A True Megashift: From the Physical to the Digital

This past week, LifeWay decided to close all 170 of its physical stores. The Christian bookstore will instead move all of its efforts online.

They are not alone in their decision.

Retail banking is experiencing a steep decline in branch visits. In 2017 alone, 1,700 branches closed. 

The older model for books and banks was bricks. Banks, for example, put their stock in physical branches, which is why there are (were) so many of them. The idea was that the means for expanding customer base was branch location and convenience. Putting a branch every 3-5 miles was the key to customer attraction and retention. 

No longer. 

Think… when you want to buy a book, where do you turn? 

Amazon. 

When you have banking needs, do you think branch? 

No, you think phone.

Banks aren’t stupid. They are realizing that when they eliminate a branch, they eliminate high costs (brick and mortar buildings are expensive, not to mention staffing them). Further, they can then re-invest those resources into cheaper and more efficient online services. They are even able to make the digital experience more convenient and personalized.

Win-win for both the bank and the customer.

So what does the future hold?

Let’s stick with banks.

Analysts are pointing to five powerful paths to connect with customers:

1.   Online and mobile for secure electronic transfers on all tech platforms and for nearly all transaction types, including payments and trading.

2.   Telephonic services for information, problem solving and help. Artificial intelligence offers a great way to support this channel.

3.   Enhanced ATMs with private, secure enclosures for large cash deposits, cashier’s checks, money orders, bonds and/or video chats. This personalizes service in more locations for customers while lowering overhead.

4.   House calls and business calls for investments, loans, notary services and new customer contacts. Think “Geek Squad” for banks, where bankers visit consumers. Customers consider it a tremendous positive when met on their terms and turf.

5.   A redefined in-branch experience that accounts for the other four connections.  

So what should banks do?

Again, analysts have their suggestions:

  • Leave the branch alone if your customers resist change and prefer traditional experiences. 

  • Keep the branch location but downsize and/or redesign it to better serve needs. This might work well with diversified customers in high-density, high-touch or high-service locations. Redefine the experience as you go; forge partnerships with food and beverage or other service businesses to split costs and reimagine customer care. 

  • Close the location—sublease or sell it. Know the main types of branch transactions and fill voids to retain current customers. You could replace branches with enhanced ATMs or position house-call bankers for regular area coverage.

  • Create connections customers value most. The days when customers met banks on their terms have turned around. Bankers must connect whenever and wherever customers have questions, post transactions or need financial services.

It doesn’t take a bank analyst to choose the option that holds the most potential: it’s creating connections that customers value most. And this realization is not just for books and banks. As a recent Fox News report chronicled:

Church, as we’ve known it for the past few generations, is over. Every church you’ve ever attended, or that you drive by on your way to a Sunday sporting event, was built on a physical attendance model that is location-centric.

As a result, church leaders and pastors have spent time every week encouraging, inviting and pleading with people to come to a specific place at a specific time on Sundays. This approach has created church staffing models, systems and ministry strategies focused on improving attendance. It’s also why there is an annual Top 100 list of America’s most-attended churches.

But that way of doing church is dead.

That may be an overstatement, but the sentiment is correct. Our culture has shifted from the physical to the digital, and church growth based on the physical must be rethought in light of the digital. There is a clear place for the physical – there is no escaping the biblical and theological mandate to gather and worship and practice the “one-anothers” – but the future of the growth of the church will not be realized through physical means as much as digital means. Meaning, it will be the digital that fuels the physical.

I won’t even attempt to lay-out the implications of this for various tactics.

Suffice it to say, the implications are staggering.

The bottom line is that we can no longer do “physical” church in a “digital” world.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Kate Shellnutt, “LifeWay to Close All 170 Christian Stores,” Christianity Today, March 20, 2019, read online.

Jim Kearney and Erik Steffensen, “Cutting the Branches: The Case for Letting Go of Physical Locations,” BAI, March 14, 2019, read online.

Dave Adamson, “Church as We Know It Is Over. Here’s What’s Next,” Fox News, March 11, 2019, read online.

The Real Varsity Blues

One of the more important cultural currents was first detailed in one of sociologist Neil Postman’s most provocative works titled The Disappearance of Childhood. His thesis was that children are being robbed of their innocence, their naiveté, their ability to even be a child. He contended that in our world, we ask children to embrace mature issues and themes, experiences and issues, long before they are ready. 

Postman argued that the very idea of childhood is that there is a time when a young person is sheltered from certain ideas, experiences, practices, expectations and knowledge. They are sheltered from adult secrets, particularly sexual ones. Certain facets of life – its mysteries, contradictions, tragedies, violence – are not considered suitable for children to know. Only as children grow into adulthood are they revealed in ways that they can assimilate psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.

