The Mother of Invention

The Republic by Plato contains the phrase, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” Adapting Plato’s claim to the present day, I’m going with this: COVID-19 is the Mother of Ministry Innovation.” OK, if not the mother then at least the opportunity or even catalyst for ministry innovation.

With Sunday worship services on-site suspended, large gatherings of any kind prohibited, and social distancing the order of the day, churches are scrambling to find alternative ways of keeping ministry alive. As such, pastors, leaders and congregations that might never elect to change significantly of their own free will are now forced to find solutions to an overwhelming problem that threatens the church locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

For years, my training in church revitalization has addressed what I call the “two faces of change; 1. what are we changing from and, 2. what are we changing to?” It’s easy to identify what we’re changing from because we know it, we’ve seen it, we’re accustomed to it, so, we know exactly what we’re changing from. It’s comparatively easy to get a group or team of leaders to reach unanimous agreement regarding changing FROM the status quo, especially at a time such as this when the status quo is not an option. Reaching unanimous agreement of what to change TO is far more difficult and far more complex as each person at the table has a different perspective on what the new and improved us should look like. Hold that thought!

For over thirty years church analysts have been sounding the disturbing alarm that over 80% of American Protestant churches is in plateau or decline. Despite all the conferences, books, etc., that have come forth regarding revitalization, and despite the fact that we have it on good authority that Jesus Christ Himself is building His church, that stat continues to hold sway and even move further in the wrong direction. So, in short, the status quo in the American evangelical church was and is ineffective, especially regarding conversion growth.

So, where are you going with this, Ken? It occurs to me that the American evangelical church has been forced by COVID-19 to loosen its tent pegs and make sweeping changes in its approaches to making ministry happen. There is no choice at this point; it must happen. That said, it’s vitally important that we don’t try to “innovate” our way into preserving ministry as we’ve known it because ministry as we’ve known it doesn’t work. Granted, we don’t compromise on the non-negotiables such as our theology and doctrine, but we release our grip on tired but favored methodologies that are not working in our changing ministry contexts. Now is the time to make smart adjustments. Now is the opportunity to embrace Great Commission ministry fully. Now is the time to turn the tide of church decline even as we as a society work to turn the tide of COVID-19.

One day, and by God’s grace one day soon, the COVID-19 crisis will have passed, but the crisis of decline in the American evangelical church will linger unless we seize this most unexpected moment. Let today’s challenge be the mother of healthy, biblical, God-honoring innovation. Perhaps, like Esther, we are here for such a time as this.

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Something’s Coming!

West Side Story is an amazing musical – a sung version of Romeo & Juliet set in the urban jungle of 1950’s New York City. One of the featured songs is Something’s Coming! by Leonard Bernstein. One stanza goes like this:

Could it be? Yes, it could
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait!
Something’s comin’, I don’t know what it is
But it is
Gonna be great!

OK – maybe this is a bit over the top, but I’ve been at the piano for a short stint today working on a musical that I’m writing, so musical stage productions are on my mind.

Here’s the deal: In the past few months a number of great possibilities have popped onto my radar screen, enough to suggest that God just might be up to something – something good. At a recent training event, a lay leader took the time to speak to me after training to say that he had a sense that I was really “coming into my own.” That’s nice to know now that I’m 68 years old. Better late than never, right?! I’ve been invited to speak in October 2019 at the Great Commission Research Network’s annual conference to be held at Denver Seminary, and then in November 2019 at the Renovate Church Revitalization Conference in Orlando.

At the first of the year, I’ll be moving my office into a building here in Richmond, VA, that houses multiple nonprofit organizations, mostly faith-based, and I will be working with those nonprofits as a trainer and consultant in a nonprofit incubator. Yesterday, I spoke with a pastor and revitalization colleague in Washington, D.C., about possibilities with multiple mainline denominational groups in the District that are yearning for revitalization.

I’ve booked my first GO Business Seminar for March 2019 and am in line for a couple of training certifications early next year with PROSCI (Change Management Solutions) and Management and Strategy Institute (Six Sigma). Just yesterday I started the Six Sigma certification process by obtaining a certificate for a Lean Six Sigma White Belt. It’s the entry point and didn’t demand much of me, but it’s a start.

