Archive for the 'Children' Category

We Can’t…But We Can–Part 2

As I was writing Part 1, I thought I knew just how Part 2 would go. I’d briefly recap the five qualities I’d identified from my childhood church experience—1) Church-family partnership; 2) Sense of genuinely being cared for by church people; 3) Children and youth involved in meaningful ministry; 4) Exposure to different and challenging ideas: 5) Clear, consistent values taught and modeled. Then I’d address each point and suggest ways to bring it into our very different 21st-century context.

But you know the saying—“We plan. God (and the Blogosphere) laugh.” Your comments led me toward a more holistic approach. My childhood experience didn’t happen because church leaders consciously focused on those five qualities. It happened because pastors and lay leaders built a culture of discipleship over many years. While far from perfect, that Maynard Memorial Methodist Church culture shaped us in profound ways that I’m still discovering. The question isn’t, “How do we put these pieces together the right way?” It’s “How do we build a church culture that forms committed, effective disciples of Jesus Christ?” If I had all the answers, I’d be on a book tour right now. But I don’t, so I’m writing in my basement study.

One commenter said, I do wish families today had the love of a church family. But they have to go to church first!” Once upon a time mainline churches could open their doors and watch the building fill up. Fifty years later, the church’s role in many communities has become peripheral at best. We’ve lost our place at the center of community life. The church is no longer the “go-to” place for families.

What if we turned that statement around? “I do wish churches today shared God’s love effectively with families in their communities. But first they have to go where families are!” [Please remember that today’s families come in many configurations besides the stereotypical working dad, stay-at-home mom, 2+ kids, a minivan, and a dog.]  Hard as it may be for life-long church folks to comprehend, a growing number of people today have either no significant church experience or significant negative experience. They aren’t likely to get up and pop into our church some Sunday. Reaching them starts with meeting them on their turf. After we’ve established a genuine relationship and let our deeds and presence do the talking, our new friends are more likely to be receptive to hearing about our faith and eventually venturing onto “our turf”. [NOTE: If “making friends” is merely your “strategy” to get folks in the door and on the roll so the church can survive, don’t bother. Folks know when they’re being used. If genuine Christlike love isn’t motivating you, you’re hurting the cause of Christ, not helping it.]

What would it mean for you and some friends to go “where families are” in your community? ASK SOME FAMILIES YOU KNOW! Ask church families. Ask your neighbors. Ask families who live near the church. Ask folks where you work. If you dare, ask families who have left your church. WHEN YOU ASK, LISTEN CAREFULLY! “School” and “sports” are two common responses. You’ll discover others in your particular context—4H, the homeless shelter, Children’s Hospital. Ask yourself and your friends: How can we go where families in our community are as the presence of Jesus who was Love-in-the-flesh? The Jesus who told his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27)? Ask the school principal or the soccer league president how you can be of service. Expect some suspicion about just being there to proselytize. Expect to have to prove yourself. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do better than they’ve ever been done. Focus on building relationships and being yourselves. Over time your church will become known as a faith community that genuinely cares about children and their families.

“First we have to go where families are.” One Sunday afternoon Rev. Adam Hamilton visited a first-time visitor to that morning’s worship service. She told him she’d enjoyed the service but she wouldn’t be back. She explained that her son (who had stayed home with her husband) needed constant one-to-one care. She couldn’t participate in worship and also care for him. She didn’t expect to find a church that could provide that care. “If we can provide the care Matthew needs,” Adam asked, “will you come back?” She said she would. Adam Hamilton very quickly found folks willing to be trained to care for Matthew on Sunday mornings.  His mother was able to come to worship and know he was being cared for. Adam Hamilton led his church to stand beside Matthew’s family (and others) where they were—“staying home with our child whose special needs make it nearly impossible for us to take him/her anyplace that’s not absolutely essential.” Today “Matthew’s Ministry” shares God’s love with hundreds of families whose children have a variety of special needs.

Nearly every church I know says it wants to reach children and families. But few actually “…go where families are.” You can hardly blame them. It’s a missionary journey likely to trigger a seismic shift in the life of the church. It requires substantial investments of time, energy, study, prayer, and faith. It demands that we set aside “the way we’ve always done it” in order to discover “the way to share God’s love with today’s families in today’s world”.

On the other hand—the journey transforms us. We grow together into a community of “effective, committed disciples of Jesus Christ.” We claim the possibility of changing lives and whole communities. We are faithful to the One who says, “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14). I’m ready to go. Are you?