Postman’s analysis, first offered in 1982, was prescient. Today, 12- and 13-year-old girls are among the highest paid models in America, presented to us as knowing and sexually enticing adults. 

Children’s literature no longer exists. Young Adult fiction is as mature in its themes as anything on the adult lists. 

The language of adults and children, including what they address in life, has become the same. It is virtually uncontested among sociologists that the behavior, language, attitudes and desires – and even the physical appearance – of adults and children are becoming indistinguishable. 

Even the children on TV act like adults. They do not differ significantly in their interests, language, dress or sexuality from the adults on the show, making the same knowing wisecracks and tossing out the same sexual innuendo. 

But when the line between the adult world and the child’s world becomes blurred (or no longer exists) childhood disappears.

But there is a new development that must be added to the cultural current. Along with the disappearance of childhood is now the prevention of adulthood.

Writing for the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engle Bromwich note that “helicopter” parenting has been replaced by “snowplow” parenting—and it’s robbing children of adulthood.

Prompted by the recent “Varsity Blues” investigation into college admissions tampering, which has dominated the recent news cycle, the idea is that “today’s ‘snowplow parents’ keep their children’s futures obstacle-free—even when it means crossing ethical and legal boundaries.”

Or, as one parent described her parenting strategy for her son: “I did not helicopter parent him. I was a co-pilot.”

Most know that the phrase “helicopter parenting” refers to parents hovering over their child in a protective stance, overseeing any and all activities. Things have changed. “Some… mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.”

But what does this really accomplish?

As the authors of the New York Times article observed, it accomplishes the “robbing” of adulthood. Their children may get into the elite colleges and universities – the culmination of years of snowplowing at every other level – but then these college freshmen “have had to come home from Emory or Brown because they don’t have the minimal kinds of adult skills that one needs to be in college.”

Their observations are worth noting:

“One came home because there was a rat in the dorm room. Some didn’t like their roommates. Others said it was too much work and they had never learned independent study skills. One didn’t like to eat food with sauce. Her whole life, her parents had helped her avoid sauce, calling friends before going to their houses for dinner. At college, she didn’t know how to cope with the cafeteria options—covered in sauce.

“Here are parents who have spent 18 years grooming their kids with what they perceive as advantages, but they’re not.... The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Yes.

So we have the disappearance of childhood on the front end, and the removal of adulthood on the back end. Which leaves us with what? 

Neither children nor adults, innocence nor maturity. 

And that’s the real “Varsity Blues.”

James Emery White

 

Sources

Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood.

Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood,” The New York Times, March 16, 2019, read online.

Jennifer Medina, Katie Benner and Kate Taylor, “Actresses, Business Leaders and Other Wealthy Parents Charged in U.S. College Entry Fraud,” The New York Times, March 12, 2019, read online.

The Importance of Remembering Camp Meetings

Is “contemporary” really contemporary?

No.

People talk about dusting off tired methods, inane traditions and outmoded approaches to outreach in order to drag the church kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

They were saying the same thing in the 19th century.

And in the 16th.

And in the….

You get the point.

Lesslie Newbigin reminded us that: “The gospel is addressed to human beings... If the gospel is to be understood... it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them.” This has long been understood.

Historian Nathan Hatch has noted that it is the embrace of new approaches to worship, ministry, evangelism – and even organization – that have historically fueled the Christian movement, particularly in the North American context and its success at initially withstanding the onslaught of the Enlightenment. 

Hatch contends that it was the wave of popular religious movements that broke upon the United States in the half century after independence that did more to Christianize American society than anything before, or since. Most to the point, Hatch observes that religious leaders “went outside normal... frameworks to develop large followings by the democratic art of persuasion... they were alike in their ability to portray, in compelling terms, the deepest hopes and aspirations of popular constituencies.”

Consider the camp meeting, championed by Francis Asbury, but initially met with great skepticism by Methodist authorities. They perceived “a manifest subversiveness in the form and structure of the camp meeting itself, which openly defied ecclesiastical standards of time, space, authority and liturgical form.” Camp meetings encouraged “uncensored testimonials... the public sharing of private ecstasy; overt physical display and emotional release; loud and spontaneous response to preaching; and the use of folk music that would have chilled the marrow of Charles Wesley.” Yet the camp meetings brought together three to four million Americans annually, an estimated one-third of the total population of the time. It was a phenomenally successful instrument for popular recruitment and, without question, used greatly by God. Asbury simply referred to them as “fishing with a large net.” This “audience-centered” approach, writes Hatch, “meant that the church prospered.” 

