Monday, August 18, 2014

How Could Robin Williams Do That?


A hot topic of conversation the past several days has been the death of Robin Williams. I have heard people say, “I am so depressed over losing him,” and some have asked the question, “How could Robin Williams commit suicide?” I have spent several hours over several days trying to write some reflections on his depression and suicide. It is difficult for me because it all hits so close to home.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Robin Williams was amazingly talented. He had won an Oscar, an Emmy, and several other prestigious awards. He was a hilarious standup comedian, had a successful television sitcom; starred in a huge number of very successful movies and was loved and revered by millions of fans. He was generous in supporting various causes and charities. From all reports he was a kind man and a good friend. In public he always seemed up and excited. And yet, he took his own life. How could that happen?

When most of us hear that he was depressed, we think: So what. We all are depressed from time to time. No we aren’t. You are probably mistaking a bad mood or a bad day for depression. I always like to say, “Of course I’m depressed. I am Irish. I’d like a couple of beers, too.” I do suffer from clinical depression and if you haven’t experienced it, you have no idea what it is like. It is not feeling a little down or sad. Real depression is much like drowning. (Something else I have done.) It is extremely uncomfortable – should I say it is painful. It is overwhelming. You have almost no control over it. It engulfs you. It suffocates you and it is all you can think about. The ensuing panic is horrible because it does not move you to rescue yourself. I just drives you into a deeper depression. You are motivated to do absolutely nothing. Getting out of bed is a task akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Functioning normally is just something you would like to do; something you used to do but will never be able to do again. You feel helpless and completely out of control. You know you are dying but there seems to be no escape.

And when you are depressed it seems that everyone close to you takes a couple of steps away from you. If they do remain in contact it seems they are unaware of your condition. Which is normal since you are doing everything you can to hide it from them. Those who do see what is happening to you respond with such worthless “helpful” advice such as: “You should see someone about that.” (I don’t want to see you, much less someone else. The thought of leaving the house overwhelms me. Talking about it just seems to make it worse.) “You need to pull out of that funk.” (Good idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before. It is so simple and easy I should have done that last week.) “Things will seem better tomorrow.” (Tomorrow! Oh, dear Jesus, I can’t even stand to think about tomorrow. The only thing that sucks worse than yesterday is today. Please don’t make me think about tomorrow.) “It is simply mind over matter. You need to will yourself out of that funk.” (The only urge I have right now that is stronger than my desire to kill myself is my desire to kill you.) No matter what advice is given, even if it is good advice, is not helpful.

Depression is a horrifyingly deep, dark place. It is a place of isolation; of loneliness; emptiness; hollowness; it seems endless. The most powerful feeling is the feeling of hopelessness. And that is what kills you. That is why one commits suicide… hopelessness… a profound belief that things will not get better. No matter what anyone says or does, this living hell will never end. And if this is what the rest of my life is going to be like, I have had enough. Death would be a welcome relief. No matter what death leads to, it has to be better than this. One certainly feels badly for how one’s suicide will hurt and affect others. But ending one’s life is just something that must be done. There is no other choice… it is not a choice.

Several decades ago, before I realized I had received the gift of depression, (I am being sarcastic) I found myself immersed in a profound bout of that special hell. My first wife and I had separated and I was plunged into a two year depression. By that I mean I was deeply depressed every day for two years. It was the blackest, most painful time of my life. Every morning I woke with a start feeling like I was suffocating. I lay awake at night dreading the onset of another panic attack – the feeling I could not breathe and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The blame for our separation and divorce lay directly at my feet, but I was still overwhelmed with depression. I had suddenly become exposed, to myself and others, as a failure at everything I had sought to succeed at. I had failed as a man; as a husband; as a father and as a Christian. I had managed to convince myself that I was excellent at all of those things but the divorce exposed my shortcomings to me and the world. It all came into sharp focus for me through a conversation with my police chief. Over the years I have met some police officers who we not especially socially adept. He was one of those. On our way to lunch together he started the conversation with, “How are you doing. Other than losing your wife… and your kids… and your job… how are you doing?” I replied, “Other than that, everything is great.” It was like saying, “Other than losing everything that matters, my life is perfect.”

