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My ankles were wrenching painfully against old, rock-hard dirt ruts. Burning wind sliced across a barrage of prairie grass and straight through my flimsy cotton shirt. Overhead, a blistering Midwest sun made a mockery of the straw hat I’d worn to ward off its rays. Next to me, my wife and children were actually laughing, enjoying themselves. And to be honest, despite my discomfort, so was I.

The year was 1993, and America was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Seized by an oddly ambitious curiosity, the Finzel bunch piled into a motor home and set out to follow the old path along its entire route, learning its history and its lessons.

We learned that the Oregon Trail stretches some 2,000 miles—half of the width of the United States—from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. At both ends of the trail and all along the route lay informative interpretive centers where we soon learned of the many who tried and the many who died.

Of the 6,000 people who set out between 1843 and 1846, 1,000 died along the way. Yet tales of hardship didn’t deter these early pioneers who settled the Pacific Northwest.

“What’s wrong with you people?” “Why didn’t you quit?” The questions never let up. They only grew louder as our family trail wound on. Our air-conditioned motor home stood ready for us nearby; theirs was a Conestoga wagon with wooden wheels and no indoor plumbing. “Why did they do it?” “Would we have gone along?”

In the middle of my misery, I started to picture being somewhere else. Hawaii. Alaska. Even the Hampton Inn in the next town over—anywhere but here. And that’s when it struck me.

They were dreamers!

Their minds weren’t showing them this baked-out oven. They were focused on swimming images of Oregon! Of lush green valleys and rows of douglas firs lining the banks of the Willamette.

Churches in decline today desperately need the eyes of dreamers. Solutions lie not in focusing on the rocks in the path, but on the possibilities ahead. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,” says Marcel Proust. The eyes of a dreamer.

Dreaming and the Seizing of Risk

I see two kinds of churches on our North American landscape today: dying churches and changing churches. If you’re not changing, you’re probably dying. As I travel and speak in many churches, I see so many declining churches that are paralyzed by fear and held captive by a few long-time power people that hold the church hostage. I recently spoke in such a church. The pastor poured out his heart
to me about the few big giving families in the church that are withholding their money to show that they don’t condone the changes he’s making. My advice to him was this: “Lay down the ultimatum. Go for broke with your changes, despite these obstructionists, or leave the church.” It was sad to see the dreams robbed from this young pastor.

Today’s churches need courageous dreamers and pioneers that will make the church work for the world of 2004 and beyond. We desperately need visionaries that can lead our churches into a vital future of ministry that meets the spiritual needs of today’s world.

If you weren’t a dreamer—even a latent one, whose dreamer potential lay buried under layers of adult cares—you’d be incapable of boarding a wagon for the West in the 1800s.

That brings me to the other germane fact about the Oregon Trail pioneers: They were risk-takers. I truly believe the two qualities—dreaming and risk-taking—are totally intertwined. Very few people have the intestinal fortitude to take risks (at least the kind of mammoth risks necessary to make a real difference in this world) without possessing the ability to fantasize a desirable destination. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” says Renn Zaphiropoulos, former president and CEO of Versatec, Inc.

Business leader Peter Drucker says this about living with risk-takers in our organizations: Every organization needs risk-takers, to discover...

1. Risks you can afford to take.
2. Risks you cannot afford to take.
3. Risks you cannot afford not to take.

Maybe not everyone was cut out for the Oregon Trail. But creativity and risk-taking in our churches today aren’t just for the gifted few. They’re a necessary component of every learning organization. Your church needs risk-takers at every level.

Why Change?
Most people resist change. They prefer the certainty of their misery rather than the misery of uncertainty. Established church members question the need for change. Older, established churches are often very hard to change. But change they must. Henry Kissinger states well the danger of holding back the pioneers that will bring us into the future: “For any student of history, change is the law of life. Any attempt to contain it guarantees an explosion down the road; the more rigid the adherence to the status quo, the more violent the ultimate outcome will be.” If we hold back the changes needed in our churches, they’ll either explode in division or die.

I have to address the fundamental question some of you may be asking: “Why change our churches?” There are so many reasons, that I’ve developed the following list as a sampling of the big issues.