Teach the Children–a Baptismal Message

[Recently I had the privilege of baptizing our youngest granddaughter. I was also invited to preach at all three services that day. Some people (even some unrelated to Amelia and me) thought the message worth sharing with a wider audience. It’s longer than my typical post. It is in two parts, as you’ll see. The first part is based on 2 Timothy 1:1-7 (The Message).] 

Today we become partners in a life-shaping adventure. Amelia Rose Salzman, our youngest granddaughter, will be baptized this morning. Family and godparents will gather around her.  Those of us in this service will promise, on behalf of the entire congregation, to partner with Amelia’s family to help her grow to maturity in Christ. What better way to fulfill our mission to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ…”?  Church and families partner together to help children catch the contagious joy of following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Discipleship is “caught” far more than it is “taught”.  Of course we’ll teach Amelia and all the children “Jesus Loves Me”, John 3:16, and the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll teach them who John Wesley is, what it means to be a “connectional church”, and much more about our distinctive Methodist style. But most important, we will immerse them in a loving, Spirit-filled, faithfully adventurous Christian community.

A community like that nurtured Timothy’s growth into Christ. We heard Paul praise his “honest faith…handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you!” Mom and grandma taught him the story of Jesus. They also immersed him in a vital Christian community. Timothy first “caught” faith in Christ from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. But he also learned to follow Jesus from the living example of dozens of older brothers and sisters in Christ.

Amelia’s parents will do their part. Her five living grandparents, all present today, will see to it! But it takes a faith community to grow a disciple. I am a prenatal Methodist. From my beginning Maynard Memorial Methodist Church in Los Angeles partnered with my parents. Glenn and Darlene McMurry, Fred and Irene Hillman, Dale and Flo Conrad, and many others offered living examples of life lived Jesus’ way. That rich environment helped me discover and claim “that special gift of ministry” God had given me.

Many of you can tell similar stories. The names and places will be different. Your story may have more twists and turns than mine. But our stories have this much in common: Disciples grow best in community. Today Amelia’s biological family asks you, her spiritual family, to partner with us in helping her grow up into Christ. We look forward to the day she claims the community’s faith as her own. We look forward to sharing her journey as she discovers and shares with the world her “special gift of ministry.”

[Here we performed the actual baptism. Those at the earlier services were invited to imagine the baptism taking place–the family gathered, questions being asked and answered, Amelia behaving–however she chose!]


Now what? We’ve done the ceremony. We’ve celebrated God’s love for this child. We’ve affirmed God’s claim on her life. We’ve sealed our partnership. Amelia’s on the church’s books. Now what exactly will we teach her—and all the other growing disciples within our reach? Listen to Paul’s words to one early church (Philippians 2:5-11) No, I’m not suggesting you prepare all the children in this church to be crucified—at least not literally. I do challenge you to teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.  “He emptied himself,“ Paul says.“He humbled himself by becoming obedient…Therefore God highly honored him…”

Teach Amelia—and all the growing disciples within your reach—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” Teach them this radical countercultural lifestyle of self-emptying obedience. This church has some saints whose very presence teaches humility and self-emptying. You know who they are. Their lives embody “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”    

Make these saints lead teachers for Amelia and all the children. You don’t have to put them in the Sunday School classroom every week. But expose the children to them frequently. Let them see and experience the “attitude” of these grownup disciples. Don’t worry about how many bible verses the kids learn or how many perfect attendance ribbons they take home. The Holy Spirit will help the details fall into place. Just do everything in your power to grow a generation of disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.

Now I know some of you are still stuck on Paul’s graphic language: “…He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” That’s a real baptism bummer! So here’s another version of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. It comes from Time religion writer Jon Meacham. “The central tenet of Christianity”, Jon writes, “…is that we are to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”–Jon Meacham, “Of God and Gays and Humility” in Time Magazine 7/30/12

Disciples “reach out when our instinct is to pull inward.” The Old Testament tells the story of God reaching out to humanity. Every time God reached out we acted like jerks. We were ungrateful. We willfully disobeyed the rules. We insisted on living life our way instead of God’s way. We fought to grab all the goodies for ourselves. We refused to share. Time after time we bit the hand of God that reached out to feed and care for us.

When someone treats me that way I don’t put up with it very long. It doesn’t take long until I’m done reaching out. But God’s relentless love wouldn’t quit. Finally Love wrapped itself in human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We killed the messenger. But some of us got the message—especially when we saw on Easter morning that Love was stronger than death. God began drawing Jesus’ followers beyond their comfort zone. He sent Jewish Christians to tell the hated Samaritans about Jesus. He sent Paul, and later Peter, to the Gentiles. Everybody knew God didn’t like Gentiles—except God! Over the centuries our reaching-out God sent missionaries to all the peoples nobody but God could love. Our reaching-out God continues to push us beyond our comfort zones to the people and places we’ve written off.