The dynamic of many great movements of God has been the embrace of unconventional methods that connected with the audience in order to present Christ. Consider Luther’s move away from Latin when attempting to convey the Scriptures to the German people. He knew that he could be far more effective, and establish rapport with the peasantry far more compellingly, if he spoke in simple German and had the Bible translated into the German language. William Tyndale, in another context and with another language, did the same a generation before. Or think of Dwight Moody who preached in theaters and circuses and used songs written by Ira Sankey that echoed the popular styles of the day (e.g., the waltz). During his famous World’s Fair campaign of 1893 in Chicago, shortly before his death, Moody even advertised his ministry in the amusement columns of newspapers.

Every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. This is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness. Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs. Translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ. Charles Colson wisely wrote that: “Many churches… have found the right balance; behind all the music and skits and fanfare stands a solidly orthodox message that deepens the spiritual life of the members. That is the key. What matters is not whether a church uses skits or contemporary music or squash courts. What matters is biblical fidelity.” 

Yes.

James Emery White


Sources

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press). 

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism

James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science.

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology.

Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body.

The Allure of Buddhism

I’ve come to a cultural conclusion: While Hinduism dominates our theology, Buddhism dominates our practice.

Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, became a best seller in 2017. Four in 10 American adults now say they meditate at least weekly. Major companies like Google, Apple and General Mills have adopted Buddhist meditation programs for their employees.

Which means Buddhism will win the popular mind. There’s an old Latin tag, lex orandi, lex credendi. It literally reads “the law of praying, the law of believing.” The idea is that what is prayed paves the way for what may or will be believed.

Hinduism marks the philosophy of everything from The Matrix to Star Wars. But Buddhism is what we increasingly practice. Or, more to the point, pray.

So why Buddhism?

In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, Olga Khazan writes about why so many Americans are turning to Buddhism. Short answer? Mental health. And, to be sure, mental health is the new holy grail of our inner world. She writes that it’s not about “spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.” People have run out of options. “Mental health disorders are up in Western societies, and the answer doesn’t seem to be church attendance, which is down. There’s always therapy, but it’s so expensive. My meditation class was $12.”

So why Buddhism? Khazan is worth quoting here at length:

The ancient religion, some find, helps them manage the slings and arrows and subtweets of modern life. Many people are stressed out by the constant drama of the current administration, and work hours have overwhelmed the day. There’s something newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit....

What’s different—and perhaps reassuring—about Buddhism is that it’s an existing religion practiced by half a billion people. Because relatively few Caucasian Americans grew up Buddhist, they generally don’t associate any familial baggage with it like some do with, say, the Christianity or Judaism of their childhoods. 

Much like “cafeteria Catholics” ignore parts of the religion that don’t resonate with them, some Westerners focus on only certain elements of Buddhist philosophy and don’t endorse, say, Buddhism’s view of reincarnation or worship of the Buddha. Call them “buffet Buddhists.”

Taken out of their Buddhist context, practices like meditation “become like a dry sponge,” McMahan said, “soaking up whatever values are around.” 

Yes. And that is the appeal of Buddhism. It gives us the easy appeal of spirituality without the accountability.

The Tibetan mountaintop monasteries, the shaved heads, the flowing robes, the exotic locations, the meditation… it all seems to hold the promise of the experience of the spiritual. Yet you don’t have to join anything, or really believe in anything.

But that’s not real spirituality.

It’s little more than your own voice.

As one person put it, “As a Catholic, I struggle with some of the religious concepts, but it doesn’t prevent me from adopting the Buddhist techniques and philosophies.”

Lex orandi, lex credendi.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Olga Khazan, “Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism,” The Atlantic, March 7, 2019, read online.

Hannah H. Kim, “The Meditation Industry,” Sage: Business Researcher, January 29, 2018, read online.

A Lament for a Church Sign

I recently heard a pastor compliment another church for being a church that was actually moving forward, being “alive” and “contemporary,” brushing away the ecclesiastical cobwebs and making a Kingdom impact. Leaning in to hear the breakthrough, he said: “What was it, 13 years ago? Why, they were the first church in the county to have a digital sign out front!”

Oh my.

It would be easy to hear such a statement and snicker. 

I didn’t. 

I grieved. 

I could imagine that small church sacrificing to invest in the digital sign. Discussing it at business meetings. Experiencing growing excitement when installation began, and coming that first Sunday after its launch expecting new attenders and a fresh wind of the Spirit. I could imagine them feeling proud that their church was actually doing something; that life had come to their sleepy enterprise. Even something “modern.”

