The Choice to Read

The critical importance of reading reminds me of something I read long ago; so long ago that the author now escapes me. But I recall it was a lament for a book never read. The loss of pages never turned, covers never opened, words never seen. A single book can deepen your understanding, expand your vision, sensitize your spirit, fill your soul, ignite your imagination, stir your passions and widen your wisdom. There truly can be mourning for a book that is never read; mourning for the loss of what our lives could have held and what we could have accomplished.

Yet how can we become active readers in the midst of the frantic pace of our lives? It is tempting to view the act of sitting down with a book – much less many books – as a luxury afforded those with unique schedules or privileged positions in life. In truth, it’s available to us all. It’s simply a matter of choice or, perhaps more accurately, a series of choices.

To read, you must first position yourself to read. I have learned to keep books around me. When I travel, when I take my car to have the oil changed, when I go to the doctor’s office… I always have a book or journal, magazine or article. At the very least I have a phone or tablet that holds my reading material. If you were to look around my home, you would see stacks of books everywhere—on the tables by the side of beds, on the floor by chairs. 

But this reflects a deeper decision in relation to reading. Having a book at hand is only of use if I choose to spend available time reading it. Key to that choice is the word “available.” I once heard Jim Collins, known best as the author of business titles, comment that we do not need to make more “to do lists,” but rather a few “stop doing lists.”

And there is little doubt what needs to be at the top of that list. 

According to the most recent “Time Use Survey” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, after you take out the time we spend sleeping, grooming, eating and drinking, working our vocational jobs, housework, laundry, lawn and garden care, caring for pets, shopping, caring for our spouse, caring for our kids and classes we might be taking,

… the average American still has around five hours of leisure per day. 

And guess what we spend most of it on. Yes, TV. Right at around three hours a day. Whether it’s live TV, streaming videos, or DVDs – whether on computers, tablets, phones or an actual television – three hours a day.

I know that in my life, the greatest opposition to reading is what I allow to fill my time instead of reading. To say we have no time to read is not really true. We have simply chosen to use our time for other things, or have allowed our time to be filled to the exclusion of reading.

It reminds me how Neil Postman once noted that the great fear of George Orwell, as conveyed in his novel 1984, was of a day when there might be those who would ban books. Aldous Huxley’s portrait of the future in Brave New World was more prescient. Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

I remember a time when my family and I traveled to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. There for a week, our pattern was to go to the parks early in the morning, come back to the hotel for a mid-afternoon break, and then go back out for the evening. One day, during one of the afternoons back at the hotel, we were sitting in the atrium around a table doing what came naturally to us as a family. 

We were reading. 

My oldest daughter was tearing through the latest installment of Harry Potter in order to pass it on to her siblings; my other daughter was soldiering her way through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; my oldest son was reading Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings; and my youngest son was laughing uproariously over some unfortunate event conceived by Lemony Snicket. 

I had my own stack of books beside me, as if they were a mound of pastries that I couldn’t yet decide which to eat first. A history by David McCullough, I believe, finally won. My wife, bless her soul, was actually reading one of her husband’s books. 

Martyrs still exist.

A woman walked over to our table, openly marveling at seeing six people – and particularly four children—reading. She said it was a wonderful sight and wondered how we did it. I remember thinking that we didn’t do anything—we genuinely enjoyed reading. But there was something that caused my children to love a book. It started by doing what my mother did, which was talking about books like they were truly a pleasure. Then, throughout her life, modeling a life that read. 

But then another thought entered my mind. What led us to read that day? The same thing that had led us to read a thousand days before. On that day, upon returning to the hotel room, the TV went on just like it would in your family. But then Susan and I instinctively said to our kids: “Why don’t you get a book and read instead? Come on, let’s go out together and sit by a table and read.” 

So we did. But first, the choice had to be made. Oh, and once the choice was made, an astonishing thing happened.

Books were read.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press).

Joe Pinsker, “What American Men Do with Their Extra Half Hour of Daily Leisure Time,” The Atlantic, January 7, 2019, read online.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), p. vii.

The State of Apatheism

In the first ever “State of Theology” survey conducted in the UK, adults were asked what they believed about God, Jesus Christ and more. The headline? A third of all surveyed responded “I don’t know” to many of the questions.

 For example, to the statement “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,” 29% agreed, 39% disagreed and 32% replied “don’t know.”

Or consider this: “Biblical accounts of the physical (bodily) resurrection of Jesus are completely accurate. This event actually occurred.” Only 20% agreed, 46% disagreed and, again, 34% didn’t know.

Even more, 36%, didn’t know whether to agree or disagree with the statement “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s own works, but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.”

In fact, an article on the study concluded that “‘I don’t know’ was the top response to numerous questions about Jesus, sin, the Bible, salvation and other rudimentary theological concepts.”