Disciples also “give when we want to take”. Amelia’s brother Lucas has begun learning this discipleship lesson. He’s learning to share his toys with friends who come over to play. He’s learning to share Mom and Dad with his sister. Sometimes, he thinks, she can be pretty high-maintenance. Sometimes Lucas’s and Amelia’s  high-maintenance moments occur simultaneously! If Lucas learns to share as quickly as the rest of us, he’ll be a very generous person in just a few more decades.

I just finished reading a book called Love Without Walls. It describes the ministry of Mariners Church in Southern California. A new senior pastor came into a very bleak situation. After nearly two years of hard prayer and hard work by everyone, the church’s budget deficit had become a modest surplus. The board wanted to take most of it and put it in the bank. They needed reserves. They could earn some interest. This was back when you didn’t need a microscope to find your interest. The pastor said, “It’s God’s money, not ours. Let’s use it for God’s purposes. Let’s give it away.” So they didn’t take God’s money and put it away for their own needs. They started giving it away. An amazing thing happened. The more people they helped, the more pressing needs they uncovered. The more needs they addressed, the more people wanted to help and the more people gave to meet those needs. The more they gave, the more opportunities they had to give and make a difference.

Disciples “love when we’re inclined to hate”. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” knows that “an eye for an eye” soon leaves everyone blind. We will love our enemies as Jesus taught us. We will return good for evil. We will treat others with respect and dignity regardless of how they treat us. We will break the death spiral of name-calling, retribution, and escalating violence. Disciples with attitude model an alternative way to live in families, in politics, in business, in traffic, in every part of life–even in intense church conflict.

In 1942 Clarence Jordan and a few other Christians formed an inter-racial community called Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia. They wanted to model the way they believed followers of Jesus were called to live together. The neighbors weren’t impressed. They were outraged. They brought housewarming gifts of isolation, harassment, religious persecution, and violence. Clarence Jordan and his friends just kept on living their lives and loving their neighbors. Their consistent practice of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” helped prepare the way for the Civil Rights movement.

Disciples “include when we’re tempted to exclude”. Our natural human tendency is to associate with others like ourselves. At its best that helps us build strong, stable communities. At its worst it means we aggressively exclude those who don’t fit for whatever reason. Our society today is just doing what comes naturally. We are intensely polarized around intense social, political, cultural, religious, and economic issues.  We’re happy to be on ‘our” side of the chasm—and equally happy to have “them” far away on the opposite side. We gather in our “us” groups—sometimes even in the church–and give thanks that we’re not like “them”.

Folks living with “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” won’t stand for that. We know God doesn’t see “us” and “them”. God sees persons created in God’s image who are tragically separated from each other and from him. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus tear down the walls that separate us from each other and from God. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus build bridges of healing and reconciliation where we’ve dug Grand Canyons of separation. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants every one of God’s children to know the joy of being included in God’s family. We want to nurture Amelia and the children in this church to discover their “special gift of ministry”. But we won’t stop until that’s true for every child of God of every age and situation within our reach. Incidentally, you’ve taught me this morning that this church’s “reach” extends at least as far as Africa. So we have a lot to do together before we’re done!

So, partners, teach the children well. Teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. Teach them—and one another—“to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”

“A baby…God’s opinion…”

“A baby,” wrote poet/philosopher Carl Sandburg,is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” But for the last 40+ years (since the birth of my first child), I’ve heard a constant, jarring countermelody:  “I’m so glad I don’t have to raise children today.” This sad song laments the revolutionary change that’s marked those four decades. The world has become in many respects a disturbing, dangerous place. Parents must exercise constant vigilance. Children aren’t automatically safe even in the places and with the people we once trusted implicitly. Substance abuse has become epidemic. The social, political, religious, and economic structures that held life together for so long are broken and/or irrelevant. None of the “old reliables” are reliable any more. The transforming changes that have shaped this strange new world are a mixed blessing. They open up both revolutionary possibilities and potentially catastrophic risks. Today’s parents face a world far more precarious and complex than the one into which they or their parents were born.

“I’m glad I don’t have to raise children today.”  The song sings concern, uncertainty, even bewilderment. Just below the surface we can hear nostalgia, fear, and despair.  O to return to that simpler, gentler time (which never was as good as we remember from this distance). But we know we can’t. We fear that we have lost something irreplaceably precious in this relentless change. We’ve been robbed of what was loved, familiar, and certain, and left with ideas and practices that are at best strange and unsettling, at worst disturbing and even dangerous. We feel powerless against these threats to our core values, our “way of life”. Worst of all, we don’t believe things will get better. “I’m glad I don’t have to raise children today.” It’s very hard, the results are very uncertain, our neighbors care very little, and the world is very rapidly going to hell in a basket.

