Archive for the 'Change' Category

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.”

Thinking Without the Box

Recently Lucas and I were playing trains. Our 3-year-old grandson is a Thomas-the-Train mega-superfan. The fictional British railroad fills his room, his consciousness, even his wardrobe.  During a rare break in the action, Lucas picked up a blue bag full of large puzzle pieces. “Let’s do this puzzle,” he said. Why not? It wasn’t too early, I thought, to teach him the divinely ordained rules of puzzle assembly. (I’m sure they’re in the Bible somewhere, I just haven’t found them yet.) Rule 1—Look at the box lid for a picture of the completed puzzle. When I asked for the box, the answer was, “What box?” It’s more challenging without the box, I thought to myself, but still doable.

IMG_00000153

I assumed that Rule 2 had been followed– Be sure you have all the pieces before you start.  So we moved on to Rule 3—a) First find all the border pieces; b) then fill in the rest. Everybody knows that jigsaw puzzles, especially for young children (and older grandparents), have a rectangular border with uniform straight edges and four easily identifiable corners. That’s the way we’ve always done it. But the creators of this puzzle clearly didn’t get the memo. And “without the box”, who knew they’d gotten so wild and crazy? We found sections of color (red, yellow, blue, green) like a border should, but we (I) couldn’t see how the sections fit together.

Since we couldn’t complete Rule 3a, we worked on Rule 3b—“then fill in the rest”. We started finding  pieces of the picture that the puzzle would become—Thomas the Train (surprise!), the village square, other trains, etc. Grandparents’ Exception No. 1 came into play a few times—“Expect the young children working on the puzzle to dismantle sections you’ve painstakingly assembled.” But so did Exception No. 2—“Expect surprising  breakthroughs from your helpers/ dismantlers just when you’re most stymied.”  The same hands that threatened to undo progress also put the missing piece into place more than once.

But assembly ground to a halt when Rule 2 (Be sure you have all the pieces…) reared its ugly head. Nothing new was happening. Lucas was losing interest. I was increasingly suspicious that we weren’t playing with a full deck. (Some folks have thought that about me for years.) Then my daughter, Lucas’s mother, cruised by. “I know where some more pieces of that puzzle are,” she said. She quickly produced them (from a place I never would have looked) and we had everything we needed. The interior part of the puzzle fit together into a pleasant Thomas-the-Train English village scene. When we saw the completed outer edge of that picture, we saw how the different colored sections of the rounded, cloud-like, non-traditional border fit together around it. We were no longer “puzzled”.                                                                                                                       IMG_00000151

“Thinking outside the box” is a buzzword that’s become a cliche. The real challenge is thinking without the box. So many situations offer no template that says, “This is how your finished product should look.” Don’t underestimate the value of experience and accumulated knowledge. But expect to use that experience in new ways as the accelerating change and expanding knowledge draw us into uncharted territory. How can we cope with global climate change? Can we cooperate sufficiently in our global village to achieve meaningful change? How do we adapt to changing global social, economic, and political realities? How can the church adapt to its new position at the margins of society instead of in the center of the village square? How do we help children grow up strong and healthy in this society of changing family structures and values? How do we learn to live our whole lives well when they’re liable to be so much longer than our parents or grandparents’ lives? How can centuries-old systems and structures (like the Roman Catholic Church, the US Constitution, and the traditions and governance of mainline churches) adapt to 21st-century realities? You get the idea.

Rule 1 (Look at the box lid…) needs some work. The picture on the box lid is our shared vision for the future. What do we want our planet, our country, our church, our family, the rest of our life, to look like? Rule 1 might become something like, “Let’s figure out where we want to go together that will be good for everyone before we get too far down another road.”

 Rule 2 (Be sure you have all the pieces…) will permeate our planning, visioning, and living into the future. Breakthrough pieces may come from anyone, anywhere, any time. Let us be far more open and far more humble in order to receive those solutions from the most unlikely sources. Let us not allow pride, prejudice, self-interest, or political/academic/churchly correctness to exclude a “breakthrough” piece that could bring wholeness to a a collection of scattered broken pieces.

We’ll want to modify Rule 3 (First the border, then fill in the rest). Lucas and I applied it backwards to put that puzzle together. We had to complete the inner section of the puzzle in order to see how the border fit around it. The new version of this rule won’t be linear—“First do this, then do this…” It will be more like, “Start wherever you see connections. Let your understanding of  the puzzle develop as you live with it. Stay open to surprising new connections and the discovery of new pieces from unlikely sources.”  

