Defeat Defeatism by Preaching Good News
- Will Willimon Faith & Leadership
- Updated Jun 22, 2010
I think it was Jack Welch (or was it Jesus?) who said, "The main task of leadership is telling good stories."
A declining system in atrophy (such as my own, United Methodism) tends to squelch those good stories, even though the church is the body of the One who came into Galilee preaching nothing but gospel -- good news.
In one of the congregations in which I served, I was afflicted by a church treasurer with a negative attitude (most clergy know that "negative treasurer" is a tautology). A new idea? Some creative proposal for innovative ministry? That treasurer could kill it before it made it to the maternity ward by saying, "We tried that 10 years ago. Didn't work." Or, "There's no money. Drop it."
In despair, I sought the counsel of an older pastor. He said, "Son, there is no way to defeat defeatism except with good news. Bad news only strengthens the stranglehold of the defeatists. You pray to God to give you some true good news, some gospel, and when you get it, ride it for everything it's worth."
When I arrived as the new bishop in Alabama, one of the first things that I asked to see was Clearbranch, one of our new megachurches. Almost without fail, someone responded with something like, "I'll tell you what they are doing. Tommy has built a personality cult out there." (I believed this until I met Tommy -- he doesn't have that great a personality). Or, "That's not really a Methodist church. It's a Baptist church with a Methodist sign out front." Or, "The people there are just there for the show on Sunday morning." What you thought was good news is, seen through wiser eyes, actually bad news.
I imagine Jesus appearing on the scene preaching, "The kingdom of heaven is here! God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but in order to save it! Rejoice! Your names are written in heaven!" Then the litany of response: "It won't work." Amen. "Even the Southern Baptists are in decline. Who are we kidding?" Amen. "So? It's about nothing but numbers?" Amen. "You're too critical of what we're doing." Amen.
Someone noted that our conference webpage was depressing. It was full of hurricanes, tornados, malaria, burned churches, deaths and mayhem -- God behaving badly. There was no good news. Was Jesus keeping his promises at any location in Alabama? Had the Holy Spirit shown up anywhere?
We begged people to step up and give money for the latest disaster. But we never said, "Wow. You have given a million dollars for Katrina relief." We told them to sign up for a workshop on young adult ministry. But we never told them, "By the way, Sue was crazy enough to try what she learned and -- wonder of wonders, it worked! In one month she doubled her young adult attendance."
Years ago I heard church consultant Lyle Schaller say that my church "rewards its failures and punishes its successes." It's true. A failing system is always easier to manage than one that's moving too fast for a bishop to control it. At any district meeting, I'd guess that four-fifths of those present are failing. But in a leadership vacuum, the wrong people are usually those who step up and take charge. We've got to discipline ourselves to stop those who are failing from controlling the conversation and policing the good news. We've got to notice, name and nurture those whom God uses to produce good fruit.
The good news is that there is something about Jesus that enables the good news to win over the bad news. Jesus Christ and his kingdom will not be defeated by our propensity to die. The stone is being rolled away from the tomb! In my own ministry, time and again, when I forsake my vocation and settle into death, a living God has messed with my accommodation and raised me up.
The best part of being a bishop is being able to see the faithfulness of God in some out-of-the-way places in Alabama. Every week, God opens my eyes and shows me something so undeniably good and faithful that I am forced to say, "Well, I guess Easter is true." The truth about God is good.
This year I prohibited our conference statistician from reporting the number of deaths to the annual conference session. Why? Because every year for the past 20 years we've made 4,000 new disciples and had 8,000 deaths. Each year, then, we received the invigorating report that we lost another 4,000 members. Since when did it become noteworthy that Methodists die?
This year she reported instead the other good and true news: that our churches tripled the number of small groups meeting each week, increased their average attendance by a couple of percentage points, and showed a rather dramatic increase in the number of baptisms.
I'm going to ride that good news for everything it's worth. I'm going to put it on bumper stickers, try to get Oprah to mention it on her show, do it up in needlepoint and frame it, and work it into all my sermons.
At a recent district meeting the superintendent asked six lay leaders to stand up and talk about something good that God is doing at their churches. This was powerful and empowering.
On the way out to the parking lot a pastor said to me, "That was the best meeting we've had in a long time -- and also very disturbing to all of my alibis and excuses!"
Will Willimon is bishop of North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.
This article originally appeared on Faith & Leadership. Used with permission.
Publication date: June 21, 2010