Leadership Is About Change

Lovett Weems has written a helpful book on leading change in the local church — Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). Over the next few weeks, I will focus on some of his insights that are of relevance to pastoral leadership. Here are some highlights from his book that grabbed my attention and stimulated my thinking about pastors as leaders of change in the congregation:

Leadership is about change. However, change is also one of the toughest tasks that leadership faces. “People don’t want change. They just want things to get better,” says R. M. Kanter. Though organisms can adapt, they adaptation is very slow, and there is an actual inclination of all groups to resist change.

However, as people of faith, we have no option but to change, because change is part of God’s will for us. We believe in conversion. One of the attractions of religious institutions is that they help people to change.

Nancy T. Ammerman says, “The most common response to change, in fact, is to perceive as business as usual.”

Radical change is rare. Today’s management experts say that leaders need to reject revolution in favor of more gradual change. If change-oriented leaders are not careful, they can impose more stress on an organization than they can bear, and end up destroying what makes that organization viable. Leaders must emphasize continuity and constantly monitor just how much change an organization can bear, even as they are leading for change.

Bill Shore says, “Leadership is getting people to a place they would not get to on their own.”

Unfortunately, I fear that most of us pastors think of ourselves as caregivers to the congregation, maintainers of the status quo, rather than agents of change. Weems is calling us to another perspective on our vocation, a perspective that is informed by our theological commitments..

William H. Willimon


One of the most frequent questions I get is, “You say that we must do a better job of evaluating clergy effectiveness. How is it possible to define ‘effectiveness’”

I believe that those of us who are charged with the ministry of administration must get better at evaluating and rewarding clergy effectiveness. Thus the book that was read by the Cabinet, Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman,First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization), stimulated our thinking. One of the most important responsibilities of managers (read: District Superintendents) is to evaluate performance. Here are some of my notes from the book:

Managers make a mistake to believe that some outcomes defy definition.

A manager wants to turn talent into performance: There must be accuracy, standards must rule, don’t let the creed overshadow the message.

Focus upon each person’s strengths, work around his weaknesses, and don’t try to perfect them. Conventional wisdom says that “you can be anything you choose to be, there is a real you awaiting to be discovered and developed, within you.” This conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom then says to identify your weaknesses and fix them. You can waste a lot of precious time on this. A bad relationship is not one in which your partner does not know you, it is one in which your partner knows you quite well and wishes you were utterly otherwise. The less effective manager believes that he or she is a mentor. This means that he is constantly in the role of a critic, a rearranger. Great managers help an employee to identify talents and then to develop those talents. They manage by exception. They spend most of their time with their best people.

Managers identify talents by watching an employee’s behavior over time. They want to manage the talents, to the requirements of the role. An aggressive person is matched to a role that requires someone who lights a fire.

We must manage by exception. Beware of all application of rules. Treat each employee according to his or her needs. New managers invest in their best. They spend most of their time with their best people. If you spend too much time with your strugglers, it is a sign that you are into control, rather than coaching and teaching. The manager’s best role is that of a catalyst, turning talent into productivity. Try to figure out better ways to unleash the distinctive talents of the person.

What about fairness? Fairness does not mean treating everyone the same. The better performance, the more time the manger spends with that person. This becomes an incentive. You cannot learn about excellence by studying failure. Be as good about describing excellence as you are about describing failure. Observe your best people and learn!

Poor performance must be confronted, directly and quickly. Sometimes there is poor performance because of “mechanical causes” – the employee lacks certain tools to get the job done. Personal causes are also a problem. Both are difficult to solve. Some performance problems are more difficult to identify and rectify.

Is the performance problem trainable? Once a weakness is perceived in an employee there are only three possible courses of action: Devise a support system, find a complimentary partner, or find a different role. Manage around the weakness so the employee can focus on his or her strengths.

You succeed by trying to capitalize on who you are, not by trying to fix who you aren’t.

The Peter Principle.We promote someone up to their level of incompetence. The Peter Principle believes that the way to reward someone for good performance in a role is to promote them out of that role! Every signal we send tells the employee not to stay in the same role too long. It doesn’t look good on the resume. Keep taking the “next step” this is the way you “get ahead,” and “get respect.” Sooner or later he steps into the wrong role. He can’t go back without great humiliation.