I sought to fill the emptiness and escape the suffocating hopelessness with activities. I felt that if I could just keep moving whatever it was that was trying to kill me would miss its target. If I ran hard enough and fast enough I could out run the depression. During this time period I was the EMT and firefighter on our volunteer fire and rescue squad with the most runs made for the year. Part of that was because I often slept at the firehouse or in the back of the ambulance. I joined the county police department and spent huge amounts of time riding in a police cruiser. In some odd way, it was reassuring to see, through these activities, that there were other people with overwhelming problems.

I stayed busy but I thought about suicide, every day. I planned my suicide, every day. I prayed that God would just let me die, every day. I was so depressed I could hardly function. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t care for my children. There were two motivating factors that kept me from taking my own life. One was my children. As a counselor and a firefighter and police chaplain, I had seen the damage done to children when a parent took his or her own life. The second reason I resisted the desire to die was my fellow firefighters. I knew that if I killed myself they would be called to the scene and feel obligated to clean up the mess. I had been there and done that and couldn’t do that to them.

I love it when fellow Christians say, “If you would just trust in Jesus, you would never be depressed.” That is about as smart as saying, “If you will just trust in Jesus you will never get sick.” Others suggest that one just will one’s self out of depression. That is much like willing one’s self out a broken leg. It is obvious that folks that say things like that have never really suffered from depression. They may have had a bad day or two, but they are clueless what real, clinical depression feels like.

So, unless you have been there, done that and got the T-shirt, you probably will never understand why Robin Williams could take his own life. Unfortunately, I can.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Friday, August 8, 2014

Know It All


Have you ever known a know-it-all? Of course you have. Aren’t they irritating? If they think they know it all about just about any subject but don’t, there is just no talking to them. And if they think they are a know-it-all and aren’t, you are almost overcome by a huge urge to strangle them to put both them and you out of your misery.

With that said, I must admit that I am a know-it-all. At least that is how I am often billed when it comes to the subject of church transformation. I must be a know-it-all since I have written two books on the subject (Renew Your Congregation and Developing a Significant Church), lead seminars on the subject all across the country, have consulted with several churches and coach several pastors in the leading of transformation in their churches. The difference in my books on transformation and others on the subject I have read is that I am one of the few who has actually experienced being a part of a transforming church. Admittedly that doesn’t make me an expert but I claim more credibility than most writers on the subject. The truth is, I don’t claim to be an expert on church transformation. But just by knowing something on the subject puts me worlds ahead of others. Transforming a church is a subject few know much about. This is rather astounding considering that there are hundreds of thousands of churches in North America in dire need of transformation. I would seem that more help for those wanting and needing transformation would be available.

For years it has been my view that there are really no experts in transformation because transforming a church is such an organic operation. There are no two churches just alike, so a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. There can never be a handbook made available to churches to get transformation done – something like “Church Transformation for Dummies”. There are some basic principles and systems that must be in place and functioning well for any church to be healthy and grow. I believe it is true that a church may have an increase in worship attendance, even a sizable increase, without being healthy. Measuring the attendance in morning worship is not the only or the best indicator of health and growth. Things such as worship attendance and giving are much like vital signs that are taken to keep abreast of the present condition of the patient. Working as an Emergency Medical Technician I have taken lots of vital signs. Sometimes they told me exactly what was going on with my patient and sometimes they misled me. Occasionally a person with great vital signs would completely crap out on me. The vital signs are helpful but not the only thing to be looked at.

A much more important measurement to be taken is the spiritual vitality of the church. One must consistently ask, “Are these people growing spiritually.” Some people believe spiritual growth can’t be measured. Perhaps not. But it can almost always be observed. Just take a look at how individuals are treating those closest to them. Is that behavior getting better? Take a look at how the people are investing their time. Are they spending more time doing significant ministry in the community? Don’t confuse spending more time at the church with doing significant ministry. Sometimes these are two very different things. I am a great believer in the 1-5-4 principle of church growth. 1-The church’s primary mission is summed up in the Great Commission: to go into the world and makes disciples. 5-A healthy church does five things consistently and well: Worship; Discipleship; Evangelism; Fellowship and Mission. When I say, the church, I mean those of us who make up the church. 4-Growth is measured four ways: Numerical growth; Spiritual growth; Ministry growth and Mission growth. In a healthy church, each year more believers are being added to the Body of Christ; more people are deepening their walk with God through practicing spiritual disciplines; more people are involved in ministry in the life of the church and more people are involved in the outreach/mission of the church. These things are much more difficult to measure than counting heads and counting dollars. It takes a system to be close enough to the people to observe these things. The best way to do that is by implementing healthy small groups.