“The Grandparents’ Exceptions” might become the Elders’ Exceptions in this broader application: 1) “Expect the youngsters to dismantle some of the things you’ve worked hard to build—for better and for worse.” 2) “Expect from those same young dismantlers the most amazing breakthroughs  when you least expect it.”  

I’m still going to look for the box lid whenever I start a puzzle with Lucas and his sister Amelia. But if it’s missing in action, we’ll think without the box. That’s more and more the nature of life in our world. It’s the world where they’ll grow up, raise their families, dismantle some stuff we wish they’d left alone, and bring astounding, unexpected , transforming breakthroughs.

A RANT ON THE THEME: “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES?”

A benevolent wrinkle in cyberspace provides me with the ELCA Gulf Coast Synod’s “Connections”. I receive about a half-dozen specialized mini-newsletters each month. I love seeing how different Christian “tribes” do church. The latest newsletters included an article entitled “Does the Church Still Send Missionaries?”  Peggy Zahn, author of the article and Assistant to the Bishop, must have heard the question one time too many. Well-meaning church folks wanted to know if the church still sends missionaries “out there” [beyond our comfort zone, where “our kind” dare not go, to lands teeming with “those people” living out their miserable existence].Peggy’s informative article clearly explained how ELCA missionaries work in partnership with nationals in various countries, and how they connect and engage churches in the synod with ministries all over the world.

But the title pushed my buttons—hard! I am not typically a ranter, but this theme deserves a rant. “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES???” ( ALL-CAPS is like yelling on the web, in case you didn’t know.) The question perfectly diagnoses the church’s sickness-unto-death. Decades after Ken Callahan, Bill Easum, and many others began urging  us to wake up and face post-Christendom reality, we still prefer to hit the snooze button and burrow deeper under the covers. I am aware of some courageous exceptions, but I know too many Christians and churches that still refuse to confront this disturbing (for some) new world. The church has been squeezed out of the center to the margins of society. While we still send missionaries “out there”, the inescapable new reality is that we live on the mission field–all of us. Our culture contains a rich and sometimes confusing mix of different languages and dialects (e.g. rap/hiphop, Spanglish, etc.), cultures, and belief systems. Christian missionaries have faced these challenges since the first century—and now it’s our turn.

Tragically, too many Christians and churches are still singing, “La-la-la I can’t hear you!” with their fingers in their ears.[Again,I’m thankful for notable, hopeful exceptions. Let the exceptions become the rule!] Too often we try to get by with cosmetic changes that upset no-one–and make no real difference. Or we seek to become more “welcoming”—in other words, fine-tune our sales and marketing.  Some brave folks make more substantial adjustments in worship style, Sunday schedule, etc.—with far more roaring and screaming from “the saints” than the changes warrant. They (we) talk a good game about wanting to reach out to new people. But they (we) still believe in our  heart of hearts that taking care of church members matters more than building relationships with “outsiders” . You can check this out in your own situation. Take a look at your church’s and pastor’s calendars. Look at your church’s finances—not that idealistic dream budget but where the money actually goes.  If I were a gambler, I’d lay very attractive odds that the bulk of both time and money are spent on members and maintenance. To the extent that’s true, we are not “missional” churches and people, no matter what our strategic plans say.

“Does the church still send missionaries?”  Some churches have a slogan above the door through which most people leave the sanctuary: “You are now entering the mission field.” The church sends missionaries into the world every time the benediction is pronounced and we head for the door!  Wherever we live our lives is the mission field where God has sent us to serve alongside his Risen Son. (“Missionaries” are the “sent” ones.) We proclaim the Gospel or deny it in every personal interaction, both face-to-face and electronic. Sometimes we use traditional religious language. Always the spirit and tone of our presence either proclaim Jesus or deny him.

