Strolling Through Gordon MacDonald’s “Who Stole My Church?”, Part 14: Chapters 17-20

This will be the final installment on this book!

Reminder: I’ve been working through this book with my old college roommate, Hollywood. His church is going through it, and I thought it’d be fun to go through this book about a fictitious New England church realizing that they’re “aging” and struggling through the aspects of what that is and what it looks like so it doesn’t die. Anyway, these are the thoughts this book provokes as I go through it…and it won’t hurt for you to read the earlier entries on this.

I’m a lot like Crash Davis.

Please tell me you’ve seen Bull Durham. If you haven’t, run, do not walk, to your nearest retailer and purchase the DVD. Watch said DVD. Do so at least once a year. Your life will be better for it.

For the uninitiated, Crash Davis is a journeyman minor-league catcher who has been sent to the lowest-level minor league club to mentor Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. “Nuke” is the organization’s recently signed pitcher destined for stardom in the bigs, but he has a “million dollar arm and a 5-cent head.” He needs to learn everything from pitching to how to handle the media to dealing with groupies to life in general.

Crash takes his job seriously from the get-go. After Nuke’s first well-pitched inning, he’s understandably excited when the team returns to the dugout. Crash immediately tells him the mistakes he made on several pitches in a heated tone.

Nuke can’t believe it. “Can’t I just enjoy the moment?” he asks Crash.

“The moment’s over,” is the reply. Crash then grabs his bat and goes back to work in the on-deck circle.

For better or worse, that’s my professional mindset. Whenever things go well, well, it’s because we planned them that way. I want to focus on the things that didn’t go well so we can make it better for the next time. I go back to work in the on-deck circle. Man, the moment’s over. The Haitians have a proverb that comes from the terrain of their island nation, “Behind every mountain is another mountain.” Same idea. Get to the top of one mountain, then it’s behind you, and on to the next mountain.

See, I rarely focus on the things that went well. We planned them to go that way. Events transpired exactly as we’d hoped in some ways. It’s the unintended consequences and happenings that went awry that need to be fixed. When I plan, I like measurable goals to get to intended outcomes that are clearly laid out. So, for example, if we have a sleepover to set up for the sunrise service there are a few intended outcomes:

Did the set-up provide a unique atmosphere for worship?
Did the teens have unifying fellowship?
Did the adults involved build into the lives of teens in some small way? Some large ways?

So, once the service begins, I take a look at the arrangement. I thought it did, but made a mental note of how far the communion tables were set back and we’ll want to move them closer together next year. We also need a better system to allow people to worship through giving at that service.

The kids had a ball playing “sardines” (backwards hide-and-seek) as well as having office chair races around the downstairs area. All the teens were laughing and involved in some way…which was a response to last year’s overcrowded group that left some teens alone and feeling as if they weren’t part of the group. So, this year, we limited the number of helpers. Mission accomplished. I might move lights-out back half an hour because we interrupted some fun time to put them to bed for only four hours. So what if it’s 3.5 next year?

We had a couple of men who made bacon & eggs & pancakes for breakfast who interacted with the teens and had fun doing it. The female staffer had some meaningful conversations, and I got to hang out with teens I didn’t know that well yet. Next year I might want one more male and female adult to make a few more caring adults available just in case more kids want that.

So, what appears simple to others–a sleepover–in my mind has a set of goals and things I can measure to determine if it was a success. Parents will think it went well because their teen will come in and say how much fun they had, but I’ve already got a file started on how to make it better. The moment’s over–even if there are still taped pieces of paper above a door frame (the finish line) with the time-trial results from the downstairs chair races. On to the next mountain.

This works well when I’m in control of the group making the decisions. The trouble comes when I get into larger groups of pastors, directors and staff who are more like Nuke LaLoosh. They plan a picnic, people came to the picnic in great weather, eggs got found, kids left happy, so everybody’s celebrating a great event and saying we should do it next year.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the picnic in great weather. I even took my dog, who enjoyed the picnic in great weather. I liked seeing the kids happy with their eggs and playing in bounce houses and I think we should do the event next year. But the looks I get when I ask a simple question about having enough eggs or more/fewer bounce houses, etc. usually indicate that the group often views me as a “downer” in these settings. “Why can’t you just enjoy the moment?”

Because…

…well…

…the moment’s over.

And that’s where MacDonald gives insight into the types of groups that can affect change in a church setting. He defines them as “generative groups,” “toxic groups” and “habitual groups.”