This system is built on false assumptions: Each rung on the ladder represents a slightly more complicated version of the previous rung, it creates conflict by limiting prestige to the next rung, what about alternative career paths. Create meaningful prestige on every rung of excellence. It assumes that varied experiences might make the employee more attractive.

Excellence in each role this requires a distinct set of talents. Good performance in one role does not guarantee good performance in another. Talents must not be confused with skill. The notion that “higher is better” is a damaging distraction. Legions of employees trying to scramble on to increasingly smaller rungs.

Create heroes in every role. Make every role a model. Anyone performing in an excellent way needs to be publicly recognized. There must be graded levels of achievement.

(I think this is a major challenge for our church. Too often we think that the only way to award effectiveness and achievement is to move effective clergy to bigger churches and higher salaries. But our closed appointment system is limited in its ability to ‘advance’ everyone. We have got to create incentives and rewards at every level of clergy deployment.)

The most effective people are those who look in the mirror at themselves, discover their talents, and learn to match those talents to their role. They are not those who look to the organization, climbing up the ladder, give them their job satisfaction.

The employee is the star. It is up to the employee to take charge of his or her life and career, make choices accordingly, and find the sources of satisfaction. The manager can’t do this.

(I fear that our system sometimes encourages clergy to think of the District Superintendent as the key to ‘advancement’ and job satisfaction, rather than satisfaction being a gift of God and a gift of knowing that you are doing God’s work wherever you are serving.)

Prestige must be spread throughout the organization. Therefore the employee is more free to pick roles that will bring lasting satisfaction.

Performance feedback sessions are important. These help the employee think about style, about talents and non-talents. There should be four of these a year. If you can’t do four a year, you have too many employees! It is important that some time alone be spend with each of your people.

People should be evaluated on the basis of performance outcomes.

Removing an employee from a role is one of the hardest of jobs. We need to get to know our employees, to risk friendship. It is hard to give bad news to a friend, but friendship is a good way to really get to know someone. There must be an uncompromising focus upon excellence, with a genuine need to care. Tough love.

Any performance is unacceptable which merely hovers around the average with no movement forward. The notion of talent frees the manager from blaming poor performance on the employee. Not all behaviors can be changed. Not all poor performance is the employee’s fault, due to laziness or lack of engagement. It is a matter of miscasting.

“This isn’t a fit for you, let’s talk about why.” Or, “You need to find a role that better matches your talents.”

“To care” means to set the person up for success. This is how firing can be a caring act.

Each human being is different, and those differences are the power that can be harnessed in an organization, and the manager is the means of doing it.

– Notes by Will Willimon

It’s Easier To Take Out Than To Put In

Two weeks ago, I mentioned a book that the Cabinet and I read together last year, Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules, (Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization). The Cabinet is charged with the deployment and development of our pastoral leaders. First, Break All the Rules makes the rather surprising assertion that people are not equally talented and that it is easier to match people’s talents to specific job responsibilities than to teach people to do things for which they have no talent. In other words, it’s easier to develop the talents that are there, than to put in qualities in a person which God has not seen fit to give them. We found all of this challenging so I give you a synopsis of some of the ideas we’ve been discussing:

Talent is what managers look for in an employee. Talent is defined as a pattern of thought or behavior that can be developed and productively applied to the good of the organization. Talent involves recurring behavior. Behaviors you find yourself doing all the time. (Ability to remember names, ability to think on your feet, etc.)

Seniority systems tend to think that experience is what makes the difference, maturity, rather than talent. Some people say that brainpower makes a difference. Smart people just do better than others. Or sometimes people think that willpower, determination and hard work make the difference. Grit. Now all of this is true. But the right talents are the prerequisite for success in any role. You cannot teach talent. You can only select talent. Talents are the driving force behind an individual’s job performance.

