“What happened to the church”

That was the question a Duke Business School professor, Greg Dees, asked the former dean of the Duke Divinity School, Greg Jones, one day.

“What do you mean?” Jones replied.

Dees: “The church used to be the source of much of the innovation and entrepreneurial work in the world. But, sometime in the 1970s, the church seems to have stopped trying to be creative and innovative with regard to healthcare, education and poverty. You gave that role up and lost your imagination. You abdicated creative imagination to corporate interests and other non-profits. Now, the church is seen as the yellow light and red light people. Rather than being people who imagine and improvise and encourage progress, the church appears to decelerate progress.”

Dees’ metaphor of traffic lights is suggestive. Being a yellow-light church implies caution as an operating motif. It pays close attention to all the threats and dangers around it the way a driver does when the light is yellow. A red-light church internalizes those fears and hunkers down for survival. It loses its imagination for its role in society.

Yellow light and red light churches are more internally than externally focused. And if they turn outward, it is mostly for the purpose of trying to appeal to outsiders to come and save them.

Churches are under stress these days. Stores and sports no longer defer to our Sunday schedule. Politicians no longer look to us for guidance. Belief is no longer a starting point for intellectual pursuit; the very plausibility of believing is questioned.

Churches with green-light mentality once founded hospitals, schools and benevolent institutions. They didn’t seek to dominate the public sphere so much as serve it.

One sterling example was the late, great pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, George W. Truett. In 1903, at a time when health care was segregated and available mainly to the wealthy, he issued this challenge: “Is it not now time to build a great humanitarian hospital, one to which men of all creeds and those of none may come with equal confidence?”

Baylor Hospital exists today to serve everyone because of that moral and social vision that emanated from the church; likewise, Presbyterian and Methodist hospitals, SMU, the University of Dallas, Dallas Baptist University, to name just a few. Catholic Charities, the Wilkinson Center, Jewish Family Services and a slew of other religiously-inspired organizations to aid the poor were birthed by churches and synagogues.

Just because we have lost social clout doesn’t mean we have lost our mission. We still have enormous power to do good, and should. Recent examples of social entrepreneurism include the remarkable CitySquare organization that addresses poverty and opportunity. Healing Hands Clinic provides medical and dental services for the uninsured and underinsured. Gateway of Grace tends to refugee resettlement. The Stewpot feeds the homeless.

The need is ever present. And the church knows what to do.

Another great preacher, Fred Craddock, died recently. In one of his last interviews, he was asked if he worried that the church in America was dying. No, he said, because the church is founded on a story of dying and rising again. He was more concerned about what we were dying for.

Green-light churches die to self in order to live for others.

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