None of this is new stuff. And none of it is rocket science. So why am I moved to rant? BECAUSE NOBODY’S PAYING ATTENTION! NOBODY’S DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT! (BOLD CAPS IS BEYOND YELLING.)  Again, I’m thankful for notable and hopeful exceptions I see. Bishop Mike Rinehart of that Gulf Coast ELCA Synod writes about “Rethinking Everything”. The article is a progress report on the Synod’s Strategic Plan. Why a new Strategic Plan? “It would be so much easier to just keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them,” Rinehart writes, “but that was not getting us where we needed to go…We are swimming upstream against a cultural current of secularism and declining confidence in the church as an institution.” In other words, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more! We can’t control external circumstances. But we can choose our response. We can whine and complain forever. We can demand and even pray for the return of the “good old days”. Or we can accept the fact that the world has changed and the church must respond to that change in order to accomplish our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

What determines our choice? It’s not rocket science.  Effective missional change will not happen in us and in our churches until  nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us. Other loves have gotten in the way. Let’s be completely honest, we’re talking about idols. We love ourselves and our religious comfort zone more than we love our neighbors who are starving for love. We love “the way we’ve always done it” more than we love our neighbors for whom Christ died. We love stable, convenient familiarity more than the wondrously messy transformation the bible calls “new birth” (1 Peter 1:3).

Speaking of stables and birth—Christmas is the story of God’s missionary journey to an obscure corner of an obscure planet in an obscure corner of Creation. In Jesus God came and entered fully into human life—our life. “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message) Bishop Rinehart describes his vision of “…re-rooting congregations in their communities. We simply cannot serve or evangelize communities we do not know, and with whom we are not deeply engaged.” How can we as disciples, how can our churches (at least a pilot group initially) “re-root” ourselves and become “deeply engaged” as God became “deeply engaged” with us in Christ? How can we get to “nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us”?

     End of Rant

The End–or the Re-Beginning? (Revised)

(Didn’t mean to confuse anyone. Hit the Publish button prematurely a moment ago. Revised to add categories and tags to help more folks find this.)

Twice a month I have breakfast with some other retired United Methodist pastors. The other day we found ourselves discussing the “stuckness” in much of contemporary life. Every attempt at dialog and civil discussion of “hot-button” issues quickly degenerates into a shouting match. In Arizona, where my colleagues and I live, it often happens around immigration issues. Bring together folks with strongly opposed ideas and expect the encounter to go nuclear! We disagree intensely with our neighbors about this and many other issues. But we’re so sure of our position that we refuse to seek common ground with those who differ. We’d rather be “right” than together. We’re stuck in our (self)-rightness.

Naturally we professional  church folk talked about the “stuckness” in our United Methodist system–the exhaustive, expensive General Conference whose hours of debate and mountains of paper changed precious little; the focus at the top on “metrics”—evaluating pastors and ministry primarily by counting dollars and people. (Many worry that this approach will squeeze the life out of pastors and their ministries by not taking into account vital but harder-to-measure “qualitative” factors.) We talked about the “Statement of Gospel Obedience” resolution by the Western Jurisdictional Conference (a regional unit of the church). This resolution proposes what amounts to ecclesiastical civil disobedience to the church’s conservative stance on homosexuality. Homosexuality, you may know, is the subject most likely to trigger a yelling fit among United Methodists these days.

Then we sought to widen our horizons. If our national political process doesn’t get unstuck, our whole country—and beyond—will suffer. Right now Congress is stuck with regard to passing a meaningful national budget; with regard to increasingly critical immigration issues; with regard to doing much of anything that requires cooperation or compromise. Most legislators are dug in on their own side of the aisle. They’re unwilling or afraid to make any move toward the other side, let alone actually cross party lines to take meaningful action for the common good. 2012 has brought a dismal display of bipartisan dereliction of duty and legislative malpractice with respect to the national debt. Remember that ridiculous drama in the first part of the year, the on-again/off-again deal between the President and the Speaker, the Select Committee’s utter failure to agree on budget cuts sufficient to stave off “sequestration” (automatic budget cuts) in 2013. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently predicted that this dismal display of inaction could well send the whole nation careening over that fiscal cliff into renewed recession.

The mood in the room had grown serious. Were we seeing an ending, a decline, a historic transition? What if we fail to overcome the stuckness paralyzing our church, our nation, our families, nearly all our institutions? We must address our challenges creatively and responsibly with the best available wisdom from all perspectives—or else. None of us was eager to detail “or else”. But all of us envisioned disturbing scenarios if our leaders fail to exercise the courage and political will to “unstick” our public dialog, our political process—and themselves!

