Out of the Boat

Some years ago I led a discussion group who explored the book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat, written by John Ortberg. Ortberg used the passage from Matthew 14 in which Jesus comes to the disciples who are caught on the water during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus challenges Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water to him. Peter begins the journey but becomes afraid and starts to sink. When Peter calls out for Jesus to save him, Jesus lifts him out of the water, and they safely return to the boat and the other frightened disciples. Ortberg presents the understanding that in order to achieve something great, we have to be willing to take the risk of getting out of our “boat” and following Jesus’ voice.

I have always found the passage from Matthew to be somewhat intimidating. I can easily relate to Peter who wants to be bold enough to step out but then becomes frightened and seems to be sinking. Generally in life, I have been an individual who tries to play it safe. I weigh all my options and attempt to calculate the possible outcomes of my decisions before making an attempt. There have been a few rare occasions when I have stepped out quickly but soon rush towards safety once again. Yet, the passage Matthew and the words of John Ortberg challenges us to take risks if we want to achieve some type of success.

A person doing a Google search for motivating quotes involving risk will run across a significant number of quotes. Just search, “without risk there is no reward,” and you will find that quote attributed to a number of individuals. The search will also provide a long list of similar quotes with generally the same message. Yet for so many to promote this concept, there seems to be a limited number of people willing to step out of their boat. There are far fewer churches willing to take the same type of actions.

The reason that I chose this book with its focus on the passage from Matthew for my discussion group was because I felt a need to challenge myself, the members of the group, and the congregation which I was serving to step out of our boats. In this imagery, the boat represents the safe, the familiar, the comfort zone of our lives. As I continued to watch the changes taking place in the world around us, I came to realize that if the church was going to have a meaningful impact on these changes, we would be required to get out of our boats and “walk on water.” In essence, do what we did not think was possible, or we could even understand at the time.

Even though the book was written almost twenty years ago, I still sense there is a need for individual believers and communities of faith to get out of the boats. I realize that we might be frightened. The world is not the world when Christendom reigned. The perception of the church and of Christians have been damaged in the eyes of those who are not engaged at this time. There may even be the feeling for many within the church that this is a hostile time. Historically, when the Church has experienced hostile times (perceived or real), the Church retreats. This is one of the human instincts associated with fight or flight. We hide behind the familiar and in our sanctuaries.

However, I think it is exactly during these times that Jesus stands and calls to us. Jesus invites us to come out onto the stormy waters and meet him. He tries to draw us out of our boats. Why? It is only by getting out of our boats that we are able to achieve something of significance. Jesus wants us to be significant in the world. Not wielding power or exacting our will upon the world but being in the midst of the world’s storm, so we can provide assurance and presence. During our personal life storms, Jesus is present with us and assuring us we are not alone. He calls us to do the same during the storms which the world is experiencing. By being present, we can demonstrate what it means to love as Jesus has shown us love.

The challenge remains… are you going to get out of the boat? Are our churches willing to get out of the boat? Remember — If you want to walk on water (do something significant), you have to be willing to get out of the boat (take the risk).

Big Picture

Sometimes it can be so easy to get wrapped up in details that you lose track of the big picture. Another way of saying this is the frequently used cliche, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” A person gets so focused on the little details that remembering the initiating goal is forgotten. This often happens in the church. People begin focusing on every detail of a project or how to accomplish a mission that they lose track of why the project or mission came to be important.

In April of this year, I wrote a series of blog posts about the purpose of the Church (see Purpose of the Church, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I discussed specific aspects of what it means to be the Church. A one sentence definition which I place before you now is this: “The Church exists to demonstrate the love of God to the world and show what it means to be in relationship with God.” This is the forest which often gets lost in the everyday life of a congregation.

Within the church, we spend too much time arguing about the details of fulfilling the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16-20). We discuss endlessly in committee and board meetings how much money to spend, who is going to be managing the mission, and how we are going to hold everyone accountable for the mission. We wordsmith everything to make sure that we clearly define boundaries and expectations so that no loopholes or confusion exist. Requirements are established; techniques are evaluated; and limitations are set. Our skills in exhausting the details often exhaust us and in the end any enthusiasm for doing the mission is diminished or destroyed.

The leaders of the congregation cannot be fully blamed for this problem. Part of the blame comes from outside of the church completely. We have become a society that spends a lot of time haggling over the details. If someone does not like the results of work done by a group or an individual, complaints escalate and may even result in litigation. Mistakes are not tolerated or acceptable in our lives anymore. All of this creeps into the church because too often we try to imitate corporations and our human behaviors become the norm inside the church just as they are outside the church.

Another problem that leads to being too wrapped up in the details stems from fear. As mentioned above, we have become intolerable toward mistakes. This creates a fear on each person’s part that she/he will make a mistake which will lead to ridicule and personal attacks. Each detail is hashed out over and over to prevent a mistake from occurring and negative consequences resulting. Our fear of failure rules our actions and choices.

What suffers because of this is the big picture. We are unable to focus on demonstrating the love of God and the meaning of being in relationship with God because we have to get all the details correct. On those rare occasions when we do successfully demonstrate these things, it is often because something has forced us to move away from the details and just do. Thank goodness for the Holy Spirit who encourages these times of being forced away from the details.