The cardinal principle is that people don’t change that much. Rather than trying to put in what is not there, try to develop what has been put in. Although you cannot teach talents, you can teach skills and knowledge. Good managers try to teach skills and knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge, factual knowledge–things you know. And experiential -understandings that you have picked up along the way. (For instance, I think I have a talent for love of worship, for transforming moments, the acquisition of new skills).

There are relating talents, collegial talents.

Two of the most pervasive management myths are: Talents are rare and very special. But this isn’t true. Talents are recurring patterns of thought, knowledge, and behavior. Your job is not to teach people talent, but to match their unique talents to the role. You have to pay attention to the unique aspects of the role. You must never assume that some roles are so simple that they require no talent, that is the second management myth.

As a manager you need to know exactly which talent you want. You need to be adept at recognizing talent. When you are interviewing someone, he or she will represent his or her talents to you in the rosiest way possible (she will say she is “ambitious” rather than “aggressive”).

There are temptations for the manager. One is to believe that we can make perfect people out of people’s normal imperfections. Managers must resist their attempt to come up with rules and attempt to control people’s imperfections. They must match imperfections well with the role and help turn those imperfections into virtues. Managers sometimes make mistakes into thinking that anybody can perform a given role. They don’t realize the unique qualities that are acquired by the role. They therefore hire the wrong people

I think these management thoughts, from the world of business and commerce, have implications for those of us who are called to management and the ministry of administration in the church. I’ll let you draw out the implications that you see. The Cabinet and I have found these thoughts most challenging.

William H. Willimon

Pastors as Visionary Leaders

Lovett Weems lists the phases of thriving and declining organizations: original vision, growth and building the organization, maintenance, decline, recognized decline, crises or death. I feel that in the United Methodist Church we are in the period of at last recognizing our decline. I hope this leads to a crisis that provokes change and growth.

Vision is not created, but it is discovered, or more truthfully discerned.

“The genius of visionary leadership is in recognizing those clues, putting them together with other clues, and then testing those clues with others to make sure that one is seeing and hearing correctly or that one is putting the different clues together in a manner that makes sense.” (p. 84).

The leader listens to everything in order to get clues and information, fact, opinion, and gossip are all helpful. The leader is willing to listen to negative clues, as well as positive clues. One must build a future on more than negative clues. One must foster enough stability within the congregation, stability that is beyond stagnation and rigid status quo, so that one can have a base from which to move creatively and experimentally. (p. 90).

Every church must have a mission–that is what God calls the church to do, the overall purpose of the church, its reason for being.

And derived from that must be a vision, that to which God has called the congregation to do in the near future to advance that mission. Vision is “What is God calling this church to do next?” We take identity, assessments of our internal context, as well as our external context, to move mission towards vision.

We must identify three to five key values that are essential part of the visionary work of the congregation. These must be defined in writing, with some definition of what these values mean to the life of the congregation. And then they are to be prioritized, because they have degrees of importance.

In order to take the next step, we must understand change.

“If the goal is to write a new chapter in the congregation’s story, that it is essential that the story be thoroughly understood and respected, and that the new chapter pick up and advance the plot.” (David Clewell p. 112).

Weems gives “seven unchangeable rules of change.” People do what they perceive to be in their best interest. The change must have positive meaning for them. People thrive with creative challenge, but wilt under negative stress. People are different, there is not one single key to all change. People believe what they see and previous deceptions can lead to present suspicions. The way to make effective long-term change is first to visualize where you want to go, and then go ahead and inhabit that vision till it comes true. Change is always an act of imagination. (p. 114).

All change is easier when people think it is their idea. Too much change within a short period of time can lead to explosion. Change is disturbing when it is done to us, but it is exhilarating when it is something done by us.

Great leaders are good storytellers. Most of what leaders do is to communicate–to preach, to tell stories, to keep reminding people of the best of their history, and not to worry about repeating themselves or being redundant. Good leaders must talk a vision, before their vision can be lived. Finally, good leaders must persevere. It takes time for a vision to become reality, and one of the most difficult times is the mid-point, right before the vision blossoms. Good leaders are those who persevere.

— Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

William H. Willimon


At this year’s Annual Conference, Dale Cohen, our Director of Connectional Ministries, gave us a great look at the work of our Conference by focusing on some of our statistics, particularly in the light of his leadership in our Natural Church Development work.