Another thing that almost every church must address is how we speak to and treat each other. For some odd reason we think we should tolerate extremely poor behavior in the church. Like it is the “Christian” thing to do to never call down bad behavior? We allow people to speak unkindly to each other; for disagreements to deteriorate into name calling; for voices to be raised and we explain that behavior away with, “That is just the way they are.” And that is probably the way they will stay unless someone challenges them to adopt better behavior. Churches need to adopt clear policies on what is and what is not appropriate behavior in the church.

Another system that must be changed is gossip. More harm is done through gossip than any other sin in the church. We are so accustomed to gossiping that we often don’t realize we are doing it. Here is some help. If you are talking negatively about someone and they are not present, that is gossip. If you are talking about a person or a problem and you are not a part of the problem or the solution, you are gossiping. When first moving away from gossiping, it is amazing how quiet things become and how short conversations are.

Another basic system change in the church is raising the bar. For several decades, churches, in an effort to attract more unbelievers to the church, have lowered expectations of church membership. Expectations have now been reduced to occasional attendance in Sunday worship and some sort of limited financial commitment. And that is considered an active member. Everything else has become optional. And for the church member who doesn’t even show up, we just move them to inactive status. When more is expected of a church member (a disciple of Christ) more is delivered. Also, younger generations are not interested in something that has so little expectations. People desire to be a part of something that matters, that impacts them and others, something that has real meaning. A church must raise its expectations to become a growing, healthy church.

So, like it said; I am not a know-it-all. But I am a know-a-little-something.

BTW, if you haven’t, that a look at my new web site – www.williamtmcconnell.com.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Nice


As a child, several times a day my mother admonished me to be nice. I have always done my best to be nice. Nice is good and I like nice. When looking for volunteer and paid staff, one of the characteristics that top my list is nice. I call it, “Plays well with others.” Nice is nice but nice is not the ultimate positive trait. 

We live in a culture where the most widely accepted but seldom verbalized definition of Christian is: A Nice Person. I must smile when I talk to a person who verbalizes that they do not believe that Jesus was really the Son of God and that he was certainly not born of a virgin and that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead and I say, “Then you are not a Christian,” and they get completely bent out of shape. “How dare you,” they say, “claim I am not a Christian? I am a good person.” I didn’t say they weren’t a good person, I said they weren’t a Christian. They also haven’t told me anything that would make me suspect they are Muslim. Some of the nicest people I have met didn’t claim to be Christian and some of the most unpleasant people I know declare a faith in Christ. 

Generally speaking, for the past 2000 years, a Christian has been consistently been defined as a person who places their faith in the reality of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, and the risen Savior. For Christians, Jesus was seen as the way to God. About a century ago it became the common belief that all roads lead to God and it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe. 

Like many things in our culture, the definition of a Christian has shifted. Now this is more like it (fresh off the internet): “A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. “Christian" derives from the Greek word Christós (Χριστός), a translation of the Biblical Hebrew term mashiach. There are diverse interpretations of Christianity which sometimes conflict. However, "Whatever else they might disagree about; Christians are at least united in believing that Jesus has a unique significance.” The term "Christian" is also used adjectivally to describe anything associated with Christianity, or in a proverbial sense "all that is noble, and good, and Christ-like." It is also used as a label to identify people who associate with the cultural aspects of Christianity, irrespective of personal religious beliefs or practices.” 

So, it seems I was wrong. According to modern definitions one can believe just about anything one wants and still carry the label “Christian” as long as one is considered nice. So, I wonder, does the God of the Bible qualify to be called a Christian in these days? Let’s look at the attributes of God described in scripture:

Infinite
Wise
Sovereign
Infinitude
Omniscient
Trustworthy
Loving (Contrary to some popular thought, being loving is not always being nice.)
Just
Immutable
Merciful
Eternal
Good
Gracious
Omnipresent
Omnipotent
Self-sufficient
Righteous
Capable of Anger
Holy
Almighty
King of Kings
Lord of Lords
Jealous
Wrathful 

In compiling this list of attributes I consulted many resources. Even so, I am sure this list is not exhaustive. But no matter where I looked, I never saw God described as nice. Some will, of course, say, “The God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. You need to look at Jesus.” And there is no doubt that Jesus gave us a deeper and clearer view of God. After all, Jesus did say: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9) So, the question is, was Jesus nice? My answer is a resounding, NO. He was merciful, loving, forgiving, unreligious, powerful, kind (different than nice), encouraging, confrontational, insightful, an excellent teacher, a great friend, a loving son, courageous, blunt, funny, and many other things. But he could be anything but nice. Nice did not define who Jesus was. If you want to palm Jesus off as nice, I suggest you check with some of the people who had interactions with him. 