• God’s stirring a new thing
• A sense of urgency
• Changing audience
• Changing workers
• Changing demographics
• Changing marketplace
• Lack of clear goals
• Ineffectiveness
• Repeated failure
• Plateaued ministry
• Declining impact
• High attrition rates
• Confusion over leadership roles
• Low morale
• Flat-out failure

Inventing the Next Velcro for Your Church
The #1 skill necessary for exhuming and then honing your individual creativity is to learn how to think associatively. What does that mean? It means abandoning the linear model of Western thinking, first of all. Am I leading us down a path of Eastern mysticism? Not really. But I do think we can learn something from cultures that refuse to think of life in terms of straight lines stretching from Point A to Point B. We can benefit from picturing it instead, if only temporarily, as a series of circles, or even meandering paths, which not only intertwine but educate each other.

Again, I’m not going to launch into instructions for the lotus position or the latest trendy form of yoga. But I will say that when you start free-associating in a nonlinear manner, you allow parts of your thinking to latch onto others they might never have approached before. That’s when you enter the zone where true genius is possible. Instead of B following A, it might follow T. And “B after T” might spark innovations and ramifications no one ever expected—the kind of “eurekas” that change organizations, and our world, forever.

Try getting your church leaders together and visualizing a better way. Give permission for dreaming. When was the last time your church leaders got together with a blank white board to dream about the future? Do you allow any ideas to go on the board, no matter how off-the-wall or out-of-the-box? That’s what it takes to come up with the creative ideas that will take your congregation to a vibrant future.

When Robert Schuller began the Crystal Cathedral in a drive-in theater in Garden Grove, California, it was the last of 100 other ideas that didn’t work. People called him crazy—but it worked.

How safe is it to be a dreamer in your group? Is change rewarded or is preserving the rituals of tradition?
If tradition is your mantra, you’d better get to work.

Can Coffee Instruct the Church?
When Starbucks came along, I became their perfect customer. My wife, Donna, and I grab Starbucks lattes together nearly every afternoon after work so we can catch up on our day. We have our own table, and they know us on a first-name basis!

Years ago, when Howard Schultz bought the Star-bucks franchise and began to dream about bringing the European café culture to America, countless skeptics and critics scoffed. “No American will ever pay more than a dollar for a cup of coffee!” He proved them massively wrong. Everywhere I go, not only in the United States, but also around the world, I see that familiar green-and-white disk.

It’s a lot more than coffee. Howard Schultz actually changed the habits of modern America. What he’d seen in the streets of Naples he grafted into his home culture. Schultz tells how in his book, Pour Your Heart Into It (Hyperion Press). I love the four principles upon which he operates as a coffee evangelist:

Care more than others think wise.
Risk more than others think safe.
Dream more than others think practical.
Expect more than others think possible.

I have a pastor friend in California who applied lessons learned from Starbucks to build a beautiful outdoor plaza between their church buildings with a full-service espresso bar for members to enjoy between services. It’s a huge hit at keeping people on campus and stimulating fellowship.

Our message of the saving grace of Jesus Christ is worth so much more than a cup of coffee. Let’s learn the lesson of change and throw the same creativity and passion into our efforts.

Caution: Don’t Kill the Dreamers

Are you killing the best dreams of others, which will bring you the future? Are others killing your dreams for your church?

In my book, The Top 10 Mistakes Leaders Make (David C. Cook Publishing), I have a whole chapter on making room for mavericks. Here are a few observations about how to kill dreamers.

The three deadliest phrases for the maverick are:

1. We tried that before and it didn’t work.
2. We’ve always done it that way.
3. We’ve never done it that way. I also have in that book what I call the “11 Commandments of Organizational Paralysis,” or “How to put people in their place if they try to bring us into the future with their great new ideas.”

1. “That’s impossible.”
2. “We don’t do things that way around here.”
3. “We’ve never done it that way.”
4. “It’s too radical a change for us.”
5. “We tried something like that before and it didn’t work.”
6. “I wish it were that easy.”
7. “It’s against policy to do it that way.”
8. “When you’ve been around a little longer, you’ll understand.”
9. “Who gave you permission to change the rules?”
10. “Let’s get real, okay?”
11. “How dare you suggest that what we’re doing is wrong!”

Not only are dreamers essential to a church’s survival, but each of us is a
dreamer-in-training. If you’re not one,
get on the ball and quick. In today’s radically changing world, we need church leaders who allow nonlinear thinking
and dreamers to help them survive.

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