The GO Center is continuing to grow in its revitalization work with churches all across the country. All to say that I’m sensing that, by the grace of God, something’s coming – something good!

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Daily Revitalization

I’m often asked how long it should take for a church to revitalize. This question is incredibly difficult to answer because there are many dynamics and elements in play. I’m tempted to answer, “It depends,” because there are so many variables, but, of course, such a response is not satisfactory and doesn’t help a church gain new vitality.

Given the need to start somewhere, I’ll begin by identifying three revitalization categories that might serve to frame the conversation. Are we talking revitalization as a program, as a process or as a culture? For the sake of clarity, I always ask, “what do you mean by revitalization?” The response helps me understand which of these three categories is in view.

The default position is to think of revitalization as a program, a methodology. Typically, there are principles, concepts and tools that are organized in a more or less step by step protocol that, when faithfully followed, guides church leaders down a linear pathway from beginning to end, thereby, completing the program. A program can be completed far quicker than a process or the establishment of a culture, so, in that sense, a program is first to the finish line. However, completion of a program in revitalization is the least effective and the least likely to garner long-term sustainability.

Revitalization as a process is of a different genre. Yes, there will still be principles, concepts and tools that will be leveraged in an organized manner through completing certain action steps. However, the objective is not the completion of these action steps but the reorientation of how church leaders think about ministry. It’s a shifting of priorities reflected in a shift of decision-making criteria and a shift in resource allocation. Church leaders are not striving to cross a finish line but are striving, by the grace of God, to align the church’s ministry with biblical mandates such as the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Revitalization as a process is not a programmatic homework assignment but might better be described as a change in world view, as in, “How do we reach our immediate world, our community, our domestic mission field, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Viewed in this context, revitalization as a process never ends. Yes, there can be markers along the way that indicate measurable progress, but there is no final finish line until Jesus returns.

That brings me to revitalization as a culture. When revitalization is embraced as a process, over time a new church culture is established that is a revitalization culture. Gaining in vitality becomes the air that church leaders breath. Health, growth and multiplication become embedded in the very fabric of the church, driving vision, strategy, structure, staffing, finances, facilities usage, etc., etc. etc.

Revitalization should be understood as a never-ending process that births a vital culture. True revitalization happens daily, that is, day by day by day, but it never happens overnight!

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The GO Center Becomes Self-Aware Part 2

The move to Phoenix, AZ, in the summer of 1993 made sense. An eighty-seven year old church had declined down to thirteen members and the regional leadership of its denomination had hatched a plan, a vision. “Let’s bring in a church planter, declare these thirteen folks to be the core of a new church, and start all over.” The thirteen would be the core and I would be the planter, a model I had successfully lived through twice. This could work. This should work.

Surprise! It didn’t work, at least not at first. Though we labeled this project as church planting, it really wasn’t. Turns out it was revitalization. I wasn’t prepared for that, had never been trained for it, and was at a loss at the outset. However, to make a very long story very short, over time this severely declined church began to gain traction, with much of the growth coming through conversion. I became a devoted student of church revitalization, learning as much and as fast as I could, eventually making revitalization both the center of my ministry life and the center of my doctoral studies. The core of thirteen remained faithful to the vision and grew into being very supportive and sacrificial as they embraced significant change. Most importantly, the hand of God was clearly upon this church and His grace proved more than sufficient.

As our church grew, other leaders in our tribe began to notice and I started to receive invitations to share our testimony and then to speak at various events and then to train others in how to do what God was doing in and through us. In essence, a second ministry began to develop. I was first and foremost the pastor of a growing, revitalizing church, but I was also becoming a revitalization trainer and consultant, guiding other churches with a training curriculum that I developed through study and practice.

These two ministries were quite compatible in the early years, but as each grew, one began to collide with the other. It became apparent that I would not be able to continue to serve both without limiting their development. So, in mid-2000, I left the pastorate and went into revitalization training and consulting full time. At first it was free lance, taking contracts with various evangelical churches and regional denominational groups. One of my “clients” was the EPC Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic, a regional grouping of churches that had determined to embrace missional development through church planting and revitalization.