Yet Carl Sandburg sings on: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”  We worshiped on Mother’s Day with a church that sings Sandburg’s song from its heart. This faith community highly values children and their families throughout its life. These disciples don’t underestimate the challenge of raising today’s children. They do offer outstanding support and resources to families who choose to partner with them. They don’t uncritically embrace every new fad/trend, nor do they hyper-critically condemn all newness and change. They understand that God needs earlier generations–you and me–to help make God’s ongoing world a safer, healthier place for today’s “babies”–including our newest granddaughter who will be born soon after this post flies off into cyberspace! Then, in God’s time, she and her generation will take their turn partnering with God to help God continue building God’s world to serve God’s purposes.

You may have noticed that some Christians have a different take on this issue. Some believe God’s already stamped a “use-by”date on this world. It’s very close and not subject to change. So why bother trying to change what’s already a done deal? Just get yourself ready–really ready–and hang on tight. Some others believe the way forward is back–back to “pure”, “orthodox”, “uncorrupted”. So they huddle together with like-minded folks and leave the rest of us to our fates.

But those folks at Green Valley Church see things a bit differently. Yes, it’s a huge challenge raising children today–like it’s  been in every era. But these babies are God’s opinion that God’s world will go on. So let’s get busy together with God to make this world a place where babies, their families, and everyone can thrive as God intends. Sunday’s bulletin described their upcoming ACTS weekend (Assisting Community Through Service). They’ll clean up parks, paint and clean school rooms, collect food, help out in libraries and other community agencies. The bulletin also described the congregation’s planned  participation in an upcoming community forum. More than a thousand folks from faith communities all over the Las Vegas Valley will gather to seek ways to cooperate in addressing critical social and economic issues. They believe God’s opinion that the world should go on and become more the place God intends it to be. They intend to help it happen–together with all who join them in singing with Carl Sandburg: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

In case you missed it–We who follow Jesus believe that God came in the form of a human baby to announce that opinion. The $5 theological word for that is Incarnation. You may know it better as Christmas.

The State of “This Holy Estate”–Part Two

Part One ended with more questions than answers about the current state of marriage and family life. I’d shared someone’s observation that the problem is not divorce itself, but “the failure to form families”. I asked for suggestions of who and what are effective in forming “strong, healthy, stable, nurturing, life-giving families”. I wondered where this whole issue fits into the mission of the church to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, as we United Methodists put it.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that supporting and modeling consistent, faithful marriage and family life is a core element in our countercultural witness as the Body of Christ. Jesus models, and invites us to share, a Way of self-emptying love in all our relationships. Marriage can be defined as  a “micro-church”. Two followers of Jesus form a miniature faith community. Children grow that community a bit larger. Together they learn and teach one another Jesus’ way. Children raised in the “micro-church” of a Christian family experience unconditional love that prepares them to experience God’s unconditional love in Christ. They begin learning the lifestyle of discipleship long before they can articulate it. The family’s very presence in the world as a faith community of agape love proclaims an alternative lifestyle to the relentless torrent of “me-first” messages we experience every waking moment. Supporting family life as a seedbed for growing disciples is crucial for our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ…”, .

“Easier said than done,” you’ve already said multiple times as you’ve been reading. The membership of the micro-church of marriage and family is composed of sinful human beings. The disciples of Jesus we meet in the New Testament are wonderfully, painfully human–and nothing’s changed on that front! We don’t always get it right, even with those we love most. Then consider that every era has unique challenges for families. Many would call our era uniquely unique! Multiple intense economic and social pressures combine to pull families apart or to prevent them from forming with a chance of even surviving, let alone thriving. [I’m in Las Vegas right now awaiting the birth of a new granddaughter. This community’s 24-hour lifestyle exerts additional pressures on families besides those we’ve already mentioned.}

Consider also that “family” ain’t what it used to be. Today’s families come in many configurations besides working Dad, stay-at-home Mom, 2.3 children, a dog, and a minivan. Supporting families today means supporting single-parent families, grandparents raising grandchildren, divorced and blended families (imagine how agape love could transform custody/visitation struggles!), multi-generation families, and households composed of unrelated folks who share life together with various arrangements for various reasons.