Then someone (not me) asked, “Are we coming to the end? Or are we at the beginning of something new?” Key question for people of faith to ask. Huge question for Christ-followers who believe the last word in life is not death but Resurrection. Hard question to answer while we’re making our way through history one messy day at a time. All of us around that table hoped and prayed for our nation and our church to find their way through the “stuckness”. We also reaffirmed that we have the power, individually and together, to act to “unstick” ideas and attitudes in the local congregations of which we’re a part; in the neighborhoods, community organizations, and political groups in which we’re involved; in our persistent, respectful communication with our legislators. We can choose to model civil, respectful dialog instead of perpetuating polarization, stereotypes, name-calling, and negativity. We can be respectful and assertive equal-opportunity truth-tellers, especially where truth seems in short supply.

Are we at an ending—or a re-beginning? People of faith will answer “Yes”. Every ending contains the seeds of new beginning. Those seeds are planted by our God who says, “Look, I’m doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19 CEB)The shape of the new beginning is often unclear clear while we’re in transition. But never doubt that our creative God is at work whether or not we can see it clearly at any given moment. Look at the Exodus journey. Look at the Babylonian Exile. Look at the post-Easter church. Look at those times in your life when all the pieces came together in a way you never could have planned or imagined. The end may not be what we want. But every ending bears the seeds of re-beginning. What else should we expect from the God who promises, ”I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 CEV)

Change–or Harden

2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “Nothing is permanent but change”. Many have since echoed his wisdom. Today it feels like the pace of change has reached warp-speed. Part of us cries out, “Make it stop!” Another part of us recognizes the wisdom of author Evelyn Waugh: “Change is the only evidence of life,” Another writer, Bruce Barton, said simply, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”

Change is the story of our lives. Political change is front and center for most of us. We Methodists are again dancing the Methodist Shuffle, our annual denominational ritual that re-arranges pastors and congregations, hopefully for the best. Graduation time brings major change. We simultaneously celebrate accomplishment and anticipate new beginnings. We attended one high school graduation last week and look forward to another next week—which brings me to the itch I’m trying to scratch.

Next week’s high school graduate is Brianna, our oldest grandchild. She’s done very well. She has  exciting options from which to choose what comes next. Her choices will shape her life for many years. (No pressure, Bri!) We’re excited to see this next chapter of her life unfold. We’ll gladly support and encourage her as she navigates those challenging choices. It promises to be a complex and sometimes stressful process.

But Brianna, her fellow graduates, and those who share their lives aren’t the only ones swept up in massive change. Change tsunamis are creating constant turbulence in most of our lives.  One part of us says, “Make it stop!” while another part replies, “When change stops, you stop.” Some change is predictable and within our power to influence. Students choose to complete their schooling (or not), to study certain subjects, and to work and/or study and/or ??? after graduation. Our choices often carry unintended consequences—change we didn’t know we chose!  But change isn’t always chosen. Illness, accident, human-caused or natural disaster strike suddenly and transform life forever. National and global forces alter our lives without our consent. Unpredictable, uncotnrollable change frequently forces itself upon us–ready or not!

We can’t always choose the change that affects us. But we can choose our response to its effects.  This isn’t new information, but it’s critical. We may choose denial. I’ll go on as if nothing”s changed. I’ll ignore the physical symptoms I’m experiencing. I’ll ignore the financial red flags until I can’t juggle any more, I’m getting squeezed from all directions, and I’m out of options. I’ll ignore the relationship alarms as long as I can stand the pain. Churches  ignore the warning signs of empty pews, bored members, and lifeless worship until their very existence is threatened.

We may blame someone or something. Pointing fingers may make us feel better momentarily, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It keeps us locked in the past rather than moving forward. Or we may choose the simplest, easiest, quick-fix solution. We seek the fix that asks the least of us and promises the most. We  go through doctors until we find one who tells us what we want to hear–not what we need to hear. We follow the simplest, most over-promising political or religious “answer person”. Trouble is, the self-proclaimed savior with all the answers has seldom addressed all the questions.  His/her quick fixes may make us feel better fast, but not for long. The cure is more cosmetic than real. While they may promise to restore a “good old days” past. the truth is that forcing tomorrow’s issues into the mold of yesterday’s answers is virtually always a bad fit.

