2nd Opinion: Seven ways Lyle Schaller transformed the church

Lyle E. Schaller, acclaimed church consultant, died March 18 at age 91.

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In the midst of the urban crisis and social upheaval of the 1960s, an interventionist who is now considered a giant among North American Protestants began to write, speak and consult with local churches and denominations.

george bullard130George BullardFrom the foundation of urban planning and ministerial training, Lyle E. Schaller focused his ministry on transforming the North American Church. He was an acclaimed church consultant and author or co-author of 94 books. He died March 18 at age 91 in Oklahoma City.

The people his ministry impacted number in the millions. The ministers who called him a mentor or coach are measured in the hundreds of thousands. The congregations impacted are in the tens of thousands. The denominations impacted are likely all of them.

No one in Christian ministry could ignore the power of his words. They may or may not agree, but they could not say no one had told them what was happening.

I began reading Lyle’s books in college in the late 1960s. I began taking training from him in 1978. He was still actively recommending me to churches as recently as three years ago at 88 years of age. 

He transformed the North American church

My friend and mentor for almost 40 years transformed the North American church in at least seven ways.

First, he urged the church to talk about the future. He was always pushing congregations and denominations to talk not only about heritage and the tyranny of the present urgencies, but to also to understand the future was coming at them fast and they needed to respond. Urgent issues would often pale in comparison to what was coming.

Second, he brought an urban bias to his writing and speaking. Lyle could easily identify with smaller-membership churches and rural or small-town churches. But what he really focused on were larger urban churches and both the challenges and opportunities they faced. He was part of God’s empowerment of what Peter Drucker called the large pastoral church.

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Taught us to think strategically

Third, he taught us to think and act strategically. The generation who led the church following World War II learned well how to do program planning and take tactical actions. But strategic planning and adaptive change were not characteristic of the church. The urban crisis and social upheaval of the 1960s put many parts of the church on its heels. In the midst of this, Lyle was the prophetic voice on thinking and acting strategically.

Fourth, he modeled what it meant to be an interventionist. Lyle’s approach was not indirect. He was direct and often confrontational; yet smiling as he confronted. I once saw him ask a church how much land they would need when they relocated—20 acres or 50 acres. The church was shocked. They had not talked about relocation, but they were now. When they did relocate a decade or so later, they bought more than 50 acres.

Fifth, he showed us we need to learn continually. Just about the time many of us thought we had caught up with what Lyle was saying, he had turned another corner and learned a whole new set of things that caused us to say “Wow!” He once told me he no longer believed what he had said in some of his earlier books. He was past that now and understood things more deeply.

Sixth, as an innovator, he taught us to reconceptualize or redefine what we were doing. Good enough was never good enough for Lyle. We always needed to be continually innovating and even rethinking how we were doing ministry in our context. He taught us that when we stand still, the world keeps moving forward, and we start falling behind.

Not afraid to be a contrarian

Seventh, he was not afraid to speak as a contrarian. Almost everyone liked Lyle. He was extremely successful. He moved into a zone where he had a bully pulpit from which to speak to the church. From his position, he was not afraid to be a contrarian. He would tell the North American church the truth they needed to hear, whether or not they wanted to hear it. This did not diminish his fame. It only increased it.

I always felt my relationship with Lyle was special. I sponsored him to speak and consult with congregations and denominations numerous times. I entertained him in my home for meals and fellowship. But I was one of many who knew Lyle this closely. Numerous people reading this post have deep and meaningful memories of Lyle.

I invite you go to the Facebook group Lyle E. Schaller—Thanksgiving for a Life Well Lived. Ask to join this group, and then post your memories of Lyle.

George Bullard is President of the Columbia Partnership, general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance and senior editor of TCP Books. Contact him at [email protected] or (803) 622-0923. His column is distributed by Baptist News Global.

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