Multi-Level, Multi-Generation Approaches to Coping with Cultural Transition (2004)

Introduction and Commentary (2008)

This post uses the church planter assessment system developed by Dr. Charles Ridley as an illustration of our failure to accommodate the paradigm of younger generations. When we fail in that, we also fail to composite their cultural strengths into our mutual endeavors in Kingdom work. Also, when we fail to value or validate the ways younger generations more typically process life, why should we expect they would be interested in working with us on what we value?

Dr. Ridley conducted research to determine the character qualities that are indicators of “success” in church planters. He figured out 13 such successful church planter characteristics, based in demonstrated ability, not merely conceptual knowledge. For instance, one of the indicators is “vision capability,” where a candidate shows the ability to cast a vision by clearly describing what things should look like, and leading people to follow toward that vision. When I served as an interviewer for these kinds of church planter candidate assessments, we used 15 such qualities (all of Dr. Ridley’s 13 plus two others), and tried to cover all 15 in our three-and-a-half- to four-hour interview.

There is a lot to commend in this system. However, there’s a problem. It uses an old-world definition of success that depends on Traditional and Pragmatic Paradigms (see Robert Webber’s excellent book, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World, for explanations of those terms, plus what he calls the Younger Evangelical Paradigm and I call the Holistic Paradigm). And so, someone who is far more holistic and would therefore tend to fit in the world as it is unfolding would rate poorly according to traditional standards of success.

So how could we assess success in an edge/post-Christendom culture?

About a decade ago, when someone asked me, “How do you do ‘postmodern’ ministry,” I responded, “Take everything you know about ‘modern’ ministry, run it through a knot-hole backwards, and you’ve got it!” That’s probably closer to the truth that I realized back then. For instance, to oversimplify, instead of a modernist abstract “vision caster” who primarily points the way to an ideal goal, what works in the new world is a concrete “vision carrier” who already embodies the journey to the goal and who already demonstrates the character qualities to be found at the goal. I spent a lot of time in 2002 thinking about how to turn the Ridley assessment inside out, because I’d concluded we needed something new that could help anyone figure out where they best fit, not just yes-or-no about whether they fit in traditional-conventional-modernistic church planter settings.

For instance, a church planting candidate friend had the odd experience of receiving an average score under 2.0 out of 5.0 from the traditionalist team leader using the Ridley-based assessment system. Meanwhile, the more younger-generation-friendly assistant assessor who heard the exact same 200-plus minutes of interviews, gave the candidate an average score over 4.5 – based on a strong suitability for work in holistic paradigm contexts.

Here we are, over five years later, and I’m still convinced this is needed – and not just for church planter assessments. And if we cannot figure this out for starting new churches, however will we do so for helping established churches to transition into the realities of the world as it now is, in which many of the traditional strategies and structures, skills and goals grow increasingly less relevant … but the baton of leadership must still be passed forward for the legacy to continue?

Multi-Level, Multi-Generation Approaches

to Coping with Cultural Transition (2004)

A friend of mine recently asked me what could be done to change the way that potential church planters are assessed. I wondered what we could do …

It’s a difficult problem, given the current cultural transitions from modern to postmodern and beyond, plus the inadequacies of systems that were designed to fit the traditional models of church structures when there are no standard formats that work everywhere among emerging cultures.

I think the biggest problem here is like what my roommate Nathan described about the computer lab when he went to college. That was the era when the first PC-Mac cross-platform machine came out. Supposedly it would take programs from both and “work,” and was therefore the solution to all our computation woes. However, Nathan said that their lab experience was that the dual-platform machines froze and crashed more often than either of the regular machines (and we all know how often PCs give us the “blue screen of death” and Macs hardly ever freeze!).

Applying the analogy to the current church planting assessment systems, most current approaches are based on Ridley’s research. His research presuppositions were designed to measure “success” in the PC world of traditional, program-based, professional-staff models of doing church. He identified many key components to success, 15 of which are used in the system I was trained for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Nehemiah Project for church planting. Ridley’s system crashes regularly (if not always) when attempting to assess people who are geared for Mac worlds – nontraditional, process-based, volunteer models of being church – or for some other platform that doesn’t fit either the PC or the Mac (such as Kingdom social/business enterprises instead of church planting, though both might use similar principles).

