Mark Love: Stupid Ministry Tricks, Part 1

MarkLoveI’m quickly becoming a big fan of Mark Love’s blog Dei-liberations.

For those who don’t know Mark, he is Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College.

His work there includes directing a Master’s degree in missional leadership, working with existing congregations and their leaders toward missional innovation, and directing Streaming, an annual conference on missional hermeneutics.

The post that first caught my attention is Stupid Ministry Tricks: Do Not Do This Thing. With Mark’s permission, I’ll be copying nearly his entire post and offering some personal commentary here and there — which is mine and may well not reflect Mark’s thinking at all. (And I’ve corrected typos along the way. The editor in me cannot resist.)


I have a former colleague who used to say he could solve the preacher-elder wars. To elders, you can’t make everyone happy. To ministers, don’t be stupid. I think both pieces of advice might be unrealistic.

But I do think that ministers can be smarter about issues related to change. So, here’s to making smarter ministers.

I do wish Mark would further address the “unrealistic” advice to elders that you can’t make everyone happy. It is, of course, true, and we elders do try to please everyone. So what’s the solution?

1. Ministry is not a race or a competition. Ministers spend too much time comparing themselves and their churches to other ministers and churches. And this makes us stupid. It doesn’t matter who from your M.Div. class is the first to keynote or publish or break the 500 barrier or get the big pulpit. It doesn’t matter. These kinds of comparisons create gaps between our experience and our desires that keep us and our congregations in constant deficit thinking. And this creates anxiety, and anxiety makes us stupid. Do not do this thing.

Amen. The challenge is not to be the biggest or fastest growing. The challenge is to become what God wants you to become. That is, think in terms of leading the church to become like Jesus, not Saddleback. This is no slam on Saddleback; I’m just saying that influence, fame, and wealth are not the goal. And not every church is called to follow their model of how to do church.

2. I know that its easier sometime to ask for forgiveness than permission. But do not do this thing. It makes you stupid. There are plenty of things that your church needs to improve that they would be thrilled for you to change and work on. You don’t need to spend authority capital on things that you don’t have permission to do. In a volunteer system that is held together by common consent, you have no more valuable asset than personal, not positional, authority. Spend it wisely.

Triple amen. Young ministers often get fired for doing this thing, become bitter, and even leave the ministry when they refuse to submit to the leadership (quite contrary to scripture) and do things that are not authorized — usurping the authority of the eldership.

The elders are the elders, a biblical office that must be respected by the ministers. You cannot take a congregation’s money — God’s money really — and be disloyal to the leadership that hired you, trusting you to work with them, not against them.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with the elders and speak to them about it in respect and love. You were hired, in part, to offer the elders the benefit of your training and experience. That’s good. Just don’t decide that your training and experience empowers you to violate the trust you’ve been given.

3. If there’s change you want to see, do not preach a sermon series about it. The problems here are numerous. First, it’s naïve about change.

So true. Sermon series can serve just to build up defenses. After all, the pulpit is, by its nature, not a dialogue and it is a place of considerable authority. Members who are strongly opposed to the change will resent that only one side received a hearing.

Significant change does not happen typically as a result of people changing their minds. It’s more complex than that. People don’t change their minds because they receive new information, but when they obtain a new frame of reference by which to make sense of the information. And that typically comes through new experiences, not sermon sound bites.

That makes really good sense — and I did not know that until I read it at Mark’s blog. If that’s so, then how does a church’s leadership provide its members with a new frame of reference?

Second, the sermon should not be thought of as the communication vehicle of the institution. The sermon should be thought of as a way of feeding people, of giving them a balanced spiritual diet based on the word of God, not as a way to get things done.

This is, of course, very different from how we normally think. Indeed, we elders find it irresistible to ask the preacher for a series on topic X if we have a concern about X. We tend to think of sermons as magic — as though the church would just automatically follow along with the preacher’s impeccable logic.

But, of course, if we were truly logical people, change would not be hard at all. And yet it is.