Jesus had a conversation with a rich man about how to become a part of the Kingdom of God. This rich man was a good guy. He kept all if the commandments, which is more than I can say for myself. Jesus did not say, “Way to go, you have it made.” Instead we read: Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22) If Jesus had been a modern “Christian” he would have chased the man down and told him, “Hey, nobody’s perfect. You’re doing well enough.” That would have been the nice thing to do. But he didn’t. 

Or, Jesus talking to the religious people of his time said things like this. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:7-8) He called them a bunch of snakes. There is nothing nice about that. There is much truth and reality and righteousness in what he said but it couldn’t possibly be called nice. 

My point is that being Christian is much less about nice and much more about truth, righteousness, holiness and mercy. Telling someone the truth so they have the possibility of knowing and loving God is much more important than being nice. Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Sometimes telling the truth doesn’t sound nice. But if we are ever going to come to experience the true freedom that comes from knowing Christ, we are going to have to know the truth.  

Nice is great but it is not the ultimate good and it is not the definition of Christian.
 

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Most Often Preached Really Stupid Sermon


This past Sunday I preached about the most often preached really stupid sermon. My congregation claims I preached a really stupid sermon. I set myself up for that, didn’t I?
Preaching is an interesting part of the whole ministry deal. I have a feeling it looks easier to do than it is. In past churches, when it came time for my vacation, one of the church members, usually an Elder, would take that opportunity to preach. Upon my return, the fill-in preacher’s reaction would be, “Gee, I’d hate to have to do that every week.” That’s pretty much how I feel about it too. A few of years ago I heard a preacher put preaching in this context: “Every week preachers perform on a stage that no one want to be on to say what no one wants to hear in a theater where no one wants to buy a ticket.” My job is to tell you the truth, which is often difficult to hear, and then I expect you to pay me. What is wrong with that picture?
Contrary to the popular thought in my congregation, long, long ago in a galaxy far away, I really did go to seminary. While there they attempted to teach me now to preach. Or, at least, they made me take some preaching classes. In seminary I was taught that every good sermon has three points, a poem and a prayer. Like most of the things I learned in seminary, this information has not proven to be particularly helpful in the practice of real ministry. But, with no frame of reference, I believed what they taught me. For a couple of years my listeners suffered as I carefully explained the meaning of the text in the original languages and developed in detail the historical context of the passage. Not too long into weekly preaching, a friend was kind enough to explain to me that almost nobody in the congregation really cares what the original languages say and the historical context was probably a big hit in seminary but in reality nobody but seminary professors and their students much care about that stuff.
Those comments sent me home with my tail between my legs and much to think about. I came to the conclusion that my job is to communicate God’s Word to His people to the very best of my ability. It is a daunting task. Quite honestly most people don’t have the attention span to listen to, much less remember, three points and a vast majority of people don’t really care much for poetry. I have come to believe that if I can get across one point, it has been a good day. During this time of reflection I made a conscious decision to quit preaching and to start communicating.
Something else I learned about preaching, I didn’t learn in seminary but picked up from listening to other preachers preach. That was the basic outline to a very common sermon.          The outline is simple, easy to remember and basically useless. It is the outline of the sermons we most often hear preached. And, in my humble opinion, is a really stupid sermon. See if you can identify with this three point outline. Have you ever heard it anywhere before?
  • God is Good
  • You are Bad
  • Try Harder
The first two points are absolutely true. We find these two to be true through our personal experience and from what the Bible has to say about them. The scriptures teach us that God is a good God. “I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High.” (Psalm 7:17) “The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” (Psalm 116:5) “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.” (Psalm 145:17) If we are paying attention in our walk with God, our life experiences tell us that God is good.
The sermon tells us that we are bad. Again, scripture and life experiences bear this out to be the truth. Way back when I was studying psychology in college, the psychological theory of Transactional Analysis was popular. It produced a popular phrase: “I’m Okay and you’re Okay.” It sounds nice and it is a catchy phrase, but it is incorrect. I believe Christianity says it this way: I’m not okay and you’re not okay and that’s okay.” It’s okay because of God’s grace. The scripture addresses the issue clearly in Romans 3:23. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