Again, I don’t write a single word of that in condescension. 

I write it as a lament.

Why?

We all know the sign did next to nothing. There isn’t a sign in the world that could—not in the face of the American church’s situation.

A new study from LifeWay Research has found that “6 in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance and more than half saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians in the past 12 months.” Approximately one out of every 10 had none. The study also found that most Protestant churches in America “have fewer than 100 people attending services each Sunday.” One out of every five has fewer than 50.

There are many reasons that could be cited for this declining state of affairs. But let’s state one of the more obvious ones:

The digital sign mentality. 

Let’s paint the church, restripe the parking lot, put in new carpet, freshen up the landscaping. And if we want to be radical, put in a digital sign out front that can flash service times and pithy spiritual sayings. The sentiment is that whatever the church needs is cosmetic. 

It’s an alluring idea. Cosmetic touches are easy on the existing constituency. They cost nothing in terms of the real sacrifice needed, which is dying to themselves and living for a mission. Cosmetic changes do not represent real change, only the illusion of it.

The problem with the American church today is simple: It’s turned inward toward the already convinced instead of outward toward those far from God and, as a result, does nothing of an informed nature in terms of strategy or tactics to reach those far from God. Even those growing are, for the most part, doing it through transfer growth at the expense of other churches.

Shameless plug: We’re offering a pair of identical Pastor’s Workshops at Meck on how to improve communication to the unchurched, raise strategic resources for Kingdom expansion, and grow numerically from the unchurched. I hope that sounds like something worth an afternoon. You can get details HERE.

So mourn a digital sign. 

Not simply for the squandered expense,

... but the squandered vision.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Aaron Earls, “The Church Growth Gap: The Big Get Bigger While the Small Get Smaller,” Christianity Today, March 6, 2019, read online.

The Mainstreaming of Sexual Fluidity

In my book Meet Generation Z, I highlighted many of the marks that characterize those born between 1995–2010. One that stood out to many readers had to do with being “sexually fluid.”

By this, I meant that Generation Z has become sexually and relationally amorphous. Consider the influential statements by outspoken young celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus or Cara Delevingne. Stewart, when asked about her sexuality, said: “I think in three or four years, there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight. It’s like, just do your thing.” From Miley Cyrus: “[I don’t] relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.”

They are not alone.

A recent U.K. study revealed that nearly half of all young people don’t think they are exclusively heterosexual. The YouGov survey revealed that 49% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 identified as something other than 100% heterosexual. This despite the repeated findings that only about 4% of the entire adult population are actually homosexual. What is being revealed is an increasing “sexual fluidity” that refuses either the homosexual or heterosexual label. The idea is that both labels are repressive. Sexuality should be set free of any and all restrictions and allowed to follow its desire, moment by moment.

“I always describe my sexuality as: ‘If you’ve got nice hair and pretty eyes, I’m down for it,’” explains Jezz, a 26-year-old editor working in historical publishing. “It’s not that gender doesn’t matter, because it can be important, but it’s a bit of an afterthought. It’s just like: ‘Oh, hello.’”

Why? Because the greatest value for this generation is nothing less than individual freedom. So don’t be misled by the studies reporting that they don’t drink, smoke, take drugs or sleep around (and to be sure, their percentages on each are lower than previous generations). They are not, in any way, socially conservative philosophically. 

So where will this lead?

It’s not difficult to assess. As an article in The Guardian noted: “… as Generation Z grow older, and become the dominant cultural influence, their belief that… ‘people have the right to identify however they choose’ is only likely to become more mainstream. Could we eventually reach a point where heterosexuality… is no longer considered the norm and ‘coming out’ as anything else is practically superfluous?”

Tied to this is raising children in a gender neutral way. Actress Kate Hudson recently announced that she and her husband would be raising her third child in a “genderless” way. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are rumored to be making the same choice, though the Royal Palace has tried to distance itself from the rumor. 

I’ve written in other places about the importance of gender, and studies are beginning to reveal that those who change themselves physically from one gender to another can deal with enormous regret when they realize their “fluid” feelings may have been transitory at best. Indeed, there are growing numbers of people seeking to reverse their gender reassignment surgeries and transitions. This is so upsetting to those in favor of fluidity that they are trying to prevent the research on it from even taking place (see source article HERE).

So however the young prince might be raised, one thing is for certain: you can welcome yourself to the new world of sexual fluidity. 

And, sadly, the moral anarchy that underlies it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).

Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus and the Rise of Sexual Fluidity,” by Eric Sasson, The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2015, read online.