Over several years, my work with this presbytery grew to the point that it made more sense for me to work in-system as staff rather than continuing under contract. Once on staff, we gave this ministry a name, the GO Center. As an EPC insider, I gradually became involved in the national ministry of the EPC as the point man on the Revitalization Task Force that included a team of seasoned pastors and leaders. The impact of the GO Center within the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic led denominational leaders to offer the opportunity for the GO Center to nationalize its ministry. The GO Center from the Mid-Atlantic merged with the Revitalization Task Force and the GO Center as a national ministry emerged.

Funding from the EPC National Leadership Team gave the GO Center its national start, and now, a few years later, the GO Center has grown toward self-sufficiency. In the spirit of continued kingdom multiplication, the GO Center has become a separate non-profit corporation with its own board of directors and with new pathways developing for funding, including continued support from the EPC, reasonable fees for ministry services, and fundraising through the EPC Foundation. This new positioning allows the GO Center to continue to serve the EPC while opening the door to serving other evangelical denominations.

Looking back, it’s amazing to realize that this all started twenty-five years ago with a simple phone call. Of course, it really started in mind of God before time began. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

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The GO Center Becomes Self-Aware Part 1

A story is continuing to unfold and I want to capture this story by tracking its development in my blog. It’s the story of the GO Center and I think now is the time to begin documenting its emergence as a truly self-guided entity.

Pinpointing the GO Center’s origin presents a challenge as there are several moments or seasons that might qualify. We could go back to the summer of 1975 when I first sensed God’s call to ministry. We could go back to 1985 when I first entered local church ministry as part of a ministry staff that planted a church in Encinitas, CA. Another possibility would be August of 1990 when I enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree program at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Orlando, FL, engaging concurrently with serving on another church planting staff that planted a church in Lake Mary on the northern rim of metro Orlando.

One logical place to mark the origin of the GO Center would be when I moved from serving under contract with the EPC Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic (PMA) to going on staff. We dubbed this ministry the GO Center at that time, somewhere in the neighborhood of early 2012, though at that time the GO Center was simply the designation of a line item in the PMA budget. Perhaps the origin should be traced to the GO Center’s debut as a national ministry. During the EPC General Assembly in June 2014, the notion was first advanced that the ministry of the GO Center should be “nationalized,” expanding to serve the entire denomination. Plans in the fall led to the launch of the GO Center as a national ministry in January 2015. Still, though, it was just a name under the umbrella of one of the EPC’s strategic initiatives, Church Revitalization.

As the reader can see, someone making a movie about the birth of the GO Center would be in good stead to select either of these possible origins, but the time, place and circumstance that I want to identify as the original spark that eventually brought the GO Center to its newly minted status was during a phone call. It happened in my rented house in Orlando in late December of 1992, a phone call with Bill Malick during which Bill posed a daring and provocative question. He asked, “Can you say for certain, right now, that God is not calling you to this ministry in Phoenix?”

Seriously?! I had just completed the first semester of my third and final year at RTS and our family of six was enjoying the Christmas break. I had actively been seeking a ministry call to follow closely on the heels of graduation the following May. When you’re forty-two years old with four children, you don’t wait until graduation to secure a job and I was determined that, by the grace of God, I would graduate and step right back into full-time ministry without missing a beat. The search for that call, however, had been spiced with a couple of surprises and unanticipated challenges, such that I found myself on the phone with Bill, a regional leader in a denomination much different than my own, though we shared a passion for planting churches and growing the kingdom of God through outreach and evangelism.

Bill’s question left me no choice but to admit that I couldn’t possibly rule out God’s call to this eighty-seven-year old church in Phoenix. I had only heard about it that night and, though it seemed truly far-fetched, God’s been known to move in proverbial mysterious ways, so I couldn’t in good conscience give it thumbs down. My wife and I committed to traveling to Phoenix in January to investigate, and, guess what? God clearly moved in our hearts and minds and soon after graduation, we were living in Phoenix, AZ. I was pastor of a congregation of thirteen adults in need of a total revitalization. It’s wild to realize that our move to Phoenix in June of 1993 was twenty-five years ago this week, and I’m still ministering in partnership with my friend, Bill.

More to come . . .

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Sending Cheap Signals

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is bending my mind. I’ve just started reading his New York Times bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. So far I’ve read the prologue and the first six pages of Chapter One and I’ve already come across a dozen or so concepts that have made me stop and think, knowing that it will take a serious investment of my time and energy to process this man’s continuously surprising perspectives.

