Pollyanna

 In Jim Lyon

In 1913, Eleanor Porter published a novel named Pollyanna, telling the story of an eleven-year-old girl whose irrepressible optimism transforms a whole town in Vermont. The book became wildly popular and inspired twelve sequels, sometimes known as “Glad Books.” The original novel is considered a classic in children’s literature and has been adapted for the big screen several times. Walt Disney’s 1960 motion picture of the same name, Pollyanna, placed child actress Hayley Mills in the title role and proved to be, like the book, a huge commercial success and cultural meme. Mills’s compelling performance made her a star and earned for her an Oscar. The adjective “Pollyanna” was cemented, again, for another generation, as the emblem of a positive outlook.

The name of Porter’s heroine, Pollyanna, remains in the English vernacular, but today often is used to brand someone as naïve or overly optimistic. Webster’s dictionary defines “Pollyanna” as “a person characterized by a tendency to find good in everything.” In the original book, Pollyanna’s approach to life is contrasted with the proverb, “When you look for the bad, expecting it, you will get it.” Pollyanna, of course, famously made lemonade out of every lemon. When finding crutches in a barrel instead of a hoped-for doll, for instance, she is undeterred; she celebrates the fact she can walk and doesn’t need crutches.

We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend things are in good shape when they’re not. Ignoring the truth, even when hard to bear, is not a virtue. But, always being “full of joy in the Lord,” and thinking “about things that are excellent and worthy of praise,” (Philippians 4:4, 8) has legs, too. Maybe Pollyanna was on to something, after all.

I find myself often in conversations that emphasize the challenges the gospel faces in these tumultuous days. Discouraging anecdote stands in for evidence, gloomy forecasts abound, and data is read in a way that conforms to the felt sense of decline. Even the questions can be framed by a sense of defeat and loss. The answers come back with a resigned (or desperate) sigh. Glasses seem to be half-empty, if not near empty.

I’ve historically been the Pollyanna guy. Yes, I am no stranger to calling out the challenges and attempting to diagnose weakness and vulnerability in the work. But, I also cannot help but stumble onto good news. Yes, there are receding front lines of ministry, but there also some dynamic advances. Yes, we have suffered from losses, but, man, we’ve also had some wins. Big time. Maybe it’s time to embrace a little “tendency to find the good in everything,” a la Pollyanna. Not naïvely, but legitimately. “Whatsoever things be true…think then on these things.” Here’s some truth from my desk and travels:

(1) We have (at last count) 2,126 congregations of the Church of God in the United States and Canada; this is a few hundred fewer than we had 25 years ago. But, the number of churches we have does not always tell the whole story of our reach, health, and influence. More churches (not fewer) is our hope, of course, but we also have many more large churches than 25 years ago. We now have some congregations that draw more people on Sundays than do some whole states and provinces in the Movement. Some of our states have fewer churches but thousands more people in church than even just a few years ago. Some of our congregations have birthed others which are not reflected in our “head count.” For instance, ChoG Jubilee in Boston draws over 7,000 every Sunday to worship at its main campus, but it has also planted fourteen more churches in the Boston metro over the last twenty years; these are not in our congregational census, but are Kingdom wins. As a side note, Jubilee’s founding pastor (and a member of our General Assembly’s Ministries Council), Gideon Thompson, will be one of headliners at this year’s ChoG Regional Conventions (April in the Los Angeles metro, June in Anderson, and September in New York City).

(2) We have 428 registered ministers under the age of 40. We would like to see 1,000 of them, but 428 is still a big number. Only seven percent of our churches have a lead pastor who is under 40, but there is real talent and hundreds on the bench. We are tooling our ChoG Regionals this year to especially engage them, even as all ages are welcome. A focus group of younger pastors has spoken into the Regional Convention design and theme. I am excited about the young adults I meet all over the country who are anxious to be a part of a church that actually changes the world. They are Jesus-hungry and thirsty to wrestle with the real world, the headlines, and the great causes of our time, for Jesus’ sake. Some are already in the ministry and some are not, but on the cusp. Be encouraged. The Lord is raising a new generation that has its eyes and ears open to Kingdom life, even if ambivalent sometimes about institutional church life. There’s lots to work with here. We can expand this net.

(3) Early in my term as general director, the Lilly Endowment awarded Church of God Ministries a $1,000,000 grant to help pastors with financial literacy and retire debt, especially targeting the under-40 crowd (as many labor under towering student loans). Lilly did a lot of research and concluded that church health is often tied directly to the pastors’ personal financial health. Lilly’s research contends that pastors stressed about paying bills at home can struggle to find the energy and emotional wherewithal to shepherd their flocks effectively. The terms of the grant required us to match it by raising an additional $500,000. Guess what? We were able to find new dollars and make the match and, partnering with Servant Solutions, have already been able to come alongside many of our younger pastors with financial help, planning, and future. This initiative was dubbed CARE 1.0.

A year ago, Lilly (seeing how successful CARE 1.0 had been) gave us another grant of $500,000, but asked us to do a 100% match this time (Lilly is interested in demonstration of sustainability of the initiatives it kickstarts by upping the ask for skin-in-the-game). Raising $500,000 for the first Lilly grant was daunting; finding a second $500,000 even more so. But, we prayerfully approached a donor prospect hoping for a partial buy-in (which could inspire others to also come alongside with a substantial gift) and, to our astonishment, that single donor, after prayerful reflection, agreed to underwrite the whole $500,000 match alone. Bam! The Lord is good. CARE 2.0 is completing a test-drive initiative (with twenty-four congregations), helping local churches understand what they can do to care for their pastors, steward their resources, and set the stage for future health; more to come. Go, Pollyanna.