We human beings have problems and struggle with our inherent sinfulness. Some of us are in denial. We desperately want to convince ourselves and others that we are good… that the things we do and the attitudes we have are not sins but, instead, poor choices and mistakes. We reserve the label “bad” for a special class of people like Hitler. We may sin as the Bible defines it but, we tell ourselves, we really are good people. We consider good and bad as relative by comparing ourselves with others instead of God. This works since we can always find someone worse than we. I watched prisoners do it all the time in my years working in the prison system. My comment when I heard these comparisons being made was to simply state, “You are in prison, Bubba.” That never went over well. But most of us, when we are honest with ourselves, already know that God is good and we are bad.
My question about this basic sermon is, what is with the try harder? I don’t know about you but if I could try harder and do better, I would. It is the try harder part that strikes me as stupid.
Again I refer to the wonderful story Mike Yaconelli told of attending his child’s Jr. High track meet. “One of the most interesting things about kids' sporting events is the parents' reaction to their children. I attended my daughter's track meet. On the fourth and final lap of the boys' mile run, everyone was clumped together except for the two front-runners who were leading the pack by a few yards. As the runners came toward the finish line, the crowd began cheering wildly. Just then, I happened to look back, and there, hopelessly last, was a short, portly kid who never should have walked a mile, let alone run one. His entire body was wobbling toward the finish line, and his bright red face was twisted in the kind of pain that made me wonder if death was near. Suddenly, I was brushed by a frantic parent who was leaping down the bleachers to the railing surrounding the track. It was obviously the poor boy's mother. She then yelled at the top of her lungs, "Johnny, RUN FASTER!" I will never forget that moment and the look of hopelessness on Johnny's face. He had to be thinking, "Run faster? Run faster? What am I? An idiot? What do you think the problem is here – I just forgot to run faster? I'm running as fast as I can!" I don't know how many times I have felt just like Johnny. I attend church on Sunday, weary from a week of failure and what does the pastor say? RUN FASTER! I attend a seminar on time management, desperate for some encouragement and new insights, and what does the seminar leader say? RUN FASTER! I come to a church spiritual retreat to find calm in the midst of the chaos in my life, and what does the minister say? RUN FASTER! Isn't it ironic that the result of most conferences, retreats, sermons and seminars is not to make us feel better but to actually make us feel worse?”
I have a word from God for you. God says, “Don’t run faster. Sit down. Rest. I’ll help with your load.” Jesus put it this way: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus also knew that I could use some practical help. How can I do better? His point is, spiritual growth is not running faster: as in more meetings, more Bible studies, and more prayer meetings. Spiritual growth usually happens when we slow our activity down. If we want to meet and see Jesus, we can't do it on the run. We need to slow down and start taking the time to see Jesus all around us every day. If we want to stay on the road of faith, occasionally we have to hit the brakes, pull over to a rest area, and stop.
While the church earnestly warns Christians to watch out for evil and temptation, we mistakenly believe temptations come in large, easily seen and understood moments. We have been taught to reject belief in a devil because we have dressed him up in a red suit with horns and a tail. What we fail to understand is that he is much more subtle than that. The devil is sitting in the congregation encouraging everyone to keep busy doing "good things” instead of God things. He doesn’t have to get us to miss that mark by a mile, but only by a little bit. We still miss the mark.
I still believe the key to the Christian life and the key to spiritual growth boil down to just learning to hang out with Jesus.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 21, 2014

Turkey People


Today we are going to talk turkey about turkey.

Ah, turkey. I love turkey. Or should I say, I love to eat turkey. If you have ever spent time around turkeys you know that they are not intelligent birds. That was an understatement. They are amazingly stupid. Ben Franklin lobbied to get the wild turkey made our national bird. I am happy the Bald Eagle won out. When I was growing up, to call someone a turkey is usually seen as an insult. But if anyone has ever shown up at my door with something turkey, I am not insulted. We will get back to the turkey in just a minute.

God’s mission of ministry for the church outside of the church’s walls is clear and strong. I a passage of scripture that is a description of the final judgment day, Jesus said some very interesting things. Take a look: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)

Many religious people of my day have believed and taught that salvation is all about what you believe and if you said the correct prayer. Jesus seems to be saying that what we do and how we treat others is very important. We are talking about eternity.