“Nearly Half of Young People Don’t Think They Are Exclusively Heterosexual,” by Helena Horton, The Telegraph, August 17, 2015, read online.

Gabby Hinsliff, “The Pansexual Revolution: How Sexual Fluidity Became Mainstream,” The Guardian, February 14, 2019, read online.

Mehera Bonner, “Kensington Palace Just Weighed in on How Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Will Be Raising the Royal Baby,” Cosmopolitan, March 2, 2019, read online.

Joe Shute, “‘Why Are We So Scared to Admit Many People Regret Changing Their Gender?’” The Telegraph, February 17, 2019, read online.

The Importance of Offending People

It can be very important to offend certain people and lose them from your church,

… when it’s for the right reason and over the right thing.

Here are four times I’m willing to offend someone and see them walk out the door. And, if you’re a leader, you should to:

1. When Upholding a Value.

One of the cardinal values at Meck is that lost people matter to God. A lot. Which means we prioritize reaching them. If someone wants to turn the church inward, and make it all about the needs of the already convinced – and is offended that we don’t go along with that sentiment – we are willing for them to be offended and leave. There are many other values we uphold at the risk of offense, and each is important. People have a right to disagree with your values, but you have every right (and need) to uphold them in the face of disagreement.

2. When Enforcing a Policy.

We have certain policies and procedures that are designed for safety and security and the positive experience of those involved. For example, we close our children’s ministry (MecKidz) classrooms 15 minutes after the service begins. We do this to protect the children in the room, the volunteers, the programming they have planned and more. The only exception we make is for a first-time guest. If someone arrives 15 minutes late, we cannot and do not accept their child into MecKidz. Some get offended and leave. We live with that.

Another example is when someone chooses to bypass MecKidz, our Family Viewing Room or our overflow video area and bring their young child into a service. If the child becomes disruptive, we ask them to step out until the child can be quieted, and/or invite them to enter the Family Viewing Room. Are some offended? Of course, but better to risk that offense than have that child ruin the experience for the entire crowd. 

If someone wants to belligerently say that this is unwelcoming, I would counter that the person who insists on coming late or stays in the service with a disruptive child is being self-centered. All that matters to them is them—not the needs, safety or experience of the many. You simply cannot let one person negatively dictate the experience of the assembled church.

So if someone sits in the front of the auditorium and leaves during the message, when they return, we ask them to sit in the back so as not to walk to the front in the middle of a talk and be a distraction. If someone comes late and we are in the middle of a video (with dim lights or even blackout) or a unique experience such as Communion, we ask them to wait until an appropriate time to enter. If someone has a child in MecKidz who cannot be calmed, we call the parent out of the service to come and sit with them.

People don’t like being told what to do. Mix that in with many people having no sense of how disruptive they can be through their actions, and you have a recipe for offense. And again, we’ll live with that.

3. When Campaigning for a Cause.

There is no way to avoid capital campaigns if you want to gain chunk yardage for the cause of Christ. Through such efforts we have not only bought land and built buildings, but we have established halfway houses for children rescued from human trafficking in the Philippines; built a study center for pastors in Northern India; rebuilt sister churches devastated by hurricanes and flooding; and kept the doors of an orphanage open in Argentina.

As amazing as that is, every capital campaign I have ever led our church through has also created offense. People don’t like to be asked for money or to be challenged about giving. It doesn’t matter if it’s for the cause of Christ and they, themselves, would claim to be Christ followers. They choose to be offended by it for one reason or another. I can count on around a 10% reduction in attendance every time.

But that’s okay. Our church has the influence and impact it has today because of those campaigns, and the selfless, generous saints who sacrificially gave to each one.

I’ll never forget hearing about a family who was offended that a particular capital campaign would involve a coffee shop and bookstore as part of the building effort—one that would have its proceeds go to local and international mission partners, no less. They left the church over it. The campaign went forward, was wildly successful, and we were able to do immeasurable good through it—including the coffee shop and bookstore (a ministry I believe deeply in, by the way, as you can read HERE). Months later, after all was completed, I was told by a member of our staff that they had seen the family in attendance.    

“Really?” I asked. “Where did you see them?”

“In line getting coffee,” they said.

4. When Maintaining a Belief.

Finally, though many more could be listed, you risk offense by maintaining and contending for basic biblical beliefs. No matter how winsome and compelling you can try to be in dealing with sensitive and controversial matters, you will offend people. The message of the Christian faith is deeply counter-cultural, and increasingly so with each passing day. It is, by its very nature, offensive. But it is precisely that offense that makes it the gospel. I, for one, will continue proclaiming it in all of its glorious offense. 