A Disclaimer: Before going any further, this book has nothing to do with the Natalie Portman movie, Black Swan, so please don’t go there.

I have a feeling that reading and processing The Black Swan is going to be a many-months project and I have no intention of trying to distill Taleb’s thinking down into simplistic, dot-connecting nuggets. Maybe this will be the only time I mention Taleb, or maybe his unconventional view of life and how things work will inspire dozens of entries. Who knows? For now, one concept has caught my attention with such force that I’m now writing my first blog in months.

Consider this quote from page 6: “It is one thing to be cosmetically defiant of authority by wearing unconventional clothes – what social scientists and economists call ‘cheap signaling’ – and another to prove willingness to translate belief into action.” This is my first encounter with the phrase, “cheap signaling,” but it brought so many things to mind.

Two typical teenaged suburban girls walk into a trendy coffee shop. One is wearing a Harley-Davidson tee-shirt and you know she’s never been near an authentic biker or his two-wheeled power ride. The other sports an iconic Rolling Stones big-lipped mouth with protruding tongue tee-shirt and you know that Mick Jagger is older than her grandfather and that she probably couldn’t name two Stones’ hits. What are they doing? Cheap Signaling.

An unaccompanied man boards a steamboat in New Orleans for a 2 1/2-hour tour of the Mississippi River. He carries an iPhone attached to a long selfie-stick. Throughout the tour he takes photo after photo, holding the iPhone-on-a-stick as far out as possible and always taking shots of himself in profile, as if they are candid shots of him in the middle of some festive activity. What is he doing? Cheap Signaling.

So what has this got to do with church vitality or ministry at large? It occurs to me, or at least I wonder, that much that happens in the name of church or faith might truly be cheap signaling. Do we really take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan, or do we just talk about it in our Bible studies? Do we truly honor Jesus as the priority in our lives or do we simply nod in agreement with the biblical principle? Do we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to supporting God’s work in the world? Do we follow through with commitments to share our faith with those around us?

I’m not looking for a guilt trip here but, rather, a reality check. Could cheap signaling be the new hypocrisy? I’ve often said that the church is not full of hypocrites, it’s full of weak people who don’t quite live up to what they believe, myself included. But maybe that’s too easy an alibi. I’m searching for the cheap signaling in my life and hoping, praying, for better.



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Permanent Half-Mast

As usual, I was up early this morning. I made the familiar drive to a local shopping area to visit a familiar grocery store to pick up milk and a few other items. Pulling into a parking space, I noticed that the American flag that graces a prominent spot on the premises was flying at half-mast . . . again. It seems that American flags are frequently flying at half-mast these days, and the thought crossed my mind that, with all that’s going on in our country, American flags might not make it back to full mast any time soon.

For some reason, Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock, popped into my head. This is the song that memorializes the Woodstock Music & Art Fair held in White Lake, NY, in August 1969. I was a freshly turned nineteen years old then and missed Woodstock, but I did make it to a similar extravaganza the following summer called the Atlanta Pop Festival held near Byron, GA. It was there that I saw Jimi Hendrix perform. He would be dead less than three months later.

Back to Joni Mitchell and Woodstock – the short chorus in this song ends with the phrase, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. The garden alluded to in this chorus is the Garden of Eden, a literal and metaphorical utopia, free from strife, free from pain, free from hatred, free from the Viet Nam War that was raging at the time – a symbol of peace and love, the counter-culture mantra of the late sixties. According to the biblical Book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve inhabited this garden, they were free from sin, but because of their sin, they, and mankind as a result, were expelled from the garden, hence the need to “get back to the garden.”

So far, so good. I would agree with Ms. Mitchell that it would be great to get back to the garden, to get back to being able to fly our flags at full mast. Her mistake, and the mistake of the typical secular humanist, is in thinking that we can get ourselves back to the garden. There is but one way to true peace and true love, the way of the Lord.

Acts 2 captures the scene of the preaching of the first Christian sermon. Peter reveals the sin of the people of that time and we’re told that they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do,” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s response, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

We can’t get ourselves back to the garden, but we can find peace and love through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. How? Through confession of our sin and the forgiveness of that sin that follows. This is our only hope personally, and this is our only hope as a nation. Will our flags fly high again?


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