Not only is imitation the highest form of flattery, as the English cleric Charles Colton said; sometimes it’s also the leading edge of innovation.
In preparation to speak at this spring’s Mo-Ranch Men’s Conference, I gave two of my three workshops a title worthy of a Stephen King novel: “Denomination in a Death Spiral?” When given 20 seconds in the opening plenary to pitch it, I fed that image with, “If you think the PC(USA) is going down the drain, you’re way too optimistic.” I grinned. They laughed. Based on past experience, my room was furnished with 25 chairs. But in both hours nearly 60 men showed up — and stayed till the end.
Imitation brought out the crowds.
In that workshop I led off with a bleak trends assessment: the disappearance of the millennials from churches, the dimming of national influence, the reconfiguring of our connectionalism due to our shrinking footprint, and the loss of the mystique of otherness — the Wizard of Oz effect — as the veils of secrecy have been pulled open, exposing the darker sides of our waywardness.
I pivoted the presentation, pointing out that the millennials hunger for a spirituality ever open to learning new things; for community known for its authenticity and openness; for convictions that show respect for other religious traditions; and for ever-expanding options for connecting and growing in their faith.
Hark, the light went on: those very yearnings perfectly match the trajectory we Presbyterians have been following for years.
The big challenge before us, I suggested, is to shout from housetops the very values, beliefs and commitments that we have been living in this branch of Christ’s church.
The death spiral morphed into a rising phoenix.
But then a participant tossed me the question: So what if your own congregation really is in a death spiral? What should we do now?
His question caught me off guard. I blurted, with synapses firing just one syllable ahead of my tongue, “Find a church in your area that does have kids and teens and young adults, and is growing. Study what they’re doing, and copy them.”
The words blurted, I now added a caveat, “Of course you have to assess what the other group is doing for its theological integrity,” but don’t be too proud to learn from what’s working elsewhere.
I then confessed my sin. In my last pastorate, I told them, of the half-dozen megachurches within 10 minutes’ drive, one of them was having my lunch, pulling members away from my congregation. I heard criticisms from friends who had visited there and not been impressed, and I happily believed them all. I tried to rebuild our children’s education program to compete with theirs (“My kids just love going to their friends’ church,” was the most common explanation for families’ departures). What I didn’t do was go there, meet any of the pastors, and actually figure out what they were doing to make their church so magnetic.
I was too proud to be willing to learn anything from THOSE people.
After I moved from there to take the editorship at the Outlook, my adult children resettled in the area, and they went to — no, not my former Presbyterian church, but — that OTHER church. When we went back to visit them at holiday times, they took us along. The worship was electric, profound. The preaching was outstanding, Reformed. When my daughter introduced me to the pastor in the lobby, he said that he’s in a D.Min. program at a Presbyterian seminary and is totally loving it.
I was embarrassed, exposed for never having reached out to my neighbor colleague. I had disregarded his vision, skills and insights, thereby adding to my denomination’s downward spiral.
Had I been more teachable, open and humble, I might have picked up some ideas, models or methods that would have helped my congregation innovate for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.
Imitation vs. pride. I recall one being a deadly sin. What of the other?