We can respond to change with denial,blame, or too-easy oversimplified solutions. Or we can choose to adapt and learn. In a new-church start I served, we used the F-word a lot. NO, NOT THAT F-WORD! Flexibility. Adapting and adjusting quickly became a way of life. Resources were often unpredictable. Key people got sick. Sometimes our rented facility wasn’t unlocked at the right time. Innumerable glitches jumped out and said “Boo!” On our best days we didn’t deny, blame, or whine. (OK, sometimes we did, but we got over it quickly.) We put our heads together and said, “Here we are. How do we make things work?” In other words, we adapted. We learned on the fly. We focused clearly on our purpose while staying flexible with regard to methods.

Flexibility and adaptive learning are key survival skills in a world of warp-speed change. About two hundred years ago, Johann von Goethe wrote, “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.” When we harden, life can break us. The branches on the living trees in my yard are flexible. Branches on the dead trees have hardened. They don’t bend and flex. They break under far less pressure than those flexible, living branches can handle.

So, Brianna and your millions of fellow graduates, and all of us trying to make our way through life’s warp-speed changes, here’s a brief summary:

  • Change is a fact of life. “Nothing is permanent but change” and “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”
  • We can’t always choose the speed and direction of change, but we can choose our response.
  • The F-word (Flexibility) is essential in navigating today’s warp-speed change.
  • “We must always change…otherwise we harden.” When we harden, life can break us.

With all this in mind, let us heed the advice of an old car commercial: “Enjoy the ride!”

 

 

 

 

The Main Thing Is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

That’s my prayer for the 2000+ clergy and lay members of our United Methodist General Conference that convenes April 24 in Tampa, Florida. “God, keep these brothers and sisters focused on the MainThing. Remind them daily that 1) other United Methodists (or variously-labeled Christians) are not the enemy;  2) one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results ; and 3) how they do their business (as those who know and follow Jesus) matters to the watching church and world at least as much  as what they do.”

The Main Thing is not institutional survival. We’ve invested huge amounts of time, energy, study, prayer, dialog, money, and paper in analyzing the denomination’s decline and seeking ways to reverse that decline. (This decline, of course, affects many churches besides the United Methodist Church. Decisions about restructuring, revitalizing (and giving up buzzwords for Lent?) must not become desperate efforts to hang on by our fingernails. Survival-driven decisions are doomed from the outset: “[Jesus said]…those who want to save their life  will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

I certainly don’t expect survival anxiety to overwhelm this General Conference. Too many of the members have strong and vital faith, deep commitment, and a burning vision of a stronger-than-ever UMC. I’m rooting–and praying–for them. The greatest obstacle to claiming the future God has for us may turn out to be a deeper anxiety. Call it “relevance” anxiety; “Does anybody care?” anxiety; “Is anybody listening?” anxiety; “Do we matter any more?” anxiety. Large segments of society get along quite well without Christian underpinnings, thank you. Irrelevance, indifference, and apathy might well be a fate worse than “losing our life”.

It’s happening in Europe. In a recent Huffington Post article George Courtauld writes, “There is no question that Britain is becoming a more secular society…the establishment, many politicians and much of the media…dismiss all religions as equally nonsensical, embarrassing and irrelevant…In modern Britain and much of Europe now the religious are regarded as insane or silly.” Sadly, Courtauld’s solution is a book aimed at acquainting us with the Christian customs and traditions that underlie English-speaking civilization. It’s an interesting, helpful book. But a book’s not enough. “When the fullness of time had come,” God didn’t send a book. “God sent his son…”(Galatians 4:4 NRSV)–The Main Thing! A person is relevant in ways a book can never be.

Our UMC’s official language says our Main Thing is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This General Conference will succeed–or fail–to the extent it equips and empowers that mission throughout our wondrously diverse denomiation. Dear GC (and other beyond-local-church folk), please give us some tools, some wisely-focused funding, and some inspiration. Clear away the bureaucratic clutter that distracts us from The Main Thing. And please let the Holy Spirit help you become our cheering section and earn to give us just the right kind and amount of help, which is usually almost as much as we think we need. (Thanks to Kennon Callahan for that wisdom.)