How can the church help people “form family”? A good first step is simply to affirm families in all their diversity. Say frequently and publicly that families come in many different shapes and sizes today and all of them share the same mission of caring for one another as miniature Christian communities. All of them share the critical role of “forming family” around their most vulnerable members. A next step might be for church leaders who don’t have children at home to LISTEN to families in their midst and in their neighborhood. What’s life like for you? How can we support you? Meet folks on their turf before expecting them to come onto your church’s “turf”. Try volunteering at a neighborhood school or a Little League or other sports program. Yes, put yourself through the hassle and indignity of a background check, including fingerprints if necessary. Show parents you care that much about keeping their kids safe.  Volunteer in order to serve (great discipleship, according to Jesus) and develop authentic relationships. Don’t volunteer intending to take over and run things and get people into your church.  Other steps include specific ministries for specific groups, mentoring relationships, etc. The possibilities are endless. A thoughtful and prayerful assessment will reveal the first steps that make sense in a particular setting.

I’m concerned  because I see very few churches being intentional about supporting and nurturing families through every aspect of their ministry. It doesn’t happen automatically. It takes some careful planning and some constructive change. Forming a partnership with families multiplies the effectiveness of ministry. We often ignore the obvious–the church has children for  a couple of hours a week, while the family has them most of the rest of that time. Leadership Network has some helpful resources for building this parnership. Their paper “Equipping Parents to Be Spiritual Champions in Their Homes” describes three churches’ efforts in this field and lists a wealth of resources.

Supporting the process of “forming family” is crucial for the future of children and our whole society. It’s a core element of the church’s mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Who do you know that’s making it happen? What will you do to help it happen effectively in your part of God’s world?

The State of “This Holy Estate”–Part One

We’ve just returned from a week-long trip centered around a family wedding. We hadn’t seen that side of the family for three years, and then mostly at funerals! The night before the wedding my wife and I drove around Tulsa, OK looking for the place we wanted to eat dinner. We struggled because a) we didn’t know what we wanted, and b) we didn’t know the city very well. We wound up in a nondescript, survivable-looking diner. Dianna had an omelet and I had 4-way spaghetti and chili—a Cincinnati staple in Oklahoma! Business was slow, so our waiter had time to talk. As she does with everyone who doesn’t look like an ax-murderer, Dianna immediately began showing “Harold” pictures of our 18-month old grandson. He returned the favor with a picture of his year-old son “Timothy”. Like every father, “Harold” has high hopes for his son. “Harold” referred to Timothy’s mother as his “roommate”.

As we talked, a whole puzzle’s worth of pieces fell into place. A few years ago I realized I was doing far fewer weddings than earlier in my ministry. I knew it wasn’t just because I no longer served Las Vegas First UMC (now closed) where we’d done 100+ weddings a year–down from 1000+ in the ‘50’s! The change reflected the fact that aging congregations like the last two I’d served had fewer marrying-age members. It also reflected the changing state of marriage in our culture.. Compared to a few decades ago, a much smaller proportion of the population is married, first marriages happen at a later age, cohabitation has increased exponentially, both divorce and out-of-wedlock births have become almost routine. One sentence in one of those many articles on “the future of marriage” has stuck with me. It pinpoints my greatest concern about the state of “this holy estate”: “The problem is not divorce but failure of families to form.”

Now I’m not going back to that restaurant to shake my holier-than-thou finger at “Harold” and tell him to either marry his “roommate” or get out because he’s living in sin. If I had the chance, I might eat there more often than is good for me in order to build a relationship. Harold’s an interesting guy. I know there’s more than we discovered in that brief conversation. I’d love to encourage and support him toward realizing his hopes and dreams for his son. “Forming a family” will be crucial to “Timothy”s” future.

We went to the wedding the next night. A new family was formed, the newest in that large, extended family. This tribe is becoming a rarity in our moving-too-fast world. They’re a large, strong, close, upright, fairly religious bunch. If you attack any one of them, the rest will be all over you! They’re also very human, and a product of the times. They’ve experienced the struggles that confront every family, including sickness and death, domestic conflict, divorce, and babies born before their family is fully formed. But even in difficult circumstances they work very hard to provide for the children. Even where the arrangements are anything but traditional, they do their best to form “family” around them.

That’s my concern about the state of “this holy estate”. Too often we’re failing to “form families” effectively. When that happens, everybody suffers. The children who deserve it the least pay the highest price. But ultimately when we allow the next generation to suffer, the consequences ripple through our whole society. We cannot allow this trend to continue unchecked. How can we do a better job of helping families form—strong, healthy, stable, nurturing, life-giving families?

As you might have guessed, I have some ideas. I’ll share from you. Who’s making a difference? What’s actually working? Where does this whole issue of “forming family” fit into the mission of the church and the lifestyle of discipleship?



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.