“You only count what’s important and whatever you count becomes important,” is one of our guiding principles. We Wesleyans are inveterate collectors of numbers. In fact, the Annual Conference was invented by John Wesley, in great part, to focus upon numbers. Wesley didn’t call it “statistics.” He called it “fruit.” The numbers show how well (or how poorly) we are allowing God to use us to produce fruit for the Kingdom.

We ended the year of 2006 with a membership of 151,792. This represents a net decrease of 1,864 members; however, there’s more to the story!

3,067 people were removed by action of their charge conference, which means that most of those people have not been active in worship in three years or more. Another 766 withdrew their membership. 2,220 people were removed by death. These three areas total 6,053 persons removed from the membership of our Conference.

In 2006, we transferred out 3,423 with only 1,134 people transferred to another denomination–less than one third of the total transfers; two-thirds of the transfers out went to a United Methodist Church. This speaks to a sense of loyalty to the United Methodist Church.
Despite the net loss, the North Alabama Conference is growing! We received 2,341 members from other United Methodist Churches and 2,069 members from other denominations — a thousand more members from other denominations that we lost to other denominations. Another 581 people sought membership by restoring their previously withdrawn membership. This means we brought 4,991 existing Christians into the membership of the North Alabama Conference.

In 2006 the number of Professions of Faith rose to 2,621, which is 89 more than in 2005. These are NEW Christians brought into the work of Christ’s Kingdom. Our efforts to make MORE NEW disciples are having results!

A total of 7,612 people were added to the membership of the churches in North Alabama.[1]

There are two other statistics that demonstrate a positive trend. Some argue that worship attendance is a better indicator of growth than membership. If this is true, then we are growing because the average weekly worship attendance in the North Alabama Conference increased by 2,359 persons. A large portion of this increased attendance was in our newest congregations.[2]

Even more exciting is that we saw an increase of 10,500 people who were participating in Christian Formation opportunities in our local churches. More people are making themselves available for discipleship training and we should see the impact of this increase in three to five years.[3]

My joyful conclusions from the Numbers: Growth Is Happening. The Cabinet’s initiative to stress increased attendance, Dale’s work with NCD, Dick’s work with New Church Development is working. God is giving us fruit!

We Just Need to Step Up the Pace of Growth. We’ve got to have every pastor and every congregation moving in step with our priorities. Let’s make this coming year the best ever!

Will Willimon

P.S. Do you know what your congregation’s vital stats are? Click here to search for your congregation’s statistical table and get a picture of your fruitfulness.

[1] If you backed out the 3,067 people removed by charge conference action we would have shown an increase of 1,203 members. We need to keep paring down our rolls and even though this may lead to continued losses on our “books,” the statistics are promising in that we’re seeing growth in those areas that will lead to membership growth on down the line.

[2] Dick Freeman indicates that the number of people worshiping in our new congregations that are not yet constituted (and therefore not counted in membership totals) would more than compensate the 1,864 net membership loss.

[3] The numbers don’t just indicate more people but also more ministry. This year we had the highest amount contributed to the work of our Conference than in any year past. Mission is the fruit of fruitful efforts to make more disciples!

It’s About The Mission!

This week, we’ve had our Annual Conference. We tried to have a greater focus on our vision statement and priorities in order to stress our mission:

“Every Church challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of
Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.”

Tom Bandy, in his new book, stresses that we must keep the mission of the church ever before us, that the mission gives significance to our work as church leaders, and that the mission puts us in our place. It’s so easy, in the church to lose sight of the mission, to get distracted by attentiveness to the clergy, or by other factors. By keeping focused on the mission, everything else of importance stays in focus, says Bandy:

Over the centuries of Christendom and modern living, people have gotten the false impression that it is the holiness of the individual that gives authenticity to the mission. In both ancient and contemporary times it is the other way around. It is the authenticity of the mission that gives holiness to the individual. The sacrament is not a sacrament because the priest is a priest, but the priest is a priest because the sacrament is a sacrament.

