Cultural Insights Gleaned from the Recent Discussion Over Harding’s New President

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Over the last week or so Rich Little has expressed concern over Harding Universities selection of its next president. Rich has invited a number of guests (Harding alum) to post their thoughts on the appointment. This has included people like Don McLaughlin, Jonathan Storment, Sara Barton, Mark Moore, Dusty Rush, and several others. One of my first thoughts reading those posts was, “Wow, right or wrong I hope Harding tunes in to this discussion” but the more I thought about it I think the posts tap into something that runs a lot deeper and needs to be heard and understood by a wider audience of church leaders. At its core, the discussion reveals and reflects the growing culture gap that exists in our universities but also in our churches (see especially Sky Vanderburg’s post). It is the latter that this post is going to deal with. Very little of what is said below is about Harding (in case you are interested I support Harding and Dr. McLarty 100%). I am too far removed from the details of that situation to deal with all of that.

Concerned they don’t understand or listen:
When you read those posts you see there is a concern that there is a disconnect between generations and cultures. This is demonstrated in several ways (whether perceived or actually happening). This happens when it appears the older generation does not appear to be interested in the input of the younger. Or, regardless of age, when one side of the theological spectrum doesn’t appear to want any input from those “on the other side.” [That goes both ways, by the way] When young people get shut down, shut out or not invited into the conversation, it appears that the establishment doesn’t really care. Or even worse than all of that…the older generation does invite you into the conversation but then doesn’t do anything with your input, solutions, and creativity. Again…perception is reality. Create this perception and people will criticize you for being uncaring, whether it is true or not.

The way to address that concern is to be transparent and invitational. It is important that church leadership be transparent with what is going on. Transparency takes good communication. I don’t say that as an indictment of Harding or anyone else. I am not close enough to that situation to know if that was the case or not. I am speaking generally here. You have to let people know where you are headed and how to get on board. If they actually get on board it is even more important that you value them, their input, etc. The vision of where you are headed has to be informed by scripture but you also have to be aware of those you lead. So you have to invite them into the decision making process so that they have input in the most important areas of their lives and value that input enough to actually implement at least portions of it. That validates the whole process and builds bridges to reconnect the generations. This is why it is important to have connections between the eldership and younger groups in the church.

Deep Feelings of Hurt
The result of that disconnect, whether theological or cultural is hurt. You see in the discussion on Rich’s blog there are a lot of people who have been hurt by the ideological gap between the generations. It is more than hurt over the actual ideology but over actions and attitudes that have come out of the discrepancy that have broken some relationships. [again…this goes both ways] This happens in universities and it happens in churches. It has to be addressed and cannot just be glossed over. It is imperative that we don’t adopt the attitude that hurt people will just have to work it out themselves. If people are getting hurt, it is important that we understand what happened and how to prevent it as best we can in the future. The fear is, in order to fix it we will have to compromise ourselves theologically. That is not the case. Reconciliation does not mean we all have to agree on everything in order to avoid all forms of people getting hurt. Rarely does the hurt come from just disagreeing on something. Hurt comes from more significant events and specific actions that spring out of the differences not in the differences themselves.

Maintaining a Position of Relevance
Young people are having a hard time seeing how we have done things in the past continues to be relevant today. There is a fear of status quo. Status quo feels like death (again, whether that is fair or not we have to be aware that is the perception). In churches, young adults have a hard time feeling like Sunday is relevant to the rest of their lives. You come and sing and pray and listen and go home just to come back the next week and do it again. Sunday morning worship doesn’t scream relevance like it used to. We have to help people understand how to live for Christ in ways that are relevant and Sunday won’t ever completely foot the bill all by itself.

The world has changed. Have we adapted? The world is not what it was even 15 years ago. In church world it is too easy to get stuck. You can be ineffective for lengthy periods of time with no perceived immediate penalty or recourse. The fear here is that the world has changed and the church is losing its relevance. The plea is to recapture the imagination of all parties and get them in line with Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes some criticism to pull that off as long as it isn’t criticism for the sake of being a cynic without seeing any viable options or direction in the process.

Appreciate voices of dissent:
To those of you who are church leaders, here is the rub…when young people express their concerns…it can sound like harsh criticism by uncaring people. The reality is, if you have people who are willing to speak up, be thankful for them. Most people just leave without saying a word and not helping you get any closer to figuring out what is going on. If you have people who will help you understand what is going on, even if it sounds like complaining, rejoice that those people are in your corner because they will help you navigate this if you don’t get too defensive. If someone is telling you their frustrations it means they love you and the church enough to express it. The worst thing you can do is shut them down and shut them out. We can learn a lot from those we disagree with if we are willing to listen.