My observation is that the church and people in general have abdicated their responsibility to care for the poor to the government. I believe that to be a mistake. I will admit that I am not a big fan of big government. In my lifetime government has shown itself to be clunky, inefficient and not to be trusted. But instead of taking care of each other, we give the government the job of caring for the poor, the homeless and the sick and when they do a poor job of it we complain and criticize the government. So let me say it again and clearly – IT IS NOT THE GOVERNMENT’S JOB to take care of people in need. And since it is not its job, they don’t do it well.

The failure of the government’s War on Poverty makes my case. The War on Poverty is the unofficial name for legislation first introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson during his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. I am old enough to remember this and how excited the country was that poverty was going to be eradicated. President Johnson proposed it in response to a national poverty rate of around nineteen percent. The speech led the United States Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act. The legacy of the War on Poverty policy initiative remains in the continued existence of such federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, TRIO, and Job Corps. The war on poverty officially ended with the Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which, as claimed President Bill Clinton, "ends welfare as we know it."

Even after declaring a WAR on Poverty, there has been almost no progress since the 1960s. The official poverty measure (OPM) was 14.2% in 1967; by 2012 it was 15.0%. I think that ranks as a failure. I am sure there are many reasons for this failure. Both political parties spend inordinate amounts of time and money blaming each other. Some of the reasons for the failure are: As is true with most government programs, money is eaten up in bureaucracy; help is not effectively delivered at arm’s length; the government, obviously, is ineffective in doing such work; money is helpful in the short term but fails to make lasting changes.

So let’s get off the governments back. The church of Jesus Christ was established and called to change the world: Help people understand and know God; Enable people to grow in their relationships with God and grow to spiritual maturity; Help meet the basic needs of those struggling; Feed the hungry, house the homeless, minister to the sick, strengthen the weak, protect those who are endangered. Giving money is a good thing. It helps and enables the church to meet immediate needs. But money alone rarely changes lives.

Lindenwood Church has a unique opportunity here in Memphis. We are located in a town that is known to have much need. That makes the job easier. We don’t have to go out in search of ministry. It is right here on our doorstep. But the task is difficult. Doing such ministry takes an investment of money – plus. Plus investment of our time, talents, energy, and in building relationships

As promised, back to turkeys. I few weeks ago I learned a new term from listening to Bill Courtney – Turkey People. Bill was the volunteer coach at Manassas High School here in Memphis. His program not only turned the team’s won/loss record around, his investment in those young men changed many lives. During his final season with the school a documentary was filmed, “Undefeated”, that won an Academy Award. He has since written a book, “Against the Grain.” In his talk he told about his first year with the team. Around mid-season he noticed that about half of the team was buying into what he was saying and doing. When he asked one of his players what the problem was, the kid said, “They think you’re a turkey person.” Cortney said that didn’t help since he didn’t know what a turkey person is. The player explained that “a turkey person is someone who comes down to the neighborhood around Thanksgiving or Christmas and brings us a turkey. We take the turkey because we are hungry. But they really haven’t helped us. The players are trying to figure out if you are a turkey person or if you are in it for the long run.” Turkey people could be called “One hit wonders”. When I worked with inner city kids in Louisville they called such people Limousine Liberals – people who showed up I big fine cars, passed food out the window and drove away.

People want to know if we are in it for the long haul. For too long the church has looked to the government to do our job. Instead of helping people we write checks, write indignant letters, participate in marches and hold candlelight vigils. Nice things to do but are they really effective? Not really. Doing these things just gives us the freedom to think we are doing something significant. Don’t get me wrong – giving money is great – it really is. But if we want to see lives changed we are going to have to invest our money and our time and our energy in relationships over the long haul.

When I stand before the great judgment seat, I don’t Jesus to call me a goat, or a Turkey Person. How about you?