The fact that modernity has gotten it backwards is the reason why clergy today are both deified and vilified at the same time. On the one hand, modern Christians glorify the clergy, believing that their moral perfection and spiritual purity guarantees the efficacy of God’s power. On the other hand, the inability of clergy to live up to impossible standards is easily blamed for the corruption of society and pervasiveness of sin. No wonder modernity can’t recruit clergy! Who wants to be glorified and vilified all in the same day, seven days a week?

The more you persist in thinking that your calling is all about you, the more you set yourself up for this double deceit of clergy glorification and clergy vilification. You will never survive it, my friend! At the very beginning, you need to understand it never has been about you in the first place. It is simply about God’s mission, and for better or worse you happen to be in the way of it. So if you have low self-esteem, you had better get over it if you want to be in Christian ministry. If God has chosen you, then God is giving you high self-esteem whether you like it or not. The last thing God’s mission needs is somebody like you alternately strutting like a peacock and then lamenting “Poor me, poor me”!

I suppose that is why I have always liked John Wesley’s covenant. It is reminiscent of the covenant of ancient pilgrims, medieval monks, and postmodern spiritual entrepreneurs. At the conclusion of his Watch Night liturgy, he writes:

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

If you can say those words without feeling a rush of self-esteem, then the problem is not that you do not like yourself very much but that you do not really like Jesus very much.

Unfortunately, covenants like these have been honored by intentional neglect. Modern churches have done everything possible to guarantee that clergy will be ranked with the best, never suffer, always have income, never be empty, have the closest parking spaces to the entrance … and also be responsible for every visit, blamed for every mistake, and crucified for every triviality. Avoid the heartache by getting this through your head: It’s not about you in the first place. It’s about God’s mission.

Excerpts from Mission Mover, Beyond Education for Church Leadership, Thomas C. Bandy, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004, pp. 39-40.

Will Willimon

Good To Great

When I came to the North Alabama Conference three years ago, I knew that I was coming to one of the leading Conferences in United Methodism. I did not then know what I do now — we are leading the church in some vital areas of renewal. The Cabinet and I read Jim Collins’ Good to Great as part of our work. While our Conference has a number of areas of ministry that need much work and attention from us, I’m pleased to report that we have more areas where it can be said we are moving “from Good to Great.” I think of the following areas where we are doing some great work:

1. New Communities of Faith: Dick Freeman was already leading us in ground-breaking work in planting new churches. Now we lead the United Methodist Church in this effort. 33 new congregations planted in the last decade, 25 more new congregations in the works, including congregations in some of the more neglected areas in our cities.

2. Natural Church Development: We now have a tested, proven program for revitalization of churches, particularly our small, rural, older congregations. Led by Dale Cohen, we now have 80 congregations in process with Natural Church Development and dozens more on the way. The results of this effort among our congregations are amazing.

3. Superannuate Homes: We have long had the leading program for retired clergy housing in the nation — 133 homes for our honored retired clergy and spouses. This year we begin, under Don Neal’s leadership, the Retired Clergy Network to keep our retired clergy connected, supported, and in ministry with us.

4. The Methodist Foundation: Charlie Carlton has created an amazing resource for stewardship with current managed assets of over 35.8 million. This year the Foundation has brought Rick Owen into its capable staff to work with congregations and pastors on financial management, stewardship, and fund raising for mission. The Foundation is one of our great success stories in North Alabama.

5. New Disciples: This past year we made over 3000 new Christians! That’s our highest number in recent years. Our emphasis on Sunday attendance, on reaching out to the unchurched, and making our churches more hospitable to visitors is reaping this wonderful result. Our growth in discipleship is one reason that (while we have much progress to make in our giving record) we raised more money for mission and benevolences than in any year past!

6. Institute of Clergy Excellence: Larry Dill led us to secure two million in grants from the Lilly Endowment. This has enabled us to continue and greatly expand our model program for clergy continuing education — ICE. Building on the long tradition of creative clergy growth and development that was begun by grants from the Dixon Family some years ago, ICE has quickly become a nationally recognized model for clergy education.