Third, when you preach on the change you desire, the congregation thinks the fix is in. And they would be right. And congregations, like people, have a resistance to people who want to fix them according to a pre-determined agenda. Do not do this thing.

So true. What’s the alternative?

4. Focus first on worship substance, not style. I know your worship service is hopelessly 1960′s. I know it suffers in comparison to every congregation in a fifty mile radius (see point one), but worship style is both the hardest thing to change and often the least impacting.

“Least impacting”? What’s more impacting? Well, friendliness, Bible-centered preaching and teaching, hospitality (having visitors and new members in your home), excellent children’s and teen ministries (many people will suffer anything if the church’s programs help their children become committed believers), being cared for in times of distress, the ease with which new members make friends and find a place.

In football terms, excellent blocking and tackling win far more games than the choice of a spread vs. a power I offense. High scores do sell tickets, but defense and a running game win championships.

Having the best music in town may attract visitors. It does not, by itself, transform visitors into Jesus-shaped disciples.

It’s the third rail of church politics. And style is not simply a matter of preference. Style means something, and you should at least understand what the current style means to others before you mess with it.

In every denomination, the “worship wars” are fought between generations. Why do the older members see worship differently? Why do the younger members so passionately want change? What’s driving the agenda for both sides?

Focus first on adding substance to the things that are already in place. Make the connections between the various things you do in worship clearer. Point to the ways that you believe God is actually present in your congregation’s worship. Create an appetite for more. I know this can be slow, frustrating work. But deep change is lasting change and it takes time. I know its tempting to change the music right off the bat, but do not do this thing.

“Adding substance”? The things that are already in place lack substance? Well, no, they have plenty of substance, but we often don’t realize what that substance is. It’s awfully easy to get in rut, instruments or no.

We might ask ourselves why the fights are almost always over music when we in the Churches of Christ see the service as centered on communion — which we typically do very badly. There’s one indication of a serious lack of substance in many of our congregations.

Mark seems to suggest that the deepest substance is the very presence of God in the assembly (I think I agree). Well, how does that happen? What would it be like if God’s presence were to be more intense? Would we care? Would we notice?

What might be necessary for us to truly perceive the presence of God among us? Do guitars and a drum kit make that happen? Is that the path toward being surrounded by the glory of God?

5. Try to understand the people who oppose you and honor their commitments when you can. It’s tempting just to go for the win, get your way and write difficult people off. And you do need to be wise about how much energy you give to complaining voices. But you should at least try to understand them, all the better if they notice your attempts to understand them.

Is the opposition really doctrinal? Or is it more about denominational identity? Is it about family relationships and how unpleasant Thanksgiving would be if your members were to be part of a “liberal” church?

If these concerns seem irrelevant and even selfish, don’t judge until you’ve asked about the motives of the pro-change members. Are they being selfish, too?

Everyone at church is smart enough to argue their case on doctrinal grounds and in terms of mission, but who is actually finding their personal evangelism frustrated by the thing under discussion? I mean, if no one is being evangelistic, it hardly matters that your music hurts your evangelistic efforts.

Do we seriously think we can have music so good that we can run ads and draw crowds by the power of contemporary Christian music? Is that the plan?

Beyond the fact that you might influence their future behavior in positive ways, you also often learn about how your actions are being understood. And in change, there is nothing more valuable than accurate self-perception. You can play ministry as the game that is only in your head, but do not do this thing.

How do you learn about how you’re being perceived? Well, you talk to others, especially those who disagree, not to persuade but to hear their understanding of where you’re coming from.

Does this mean that change is wrong? Far from it. But doing change the wrong way is not only wrong, it’s futile, even self-destructive.

Has Mark shown us a clear, easy path toward change in church music? Well, no. But is this a better place from which to discuss the topic than what we usually do?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Mark Love: Stupid Ministry Tricks, Part 1

  1. David Himes says:

    From one perspective (and this is mildly academic), there are three components to change: belief, attitude and behavior.

