“All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take.” 1 Chronicles 12:32
We live in changing times and as the song says “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…”
In my consulting I often run into church people who appear bewildered with the state of affairs of their church. What used to be a juggernaut is now a rapidly declining church. And the people don’t have a clue why or what to do. Welcome to the twilight zone for 85% of the churches in the U.S.
I use two metaphors to explain what’s going on. We are living in a time of transition from what I call the National Park to the Jungle. I was born in 1939 into a world best described as a National Park. National Parks are known to be seldom changing, safe places if you followed the rules- and there were lots of rules. However we now have been thrust into a world best described as a jungle. If you’ve even been in a jungle you know the one can say about it is that it’s not a safe place and that it only has one rule- the survival of the fittest. That’s the world we live in today.
And in a world that can best be described as a jungle one trait rises to the top- intuition. Intuition is the most important skill or trait in the jungle because no one knows what lies around the corner. Since 9/11and 2008 no one really feels safe or sure of what’s coming next. That is the primary difference between the world I was born into and the one I am called to minister in today. Such a world requires blazing new trails and taking enormous risks in our decision making- ala, intuition. Today, intuition is more important than any other skill or trait.
Someone asked the other day if intuition can be learned. My response surprised the person. “Yes’ was my response. I then told the person about a conversation I had with two scientists at a fishing village at edge of the Darien jungle on the border of Panama and Columbia, two hundred miles from any road, phone lines, or electricity. I had day off from fishing when these two scientists emerged at our camp from spending two weeks in jungle studying bugs. They looked awful and smelled.
After they cleaned up I had a chance to visit with them during dinner. I asked them about their trip and what was the most important thing to know about the jungle. Their response was immediate- “the jungle is never the same from day to day. It changes overnight.” That led me to ask “How do you know where to go?” “Of course we use a compass (GPS doesn’t work in the jungle I learned) but when we come to what we might call a fork in the road and need to decide do we head this way or that it comes down to intuition. The more you travel the jungle the easier it is to be intuitive about what lies around the corner.”
“But you have a map, don’t you and a compass?” “Yes”, but remember,” he said. “The jungle changes every hour. Make a trail today and its gone next week. So, even though you have a compass which is fairly accurate, to a point and always needs to be verified, you still have to make some calculated guesses about which way to go to avoid an impasse.”
After our conversation I began to think about my ministry over the years and I was surprised to see the similarities today between ministry and the jungle. When I started out the National Park was a world of probabilities. Today, the jungle is a world of wildcards that come out of the blue and mess up every well conceived plan. How is one to lead in such a world – intuition leads to new ways to do old things.
So if intuition is the most needed skill in the jungle how do we develop or improve our intuition? Remember what the scientist told me- “The more you travel the jungle the easier it is to be intuitive about what lies around the corner.” The following are some ways to spend time in the jungle.
· Spend at least one half of your time with unconnected people out in the jungle. There is a old saying “After a person has been in the church three years they don’t know any non-Christians anymore.” The same is true with pastors. If you want to know how to traverse the new world you need to spend more time in it that you spend with Christians (if you’re mainline the odds are most of your members grew up in the National Park world). Using demographic studies can help in understanding who is in your community. When consulting I use two demographic firms, Percept and Missioninsite. But whereas demographic studies can help they never take the place of spending time in your community getting to know it.
· Read books in several fields outside the field of religion. I try to read at least 100 books a year that have nothing to do with religion. This gives me a perspective I would never get in the office and helps me say “AHAH” more often.
Work around the edges of your religious group (denomination, association, or network). You will never find the status quo at the edge, nor will you hear “we’ve never done it that way before.” Maximize the edges by attending events not put on by your denomination, networking with pastors in other traditions, talking with your kids, or visiting new websites.
· Watch dumb sitcoms even if it kills you. Knowing and understanding what people are watching gives you an insight into the jungle and helps develop your intuition.
· Challenge yourself to dream beyond what you think you are capable of because that is where you meet intuition.
· Embrace risk and don’t be afraid of mistakes. There is power in a big failure if you are looking for the lessons. Always ask “What have we learned from this experience that will help us see the future more clearly?” One of the things the scientists told me was “Sometimes we have to make multiple attempts before we find a path that doesn’t wind up an impasse and we have to backtrack.”
· Realize that in times of great change whatever works well today is the seed bed for tomorrow’s failure. It is true; it if ain’t broke; fix it. As soon as you perfect what you are doing, move on to something else. Don’t hang on too long to something working well. Keep looking for ways to improve what you’re doing or moving to the next level. The old adage “don’t shoot the mule before you learn to drive the tractor doesn’t mean much in a turbulent environment.
· Trust your gut, not your critics. The first twenty years of my ministry I received a lot of criticism from all fronts. I was told I was doing everything all wrong, yet my congregation was growing faster than any other church in my tribe. All along, I felt in my heart what I was doing was the thing to do, but surely my peers couldn’t all be wrong. There was a short period of time when I listened to them too much and it caused me to waste some of my earliest years. However, it soon became clear that what I was doing was causing my church to grow and what they were advocating was causing their churches to decline. So, I began to follow my gut and tuned them out. You can follow your gut if you are training your gut to listen to the hopes and dreams of the jungle.
· Of course all of the above is in vain if you aren’t augmenting it with a heavy dose of the Holy Spirit. Listening to the still small voice is imperative if you are going to read the signs of the times.
If you’re training your intuition as I’ve recommended, when faced with a choice, don’t blink, trust your gut, and take a leap. Consider this- how did Mark Zuckerberg know it was worth the time and money to develop Facebook? He didn’t but he understood the signs of the times- he knew people were craving interaction with other people. So he took a huge risk and look what happened.
So, what is God calling you to do with your life? If you are training your intuition to read the signs of the times, like the men of Issachar you are in a better position to take the leap of faith than if you are surrounding yourself with people from the National Park.