Sunday, February 3, 2013

Christian Fads Won't Save the UMC [Low-Cal Snacks 01]

This post is rather late, but I had a hard time sitting down to write it because I just kept on finding new things to consider about this topic in a United Methodist Facebook group! I guess it's back to Sunday posts, at least for now. In the end, I'm sticking with my original outline.

Blogger friend and colleague Jeremy Smith pointed me to a post by Seth Godin on the topic of the false proxy, and explained how it relates to the UMC. Here's the entirety of Seth's short post:
"Sometimes, we can't measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that's much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.

TV advertisers, for example, could never tell which viewers would be impacted by an ad, so instead, they measured how many people saw it. Or a model might not be able to measure beauty, but a bathroom scale was a handy stand in.

A business person might choose cash in the bank as a measure of his success at his craft, and a book publisher, unable to easily figure out if the right people are engaging with a book, might rely instead on a rank on a single bestseller list. One last example: the non-profit that uses money raised as a proxy for difference made.

You've already guessed the problem. Once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place. When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead.

Gaming the system is never the goal. The goal is the goal."
One concrete way to understand the concept of a false proxy is an idea I introduced last week: the Low-Calorie Snack. Nabisco's Snack Well's products are the poster child for low-cal snacks. They are, quite literally, knock-offs of treats that we all know and love, like Oreos and candy bars. They aren't really Oreos, though. Theses low-cal versions are actually pseudo-foods that are stripped of most of their nutritional value. The only reason they taste good decent is that Nabisco pumps them full of flavor-enhancing chemicals that fool your tongue into thinking they're yummy. 

Dieters, particularly women, can get sucked in by the Snack Well's claim that you can still treat yourself even when dieting. What people who need to lose weight need to know is that it's more important to eat normal portions of good, healthy food and get enough exercise than to severely restrict calories. Some diets may work for some people, but they don't work for most people, hence the overwhelming success of the Weight Watchers Points System. It works by letting you choose to eat normal foods, but it helps you control your portions. Using so-called diet foods, on the other hand, doesn't work well because these pseudo-foods actually make you hungrier! By choosing the Snack Well's to ward off temptation to eat more, dieters are actually sabotaging their efforts to lost weight and be healthy!

Likewise, using false proxies in response to challenges in our Church can sabotage our efforts to improve ourselves as a denomination and to adapt to the changing culture in which we live. Jeremy has some suggestions as to ways in which that is taking place right now (hey, he even referenced one of my past posts here at the GodTalk blog!):
  • "Instead of doing the hard work of defining effectiveness (as Carolyn outlines here), we defined the punishment for ineffectiveness in eliminating guaranteed appointments, patted ourselves on the back, and were shocked when the Judicial Council struck it down.
  • Instead of doing the hard work of defining cooperation between governance and fiscal responsibility, we conflated governance and fiscal responsibility in PlanUMC, patted ourselves on the back, and were shocked when the Judicial Council struck it down.
  • Instead of doing the hard work of consulting judicial counsel for our reforms, the reformers now want to defund the Judicial Council (see Andy Langford’s comment at the end of the article), convinced that the guardians of our polity are the problem instead of bad legislation.
  • Instead of doing the hard work of defining unity in diversity, we are stuck in a cycle of seeking schism and ignoring new ways forward, with caucus groups widening the chasm by their own self-interest."
Yikes! We're doing a lot of ignoring the real work, and we're doing a lot of work on... everything else except what we should be working on. Jeremy's list indicts our recent legislative failures and the latest Christian fad, which had been dubbed Church Metrics, after the metrics fad currently running its course in the business world. (And I can tell you, as a tiny cog in a corporate machine, that metrics isn't saving any businesses either.) There are a host of other church fads we've been through that aren't going to save the UMC:

  • "Servant" Leadership: the newest business literature on leadership applied to church leadership
  • Megachurches/ Church Growth: large church = large numbers of converts = large income stream (too bad the people who came weren't actually converts)
  • The Prayer of Jabez: basically, the Prosperity Gospel watered down and combined with "biblical teaching", which was actually a complete contradiction of the biblical story Jabez fans had prooftexted
  • Worship fads: this includes a host of things like lighting effects/ light shows,"multi-sensory" worship (how is worship not multi-sensory now?), praise music hits, and praise bands achieving star status, e.g., the David Crowder Band
Side note: are you sensing a theme here? I am: MONEY. Servant leadership and megachurch emulation were all about "church growth", also known as butts in pews and bucks in plates. Numerical decline (and therefore revenue decline) is, I suspect, the reason behind our recent foray into constitution-changing legislation and our current obsession with metrics.  

Anyway. When all of these fads came down the pike, they promised to reverse the trend of numerical decline, bring back the bucks, and "fix things" or "save" what we saw as an ailing church. But every last one of them have failed to do that. We have turned to these fads, sold to us by slick-looking and smooth-sounding pastors and worship leaders, for a quick fix to our "numbers problem"(ahem, our money problem). But they didn't help us!

There are a couple more false proxies that we need to examine in more depth, which we'll do in the next couple of weeks: Worship Wars (this is a distinct topic from worship fads!) and Ideology Wars. Instead of coming together as a people of God and problem-solving, we've spent the last several decades infighting. In certain cases, especially with ideology, this can affect our witness, and thus our ability to attract new members, or at least, keep old ones from leaving. But most of the time, we've wasted a lot of time and energy on them. Many of us are very invested in our "side" of both of these wars, and it's important to unpack them so as to disentangle them from the real issue, which is how to cope with change in the UMC. We need to look at why winning the war won't help the UMC in order to understand what will.

Once we've done that, we'll dig into what will help the Church, and what are our next steps forward. Stay tuned for next week, folks!

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