Lest you think this is an exercise in bashing bureaucrats and denominational power players–Whatever happens in Tampa, the future of the church is not in the hands of those folks. It’s in our hands–you and me and folks like us in thousands of local churches. It’s in the way we love and serve our neighbors in the spirit of Jesus. It’s in the way we step boldly into the future believing that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s in the way we dare to pray not only for our brothers and sisters in Tampa but for ourselves and our congregations: Keep us focused on The Main Thing–making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Make us willing to lose our lives for your sake and the sake of the gospel. Free us from the insanity of doing the same old things and expecting different results. Give us holy boldness to follow you in new ways and places. Let the fullness of time come wherever we serve you. Let people see Jesus convincingly and unmistakably through our lives and our life together.”

That embodied (incarnational) love of Jesus will look very different in our different circumstances. How will it look where you live your life and follow Jesus?

 

Jesus Kissed the Easter Bunny???

“Can anyone tell me why we celebrate Easter?” the teacher asked. A seven-year-old girl answered in her best “Here’s a wild guess” tone–“Because Jesus kissed the Easter bunny?” The teacher was my daughter. Working hard to keep a straight face (and to keep from embarassing the child), she told the girl to be sure she came back the next Sunday (Easter) to learn much more. Karin says this girl [whom we’ll call Janet] attends irregularly, mostly because of her not-very-stable home life.

We laughed about this incident when Karin retold it that night. But underlying the laughter was a sadness. Janet’s confusion isn’t an isolated example. Janet represents countless children who don’t know the basics of the Christian story. They live in a confusing conglomeration of cultural myths (Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, The Grinch,etc.) and elements of traditional religous stories. Their young minds may well hear both cultural myths and traditional faith stories as equally “mythical”. The confusion is heightened when the faith stories are “out of context”, i.e., when they’re not rooted in a family’s consistent faithful lifestyle.

The confusion isn’t only in young minds. My wife went to the store to get some Easter cards–a big-box retailer, not a “Christian” store. “It’s really hard to find Easter cards about Easter ,” she proclaimed upon her return. Her diligent search for bunny-free, egg-free cards that celebrated the Christian holiday in Christian terms had yielded minimal results. Her experience reinforces the uncomfortable truth. Organized religion is increasingly marginalized in our society. We no longer see throngs of traditional Ozzie-and-Harriet families spending every Sunday morning at their neighborhood church. Too many churches have hidden their heads in the sand in recent decades while two and now three generations have grown up with no significant Christian memory. They don’t speak our language–and for the most part, we don’t speak theirs.

But Janets (and Jameses) keep showing up  every Sunday morning. Somebody in their life thinks they should be there. God keeps giving us new chances with these children (and the adults in their lives). Our wise/foolish God trusts us and our “perfectly imperfect” faith communities to be the source through which they experience Limitless Unconditional Love. Here are some things we can do to be ready for Janet and James next Sunday:

1) LET’S GET OUR STORY STRAIGHT. Let’s learn our story well enough to be able to tell it to one another–and to a stranger. Let’s be sure our leaders,  teachers, and families (in all their diverse forms) know the basic stories of our faith and why those stories matter.

2) LET’S LOVINGLY HELP JANET LEARN THE STORY. “Be sure to come back next week” was a good start.  Janet doesn’t always have control over that. Inexpensive children’s books that tell the Christmas and Easter stories are readily available. Keep some on hand to send home. A teacher might give it to whoever picks up Janet with a  brief explanation–“Janet was curious about this. We covered as much as we had time for. Perhaps you could help her at home.” Or a teacher might ask the whole class to work together to tell the story.

3) KEEP WORKING ON OUR WELCOME. Many newcomers are remarkably uncomfortable about their first visit to a church. Little things we take for granted can turn them off. Special care and attention  can “seal the deal” and touch them deeply because they aren’t treated that well anywhere else in their lives.

4) DARE TO MAKE THE CHANGES NECESSARY TO MAKE ROOM FOR JANET, JAMES, AND THEIR FAMILIES. Most folks in nearly every church I know say they want to reach Janet, James, and their families. But when ” crunch time” comes and we face the reality of adjusting programming, Sunday schedule, worship styles, and $pending, tremendous resistance arises. I’ve seen it happen too many times in too many places. Janet and James are important–but not important enough to disrupt my comfort zone in my church.

Whose church?? Maybe that’s the problem. When we really get that part of the story straight, all the other pieces will begin to fall into place. Janet, James, and their families will be more welcome than they ever dared to hope. All of us will be amazed by the depth and power of the God whose love we know in Jesus–who never kissed any bunnies as far as I know, but loves them just the same as he loves every one of God’s creatures–including you, me, and Janet.


Categories