Archive for March, 2015

AHA+ABCD=GC

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” That’s the inescapable reality for  today’s churches. 2015 is  dramatically different from the eras in which most of our churches grew up and thrived. Not surprisingly, the way we did church then isn’t working now. Truthfully, it hasn’t worked for a very long time.

This relentless revolutionary change permeates life today. But here’s some good news. This  revolutionary change is pushing churches outside their walls. Faced with the truth that ministry focused within the congregation no longer works (it never did!) followers of Jesus are venturing out to meet their neighbors. Sometimes we act out of sheer desperation to get butts in the seats, bucks in the plate, and fresh troops to keep the church machinery running. But at our best we’re driven by a heavenly vision. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has opened our Bibles before us and won’t let us turn the page: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NRSV)

In other words–Make yourselves at home. Settle in for the long haul. (Three generations, as it turned out.) Get to know the neighbors. Even though you’re not natives, act like it. Behave like you’re an owner, not a renter; a permanent resident, not a transient. Hard as it may be to imagine, I love you and I also love these pagans with their strange ways. Your welfare and theirs are bound together. So pray for your neighbors (I’m listening!) and work to make your new home a great place.

So what does this look like in practice? AHA + ABCD = GC. No, it’s not that recurring nightmare from high school algebra! It suggests a strategic approach that may be adaptable in a wide variety of ministry settings. AHA  stands for Authentic Hopeful Action. This movement grew out of extensive conversation among South African Christians about that country’s social problems. Apartheid ended more than twenty years ago, but so much remains to be done. The movement intends to focus on three issues: poverty, unemployment, and (economic) inequality. These are hardly the only issues before the country, but they’re where these folks have decided to start. They reference texts like Isaiah 58–“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:    to break the chains of injustice,    get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.” [v. 6 MSG] and James 2:18—Show me your faith apart from your works and I by my works will show you my faith.”(NRSV)

I’m frankly seeing more words and less action in the little I’ve learned about the AHA movement thus far. But its leaders freely admit they’re at the very beginning of a very long journey. Let’s celebrate this beginning! These followers of Jesus strive to be authentic. They aren’t out to be anything more or less than what they are. They intend to follow Jesus simply and faithfully in addressing poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality beginning in their own communities. They intend to be hopeful. They live in the present and work toward a better future for all. AHA doesn’t want to scold or judge anyone for the past. It seeks to build the best possible communities and nation from now on. And the focus is action. As I said, the little I’ve read to date has more words and less action than I’d like, but I’m sure I don’t know that balance will change.  

 I think we’d be astounded at the number of folks who’d want to partner with a church known for its Authentic Hopeful Action. But what does that look like in real life? Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has used the tools of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD!) to focus Authentic Hopeful Action in its own neighborhood and beyond. Broadway had developed a substantial social service ministry as its neighborhood changed over the last few decades. But its leaders realized their efforts weren’t achieving lasting change in the lives of neighborhood residents. ABCD seeks to discover the gifts and competencies of people in the community. Then it seeks to bring together people with similar gifts and competencies in order to address community issues. The church hired a full-time staff person to go into the community to listen to people and discover their gifts. His encounters with people revolved around three questions: 1) What three things do you do well enough that you could teach others how to do them? 2) What three things would you like to learn? 3) Who, besides God and me, is going with you along the way?

This process has surfaced folks who can repair automobiles and houses, paint, cook, and make quilts. 45 gardeners have come together to plan a farmer’s market. Other groups have formed around art, poetry, law, music, and education. Some have found new employment (including self-employment) through this process. Many more have found community, dignity and hope.

A recent article about Broadway UMC’s approach to ministry says, “Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has redefined what it means to serve its urban community. The approach is simple: See your neighbors as children of God.”  

AHA+ABCD=GC—The Great Commandment–“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all  your mind, and [you shall love] your neighbor as yourself.”(Luke 10:27 NRSV)

Enough talk. Time for Authentic Hopeful Action that brings these words of Jesus alive for our neighbors. Whether our methodology is formal Asset-Based Community Development or something else, that journalist has the key: “See your neighbors as children of God.”

“One Generation Away?” Don’t You Believe It!

“Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction”.–Someone

It sounds so true that it must be true. Wherever we turn, we see aging, graying, declining churches. These profound, oft-repeated words must have come from someone very wise. But I couldn’t remember that wise saint’s name. Neither could Google. Turns out it may well have been “someone”, as in “Someone has said…”

“…one generation away from extinction…” is a favorite chant of the prophets of doom-and-gloom. They resurrect this tired cliché to launch every guilt trip about real or perceived failure to reach children, youth, and their families. Trouble is, the statement is inaccurate, misleading, and just plain wrong. For starters, it leaves God out of the equation. The next sentence is  usually some variation on “If we don’t reach and train our young people…” –in “the way we’ve always done it”. Bringing God into the equation means we stop, look, and pay attention to the “new thing” God wants to do in our ministries with younger people (Isaiah 43:19). How about less whining and more daring-to-trust-God with the impossibilities before us?

