Moving towards the polite middle

As I think about the church and the 5%-10% of people we reach in the community I wonder where we fall on the bell curve.

Something tells me that it looks a little like this.

I wonder if the positions we take attracts, appeals to, and connects a certain type of people? And I wonder if church leaders are going for the sucker pin of thinking of going more conservative (politically/socially/by American cultural definitions) or more liberal is going to lead to growth in their congregation? However, this is counter to what we know about behavior from the bell curve. This just means that to attract more people “like us” we need to have a wider reach and draw people from a larger and larger geographic area.

Sidebar: Now, immediately I have some people who will read this upset because they don’t really like my labels. And they especially don’t like that I’ve lumped nearly all churches into two categories. And some are going to be quick to point out ways that their church is neither liberal nor conservative. That’s OK. This is just some generalization and hyperbole to make a point.

Here’s my neighborhood on the bell curve. Again, full of hyperbole and generality.

Our neighborhood is not unlike any other urban or suburban neighborhood I’ve lived in. We have our cooky people on the fringes, we have our people who are just a little bit political, but who will quickly drop it for the sake of community… and we have the vast majority of people who probably have some personal opinions but just want the neighborhood to be a nice place to live, are willing to politely disagree on some stuff, and otherwise would rather be defined by their neighborliness than their political leanings.

Think strategically church leader!

Instead of trying to out-conservative or out-liberal ourselves, where we will find decreasing populations and have to incur the expense of widening our reach, the reality is that reaching the majority of the population will come as we lay aside our ideals and move towards the middle.

As Stephen Phelan, my pastor, put it yesterday– The two extremes will come together when we focus on a common mission. For instance, if we focus on feeding and housing the poor, both extremes agree that we should do it for their own ideologies, and people in the middle are just happy to participate in something cool. The happy middle will agree to be a part of it because everyone knows it’s good to take care of the poor in your community.

For example. I’m an egalitarian. I would love to see more women in the pulpit. And I’ve turned down positions on boards that were all male with the exception that I’d join the board if they moved towards 50% board membership by females. But I go, love, and support a church in my neighborhood that is PCA. (Which doesn’t allow women to preach or hold pastoral roles.) How do I deal with that contradiction between what I believe the Bible teaches about women and the church I attend? It’s easy… I’m in love with the mission of our church! Just like we overlook the flaws of our spouse because of our love, so I overlook this disagreement because of my love for the church. While I disagree with that one position, I am in full agreement with their strategy to reach our community and I love the staff as brothers and sisters in Christ. That over-powers my personal preferences.

How to reach more people

If you want to grow, from a population standpoint, you need to better represent your zip code and move to the middle. To do  this, you’ll need to take a sober judgement of your congregation. Walk around the place with centrist eyes. Ask yourself, “What is in this building that could be offensive to the general population? What would make people feel uncomfortable? What would make them feel like they didn’t fit in?

Over the past few months people have approached me and said that I present both radical and simple ideas… that their church would never go for. The reality is this: Move to the middle to find growth and those naysayer voices will be overcome by the reality of your strategy. Focus on what we all know to be true… Jesus called the church to be good news to the neighborhood. It’s a centrist position that only feels extreme to people on the extremes scared to be pulled towards the middle!

To move towards the middle you may need to realize that your leadership might just be on the leading edge one way or the other. That doesn’t mean that they can’t hold those positions. But it might mean that they can’t represent those personal convictions on behalf of the church.


9 responses to “Moving towards the polite middle”

  1. Josh Corley Avatar
    Josh Corley

    I can say I’ve never heard a political statement from our pulpit or anyone on our staff in the confines of a church service. It’s also funny how the definition of “cooky” would definitely be regional. Pro-life and NRA bumper stickers are pretty common around these parts of Kentucky. I understand your sweeping use of hyperbole and generalities but it definitely does go to show the differences between red and blue states (my sweeping generality and hyperbole).

    Good thought provoking blog post. I like the way you clarified that you can disagree with a specific part of a church’s doctrine or vision, but still support them as fulfilling the mission of the Church.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Thanks Josh. Yeah, I suppose it is regional. I do find it interesting that the south is now labeled as the best place to raise a family as a gay couple. So I have a feeling things are-a-changing in the “conservative” south.

  2. Jeffrey Dick Avatar

    I like Josh’s reply which lifts up regional differences.

    for me, a church that doesn’t allow women to hold pastoral positions or preach would be on the far end of the bell curve – in the cooky stage. I mean, our local Catholic has let a few women preach. Must be this liberal state of Michigan.

    As usual, your post creates good thoughts and good material to share with leadership.


  3. Josh Corley Avatar
    Josh Corley

    I actually think the fact that Jeffrey and I can love each other and go to a place like Haiti together is almost the point. It’s obvious that Jeffrey and I have many political, theological, and cultural differences. I’m sure we could have spent the entire week in Haiti debating them (I would have gotten smoked, Jeffrey is sharp), but instead I know I tried to learn from Jeffrey and did. We’re always going to have differences but God will give us the opportunity to put them aside and work with the cooky southern baptists from time to time for HIS glory. Just because I disagree on some huge issues doesn’t mean I don’t respect the other person. I think that’s what this country and even the Church is missing. Adam’s always talking about “Kingdom Work.”

  4. Jeffrey Dick Avatar

    Amen Brother! And look what we started. We get a Southern Baptist from KY and a liberal UCCer from Michigan to not only work together in Haiti, but become friends and the next thing you know, Republicans and Democrats are sitting together at the State of the Union speech.

    Talk about the Kingdom of God being near! Amen.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      And Josh, we all know you snore… like a freight train. So when the lion and the lamb lay down together, you’re the lion.

      I like the idea of the sides sitting down next to each other during the speech. Could that really happen?

      1. Jeffrey Dick Avatar

        Heard that Sen Charles E. Schumer, (D-N.Y) speak this morning on Morning Joe that he.will be sitting alongside Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.)

        Miracles do happen

  5. Josh Corley Avatar
    Josh Corley

    “My God’s not dead, He’s surely alive, He’s living on the inside, snoring like a Lion.” David Crowder Band

  6. Jeff Goins Avatar

    It’s interesting how the words “conservative” and “liberal” have different connotations, depending on the context. For instance, I’ve heard people use the adjective “conservative” to refer to theology (usually meaning a more literal approach to biblical interpretation), as well as to worship style (usually meaning a more liturgical style service). Oh, words…

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