A Chemistry Conversation with Reggie McNeal
Are we, as church leaders, leading a movement or simply managing an institution? They are two different things. Our training has helped us learn how to manage an institution, but people are not out trolling for the church as their major stop on their way to heaven. Jesus didn’t come to establish a church. He came to inaugurate a movement ... a Kingdom movement.
Matt Steen, Co-Founder of Chemistry Staffing, and Reggie McNeal talk about how we should be more focused on the Kingdom story rather than a church story. It’s about improving the quality of people’s lives across the whole spectrum of human engagement, not only spiritual. So people who are leaning in are engaging their communities to make sure that kids learn to read, have food, people have access to healthcare are making a HUGE Kingdom impact!
Reggie McNeal is a church ministry consultant, author, and speaker. For over 30 years, this Christian thought leader has dedicated himself to helping everyday people and other leaders pursue more intentional lives. His professional experience is wide-ranging, from serving as a denominational executive, congregational leader, leadership coach, the founding pastor of a new church, and more. He has also lectured and taught as adjunct faculty for multiple seminaries, served as a church ministry consultant, and advised in the business sector.
In addition to his books, Reggie has contributed to numerous denominational publications and church leadership journals. He looks forward to helping you enrich your spiritual life through his writing, podcast, or speaking engagements. Learn more by reading his full biography.
Reggie's podcast, books, and blogs can be found at ReggieMcNeal.org.
As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for churches and teams all over the United States!
Read the Full Transcript
Reggie McNeal: Well, I’ve not read any of them, so that cut down on some of the time. I really can’t do anything well, so I keep hunting around to find some promising lane for me to be in. I’m just a one-man wrecking crew I guess.
Matt Steen: Yeah, indeed. absolutely. But now you’re doing a podcast and all that stuff. We’ll talk about the podcast in a little bit. But Reggie, you’ve seen a good bit and you’re having conversations with people all across the world. What are you learning about the church now?
Reggie McNeal: Well, right now I think the church is struggling at many levels. If I had to put it in one big bucket, I’d say it’s struggling to deal with the different spiritual landscape that’s been accelerated by COVID but was already unfolding with the fourth information revolution, the dawn of the digital age. People are pursuing their spiritual journeys differently. I mean, people who no longer have to go to a bank to bank or to a movie theatre to see a movie or a record store to get music no longer have to go to church to get God. I think this wake-up call has been sounded by some of us for a while, but it was easily masked by the fact that Americans were living longer, so church attendance wasn’t diving as quickly But COVID has come along and accelerated this reality. So in a program-based church, how in the world do we engage people in the street in a 24/7 asynchronous, non-church-real-estate-based kind of approach to discipleship or evangelism or just spiritual journeying. It’s a challenging time.
Matt Steen: So you’re saying the church is struggling, but we still hear from a lot of people that their numbers aren’t back to what they were pre-COVID by any stretch of the imagination, but if you take the numbers of people in the congregation on Sunday plus what they see as far as online presence, then if you look at the budget. A lot of churches are actually doing pretty well financially, and so there’s a lot of people that are going to push back on you and say, how could they be struggling if that’s true?
Reggie McNeal: Well it’s true for a very small percentage, and that’s the folks that you’re dealing with. You’re just one of these one-percenter guys I think.
Matt Steen: That’s the first time anybody’s ever called me that.
Reggie McNeal: Yeah, I mean, your clients are in a very rarified spot looking across the board. Whether it’s Catholic, protestant, mainline, evangelical, non-whatever. So yes, it is true for many of the folks that you and I might be with or consult with. I’m just saying on the brand spectrum of church engagement. I remember I spoke to a group of Lutheran pastors about two years ago, and my opening comment was, “It’s not your fault.” I was trying to relieve them of the pressure. They are in a very cumbersome - not that I dislike Lutheran or Lutheranism - but in a sacramental-based, you have to come and get it, it has to be dispensed by certain - I mean, in that kind of world, it’s like trying to roll the music industry back on the other side of Spotify. I actually had two of those guys start crying. These were leaders of the largest Lutheran congregations in the country. Bu their numbers and the trend overall. So I’m looking at the aggregate. I’m grateful for the places where that is not true. Almost without exception, those places where that’s true, where budget is up and numbers are good and all that, you have leaders who have leaned into the new world rather than ignored it.