“…one generation away from extinction…” generates far more survival anxiety than missional passion. Just ask former members of the thousands of churches that close annually1. When our defining question becomes “What do we need to preserve our institution?”, we’ve become terminally self-centered. We lack sufficient missional passion to thrive. Missional passion asks boldly, “How can we partner in what God is already doing here? What does it mean for us to ‘…make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ within our reach?” Missional passion boldly asks risky, transformational questions—and then boldly trusts God for resources to accomplish God’s dream for the people and places within our reach.

And “…one generation away…” denies the healthy reality of most local churches. We are multi-generational communities. At our best we reflect the demographic makeup of our neighborhoods. Granted, churches that look very different from their communities need to take a closer look at that imbalance. It may be pointing to a mission field! In many settings the youngest generations are the ones under-represented. (There’s the grain of truth!) But the church’s fate never rests with a single generation. It lies in the interaction among generations. Authentic intergenerational community releases a divine chemistry of wisdom, experience, energy, creativity, tradition, and an understanding of how to relate to our neighbors here and now.  Read all about it in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:1-16. The gifted, Spirit-powered community we call “the Body of Christ” envisions a wider ministry. The immediate focus may be “one generation”, one ethnic group, or some other aspect of their context. That multigenerational  faith community prays, learns, adjusts, sacrifices, invests itself and its resources, and risks in order to share the good news of Jesus with these new persons and groups.

I heard this “…one generation away from extinction” nonsense once again recently. It was just noise on a Christian music station. But it came up about the time I began an extended engagement with this “one generation”. I was begged invited to help lead our church’s Confirmation classes for middle-school youth. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Many Christian churches invite youth to “confirm” as their own the faith they’ve been taught by their parents and church. Confirmation classes provide an environment where youth can consider together the faith and values upon which they’ll build their lives. We explore in depth the basics of Christian faith and the United Methodist style of Christianity. We want students to know what it means to follow Jesus in a congregation like ours. We help them begin spiritual habits they can use for a lifetime. We link each youth with an adult mentor who’s an experienced Christian. And we try to be real about the challenges they’ll encounter on this life-long faith journey. Our goal is to equip these youth to choose freely, intelligently, and responsibly. Their best decision right now could be “Not now”, “I want to know more,” or even “No thanks”. It’s crucial that every Yes be a wholehearted YES! We want students to see Confirmation as “Commencement” rather than “Graduation”. Confirmation is a rite of passage. If it’s “graduation”, then you’ve learned all you need to know. But Confirmation as “commencement” is a new beginning of increasingly mature discipleship. You’ll be learning and growing the rest of your life.

The twelve middle-schoolers in our class display all the unique behavior expected of their age and stage—for better and (rarely) for worse.  Their openness and curiosity are refreshing. They’re intelligent and engaged. They complete their homework and make up missed classes. They participate eagerly in class and ask thoughtful questions. They’re developing relationships with adult mentors and with other adults in the various ministries where they serve. They’re discovering their place in the bigger picture. They understand the church places a high priority on the Confirmation process. Youth and their parents have made clear commitments to class attendance, worship attendance, and church and community service. Students see their parents and other adults providing support that ranges from food to transportation to the mentors’ daily prayer and at-least weekly contact with their students.

Our class is a living example of another piece of Someone’s wisdom: “Christian faith is caught more than it is taught.” Teaching discipleship happens through the day–by-day life of healthy faith communities. Elders teach the depth of the faith, the richness of tradition, the way it’s brought them through tough times. Children and youth teach simple joy and trust. When our walk doesn’t match our talk, they call us out—or they walk the walk and wonder why we’re lagging behind! They help us understand contemporary culture. Their curiosity drives us to find fresh ways to share our faith with new generations.

“…One generation away from extinction…”? Not if we choose missional energy over survival anxiety. Not if we loosen our death-grip on “our church” and embrace what God’s already doing in our neighborhoods; not if we abandon individualistic religion and embrace life together in Christ; not if we follow the Jesus who teaches that truly great disciples seek to serve rather than to be served; not if we invite the Spirit to transform our safe, sterile churches into contagious communities of bold faith, revolutionary hope, and limitless love where “Christianity is caught more than it is taught”.  

1Exact numbers vary widely. Estimates range from 1000 to 5000 or more church closings per year with a rough consensus around 3500-4000 annually in recent years.

 


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