Sunday, January 15, 2017

The End of the Greatest Show On Earth

News is spreading this morning that the Ringling Bros. Circus is ending its 146 year run. The leading cause of the end of the show is it has become an unrealistic business model. Ticket sales have declined. The cost to move the show with its many animals and performers is too high to continue. For almost 150 years, this show has brought joy and wonder to the hearts and minds of children and adults. And now the curtain if falling on the greatest show on earth.

I was reading this article from the New York Times. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but notice that the tone of what was happening to Ringling Bros. is a similar tone that could be applied to the American church.

...cited declining ticket sales,... American churches across the theological spectrum are seeing declining offerings. There are endless reasons for this. And there are a number of strategies to counteract the decline. But there is no denying that churches are working with less revenue. It is just a reality that congregations are having to adapt to in this climate. There are only three realistic options for churches to offer some turn around to this:
  1. Convince the people who are connected to the church to give more;
  2. Convince more people to connect to the church and convince them to give; and
  3. Partner with organizations to be financial supporters in the work that is being done or do work they will support.
And that brings me to the next point of comparison from the article...

{ticket sales} which dropped even more drastically after elephants were phased out from the shows last year... Ringling (and other animal entertainment venues) have been under increasing scrutiny and criticism for their treatment of animals. This is not a judgment piece. It is a statement of fact. But Ringling Bros. believe that there is a correlation between removing the elephants from the show and the decline of people coming to see the show. And how true is it that there are fewer people coming to see "the show" in churches?

Fewer people are attending churches. Attendance numbers are declining. And that worries people at all levels of church hierarchy. The local church feels the pain of seeing fewer people in the pews (remembering when those same pews were filled). Local church leaders discuss it from the practical aspect of "fewer people means fewer resources for ministry" (volunteers and money are necessary to do ministry). Association leaders (the Annual Conference for us United Methodists) see the longer term and the decline of ministry function on a larger scale.

It makes people wonder, how do we get people back? Well, what is missing that people want? What elephants have been taken out that once were there? What kind of elephants to people want to see? Think about this for a minute - what makes elephants so crucial to Ringling Bros. circuses that their absence would cause people to stop coming? It could very well be that elephants are part of the core identity of the Ringling Bros. circus. Elephants are the image of the greatest show on earth. Elephants are the icon. Without the elephants, the show has lost its identity.

Now what elephant is missing in the church? I have plenty of ideas:
  • hospitality - making every person who walks through the door feel like they are wanted and belong and important;
  • one anothering - connecting with others in the body to the level that you invest in one anothers' lives to the degree that every need is known, all hurts are tended, lives are held in accountability, and we grow each other into stronger people;
  • true mission to change lives for better - Jesus Christ came to proclaim a kingdom realized and the evidence of that was that lives were bettered - sick people healed, oppressed people released, poor noticed, forgotten remembered, the lost found and cared about. 
  • sin is not as important as forgiveness - everyone is messed up to some degree (past, present, or future) and that puts us all on a level playing field. If there is sin in someone's life, we don't point at it or poke at it to make it more noticeable. We approach that person in love, grace, forgiveness, and gentleness. Rebuking works well for someone we have a HUGE amount of relationship investment with. Rebuking every sinner we hear about makes us jerks.
These elephants left some of our churches a long time ago, and guess what - those churches have dried up or are getting really wrinkled in the process of drying up. If we introduced these "elephants" back into our churches, and we made them the center of our "show", people would come and see.

coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company... Churches are spending themselves out of business. The latest estimate is that churches spend over 50% of their expenses on staff. Churches pay people more than spend on ministry. Why is that? Because American churches pay people to do ministry. You have pastors, youth ministers, children ministers, worship ministers, music ministers, visitation ministers, pastoral care ministers, and so on. The model of the church American church today is that we pay someone to do the work of the church. And that is so far away from the biblical understanding of church, ministers, and ministry.

The early church had ministers - apostles, prophets, preacher/teachers - who performed a service in the church. It was the service of equipping the church to do the work of ministry. The people who comprised the church were the ones who did ministry. They were the day-to-day, hands on ministry operators. They functioned to train youth and children (mostly in their own homes). They led the community in worship and music. They saw to it that everyone was visited and that everyone was tended to emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.

What would happen if we turned around the American church model and adopted a more biblical model? Staff expense would go down. Ministry expense would increase - but only as people gave out of their lives, not the church budget. The church would make contact with more lives, daily, than is happening now. The needs of the community would be observed more closely and dealt with more swiftly.

"Wait," you say, "wouldn't that put you out of a job?" Yes. Gladly. I would rather spend my time equipping people to do what God has gifted them and called them to do than be the business administrator, social director, and task manager that modern American pastors have become.

The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me. The American church is not done. But you couldn't tell that by listening to reports or watching people in churches every week. The church in America, and the rest of the world, still has the task of inspiring people, raising new generations of disciples for Jesus Christ that can change the world. It can still touch hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. It could show the world that we have a source of hope and peace and joy. Faith does not require us to surrender any of these. In fact, it is worthless without those. But it also has to be an active part of our church life. Faith is not inspiring when it sits on its spiritual butt. Faith has to live and move. It has to be around other people. It has to be around people who don't believe. It has to be displayed as love - for the God we worship, the Christ we follow, the Spirit who fills and leads us is LOVE. Our faith in that God is inspiring. It quickens our lives and fills us with purpose and drive. It opens our eyes to possibilities and wonders unimagined.