“It’s actually tragic when you look at the survey and you see so many saying ‘I don’t know,’” Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries and president of Reformation Bible College, told Premier Christian Radio. “These aren’t just matters of life and death; these are matters of eternal life and eternal death. There can’t be any more consequential questions than the questions on this survey and so these ‘I don’t knows’ are really troubling.”

Yes, they are.

There are several responses that could be made to the seeming shrug of the shoulders toward theology. The most hopeful is, “Well, if they don’t know, let’s go tell them!” Yes, that would be the place to start. But it might be helpful to realize that there is more than mere ignorance at play. What if their “I don’t know” actually betrays a lack of interest, and not simply a lack of certainty?  My sense is this would be the more accurate assessment.

There was an article in the Atlantic Monthly in which the author was describing his spiritual condition. Someone asked him about his religion. He was about to say “Atheist” when it dawned on him that this wasn’t quite accurate. 

“I used to call myself an atheist,” he ended up responding, “and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m (and this was when it hit him) an... apatheist!” 

He then went on to describe his state as a “disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.” 

But it’s what he wrote next that haunted me.

“I have Christian friends who organize their lives around an intense and personal relationship with God, but who betray no sign of caring that I am an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual. They are exponents, at least, of the second, more important part of apatheism: the part that doesn’t mind what other people think about God.”

And sadly, this seems an accurate reflection of our day. In a U.S. version of the same “State of Theology” study, to the statement, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior,” a mere 38% of American evangelicals strongly agreed.

So while there was widespread lament to the “I don’t know” headline of the survey, the greater lament should surround the greater headline, true of believers and non-believers alike:

“I don’t care.”

James Emery White

 

Sources

“The State of Theology,” TheStateofTheology.com, read online.

Griffin Paul Jackson, “Brits’ Top Response to Theology Questions? ‘Don’t Know.’” Christianity Today, November 23, 2018, read online.

Jonathan Rauch, “Let It Be,” The Atlantic Monthly, May 2003 Issue, read online.

The Ruthless ABCs of New Year Leadership

The start of a new year is always a time of reflection and recalibration, particularly in the life of a leader. Beyond our own personal lives, we have a team, an organization or a company we are responsible for leading.

So how do you approach that role at the start of a new year?

I put myself through the “ABCs.” I will present these in the context of leading a church, but they apply to any leadership role.

A – Advance

First, I think through what will advance the church. By this I mean raw numerical growth from the unchurched and the expansion of ministry impact. The goal is to move the ball down the field, to advance the cause of Christ… so what can be done to achieve that?  

B – Better

Next, I try to evaluate how we can simply do better at what we’re already doing in terms of efficiency (doing things right) and effectiveness (doing the right things). These are reflections on quality and performance.

C – Control

Finally, though I’m sure we could come up with leadership explorations for every letter of the alphabet, I think about control. This is about maintaining appropriate control of your vision and values, culture and DNA—not to mention the more obvious control of output and decision making. Leaders provide order instead of anarchy, unity instead of division, missional focus instead of a handful of tactics in search of a strategy.

These ABCs should be pursued ruthlessly. By that I mean with bloodless calm and collected emotion. Here’s why: You will find areas where you need to change. You may even be entering an era where this annual exercise leads you to a massive change, say, in strategic emphasis or methodology.

That’s when the ABCs get scary, but also when they bring the most helpful organizational change. But leaders must work steadfastly, pray diligently and seek counsel humbly to know when it’s time to…

… quit something,
… start something,
… fix something,
… end something,
… move something,
… try something,
… transition something,
… change something, or
… redirect something. 

And they must do it with their organization’s best future in mind. Not their ego, not whether it will mean more work for them, not whether it will stir the pot of controversy… but whether it is best.

I’m in the thick of my New Year’s ABCs right now, and I can honestly tell you that I’m not sure I’ve ever had the Holy Spirit prompt me to consider more draconian steps in my 30-plus years of ministry. Steps that would be revolutionary for the church I lead. I am not sure if the prompting to “consider” will result in the prompting to execute. But that’s the benefit of the exercise—to force any and all considerations so that I can spell out next steps.

And that’s why you learn your ABCs, isn’t it? To spell things out?

James Emery White

Lifestyle Brands

A burrito isn’t a burrito. Not if you’re Chipotle. 

It’s a lifestyle brand.

“Our ultimate marketing mission is to make Chipotle not just a food brand but a purpose-driven lifestyle brand,” says Christopher Brandt, the company’s chief marketing executive. “Chipotle will become a brand that people will want to know about, want to be a part of and want to wear as a badge.”