And while offensive to some, only in its clearest and most convictional form will it retain its potency and potential to arrest the world’s attention. Make no mistake—a lukewarm religion holds little value in the midst of a settling secularism. What grips a conscience is anything gripping. The only kind of voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content and bold in its challenge. 

And again, I can live with that.

James Emery White

From How to Who

It was the summer of 1925. The place was the small mountain town of Dayton, Tennessee. The issue at hand was a legal confrontation that made headlines around the world. On one side was William Jennings Bryan and on the other was Clarence Darrow. Their confrontation was not over a crime or misdemeanor; it was not over a legal suit involving a will or a trust. It didn’t even involve special prosecutors or a grand jury. In fact, the courts had never encountered a case quite like this one.

The subject was the very origin of human life.

It is known in the history books as the Scopes Trial. A young biology teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was charged with violating a Tennessee law stating you could not teach evolution. As a result, the trial posed defenders of evolutionary theory against those who wanted public schools to teach what was considered to be a biblical view of the origin of the world’s inhabitants. William Jennings Bryan represented the state and, by default, those who believed in the biblical view of the creation of human beings. Clarence Darrow represented those who embraced the evolutionary theory.

The three main parties of the Scopes Trial: William Jennings Bryan (left), John T. Scopes (center), Clarence Darrow (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The three main parties of the Scopes Trial: William Jennings Bryan (left), John T. Scopes (center), Clarence Darrow (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

It really was the clash of two worlds. Bryan was the good-old-boy, religious Southerner. Darrow, in favor of evolution, was the outspoken, religious agnostic from the North, polished and intellectual, supplied to defend Scopes by the ACLU. Many people do not know that the result of the trial found the teacher guilty, but not before Darrow (the evolutionist) had made a fool of Bryan (the creationist). Bryan allowed himself to be cross-examined by Darrow, arguably the greatest trial lawyer of his day, on the precise accuracy of the Bible. In the course of that examination, Darrow forced Bryan to admit that he couldn’t answer even the most basic questions about what the Bible puts forward as truth. Not because there weren’t answers, but because Bryan wasn’t the sharpest biblical scholar around. 

So the verdict as it stands in history is intriguing: Bryan won the battle, but he lost the war. While he technically won the case, the conflict stamped the entire debate with an unmistakable image. Evolution vs. creation came to be seen as the city vs. the country; places like New York and Chicago vs. backwoods Dayton, Tennessee; science vs. ignorance; the modern world of the 20th century vs. the American Religious Fundamentalism of the 19th century. That image has remained firmly in place for nearly a century and so have the lines of debate. Evolution has become the accepted scientific theory of how human beings and all of life developed and came into being. Whether through evolution or not, the biblical idea of a God creating is seen as a view that is anti-scientific and out of touch with the real world.

But is that the caricature we should have in mind? A divide between smart and dumb, sophisticated and backward, science and the Bible... or even between evolution and creation? Or is there something more to be considered? Namely, that the real divide is between a naturalistic view of the universe (seeing nature as all that there is) and a theistic view of the universe (remaining very much open to the existence and activity of God). In other words, a view of the world that sees nothing but the temporal, the material and the natural, over and against a view that is open-minded toward the eternal, the spiritual and, yes, even the supernatural. 

To be sure, those who are Christians believe that God created human beings. If you are a Christian, you are, by necessity, a creationist. You believe that we were wonderfully and carefully designed, and that the entire creative process was miraculously and supernaturally generated and guided by God.

But this is the “who” of the matter, not the “how”; which, in truth, is the real debate.

And according to a new study released this month by the Pew Research Center, this is where most Christians land. The majority of Christians today (as in 58% of white evangelical Protestants and 66% of black Protestants) “agree that human evolution is real—and that God had a hand in it.”

Pew acknowledged that perhaps they had, in the past, been asking the question regarding evolution wrong, meaning not phrasing it in a way to allow both the embrace of evolution along with a role for God.

Of course, any reasonable glance at evolution cries out for some kind of intervention. The timeline alone is problematic. While the age of the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years, the age of the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years. But life didn’t exist 4.5 billion years ago. It couldn’t. It was a geologically violent time, there was constant bombardment from meteorites, and the Earth itself had to cool and its surface solidify to a crust. Life on Earth, the latest thinking goes, began about 3.8 billion years ago, in the form of single-celled prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria. Multi-cellular life didn’t come into play until over a billion years later. It’s only in the last 570 million years that the kind of life forms we are familiar with even began to evolve, starting with arthropods, followed by fish 530 million years ago, then land plants 470 million years ago, and then forests 385 million years ago. Mammals didn’t evolve until just 200 million years ago, and our own species, Homo Sapiens, only 200,000 years ago (according to theorists). 