Matt Steen: So what does it look like to lean in, best you can tell? You’ve been studying this for years and as you said, this just kind of accelerated everything. What does it look like to lean in?
Reggie McNeal: I think there’s a shift in the story that we’re telling. It’s not, “Come help us build a great church” anymore. There are some that are doing that. But it’s more of a Kingdom story than a church story. It’s about improving the quality of people’s lives across the whole spectrum of human engagement, not just spiritual. So people who are leaning in are engaging their communities to make sure that kids learn to read, have food, people have access to healthcare. All of this has been made more difficult with the pandemic, but it has also made it more obvious in natural disasters. Those that are leaning in are being both attentive to the disasters that people are experiencing every day, whether it is weather-related, flood, but many people are living in a disaster and how they deliver developmental help along the way. The mental health crisis is exploding. I know people listening to this are probably reaching for Prozac right now. The truth is, our culture is in the deep throes of a lot of conflicts and a lot of challenges. So the folks that lean in have shifted their scorecard a bit. I mean, they still count the money and they still count how many people come by, but they’re also paying attention to outcomes, not just inputs. Are more kids able to read? To go back to that. Are there fewer hungry people? Are there better marriages? That kind of a thing. The leadership agenda has changed for those that are leaning in. They no longer think of themselves as pastoring a flock. Their flock has extended. They’re thinking about stewarding a community, not just a religious gathering.
Matt Steen: I can hear people already saying, reading is nice and marriages is nice, but I just want to give them the gospel. I hear it already. What do you say to people that are wrestling with that?
Reggie McNeal: People that ask that question have a pretty shrink-wrapped view of the gospel. My conversation with them would be, what do you think the gospel is? I grew up in a tradition with a two-chapter gospel. You are screwed up, and you can pray the prayer to get access to heaven. There’s really a four-chapter gospel in a more holistic look, more biblical look at this. There’s creation, which means that everybody counts, and every one is built to last. Not churches, people. People are built to last. And yes, there’s a fall. Yes, there’s redemption. But then you have chapter four which is about the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. So what do we do with that? It’s Ephesians 2:10, not just Ephesians 2:8-9. We are saved to do good works. And that means allowing - we’re not saved by good works, but we are saved to good works. It’s the point of once you get to the promised land, you’ve got to build a culture here and establish a home. So chapter four involves God’s people joining him and his redemptive mission in the world. I grew up, again, with a tradition that was mostly focused on getting people from earth to heaven. Jesus focused mostly on getting heaven to earth. We’ve got to make that shift. And that’s a four-chapter gospel. So to those folks that want to share the gospel, I would say there are multiple means. Yes, there’s proclamation, but it’s not nearly as compelling to start with proclamation anymore. It starts most with demonstration. And so you demonstrate the gospel through caring for people who are marginalized who need hope. That opens up the possibility, and we don’t do well if we don’t look - like Peter said, be ready to give an answer for the hope that’s in you. If we never ever point people to God and what Jesus can do for them, we certainly aren’t loving them. But sharing the truth in love, both parts are critical.
Matt Steen: That makes total sense.
Reggie McNeal: I can’t help stating the obvious. Okay. You can edit that out.
Matt Steen: No, that’s staying in.
Reggie McNeal: So we can get more barbed criticism.
Matt Steen: That’s definitely staying in.
Reggie McNeal: You have forsaken the faith. That’s right.
Matt Steen: Let me go back to something you said.
Reggie McNeal: You really wouldn’t want to mimic Jesus and what he did. That’s outrageous. Go ahead.
Matt Steen: I’m going to go back to something you said before we all get fired.