Options and Problems

(1) Figure out some kind of pre-assessment to see whether someone’s probable dominant platform is PC or Mac, and have separate but equal systems to do the full assessment on each category.

Problem: that still ties in with the modernist analytic system by creating another either-or situation where you either do well in the modern-traditional-PC cultures, or you do well in the “postmodern”-nontraditional-Macintosh cultures. This assumption is probably not the best, because it still works off of a theoretical base that is too narrow.

(2) Train all assessors in both PC and Mac cultural systems so they can adjust their assessments to accommodate the reality that not everyone is going to fit in the PC/traditional church world.

Problem: If an assessor is unable to get beyond their own personal preference for PC or Mac, they could skew and screw the assessment to fit their own biases. For instance, I have seen modernist-oriented assessors completely miss the heart and skills of postmodern-oriented church planting candidates. But I could also easily see the reverse happening, with a Mac-based assessor having contempt for PC-oriented candidates, and not giving a fair assessment … “Oh, he doesn’t fit in the pomo world, so he shouldn’t be planting a church at all.” Sigh … sadly, ignorance and contempt can flow in any direction. Training is possible, but that doesn’t override all personal biases that could blind an assessor to actually assessing accurately!

(3) Invest in creating a new system that is larger than the current Ridley approach, and that is larger than having an either-or PC/Mac approach.

In other words, an assessment system that helps anyone find their best options for Kingdom service, whether that’s volunteer or professional, in more modernist or postmodernist or post-postmodernist cultures, and doing any kind of discipling (kingdom-based social/business enterprises, parachurch ministry, existing-church-based, or church-plant-based). In the long run, this is the best option because you’ll end up with a coherent, comprehensive platform that can run bigger programs than either the PC or Mac. This is what I’ve been working on for the past five years, and it’s my intention to keep plugging away at it during what time I have available until it’s done enough to use.

Putting Options into a Multi-Level Perspective

Switching to recovery movement terminology, Option #1 is like “intervention” with someone who is already addicted. The best it can do is bring sobriety, and then start the person on the long road to recovery. Unless it shifts the goal toward complete transformation – not just “getting by” – intervention doesn’t necessarily do much in the long run to help change the person’s core identity. They’ll always see themselves as an “ex-[fill-in-the-blank],” and relate to the present and future based on their past.

Option #2 is like “interception” with people who are at risk for giving into temptation and setting up a string of sins, but they haven’t yet indulged or overindulged. It catches them before it’s too late. This is better than #1, but it’s still deficient in the long run as the only solution.

Option #3 is like “prevention,” working beforehand to keep people from becoming at risk in the first place. It takes the longest to do, and may take two generations minimum to implement, as you train the first generation, and then the next generation grows up with that “new” system as what they take as a given.

In a world of extreme cultural transitions, it is critical that we do what we can so that no group is left behind, whether their native platform is PC, Mac, or something else. The Church has to survive this as a body intact, and that means we must offer all three levels of solution – intervention, interception, and prevention – depending on a given person’s or church’s situation.

This approach of multi-level solutions that take two or more generations to implement is something I’ve been contemplating for a few months. The more I think about it, the stronger I believe it applies to individual churches as much as to church planter assessment processes, missions, and just about anything else where there are multiple kinds of people affected. If we cater to the “addicted,” we may miss helping “at-risk” people who will end up addicted because no one was there to affirm their resistance. And if we don’t work our way to prevention before there are problems, we’ll spend all our energy forever in trying to defuse dysfunction as people fall through the cracks and become at risk, then addiction.

Similarly, in our church planting and transitioning endeavors, we must consider multi-level, multi-generational approaches …

Originally posted April 5, 2004, in futuristguy’s Randomocities.

UPDATE: If you are interested in additional perspective on critiquing church planter assessment systems and tools, see this post on “Gospel Ecosystems” and Organizational Systems.