Lyle Schaller, the church fix-it man in rapidly changing times

All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.

What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?

"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

It was classic Schaller advice, the kind he offered to thousands of congregations during his decades as a physician willing to work with bodies of believers -- if they were willing to admit they had problems. Ask him about Easter and he would talk about Christmas, if his research pointed him in that direction.

Schaller died on March 18 in Oklahoma City, at the age of 91. As a United Methodist, he was known for his work with America's older, declining mainline churches, but he was also popular in evangelical megachurches. Between his 55 books -- such as "The Change Agent" and "The Ice Cube is Melting" -- and countless articles, he published around 3 million words.

 A master of edgy sound bites, Schaller had a seminary degree as well as a graduate degree in city planning and he constantly connected these two sides of his intellect. The result was a kind of "sanctified pragmatism," said the Rev. Harold Bales, who for years led what Southerners call "tall steeple" United Methodist churches. Bales also worked on his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship -- key issues for Schaller.

 "He was a great planner and knew how to prioritize among positive values," noted Bales. As a strategic thinker, Schaller "drew insights from a broad universe of data and distilled them into simple and usable ideas. … A person with strong faith, a good theological footing, high energy and a pocket full of Schallerisms could get a church moving."

Anyone who knew Schaller knew that he constantly asked leaders to face one essential question: "What year is it?"

"Most of our churches -- as organizations -- are living in the past when it comes to how they handle the changes taking place all around them," said the Rev. Scott Field, who was Schaller's pastor for a decade in Naperville, Ill., starting in the mid-1990s. "Many of our pastors think that it's still 1955 and that if next year 1956, then they're read for that. Then there are pastors who still think it's 1965. …

"Lyle was always looking toward the future. If he was talking to church people today the main thing he would be trying to get them to face is that next year is 2016, whether they like it or not."

Ironically, Schaller became known as a church fix-it man during an era in which America's mainline flocks endured staggering losses in their pews. His own United Methodist Church now has less than 7.3 million members, a decline of more than one-third since its glory days in the 1960s.

Being hailed as a "United Methodist church-growth expert," Schaller once quipped, was rather like being called an expert in "military intelligence." Truth is, some people are afraid of growth and change. His goal, he told me, was to find leaders who would face tough questions and then not "go into denial" when he proposed answers.

For example, if church leaders want to be evangelistic, he said, that requires knowing what they believe about salvation. To talk about salvation, they must be of one mind on issues of sin, repentance and forgiveness. That's hard for some modern clergy.

"I heard Lyle say it many times," said Field. "If you really know what your mission is, then you don't have to be afraid of the future."