Reggie McNeal: Where is the sinner’s prayer in the Bible? I’m just asking. I’m just looking around for it. Go ahead. That’s fine. Seriously. I’m not a universalist. I don’t care what people accuse me of. You can’t have a heaven without a hell. That’s another discussion. I mean, do you really want to live in an amoral universe? No, of course not. But what is… I don’t want to say that. Go ahead.
Matt Steen: Okay. I want to go back to something you said.
Reggie McNeal: We were so interested in getting people - everyone was out, unless they opted in. Consider a world where people are in unless they opt-out. Just think about it. I don’t know. Now, that will get me charges of heresy. I welcome all commerce.
Matt Steen: I just heard some heads exploding when you said that.
Reggie McNeal: And you don’t want to wear this. I’m not even saying that’s right. But that’s another way - in a world where we are increasingly aware of billions of people on the planet right now. It’s more and more challenge to thoughtful and evangelical Christians really do believe, why me? I mean, Jesus is an essential aspect of spiritual journeying, but how did we get to Jesus and how does Jesus get to us and how much of that is… just in a world increasingly aware of how many people don’t have the availability that we’ve grown up in, it’s causing I think a pause to think what is our stewardship and how does - I had a guy recently challenge me when I was talking about this, in my soteriology. I said, “I’m just thinking.” God was saving people a long time before there was a church. I’m kind of comfortable that He’s comfortable being God and making His choices and decisions. So all I’m saying is, we have to figure out a new posture and position in a world like this. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. All roads lead to - I’m not saying any of that. I’m saying, how do we make sure that people become aware of their best shot at life, which is the life, Jesus’ life.
Matt Steen: That’s what I like about what you were saying about the whole idea of you need to move from pastoring a congregation to pastoring and shepherding a community. Right?
Reggie McNeal: Exactly. If we’re going to wait to turn people into church people first before they can get the gospel, see, that’s a problem. We’re going to have to figure out how the gospel is demonstrated and proclaimed where people already are.
Matt Steen: So what’s a first step? I didn’t know we were going down this road, so this is probably an unfair question. What’s the first step for somebody to move from - they don’t teach this is seminary - what’s the first step to move from pastoring a congregation to pastoring a community?
Reggie McNeal: It’s a personal engagement piece. It’s very difficult to persuade people to go take an on-ramp onto a road that you’ve not traveled in this regard. It was easy to get people to stand and preach and tell them to read their Bible and pray and do all those personal disciplines that we do because we know all about it. You cannot call people into arms - and by the way, we are an invading force by the way. As one of my friends says, we’re taking back everything hell has stolen. So if you’re going to do that, you better get into battle first. So go ahead and suit up and figure out your best way to be engaging in the community personally. Let that begin to shape your thinking and your experience. You begin to talk about that more. You begin to be aware more. So this is not something we’ll persuade people from our biblical exegesis holed up in the study approach to ministry.
Matt Steen: I heard a story last week of a key leader in a major parachurch whose name you would recognize. He’s overseeing all the operations in North America and all this kind of thing and doing a lot of worldwide work. But what a lot of people didn’t realize is a few mornings a week, he’s camped out in Starbucks just having random conversations about spiritual things with anybody who will come and sit down and have a conversation. So yeah he’s doing it globally, but he’s definitely doing it locally. It sounds like what you’re saying.
Reggie McNeal: Well, turning a Starbucks into a chapel. What a smart thing. And not only just having conversations, but reading to kids and packing food bags. Every Kingdom-focused leader I know is developing relationships with community leaders so that they’re beginning to hear the heart - I mean, I was just with some Salvation Army officers in Florida. Salvation Army is uniquely positioned through their work and all, so encouraging them - and their advisory boards in every city are filled with community leaders. That’s what gives them so much access to reach [UNCLEAR] and everything else. Our church board are filled with folks who are faithful to this flock and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got to build a board of directors around you - it doesn’t have to be official. That’s not what I’m saying, tear up your church constitution. But who are your community leaders that you are in routine and regular contact with, that you actually have a relationship with.
Matt Steen: That’s strong, that’s strong.