7. Residency in Ministry: The Board of Ordained Ministry has spent the last year devising a remarkable pilot program for new clergy recruitment and development. The program will be led by Amelia Sims. Now our three year probationary program will provide our newest clergy with an extensive, demanding, and full plan of mentoring, monitoring, and development. Already numerous Conferences are inquiring into the possibility of enacting the Residency in Ministry in their Conferences. Once again, we are leading the way.

8. Mission: Paulette West continues the great tradition of mission in North Alabama. She trains and sends dozens of Volunteer in Mission teams each year. Our Disaster Response Team, led by James Hassell has become a national model. Our Conference-wide support for mission through the United Methodist Women and our local churches is amazing. Each year dozens of our churches join our missionaries in the field in their work. Thomas Muhomba, whose family was brought to Christ in Zimbabwe by North Alabama Conference missionary, Mildred Taylor, now leads us in our newest mission field — North Alabama!

At this year’s Annual Conference, amid all the work that we have yet to do, let’s celebrate all the amazing things that God is doing among us, making our Conference a gift of God to the people of the world. In Christ’s name, we are moving from Good to Great!

Will Willimon



To an acculturated and accommodated church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words. He wrote them to us in Birmingham, from our jail, fifty years ago but the words ring true in the church today, perhaps in the church of any age, so let us reflect upon them again in our own day. Let us prayerfully reexamine our church on the basis of Dr. King’s eloquent rebuke of the church that has stopped being an outpost of the Kingdom of God and a sign of Jesus’ politics and instead has become merely the “sanction of things as they are.”

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed in. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”. But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought to an end such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), pg. 300.

William H. Willimon
Please pray for our Annual Conference that meets on June 1-2 at ClearBranch United Methodist Church.

Thoughts on "The Jesus Enterprise"

I’m concerned about a book about the church that uses the word enterprise in the title, a word borrowed from business. But I sure want to reach the unchurched. Thus I read The Jesus Enterprise: Engaging Culture to Reach the Unchurched (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), by Kent R. Hunter. Here are some quotes from the book that caught my attention:

Landa Cope, in her excellent book Clearly Communicating Christ, says it this way:

[A] dynamic aspect of [Jesus’] communication was His servant

At some point in history the Church forgot this. We became focused on
our message rather than on serving our audience. The burning question wasn’t,
“Where are people hurting? How can we apply the Gospel to meet those needs?”
Instead it became, “Are we being faithful to Scripture? Is that the exact
meaning of those words? Are we communicating in balance with the whole of the

…Jesus didn’t come to defend the message. The message of God’s
eternal truth is just fine, thank you. It stood before the creation of the
earth, and it will stand when all heaven and earth have passed away (Matthew
24:35). It’s people who are in danger! God so loved the world.
pp. 30-31

[The gospel is not simply about meeting my felt needs. Sometimes Jesus
gives me needs I never had until Jesus met me!]

…When asked why they return to a church they visited, most people respond that they did so because it was a friendly church and the worship services seemed relevant.

…On the front end, they are more interested in knowing if Christianity
works. In other words, they want to know if God makes a difference in your life.
p. 32

[Friendliness? A faith that works? Is this all that Jesus
Christ is Lord means?]

An enterprise ministry can be
defined as: identifying and meeting felt needs in the culture, genuinely caring
for others, building relationship bridges, and communicating the gospel in a
relevant way.
p. 33

[Sometimes the gospel sounds as if it is ‘irrelevant’ when it is simply
true. We live in a culture of deceit so sometimes we don’t know what’s
‘relevant’ until the gospel tells us. We are not the ones to judge what our real
needs are or what’s truly ‘relevant’ to our lives. That’s God’s business.]

Is it just me? I find all of these statements extremely problematic in the light of the biblical witness. True, I’ve taken these out of context but they seem to me to be dangerously, exasperatingly out of touch with the Christian faith. We are to reach people, not just in order to sign the up for our volunteer organization, but we reach people in the name of Christ, reaching them to be part of a countercultural, divinely initiated community called church. The purpose of the church is not friendliness, or meeting my needs, the church is not a means of getting what I want but Gods appointed, created means of getting what God wants.