If you are a leader in the church, or more importantly a member of a congregation, I encourage you to constantly remind yourself and others of the big picture. Look for those times when the focus on details need to be thwarted. Create an atmosphere which allows mistakes and offers forgiveness. Remind each other that failure is only when action is not taken.

Church Bullies

As I have written about before, the church is not exempt from the realities of interpersonal relationships outside of the church. While there is a desire that inside the walls of a church there is safety and love instead of hatred and attacks, this desire is something still to strive for and not a reality. The human behaviors which we encounter in neighborhoods, workplaces, and social groups can all be found within the church. This may be the reason that when we do, and we will, encounter negative and hurtful behaviors in the church, it seems even worse than in other settings.

I doubt that any of us have not encountered a bully at least once in our lives. Perhaps the first time occurred on the playground of our elementary school. A bully is anyone who uses intimidation, hateful words, or even physical attacks to manipulate someone into doing or giving them whatever they demand. Schools have always been an environment where bullies seem to exist. However, workplaces can also have a fair number of bullies. Today, social media has opened new avenues for bullies to exert their power. Our education system has worked hard to reduce the impact of bullies on the lives of students but this is a difficult task in light of the number of adults who are bullies as well and youth learn behaviors from adults. The one location which we all hope is free from bullying is the church. Sadly, this is not the case. Church bullies exist and the behaviors are identical to what can be found in the other settings which I have just mentioned.

So what does a church bully look like?

As is the case in the schools, workplaces, and other groups, there are all types of bullies. In addition, to the different types, there are a variety of methods which are utilized to achieve the desired responses from those who are being bullied. I will share a few from personal experience and/or observation.

The Money Bully

One of the most common forms of bully in the church is the money bully. This is an individual who attempts to use their financial contributions as leverage in getting their desires met. They might say something such as… “If the new sanctuary carpet is green, I will stop meeting my pledge commitment.” Their goal is to create the perception that the church will experience a huge financial disadvantage if their preferred color of carpet is not chosen during the sanctuary remodel. An interesting aspect of this type of bully is that there is little evidence available to confirm the threat. Since most church financial giving is kept highly confidential, a person may make the threat even though they are one of the average or below average contributors. Also, will the person actually carry through on the threat is an unknown.

The Volunteer Bully

These are the individuals who use their volunteer hours to manipulate a situation. Usually this type of bully will be heard saying a similar statement like…”I will just stop helping with (fill in the blank) if I am not allowed to (fill in the blank).” Their goal is to take control of the event or project by threatening to walk away if their preferences are not followed. Since the church’s ministry is primarily accomplished through strong volunteers, this threat can carry some weight in the decisions being made by whoever is in charge.

The Behind-the-Scenes Bully

A bully of this persuasion operates in the shadows. The individual enjoys having parking lot conversations with others to rally others to the bully’s way of thinking. These days the conversations do not even necessarily have to occur in the parking lot thanks to the use of email and social media messaging. Bullies who utilize these methods try to undermine the leaders who they disagree with and achieve their goals and desires. I think they can be the most dangerous type of bullies because of their clandestine approach.

What do we do?

Let me first respond by stating that dealing with a bully is never easy. It requires courage and risk. Accepting those requirements, confronting bullying in the church starts by naming it truthfully. The tendency is to dance around the issue and try to redirect so that an actual confrontation can be avoided. By not confronting, the bullying is actually encouraged. The bully gains confidence and feels there is no threat to their power. With time, this will create an environment which will destroy the participation of others and negatively impact the ministry of the congregation.

Once honest naming of the bullying occurs, the leaders within the congregation must have a conversation with the one doing the bullying. This conversation should always occur with at least two leaders present. Important to this conversation is the attitude which the leaders take into it. The goal should always be to work for reconciliation and to affirm the bully’s positives, to acknowledge their views, and to strive to redirect their energies in a positive direction. However, the leaders also need to make sure they point out why this type of behavior has a negative impact on the ministry. Support in changing behavior should be promised by the leaders.

After the initial conversation, a follow-up conversation should occur. During this second conversation, the person should be able to express how they feel they are changing their approach and where they may need additional support. The person should also be given the opportunity to state any continuing or new concerns which may be present with the project or ministry task. If continued bullying behavior has been identified, the leaders must address this honestly as well.

Unfortunately, even after continued conversation with the bully, there may not be a resolution and the behavior continues. If this occurs, then the leadership of the congregation as a whole must make a decision regarding the future of the individual within the life of the congregation. The choice of a bully to continue the behavior is the bully’s choice. The choice of the leadership to allow it to continue to exist within the congregation is the leadership’s choice. Sometimes leaders have to make the difficult decision to allow a person to find another spiritual community which may be a better fit for their desires.

I have only raised a few types of bullies encountered in the church. The reality is that there are bullies in the church. The health of the congregation and its ministry depends upon the willingness of the leadership to address this behavior.

If you have other types of bullies which you have encountered in the church, or have other suggestions on how to address this behavior, please be sure to comment.

