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More of What Works, Less of What Doesn’t

I have never in my life used the phrase tour de force. I have never needed it.

Then a few weeks ago I visited the 2009 International Pathfinder Camporee at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It was, in the context of this denomination, a tour de force — “an impressive performance or achievement that has been accomplished or managed with great skill”. I loved it all: the honors programs, museums, displays, vendors, entertainment, religious services, site and crowd management, even the popular swapping of faux-cloisonné Pathfinder pins. The whole program was organized, implemented and managed about as well as I’ve seen this denomination do anything.

Remember: this was 35,000 visitors, most of them children, camping quite peacefully on a hot, dusty airfield, and the only substantive complaint I heard was “not enough shower capacity.”

As for spiritual programming, our youth leaders were at the top of their game. I was blown away by the grand Persian-styled stage flanked by huge screens, from which they provided us great music, creative audio-visuals, marvelous preachers, and all of it topped off with a Disneyesque musical play about Esther that was as close to professional as you’ll probably ever see under the auspices of our church.

That last night when tens of thousands of young people waved lighted cell phones over their heads to “I’m Coming Back to the Heart of Worship” would have been the time to get tears in my eyes, were I the kind of person inclined to get tears in his eyes.

I don’t know how much IPC ‘09 cost, but it was worth it. It anchored thousands of children into the church. It conveyed to the young people in attendance, “This denomination is significant.” Never mind that the church back home has only 50 attendees, a mediocre preacher and Sabbath School in a mildewy basement: I can see that the Seventh-day Adventist church is something bigger and more important than I’d ever imagined, and worth my lifelong commitment!

Here’s my advice to church leaders: let’s do the International Pathfinder Camporee every three years rather than waiting five years. We’ll create a stronger church. IPC is a proven success. It works. I know it’s expensive. But it’s time we began to do more of what works.

And (here’s the hard part) quit doing what doesn’t work so we can do more of what does.

I’m not at all sure I’m right about everything I’m about to suggest here. Consider it brainstorming. I’m trying to think of where we could find the money for more frequent International Pathfinder Camporees (and other programs that work) by cutting back elsewhere.

  • Here’s an easy one: every year the denomination gathers thousands of us gray, paunchy middle-aged church leaders for committees and conferences all over the globe. The travel budget is enormous. Drop just half of those meetings—I doubt that would handicap the denomination all that much—and you’ll be amazed at the millions freed up.
  • Then, let’s quit doing what people aren’t supporting. The conventional wisdom, based on a few loud voices, is that church members want boarding academies. But do they? Let’s not decide hastily or on anecdotal evidence. We’ll use a generous time horizon—30 years should be long enough. If you graph out the enrollment for the last 30 years, and it trends downward, then no matter what people claim they want, it’s an idea whose time has passed.
  • The same should go for colleges and universities. If an institution of higher learning has been on thin ice for the last 30 years, with declining enrollment and income, perhaps it’s time to quit throwing good money after bad.
  • And how about setting the same bar for churches? Again, let’s grant ample time in which to prove value. In the last three decades, has there been any growth? Any notable accomplishments? Does the community around the church know it exists—preferably for positive reasons? Are the parishioners at least happy and at peace with one another? If not, then why continue to furnish a pastor?
  • I don’t think we’ll ever succeed in slimming the church bureaucracy before Jesus returns; many have tried and failed. But suppose we cut back just a little. As I suggested before: fewer trips. More online conferencing. Set the presidents of the various levels free from being on committees across the Division. And quit sending people places just so they can say they showed up.
  • Then stop printing materials that go into the dumpster the moment they arrive. My church gets many pounds of unsolicited printing every month. Why? Because people in offices generate paper. It’s what they do. And they can do it whether what they print gets used or not.

I could go on, but I’ve probably kicked at least one sacred cow of nearly every person in church employ already!

By the way, I know Andrews University’s amazingly innovative and productive Center for Youth Evangelism is the organizer of the IPC. And I know that these potential savings I’m trying to identify would come off the balance sheets of other organizations. But I also know that in this denomination, money flows from one place to another when it needs to.

Wherever we find the money, my point is that we need to do more of what works—more events of the quality and effectiveness of the International Pathfinder Camporee. There are other creative programs, initiatives and events in this church that are working well, too. I’d like to hear your nominations.

Sooner or later, we’ll have to make some hard choices. Resources are limited, and becoming more so. Where are we going to use them? On what works, or on what’s past its sell-by date?

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