Reggie McNeal: So basically what we’re headed toward and what we’ve got to do - I know I interrupted you, but people out there were saying, “Just be quiet, Matt. Let Reggie finish his sentence if he has one.” I usually have about five sentences on the board at once, so this is kind of a challenge. We’re talking here about leading a movement. If you look at the horizon and what we’ve got to anticipate, leading a movement is different from managing an institution. Our training has helped us manage an institution, but people are not out trolling for the church as an institution as their major stop on the way to heaven. So we’ve got to become a street movement again, which we were in the early days and that’s what Jesus started. He didn’t come to establish a church. He came to inaugurate a movement. And it’s a Kingdom movement. Because he mentions church once. He’s obsessed with the Kingdom of God.
Matt Steen: So that’s a huge order. That’s a big shift for a lot of us. What encouragement do you have for pastors who are hearing this and just saying, “Reggie, stop. That hurts.”
Reggie McNeal: Two things, I would say. Because I do want to be encouraging, and I find that, boy, we’ve got a lot of room to play here. First thing, I would use COVID as a cover for change. I mean, those of us who lead change and transition know we always run into resistance, don’t want to underestimate that. But COVID can provide a lot of cover, all the way from doing some stuff with your physical plant when people aren’t around, using it for others - just on and on and on. I’m not asking you to be - well, maybe I am asking you to be a little surreptitious. But it’s affording you an opportunity right now to try some new stuff and, maybe even more importantly, quit doing some stuff. One of the exercises I use for staff teams is the start-stop continuum. What do we need to stop doing so that we can get where we want to go? What do we need to start doing? What do we need to keep doing? What’s interesting, in the rush back to normal to pick up all those problems that we’ve done without for 18 months, that creates margin that you can reallocate resources into Kingdom stuff and Kingdom-centric ministry, and that’s what I’m hoping folks can do. I think you’ve got that opportunity. There’s not been an opportunity like this. Not saying that God created the pandemic, but you sure can use this to reallocate your efforts. The second thing that I would say and probably want to close out with because I’m really hungry and I’m not getting paid for this is - more and more, I’m not getting paid. I don’t understand that.
Matt Steen: You’re storing up your treasures in heaven or something.
Reggie McNeal: Just living off the largess of overcharging people for years, and it’s been a great trip. But I would say that every leader listening to this, if there are any still on, God must have a lot of confidence in you to put you on the planet right now in this environment. If we believe that He is in charge of when we show up and how and what culture, what family strain, and if He’s giving attention to all of that. I mean, He could have planted you and me in a time where if we just didn’t spill the juice, we could get along and not change much for over hundreds of years maybe. Uh uh. We’re in this tumultuous, highly, highly critical time that’s going to shape the movement for who knows for how long. And God chose to put you here right now. What confidence that should give you that he believes in you and that you can do this.
Matt Steen: That’s a good word. That’s a good word. Thank you for that.
Reggie McNeal: You’re welcome. And almost all of you I would say should have confidence. There are some interviewers in some parachurch ministry operators that you might want to exclude from that. I think just about anybody could do what you do, Matt. But I didn’t want to get personal right in the end.
Matt Steen: I appreciate that.
Reggie McNeal: How much fun is this? We get to persecute each other with great enthusiasm.
Matt Steen: I think we’re going to wrap up pretty quick before you get crankier as you get hungrier.
Reggie McNeal: Oh, isn’t that the truth? Curmudgeonly.
Matt Steen: Reggie, thank you so much, not just for the time here but for all that you’ve done for the church and how you’ve coached people. If you haven’t checked out Reggie’s podcast, you need to go to reggiemcneal.com and just download everything. Power watch it or listen to it, and just keep listening to it because it’s gold, it really is. Reggie, thanks for the time. Really appreciate it.
Reggie McNeal: I’ve enjoyed it. Matt, you are doing good work as everyone knows or they wouldn’t be on here. I have enormous respect for you and what you’re doing. Way to go, way to go. Thanks for the time. I enjoyed almost all of it.