So humans have been around for a mere 0.004% of the Earth’s history. That’s the evolutionary time frame, but also the evolutionary problem. 

The whole idea behind naturalistic evolution is that it’s a product of time plus chance. But there just hasn’t been enough time for the Earth to cool and life to be produced naturalistically by chance. One-time Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University, Sir Fred Hoyle, has determined that if you computed the time required to get all 200,000 amino acids for one human cell to come together by chance, it would be about 293.5 times the estimated age of the Earth. Even further, Hoyle, along with his colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe, calculated the odds for all of the functional proteins necessary for a one-cell animal to form in one place by random events. They came up with a figure of one chance in 10 to the 40,000th power—that’s the number 1 with 40,000 zeros after it. Since there are only about 10 to the 80th power atoms in the entire universe, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe concluded that this was “an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.” 

For the current proposed evolutionary timeline to work, it would be like having the working dynamics of the latest iPhone along with the entire corporate campus of Apple that produced it to be instantly created – by chance – through a single explosion in a computer geek’s garage. If you are going to embrace the theory of evolution, you also need to (seemingly) embrace some kind of outside, guiding, enhancing force that sped it along and guided it strategically in the time frame of the age of the Earth.

There is, of course, more to consider, such as the initial complexity of life from which evolution had to begin (How did that initial complexity come into being?). Also, there is the problem of explaining how the evolutionary process created ever-increasing diversity (How one species creates a completely different species is, at best, vague.).

But beyond the lack of time for evolution to have done its work without outside help, beyond tracing the origin of life back to its roots and finding that its starting point was so complex that it couldn’t have evolved naturally (step by Darwinian step) to get there, there’s the beginning of life itself. You can’t say “Life exists because 3.8 billion years ago it began evolving from single-celled prokaryotic cells” and consider the case closed. Just like Big Bang theorists have to wrestle with where the stuff that got banged came from and who made it bang, evolutionary theorists have to ask how those first bacteria came to life. How did life come from non-life? You can say that within chemically rich liquid oceans organic molecules transitioned to self-replicating life, but that’s like saying your SUV became Optimus Prime after it went through a car wash. It doesn’t just happen.

So the real decision is not between creation and evolution, but between theism and naturalism. And it would seem that those who have the most scientific problems are the naturalists, as everything in science that reveals “how” repeatedly points to a very necessary “Who.” 

James Emery White

 

Sources

Nadia Whitehead, “Origins Opinion Surveys Evolve from ‘How’ to ‘Who’,” Christianity Today, February 12, 2019, read online.

George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925.

Dr. Devleena Mani Tiwari, “Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth,” Science India, read online.

Sir Fred Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe

Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space.

Strategy and Tactics

One of the most important responsibilities of leadership is navigating the dynamics between strategy and tactics.

Strategy, if illustrated militarily, is the science of directing large scale military operations, such as maneuvering forces into the most advantageous position prior to actual engagement with the enemy. It’s a skill rooted in planning and managing. 

Tactics are literally “matters of arrangement.” Again, in a military context, it is the science of arranging and maneuvering forces in view of short-range objectives. Tactics are methods used to achieve a predetermined end.

So strategy lies behind when and where (and even if) to use armed conflict in view of a wider objective; tactics dictate the battlefield maneuvers. 

Obviously, both are important and inextricably intertwined. But that is where countless mistakes have been made—their intertwining. Here are two critical mistakes that many organizations, and most of all churches, often make:

1.   Confusing tactics with strategy.

There are many things that are mere tactics that are distinct from strategy but are often treated as if they are strategy. For example, take small groups. It should not be any church’s strategy to have small groups. That is a tactic. The strategy is to be a biblically functioning community where the practice of the “one-anothers” is manifest. Small groups are simply a means to that end, and perhaps not even the best.

Or consider a multi-site approach to church growth. Though it’s often called a strategy, it’s not. It’s a tactic. A strategy is to grow your church through the unchurched in your community. Having additional campuses is simply one way of pursuing that strategy. But the goal is not to be a multi-site church, as that is a tactic that should be embraced or released as deemed important to the strategy.

When you confuse a tactic with strategy, the tactic becomes enshrined as if it is sacrosanct. Soon, the goal is to preserve the tactic, rather than pursue the strategy. Yet tactics, by their very definition, only exist to serve the strategy. They should be ruthlessly evaluated in light of whether they continue to serve the strategy as well as other options, or if they even continue to serve the strategy at all.