Add in Godiva, which has publicly noted the company’s desire “to be seen as a lifestyle brand by leveraging their culinary expertise to expand beyond chocolates.”

Who else has jumped onto the intentional “lifestyle brand” bandwagon? 

Pizza Hut, Blue Apron, IHOP… need I go on?

All to say, burn the phrase “lifestyle brand” into your psyche. Companies are trying the strategy “of using emotion and shared values to build relationships with consumers—and sell them more stuff.” To many, it brings to mind the 1971 jingle that if you wanted “to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” you bought a Coke.

But back to Chipotle.

“You kind of make an evolution from having fans of your brand to people being friends with the brand and inviting the brand in, wanting to see the brand do different things and talking to the brand in a different light,” Brandt said. “Not just — ‘I went to Chipotle.’”

That said, trying to equate a fondness for burritos with something greater may cause more than a few eye rolls.

“When I hear people talk about ‘lifestyle brands’ or ‘societal brands’ or ‘purpose-driven brands’ or what have you, it’s all marketing spin to me,” said David B. Srere, chief strategy officer at Siegel+Gale, a brand consultancy. “Any good brand should do all of those things.”

Still, there is a value to the “mumbo jumbo,” Mr. Srere said, adding, “If calling it a lifestyle brand begins to move them and get the company to think differently about the brand and move to a more meaningful role, then that’s fine.”

The rise of “lifestyle” marketing ploys are largely the result of companies worrying about their brands fading into the background or losing customers in a crowded marketplace. Brands are playing the long game as they aim for hearts and minds.

“It’s not an overnight thing to be a lifestyle brand,” said Brandt. “You have to be consistent and find the messages that resonate with people and you have to do it over a period of time.” He pointed to Chipotle’s recent initiatives to run ads on shows that generate chatter like “Real Housewives” and a sponsorship tied to Fortnite players.

“The journey’s begun, but there’s no finish line,” he said. “We’ll keep telling our message and championing what we think makes us special.”

It goes without saying that if there should be anyone in the “lifestyle brand” business, it should be the church.

But are we intentionally trying even half as much as people selling burritos?

James Emery White

 

Sources

Sapna Maheshwari, “When Is a Burrito More Than Just a Burrito? When It’s a Lifestyle,” The New York Times, July 29, 2018, read online.

New Year’s Resolutions for You and Your Church

It’s that time of year again. 

We’re going to lose weight, exercise more, get out of debt, stick to a budget, stop smoking, save for the future and spend more time with family.

We make resolutions because we want to bring change to bear on our circumstances. We want to improve ourselves and our quality of life. And the top resolutions, for most people, tend to revolve around the same three poles: money, health and family.

But what would a set of New Year’s resolutions look like for you and your church, your role as a leader, or simply as someone who wants to live a life of strategic Kingdom investment?

And specifically, what if they came from the Bible?

Though many more could be added, here are 15 to consider:

1.  Pray more.

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord… ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’” says the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6, NIV)

2. Invest in your spiritual gift(s). 

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. (I Timothy 4:14-15, NIV)

3. Get more intentional about evangelism.

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (I Corinthians 9:22, NIV)

4. Care for yourself spiritually.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12, NIV)

5. Make the tough decisions you know are best.

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:22-24, NIV)

6. Confront debilitating patterns of sin.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Hebrews 12:1, NIV)

7.  Do the hard work needed to build community.

If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. (Matthew 18:15, NIV)

8. Keep in touch with contemporary culture.

From the tribe of Issachar, there were 200 leaders… All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take. (I Chronicles 12:32, NLT)

9. Quit comparing yourself to other Christians, other leaders, and other churches.

Turning his head, Peter noticed the disciple Jesus loved following right behind. When Peter noticed him, he asked Jesus, “Master, what’s going to happen to him?” Jesus said, “If I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you? You – follow me.” That is how the rumor got out among the brothers that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that is not what Jesus said. He simply said, “If I want him to live until I come again, what’s that to you?” (John 21:20-23, Msg)

10. Read more.

Timothy, please come as soon as you can… When you come, be sure to… bring my books… (II Timothy 4:9, 13, NLT)

11. Prioritize your family.

A leader must be well-thought-of, committed to his wife… attentive to his own children and having their respect. For if someone is unable to handle his own affairs, how can he take care of God’s church? (I Timothy 3:2-5, Msg)

12. Refuse to use ministry to satisfy your personal ambition.

Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. (Jeremiah 45:5, NIV)

13. Love people, not just crowds.

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (I Corinthians 13:1-3, Msg)

14. Be more open to change.

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19, NIV)

15. Stay focused on the vision.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, NIV)

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note: This past blog is a favorite of the Church & Culture team and has become a New Year’s tradition. Enjoy!