The characteristics of “generative groups” are that they have a strong sense of mutual purpose, they’re synergistic (everyone’s effort counts), each person grows, is not afraid of conflict and they inspire others who look at the group.

The toxic group has a “me-first” spirit, low morale, they blame others, they drag down an organization and destroy people.

The habitual group has repetitive activities (they do things over and over because they’ve always done it that way), they are exhausting (they don’t energize people because activities are rote and not for a greater purpose), and they play nice by denying or ignoring problems.

Obviously, the best kind of group is generative. And I enjoy being part of meetings where that’s the mindset. We’re trying to accomplish something, there’s creativity and creative-tension takes place using everybody’s gifts and talents and perspective and others get inspired by the vision.

Unfortunately, most of the meetings the world is involved in is looking out for number one. Failure is always someone else’s fault, the organization weakens and people get hurt. Or worse, they don’t “fix what isn’t broken” (often failing to see the things that really are broken), committees stay the same and everybody’s nice and polite and the world is simply a happy, conflict-free place.

The reality is that I don’t understand why people think that the true spiritual life has to be polite. I’m like a New Yorker in that way. See, I’m of the opinion that New Yorkers aren’t rude, they’re simply frank. They tell you what they want or need (yes, this can be done with the honk or a horn or a waitress bringing you the check before you ask because there’s a line outside or a guy barking at you to get moving) and you know where you stand. See, I don’t think Paul was the least bit polite when he went face-to-face with Peter when he starting mixing Law and Grace. I think that was a heated exchange where other disciples had to step in and separate them. Same for when Barnabas wanted to take a younger minister along on a mission trip after he’d bailed on the group once before. My guess is that discussion almost came to blows, too.

But those groups were generative. They got things done…and yes, I think you can have love and still have creative tension and all that jazz–so don’t say I’m unfeeling or cold or whatever. Most interactions should be polite and caring and sensitive. I get that. However, if you’re passionate about something (like Law and Grace, or the effectiveness of telling folks about Christ and the best way to do that) it might escalate. It should, IMHO.

See, they’d had one successful mission trip.
Paul’s next mountain didn’t involve the kid. Probably felt he needed a stronger team to scale the next mountain. Barnabas took the kid for his mountain.
But they didn’t rest on laurels. They had a plan. They worked their plan. They evaluated past plans and what worked and what didn’t. They understood the bigger picture. They didn’t try to be the star. They didn’t seek power. They didn’t destroy people (in fact, the young minister went on to be one of Paul’s most trusted colleagues). They didn’t do things the same way because it worked. The didn’t hurt for enthusiasm and excitement, that’s for sure…even amidst shipwrecks and jail time.

So, frankly, I have little time for toxic groups or habitual ones. Unfortunately, in most churches I’ve observed (including where my friends and co-laborers serve), those are the most prevalent.

But there’s room in the kingdom for those of us who identify with Crash Davis instead of Nuke LaLoosh. I’m not really about enjoying the moment.

Because man, the moment’s over.

One last quote that sums up the book (which ends very sitcom-like with a tidy, sweet story of how a drug user found the church and an older guy discipled him and everything’s happy-clappy) when one of the group’s retired members–a Crash Davis type, for sure–decides to mentor a young man trying to get his life back together in his mid-20’s:

“That’s the greatest gift men our age have to give these young men. Whatever you want to say about the homes they grew up in, the fact is that most of us had adults who were basically available to us. But Ben is a good example of a generation that feels fatherless…sometimes even motherless. Too many of them have never heard their parent’s stories. No one was around at the right times to take on their questions and help them figure out how they were going to make their way in the world. So they had to figure it out for themselves or get insights from their peers. Last night as an important evening for Ben. An older man took him seriously.”


And

“By the end of the evening we had covered a host of topics concerning the behavior and attitudes of the younger generations and how poorly prepared our church was to make them a part of our congregational life.”

So, I think everyone over 45 needs to read this book and decide:

Do I really want to be part of a generative group that wants to tell our stories to younger generations, and ask hard questions to see if we’re prepared to make younger folks a part of our congregation life…and even harder questions about setting out what targets we want to hit, and making measurable goals to get there?

Or would we rather status quo the whole thing?

Or would we rather protect our turf?

But, no matter how successful you’ve been in the past, or how great the present is, well…

…the moment’s over.

And in the words of Dr. Suess, “Your mountain’s waiting, so get on your way.”

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