The church is God’s enterprise, if you must use that language. It is not the result of our savvy communicative technique but a work of a triune God who is determined to have a people.

William H. Willimon

Christ Means Change

Easter keeps happening, even though we are now four weeks after Easter, every time someone is converted to Christ. The Christian life comes neither naturally nor normally. Little within us prepares us for the shock of moral regeneration that is occasioned by the work of Christ among us. What God in Christ wants to do in us is nothing less than radical new creation, movement from death to life. This means that ministry among the baptized tends to be more radical, disruptive, and antagonistic than we pastors admit. We are awfully accommodated, well situated, at ease in Zion , or at least disgustingly content with present arrangements. We reassure ourselves with the comforting bromides of a lethargic church: Everyone in Mainline Protestantism is in decline, everyone has become geriatric, even the Baptists are losing members, people can’t change, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Sociological determinism has got us. What’s to be done?
Despite our settled arrangements with death, as an African American preacher friend of mine puts it, the gospel means, “God is going to get back what God owns.” C. S. Lewis spoke of his life before his conversion as “before God closed in on me.” Conversion, being born again, transformed, regenerated, detoxified, is God’s means of closing in upon us, of getting God’s way with the world, despite what that reclamation may cost God, or us.
Deep in my Wesleyan once warmed heart is a story of how a priggish little Oxford don got changed at Aldersgate and thereafter. John Wesley’s life was well formed, well fixed by a host of positive Christian influences upon him before the evening on Aldersgate Street. Yet what happened afterwards has led us Wesleyans to see his heart “strangely warmed” as nothing less than dramatic ending and beginning, death and birth, a whole new world.
Such a story, fixed deep in our souls, challenges a church that has become accommodated to things as they are, the cultural status quo. It stands as a rebuke to a church that has settled comfortably into a characterization of the Christian life as pleasantly continuous and basically synonymous with being a good person.
Scripture enlists a rich array of metaphors to speak of the discontinuous, discordant outbreak of new life named as “conversion.” “Born from above,” or “born anew” (John 3:7; 1 Peter 1:3, 23), “regeneration” (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), “putting on a new nature” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), and “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul contrasts the old life according to the flesh with “life according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1-39). Baptism tries to tell us that the Christian life is at times discordant, dissonant, and disrupting. When one joins Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn. One might think people would get the message. But, as Luther said, the Old Adam is a mighty good swimmer. A conversionist faith is so disconcerting, particularly to those for whom the world as it is has been fairly good. Those on top, those who are reasonably well fed, fairly well futured, tend to cling to the world as it is rather than risk the possibility of something new. For all these economic, social, and political reasons we pastors tend toward the maintenance of stability rather than the expectation of conversion.

New Creation

Paul was stunned by the reality of the resurrection — the way God not only vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, but also thereby recreated the whole kosmos. In Easter, an old world had been terminated and a new one was being born, so Paul was forced to rethink everything that he had previously thought, including ethics. Much of what Paul says about Christian behavior was formed as his testimony to the resurrection, an event that he had experienced within the dramatic turn around in his own life. Whereas Jesus did Easter at the empty tomb, Easter happened to Paul on the Damascus Road.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed
away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to
himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
(2 Cor.

Verse 17, in the Greek, lacks both subject and verb so it is best
rendered by the exclamatory, “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!”

Certainly, old habits die hard. There are still, as Paul acknowledges so eloquently in Romans 8, “the sufferings of the present time.” It makes a world of difference whether or not one knows the resurrection. Thus, making doxology to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Paul asks that we present ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” by not being “conformed to this world” but by being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). All of this is resurrection talk, the sort of tensive situation of those who find their lives still in an old, dying world, yet also now conscious of their citizenship in a new world being born. Our lives are eschatologically stretched between the sneak preview of the new world being born among us in the church and the old world where the principalities and powers are reluctant to give way. In the meantime, which is the only time the church has ever known, we live as those who know something about the fate of the world that the world does not yet know. And that makes us different.
Crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead – and in our continuing conversion, he takes us along with him toward new life.

William H. Willimon