(4) Regional associations on the Pacific Coast (from Alaska to Southern California) banded together in 2018 to experiment with a more collaborative approach to ministry than they had previously imagined; they invited me and ChoG Ministries to their table, as well, as full partners. One of the outcomes of this Pacific Coast Collective (which embraced the Stanford University Model for Collective Impact—essentially, we can achieve greater outcomes collectively than individually) is the launch of the Chapter 4 Institute, a demonstration project, for which groundwork was laid in 2019.

Chapter 4 takes its name from Luke 4:16–20, in which Jesus defines Himself and ministry by speaking from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue; this is the core text in the purpose statement captured in the General Assembly’s constitution. Chapter 4 will take off in April of this year, as an original cohort of ChoG leaders from the West Coast dive into an 18-month listening, learning, and doing adventure.

We’ve been thrilled by the response of key voices invited to participate in the first wave, from congregations large and small, from north to south. With almost 40 leaders now committed (with their dollars, time, and ambition), we’re at the tipping point of capacity (originally dreaming of, hopefully, signing up 24). The Chapter 4 men and women will be exposed to terrific thought leaders assembled in a cutting-edge faculty, a deep dive into personal and contemplative communion with Jesus and spiritual development, fresh approaches to engaging their neighbors, identifying ways to make their churches key to the life and health of the communities into which God has placed them, and New Testament patterns of transformational gospel engagement.

The Chapter 4 Institute is being underwritten by the investment of the participants, generous grants from the Collective Regional Associations, and another astounding individual gift to Church of God Ministries (from a West Coast family excited about trying something new—a single gift to the tune of $170,000). It’s a wow. Revitalizing and expanding our footprint on the West Coast; that’s our aim, anyway. The train is pulling out of the station. C’mon, put your Pollyanna on.

(5) The Church of God has been through a season in which the number of our missionaries and gospel workers abroad (sent from the United States and Canada) were being reduced as a generation of great souls embraced retirement; at the same time, little interest in replacing them could be found in a new generation. But, over the last couple of years, this, too, has changed for the better, as young adults began to knock on our door and re-pivot their lives to join our Global Strategy team, serving far away from home. There are eight new young adults in the cue right now as I write, in varying stages of preparation, to take the dare and expand the Kingdom worldwide. These new faces are working with new energy and in tandem with national Church of God assemblies across the planet. Awesome. And there’s more. The prospect of missionaries and gospel “consultants” (the vocabulary must be adapted to diverse cultures, environments, and contexts in our changing world) being deployed in some fields previously thought to be closed is also alive and well. Amazing. Pollyanna couldn’t make this up.

(6) ChoG Ministries has finished in the black for 2019, with a hefty positive margin—and that after retiring over $600,000 in residual debt, with which we have been saddled for over a quarter century (incurred by decisions and commitments made long ago by the Church of God, before Church of God Ministries was even formed out of pre-existing church agencies). This multi-million dollar debt has hobbled the work for decades, but real progress has been made in the last couple of years and especially last year. We’re not out of the woods, yet, but thanks be to God, we’ve made giant strides. This is a moment to take a deep breath and celebrate. In my early years on this job, there were moments when we weren’t sure we could make payroll. Yes. The Lord is good and is honoring the hard decisions made lately (moving the Convention, to among other things, make it self-supporting, letting go of the huge Warner office complex for more affordable space, instituting new stewardship and funding models, embracing sponsorship partnerships, etc.). Thanks to every congregation and everyone who is pulling for the Movement’s success, supporting us prayerfully and financially, and sacrificing, too.

(7) Christians Broadcasting Hope (CBH) produces half-hour weekly programs in many languages and is heard on every continent. There’s the English broadcast ViewPoint, of course, but also production in other languages like Spanish, Swahili, Portuguese, French, Hindi, Odia, Creole, and Arabic. Each language program is conceived and produced by native speakers in the cultural context of the target audience; each program has unique content, but all broadcast hope in Christ. The Arabic program has experienced a huge surge of interest in the last year, engaging millions online. Originally broadcast from Lebanon, it is now using an online platform which has exploded with engagement. An Arabic-speaking husband and wife team host the show, which invites interaction and messaging with the listeners. The data is jaw-dropping and the response has been extraordinary, by every measure. Thousands upon thousands are tuning in every week and thousands have asked questions and made comments from the field. Some are hostile, as there are listeners eager to deny the gospel proclaimed; but most listeners are searching for truth and discovering a Jesus they never knew. In a patriarchal culture, this husband and wife team are able to bring a woman’s voice on-air, too, in a way that does not offend the traditionalists and wins the female audience—which has proved to be the fastest growing edge of our Arabic listening base. CBH is a department at ChoG Ministries. It’s a win.

Okay. Time to balance. Yes, we have hundreds of congregations struggling and wondering about their future. Yes, we have pastors and leaders discouraged and uncertain about their next steps. Yes, our culture has increasingly become, if not hostile, at least dismissive of ministry models and ideas we’ve taken for granted for many years. Yes, there are camps that have closed and Sunday night meetings that are no more. Yes, there have been some losses. But, for all of that, it’s good every now and then, especially as a new year dawns, to celebrate what’s bright and beautiful, the truth of the Lord’s moving on many fronts, the blessings we have received, even undeserved. God is still on the throne and working. If we allow ourselves to paint only with dreary colors, the canvas will be dark. There are many bright colors on the Church of God palette. Don’t ignore them. Paint with those, too.

Call me a Pollyanna. I’ve been called worse.

Be encouraged. Jesus is the subject.

Jim Lyon

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