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reviews


Reviews come in many shapes and sizes. Most of us in the workforce undergo an annual review to make sure we and the boss are on the same page as far as how we are doing in job performance. If you have ever had a book published, a song recorded, acted in a play, performed in a concert or had a major part in a movie, most likely you have been reviewed. Reviewing can be seen as a form of critiquing. Critiquing can easily degrade into nit picking and rampant negativity. Most of us are not fond of reviews.
There is a relatively new form of reviewing that came of age on the internet: people who have used a particular product or service writing reviews of their experiences and letting people know if they did or did not enjoy the product or experience. I love these things. If considering visiting a restaurant or a car dealer or a resort or before going to a movie or buying a product, I always check out the reviews. Something I have noticed about restaurant reviews is that the quality of a restaurant’s reviews can change rapidly. I suppose that is due to a turnover in wait staff or a new main cook/chef coming on board. So when it comes to restaurant reviews, check the dates of the reviews.
I will tell you that there are several things I purchase with confidence without the need of a recent review. Some of those things would be shirts of a brand I am familiar with, engine oil, cleaning products, much of my groceries, and office products. With that in mind you can understand why I was surprised and tickled when my wife caledl to report she had been purchasing office supplies on-line from Staples and ran across an interesting review. It was a review for paper clips. That’s right, paper clips. Here is what it said: “Heading: Like a good woman – strong and flexible. Content: I like my women like I like my paper clips, able to keep it together without strain or drama. These premium paper clips do just that.”
That is a review I don’t really need. Really.
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Starbucks Church


It has been my experience that much very negative conversation rolls through the bowels of the church community. Or that we should be ashamed. Much of that negative talk is caused by failure to understand folks whose understanding of scripture and life principles differs from others. Sometimes that negative talk is caused by jealousy. We, of the church, are not immune to jealousy. But we are not likely to admit to it; in fact we keep it carefully veiled from you and from ourselves. Veiled, unadmitted, but there.

Often when we criticize Christian leaders, it is less about what they do and believe and more about their “success”. Truth be known, any Christian can pick apart another’s doctrine, values, lifestyle, mode of worship, biblical translation preferred, style of building (or lack of building), methods of mission work and the list continues. Some seem to consider such nitpicking and hostility to be a “gift”. On the rare occasions I listen to preachers on the radio, I am amazed how many claim to be “fundamentalists” and yet fail to mention Jesus in their messages. They are too caught up in attacking other believers who fail to walk lock step with them in theology and methodology and explaining why they are right and everyone else is wrong. I will admit that I don’t appreciate such an approach to preaching. There is just too much good news in the Gospel (the Good News) to be shared with people who do not yet know God. Why travel the road of negativity?

The church, while having an awesome “product”, does have an image and marketing problem. Perhaps we could learn something from the effective marketing campaigns of successful companies. One of those could be Starbucks Coffee. I am amazed by their success. There is a Starbuck in every city in America. It seems that where there is a cluster of buildings in America, a Starbucks suddenly apprears. I was reading that there is a place where Starbucks Coffee Shops are located on opposite corners of the same intersection. I am amazed at their growth because they, basically, just sell coffee. They sell it mixed with water, sugar, cream, extra caffeine, foam and various flavorings at outrageous prices. But it is still coffee. You can’t buy it in small, medium or large because they have pretentiously named their size choices; Demi, Short, Tall, Grande, Venti, and Trenta. Over the years they have added to their product line with sweets, chocolate and such. The latest product introduced is shaken iced tea. I can’t wait to try it because, no doubt, it is so much better than plain old poured iced tea.

Okay, I have an attitude about Starbucks. And perhaps most of that attitude springs forth from jealousy. The success of their marketing has convinced many in our malleable and easily led culture that it is to only place one can get a really good cup of coffee. And it is the place to be. My poor attitude caused me to love it when Consumer’s Report did a survey and taste test and found that, when people were not aware of where the coffee came from, most people preferred McDonald’s coffee over Starbucks. Despite having a narrow range of product that, just possibly, is not the best available on the market, Starbucks is astonishingly successful. The achievements of Starbucks make the point that success has less to do with product and more to do with effective marketing. As much as I believe Starbucks to be, on a certain level, a sham, I give them high marks for attracting multitudes to their stores.

A question worth considering is what if Starbucks marketed like the average church? I believe it is a sure bet they would not have remained in business very long. Churches generally do very little marketing and many churches consider marketing to be either unholy or beneath them. On those rare occasion when marketing is attempted, it is often ineffective. Check out this video: Starbucks marketing like churches. In some cases it seems like the church is working hard to NOT attract new people. My experience is that, when it comes to marketing, when it comes to getting the news out about the Good News, we don’t even know where to start.

This is certainly a subject I know little about and have a history of little success. I do know the first steps involve understanding one’s product and understanding people you are targeting. After that, I am at a loss. Try as we may, the churches I have served have been relative ineffective in delivering the goods – getting the word out. I could use some help. Do you have any marketing successes you could share with me?

Perhaps someone from Starbucks marketing team would like to come help us out.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved