my son and children like him.

I recognize my own struggle with fear especially following the shooting in Texas and many others like it. Never did I imagine we would live in a world where mass shootings would be as common as they are today.

This pains and offends me. I remember being a college student at West Virginia University during the Columbine tragedy. I believed, then, we would never see anything like that again. We have seen it, sadly, too often and in such numbers that Columbine is no longer listed as among the worst shooting incidents in our nation’s history.

My heart breaks for the state of our nation, as both a pastor and a father, especially for the violence we see on a daily basis. My heart breaks, as both a pastor and a father, when I see our thirst for violence and video games that advertise to our children that they can be “snipers” and “assassins.” My heart breaks, as both a pastor and a father, when we resort to blaming instead of trying to find a way forward through the pain together.

Whether it is Texas, Las Vegas, or any other shooting incident, I think we are all concerned about the state of violence in our nation. I pray for a world that is less violent, but I also want to be safe and practical in how we respond to these moments.

I also want to maintain my promise to my son and children like him.  I want to leave this world in a better place than I found it, because I believe that is the nature of the Gospel’s call to be a light that shines for the world to see and experience (Matthew 5:14). This is a promise we all make, as followers of Christ, through our baptismal covenant.

So, how do we live out this call in times of fear?

I think of passages like 2 Timothy 1:7 in moments like these. Paul writes, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Our best hope in times of fear is to remember whose we are and who we are. We are people of love who are loved by God and called to share love with others. We don’t have to fear, because we know God is present and gives us the strength to resist evil in whatever forms it may come through the witness of grace and love.

When God’s people respond to fear with more fear we miss an opportunity to show the peace that comes through God’s care and love. Yes, we make sure we are wise and safe, but we do not allow fear to dominate our hearts, because our hope is found in the One whose promises are true and whose presence is always there.

In this time of fear, what if we recommit ourselves to a promise that we made to leave this world a better place than we found it? What if we took the time to invest more in our children? What if we reached out to people who are discouraged? What if we showed the world violence only begets more violence and love only produces more love?

What if we leave this world in a better place than we find it today?

A Reflection for the Church in America

There is a lot of similarity in the moments following a major sporting event, for instance the Super Bowl, and the day after a political election. Following the game, the focus is as much on why a team lost as it is on why a team won.

That begins to happen, in the political world, on the day after the election. It’s the political postmortem that seeks to understand why a candidate lost, especially if a candidate was expected to win convincingly. In the hours after President-elect Donald Trump’s victory over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the conversations have centered on how Clinton lost and what happens from here.

Part of the political postmortem includes an internal conversation of what went wrong and how to respond in time for the next election. It’s an important part of the response to an election that will shape the coming elections. Both the Democratic and Republican parties will participate in that.electionprayer

I hope they will not be alone. I think it is important for the church in America to participate in its own evaluation of what took place during the election, our response, and how we move forward. I say this, because the church has a lot to ponder following the election. This includes both the conservative and progressive wings of the American church. Continue reading

It’s Not Helpful to Blame Each Other

Our country is hurting once again.

Sunday morning, as many of us slept in peace and quiet, hundreds were terrorized at a gay bar in Orlando. That is because a gunman, identified as Omar Mateen, 29, opened fire and killed 50 people and injured many more. It is the worst terrorist attack on American soil since the horror of September 11, 2001. It is the worst mass shooting in American history.

It is yet another moment when our nation easily divides itself and attempts to move into the rapid response of righteous anger and judgment.

Hours after the tragedy social media was filled with many rightly condemning the attacks and, unfortunately, blaming those they disagree with for not seeing the world as they do. Liberals decried the attack, and conservatives, as another moment that shows how we need gun control. Several more suggested that conservatives who do not accept homosexuality are responsible. Conservatives, on the other hand, denounced anyone who did not immediately suggest that we should remove all Muslims from the nation.  As well, conservatives were easily angered at any suggestion that this was about guns and not mental health.

Whether it is Orlando, Newtown, Paris, and so many other moments, we have grown accustomed to using these moments to show our righteous anger and to prove the righteousness of our own cause and efforts. In doing so, we create strawmen out of the people whom we see as contributing to the violence we see in the world. We point to the other person and view and say they are the problem and the reason this kind of unthinkable violence continues.

We do this because in the face of violence we have to blame someone to make ourselves feel safe, to feel protected, and to feel right within ourselves. Evil scares us and when faced with what scares us we need someone to point to as the cause of such injustice in the world.

The truth is this: No one caused the violence we saw yesterday but a man who sought to do unthinkable harm to someone else. It wasn’t the fault of conservatives. It wasn’t the fault of liberals. It wasn’t the fault of Christians. It wasn’t the fault of Muslims. It was the fault of one man who made the choice to do evil.

In the days to come, we will have the chance to properly reflect upon these acts of senseless violence. This will require us to hear from each other and to accept that in responding to tragedy we need each other because the answers are always more complex than we would typical once. Thus, liberals will need to be willing to hear from conservatives and conservatives will need to hear from liberals. The best solutions to complex issues comes when we are willing to listen to each other and not immediately denounce someone that has a different view than us.

We can hope that a better response will come out of the tears from Orlando. For now, we must sit in shame that we have done that which we always seems to do: Blame someone else.

Why I Study the Presidents

When I was a child, my favorite volume of the World Book Encyclopedia was “P.” It was not because I was fascinated with that letter or that I felt I need to study the platypus. I was drawn to that particular volume because it was there that all the presidents, at least through our mid-1960s version, were listed and discussed.

In that volume, I could see what presidents like Buchanan and Chester A. Arthur looked like. (As an aside, I was never tempted to grow muttonchops like Arthur, but he did make them his own.) I learned about the presidency and how it had evolved through the years.

I was fascinated with the presidency, and that fascination has only grown through the years. Many of my friends know that Election Day, to me, is bigger than Super Bowl Sunday. I will sit back and watch the returns and analyze what may or may not happen. As well, my favorite books to read are histories and biographies on the presidents and the time they served. For my money, you cannot go wrong with Ronald White, Jr.’s “A. Lincoln” or David McCullough’s “John Adams.” Continue reading