Seth Godin said this on his blog today that I think is entirely appropriate as it pertains to these conversations,

“You can’t argue with success…

Of course you can. What else are you going to argue with? Failure can’t argue with you, because it knows that it didn’t work.

The art of staying successful is in being open to having the argument. Great organizations fail precisely because they refuse to do this.”

6 Responses

  1. Matt, your insights need to be heard by all of us who lead Christian ministries, institutions, and organizations which attempt to advance the kingdom of God. Thank you for the courage to join this conversation.

  2. Matt, thank you for putting the most rational and logical spin on this issue I’ve heard to date. I was pretty disappointed in the majority of the posts on Rich Little’s blog because they were little more than gripe-fests. Too much of what I read was “I can’t believe they would do this!” with little to no input on what exactly should be done differently. While at Harding, I developed a decent relationship with the McLarty’s and was baffled by the vehement complaints against his selection. I honestly felt like too much was a complaint from one side of the theological spectrum that is trying to push Harding further in their direction – something I honestly hope doesn’t happen. But, I couldn’t agree with you more when it comes to the relevancy of the church today. I’m grateful nearly every week for the eldership where I work that is willing to try nearly anything that is within the bounds of Scripture to teach the message of Christ. Thanks again for your balanced approach to the real issue at hand.

    1. It is important that we remain constructive. The problem is, it is too easy to armchair quarterback the decisions of others. Loved your note about your elders. I have very similar elders here and am entirely blessed by that. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Enjoyed looking at your blog!

  3. Matt,

    Great stuff to consider. I do also believe these dissenting voices right now in our fellowship should certainly be heard and respected and we do need open and honest discussions.

    But I wanted to let you know that I was able to hear Chuck Monan yesterday at the Oklahoma Christian University’s preacher’s luncheon and he talked about some of this criticism of Harding and Bruce’s selection as next President. He talked about it in the context of a Seeker’s class they have had some successul with at Pleasant Valley and how it’s based on inviting people to ask simple questions about our faith in Christ and especially churches of Christ. They are inviting people to feel comfortable to raise and ask questions and not be defensive or combatant but open and honest dialogue with seekers especially about why we believe and practice some of the things we do in churches of Christ. He talked about the tension and struggle right now in the church especially regarding being able to ask questions honestly and have open discussion. He gave what he described a telling quote from Rachel Held Evans, as you know is a more progressive blogger and thinking, that gives us insight and better understand those who are calling into question many of our long held beliefs. Evan said, “We aren’t looking for a faith that provides all the answers; we’re looking for one in which we are free to ask the questions.” (Evolving in Monkey Town)

    He talked about some “keys” for moving forward as our churches are changing dramatically and younger generation’s perspectives are also changing dramatically on a plethora of issues. He talked about having a spirit of humilty, servanthood, compassion yet all the while standing on the scriptures and history of the early church. That we don’t have to apologize or listen to the voices telling us to compromise or change our core convictions in order to reach people. We may not ever be in the majority and that’s okay, but there will also be a remnant of God’s people who can provide truth seekers the simple and clear message of NT Christianity in truth and love.

    But anyway, as only Chuck can so well do, he had some great one-liners about these “arm chair” critics. The best was reading their criticism of your selection was like being in the movie Minority Report and being convicted of “crimes” you have yet to commit. Charge for doing things you haven’t even done or have given any hint of doing:)! Great stuff.

    In the meantime, praying God will help us hold as best as possible the unity of the Spirit in peace.
    You can also read a great response from Chuck about this criticism of Bruce, which I believe along with some of your thoughts, are the best I’ve read so far.

    Take care brother, on November 6, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    1. Sounds like Chuck has a really good heart and a valid perspective on this. Young people don’t want us to compromise on what we would consider core doctrine…well young people who are honestly seeking. There will always be some who call for compromise on some things. I guess my point is, people think it is distasteful if you compromise your core values to try to make them fit in. Why would they want to be a part of a group and believe what that group believes if the group members have to deny their own core beliefs and practices in order for that person to feel comfortable…who would want to be a part of a group like that? It is inconsistent. Anyway, we have to stand on our core beliefs and not every behavior, doctrine, etc will fit that.

      I just hope that Dr. McLarty is receiveing a ton of support. I emailed him last week and told him I am in his corner 100%. I hope he can hear a few of the criticisms without feeling overwhelmed by them. Honestly, as president of HU he is going to have to get used to some criticism. We all have to be open to that and listen as best we can and learn what can be learned and go on.

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