2.   Pursing tactics without a strategy.

A second mistake that is all too common is to pursue a collection of tactics without an overarching strategy. This is when you have a number of activities, but no coherent plan as to what they are all trying to collectively achieve, much less how they work together synergistically to achieve it. A great amount of energy is being spent and activity abounds, but that is all it is—a collection of energized activities.

There are many dire consequences that flow from this mistake, but two stand out. First, nothing is aligned in a way for impact. Think of how light works—light that is diffused doesn’t make much of a difference, but take that light and focus it through a magnifying glass and you can set something on fire. Focus it even more, and it can become a laser that cuts through sheet metal. Tactics without a strategy is like light that is diffused; tactics with a strategy become a laser beam.

A second consequence is that without an overarching strategy, you have no way of evaluating what you should be doing and, sometimes more importantly, what you should not be doing.

Here are two examples of strategy providing telling insight into tactics. For years, Meck offered a Fall Festival for the community on our 80-acre North Charlotte Campus. It grew in size until it became one of the largest-attended Fall Festivals in Charlotte and, I might add, took enormous resources for us to offer. I remember gathering a team of leaders and asking, “Can any of you name a single unchurched family that has come to Meck through our Fall Festival?” Silence. I then tasked them to dig deeper into whether this event was strategic for us. We were not, after all, in the Fall Festival business. It was a tactic. We were in the unchurched business. As it turned out, there was very little fruit despite very large crowds. 

That was the last year we had a Fall Festival.

Another example took place during a construction phase when we had limited use of our auditorium at our largest-attended campus. We rented the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (now the PNC Music Pavilion), which has a capacity of more than 18,000 people for our Easter service. Thousands came. We did it again the next year. Even more attended. We added egg rolls, bounce houses; we even had bands such as NEEDTOBREATHE perform mini-sets. By the fourth consecutive year, it was easily the largest attended single Easter service in Charlotte, perhaps the largest in the entire southeast United States. Again, a huge event, at the expense of vast resources.

But was it translating into growth from the unchurched?

No. It had simply become the go-to event for Christians who wanted an Easter mega-event. But we were not in the “Easter for happily churched Christians” business, much less in the “let’s grow from other churches” business.

That was the last year we hosted “Easter at Verizon.”

One of my mantras is that the mission, vision, values and message of the church are timeless and unchanging; the methods, however, must be continuously evaluated in light of their ongoing effectiveness. 

So whether it’s confusing tactics with strategy, or employing tactics independent of a strategy, the lesson is the same:

Get strategic.

James Emery White

A Spiritual Fitbit

I recently received my annual “year in review” from Fitbit, the watch/tracker I wear on my wrist. I find it helpful in keeping me on my pre-determined goal of at least 10,000 steps a day, and immensely satisfying when I enter “challenges” with my competitive children.

I was informed that in 2018, I walked 4,117,849 steps. That’s an average of more than 11,000 steps a day, which, Fitbit told me, is like 524 hours showing off my dance moves. Since I don’t have any dance moves, except acting like an airplane trying to feed my grandchildren, this made me happy.

It was also the equivalent of 2,031 miles, which is the same as 8,122 times around an Olympic track. I burned 732,110 calories, which equals 2,816 scoops of ice cream. They would have been better off telling me the equivalent of burning off Five Guys hamburgers.

Fitbit gave me another interesting factoid, completely unattached to my own stats. The fittest day of the year in 2018 across all users was May 25 (or at least the most active), and May 1 was the top day exercise was logged. For those charting food intake, the top day was January 8.

Fitbit users lost a total of 68,878,807 pounds. 

I happily (and gratefully) contributed to that.

The report made me wonder… what if there was a spiritual Fitbit? I sometimes wish one existed. Something that would remind me how many minutes I’ve prayed, how many “steps” I took in faith, how well my giving matched my income, the number of times I shared my faith, when I showed grace and when I exercised mercy.

We shouldn’t reduce spirituality to such things, but tracking them would at least hold us accountable to some bare minimums. Imagine a “Workweek Challenge” for how many times we served the poor, stood against injustice or worked for racial reconciliation. 

Or even obeyed the speed limit.

I know. A “spiritual” Fitbit would feed into legalism and cater to a works-righteousness. But I still feel that while James, the brother of Jesus, might not like it as a leading indicator, he might like it as a minority report. 

After all, he did write,  

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (James 2:14) 

Maybe we do need something wrapped around our soul that sends us a report every now and then. 

James Emery White