    Most commonly, in the churches of Christ (and many other groups, for that matter), we approach change as if we must start with Belief and move thru Attitude to accomplish Behavior change.

    In practice, that is the most difficult, slowest and least successful path to change.

    The most likely to succeed is to motivate someone to “test” a behavior change, and see how they respond to it. Then, if the response is positive and can be reinforced, attitude will come along and then, finally belief will be reevaluated to comport with behavior and attitude.

    In many of my conversations with opponents of instrumental music (as an example). Much of the opposition is based upon unsatisfactory experience with it. Certainly, not all, but much of the opposition.

  2. First of all, did you even notice the title to the blog by Mark Love long enough to think about it? If you have ever watched David Letterman’s Stupid People Tricks bit on his late night show, then you are at least half way to getting the overall point of Mark’s remarks.

    So, as you read what Love wrote, begin with a sense of humor. Something about watching another person get something completely wrong can be amusing. Probably because we have done something similar (or at least seriously considered doing it) we can look back and see the humor in it, the obvious (now) mistake that we put us in position to make that mistake, and the comical way we did nearly everything we could have done to fail (because we were not paying attention to obvious signs of danger, or at least stupidity). This kind of thing is pointed out over and over again in Bill Engvall’s Here’s Your Sign bit. What Mark Love has done is to elevate that form of humor to use it as a way to point out potholes in ministry to avoid.

    I could go through this with the idea of responding to each point and every question Jay asks, but brevity is one of the first signs of wisdom, so I will let my first point be my last. I do not own the only effective answers, but I can be reached if you would like one at a time. I do know some effective answers. Most of them involve learning patience and improving listening skills before considering paths of action to embark upon.

    1. Find a way to have a sense of humor about yourself and your ministry.
    2. Seek wisdom wherever you may find it.



  3. Using the word “stupid” in this context is not offensive to me. Might even be appropriate. But neither is it clever or edgy, as Love hopes it will be. And it does not really spice up what is pretty bland and generic advice for how to keep the status quo largely intact.

    I guess I missed any spiritual aspect in this. I find fairly sound observations about organizational politics and how not to blatantly stick your foot in it. Love tries to help preachers keep their jobs by not annoying the wrong people, while making some eventual minor changes around the margins. I am not sure, after reading this, how it really differs from, “Just do as you’re told, be nice, and maybe one of these days somebody will listen to you, and you will have some input on decisions.” I got that advice decades ago. If I had stayed in one spot for ten years, it might even have turned out to be true.

    The one bit of wisdom I did glean here was not to try to use the pulpit as the communication vehicle of the institution. Good advice, even profound advice– and as likely to happen as winning the lottery while being struck by lightning. We have built our clubs around the keystone event of every week: the Sunday sermon. If our club has the money, we even hire special prized practitioners to do nothing but craft and deliver our signature product. We farm out other tasks to lesser lights on the staff. The Sermon is the raison d’etre of our service (protests from the communion-every-week crowd noted) and nothing else even runs a close second in terms of time or investment. You can stop doing just about any other activity on your club’s agenda, but if you cease having The Sermon, it is the equivalent of hanging up an “OUT OF BUSINESS” sign on the church-house door. We have conditioned our members to come to attention as soon as the preacher mounts the pulpit– to shut up and listen carefully to what he is saying, without question, challenge, or interruption. Our best members take copious notes. The Sermon is the biggest club in the communication bag– in some places it’s pretty much the only club– and to think that leaders will forego using this expensive tool in favor of smaller and subtler means is just not realistic.

  4. mark says:

    I agree with most of the suggestions. However, as a minister, do not be the voice of the elders. You may be hung out and run off for doing the elders’ bidding if the congregants don’t like it. The elders may be your bosses but do not roll over and play dead. They hired you for something they needed and you know how to do it. Now, if they start treating you terribly and won’t support you, find a new church.

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