A New Era

A reality which is not easy for most churches to accept is that we now live in a time referred to as post-Christendom. What this means is that the elevated status which the Christian church experienced previously is no longer true today. Anyone who is actively involved in a church realizes that there are fewer people who attend worship services, even fewer people who attend activities sponsored by the church, and extremely fewer people who participate in any form of Christian education classes than in the 1950s in the United States. There are many factors which has led to the movement past Christendom but this is a reality which needs to be accepted.

If this is the reality which we now face in the Western Christian church, what are we to do about it? My first response is to realize that well planned programming and an outstanding marketing campaign are no longer the answers. The general approach of the church when it was on top of the societal spectrum was all we have to do is get them in the door then we will be able to add them as members. This could not be any farther from the truth these days. I have watched churches (and attempted myself) to provide the best programming options for people. I have seen very hard work put into getting the name of a church before as many people as possible. Yet, over and over this produced limited, if any, measurable results.

What the church needs to realize is that the priority of getting people in the pews is a futile goal. Instead, the church needs to move out of the building and to the locations where the people are located. This will require the church to operate in a completely different manner than the way we have conducted ourselves in the past. The training that our church leaders have received, and in many cases still are receiving, will provide limited assistance as we move into this new era. There remains value in our church leaders learning the academic information so they can assist people when they are searching for their own answers. However, there now needs to be a component regarding how to seek out people where they live, work, and play. Training must be done to teach our leaders ways to minister outside the building and to lead other members of the fellowship to do the same.

My perception is that we are being required to the model of ministry which was common during Jesus’ time and a model which the church has adopted at various times throughout history. Jesus clearly went where the people were to minister to them and to share the message from God. He would be found in pastures, on hillsides, along lakes, in market places, and in the temples and synagogues. He would spend his time taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Then he would share the message of God using images which the people in the particular location understood. There was not a specific location which was set aside for worship, practical ministry, or education. A specific day or time was not set up for any of this to take place.

Another reality of the post-Christendom society in which we live is that what people are seeking in their faith journeys is different today than in the era before. While there is still a place for ritual and learning, people today want to focus on practically applying their faith to life. There exists a strong desire to make an impact on the world in a positive manner. Instead of an inward focus, there is an outward focus. The church has an awesome opportunity here and can emerge as a great leader in this area. First, we demonstrate it by leaving the walls of a building and immersing ourselves where people are gathering. Second, we share our love in words and actions which allows us to point to God, the source and very nature of love. Third, we make ourselves available for people to ask questions. Fourth, we show people how to apply the love of God in their daily lives and as a body of individuals who go into the world instead of a building.

The church is no longer on top. We can choose to sit in our buildings, spend hours trying to figure out how to get others to come sit in our buildings, and bemoan the fact that our buildings become emptier every year, or…. We can re-imagine how we can be the church outside of the walls. We can learn to worship, teach, care for, and fellowship with people in a variety of settings. We can learn from the model of Jesus and the itinerant leaders of our past. We can continue to be the church with a new list of priorities.

Second Verse Same as the First

It can be very easy in life to get into a routine and to repeat it over and over again. Since many aspects of life need to be maintained each day, a person can experience repetitive behaviors and patterns. The same can be said of organizations and institutions. Certain parts of maintaining an organization or institution needs to be addressed on a daily or weekly basis. Because of this it is easy to get into ruts on an individual or corporate level. The church is definitely not immune to this experience.

I have often heard church leaders complain because they seem unable to move a specific congregation or body of the church forward. They indicate that attempts to take a new direction or to achieve a new goal often falter. Frustration quickly becomes an attitude and many give up the effort which had given them so much enthusiasm. Often this begins a pattern of assigning blame and bitterness can set into place.

When an outside person examines the situation, it becomes very clear that the group has become stuck in a rut. The individuals involved, including the leader most of the time, repeat the patterns of behavior and the series of activities over and over using the same methods and approaches. They state that they wish to see change but the words do not translate into significant actions. This leads to experiencing the same outcomes time after time. Yet for some reason no one appears able to understand why change does not occur.

If a different outcome is truly desired, then the cycle must be broken. Breaking the cycle requires a substantive altering of behaviors, actions, and attitudes. A new path and/or approach must be adopted. Just rearranging the pattern a little bit will not result in any redirection. Often the most important alteration is a change in attitude. In order to achieve this, shifts in leadership team members may be necessary. Other times elimination of cherished activities may be required. Adoption of a new set of standards may be necessary. Above all, communication and re-education are mandatory.

A good starting point in redirection is asking a question, “Why do we do this?” This question is quickly followed by another, “What would happen if we no longer did this?” These questions should be applied to every aspect of the entity which is seeking change. Honestly doing some self-examination and being willing to discontinue anything which no longer meets the needs of the group will assist the body to get out of a rut and move forward in a positive direction.

So if you are feeling like you are singing the same words of a song over and over again, I encourage you to make an effort to break the cycle and start a new song. The church would greatly benefit from this if the cycle is broken. If your leadership team does not choose to do so, then expect that your outcomes will never change.