Archive for the 'Church' Category

Got Gates?

“I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for…I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”—Jesus

“I don’t think we need bigger churches; the church needs more entry points.” –Rev. Julian DeShazier // J.Kwest, Senior Pastor of University Church in ChicagoEntrance-logo_ellipse-1024x381

Last Sunday we went to an unfamiliar church. We’ve worshiped there a few times in recent years when we visited a longtime friend. We arrived and headed for the sanctuary to meet our friend–but we couldn’t find our way. We’d entered the large older building from a different direction. A helpful person quickly noticed our disorientation and showed us the correct door. It’s one of those doors you can’t see until someone points it out, and then you can’t miss it.

Our home church has great signage and very clear entrances to the sanctuary. Its physical layout is mostly visitor-friendly.  But that historic old church (100+ years), our newer church (30 years), and  many thousands more share the same struggle with entry points. Can folks find their way into and around the building easily? Does our physical, program, and online presence offer sufficient accessible “entry points” for newcomers? Do the first humans those newcomers meet embody Jesus’ caring welcome to “more and better life”? Most churches today face a fundamental survival/mission issue: Is our church a closed club or an open community? Is church primarily for us, the “faithful”, or for “them”, the outsiders who don’t even know which end of a Bible is up?

Two recent experiences have stirred me to think anew about this ancient struggle (see Acts 11:1-18). The day before that church visit, Dianna and I attended a “Messy Church” workshop. “Messy Church” isn’t about how to keep the church cleaner, or even how to disappear that mountain of sacred junk in the desperately-overstuffed Holy of Holies closet. “Messy Church” is a British response to a drastic decline in worship attendance and church participation. It offers an informal, approximately monthly experience designed to be “church” without being churchy. While each “messy church” is customized for its own setting, every Messy Church includes

  • A relaxed welcome time with drinks and snacks
  • An activity-based learning time with Bible-based crafts, games, competitions, prayers, etc.
  • A short celebration that usually includes Bible story, song, and prayer
  • A sit-down meal for everyone.

Every Messy Church expresses the values of

  • Christ-centeredness—the spirit that underlies the entire two-hour experience.
  • Hospitality—“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7 NRSV)
  • Creativity—Making use of everyone’s God-given gifts in order to learn and discover new insights about each session’s theme.
  • Celebration—Short (15 min.) and interactive, usually including song, story, and prayer
  • All-age—Generations participate together and learn from one another; each generation’s needs are balanced and addressed in activities.

Messy Church is designed to reach folks on the margins who might never attend a traditional church. It provides an “entry point”, not necessarily into traditional Sunday-based church, but into a Christian community and into the journey of following Jesus together. Messy Church doesn’t speak to everyone. It speaks powerfully to some who aren’t being reached any other way.

That brings me to the second “trigger” for this piece. Recently I read a piece by Rev. Julian DeShazier, pastor of University Church on Chicago’s South Side. He says that historically rough community is even “more traumatic” these days…“—and the First Responders to that trauma are the churches he calls “the primary caregivers in the community”. [How’s that for a start on a mission statement!?] He’s clear that his traumatized neighbors need more than Sunday sermons. The difference-maker for them, he says, is “…art that speaks in the language of whatever public we serve; as an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper”

The art that speaks to Julian DeShazier—also known as “J.Kwest”– and his Southside neighbors is Hip-hop. “If it weren’t for hip-hop”, he writes, “I wouldn’t be in the church, period. What I later heard from some great pastors, I first heard from some dope emcees and gifted songwriters whose songs are described by church folk as “indecent” and “improper” and “unorthodox”. They are, and I thank God for them, because those were my burning bushes…I ended up back in the church because the most popular rapper at school was in the cafeteria free-styling about God and told me about his church, and the youth pastor said I could perform too if I had a story to tell. Neither BreevEazie nor Rev. James preached a sermon. Their art invited me in.

“Art that speaks…the language…an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper.”  What “entry points” suggest themselves to you? Hiphop;  country western; light-rock praise music; come-as-you-are all-age informality; Taize music; Quaker-style silence; elaborate structured liturgy with organ and robed choir and clergy;cowboy church; simple outdoor worship in a camp or park setting.

Careful listening, prayerful reflection, and creative dreaming will lead us toward the best solution for our particular setting. But you and I are the key “entry points”. We’re the “gates” through which others begin to discover Jesus, “the Gate for the sheep”. (John 10:6) Those “Messy Church” values—Christ-centered, hospitality, creativity, celebration, including all ages and stages—fit wherever God’s people gather. They’re signs of that “real and eternal, more and better life” that is God’s will for us and all people, and his gift to us in Christ.child-opening-gate-23111804

I hear our Risen Lord asking his church in all its manifestations today: “Got gates?” He cares far less than we think about how big our churches are. He cares far more than we know about how open we and our churches are.

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

“ONE GENERATION AWAY?” Part 2–“Jello-ey Faith”

Not quite three months ago I wrote the first half of this two-part series. At the time, I didn’t think that I was writing the first half of anything. I described the beginning of my journey with our church’s Confirmation class. My motivation was the intersection  between my excitement about that journey and my frustration with a steady drumbeat in other places of the tired cliché, “The church is always just one generation from extinction”. When I sought diligently to attribute those words accurately, even the all-knowing Google couldn’t name the author. I finally concluded they came from the mind of the incomparable Someone–“Someone has said…”

Last Sunday we–eleven youth and four leaders–arrived at our destination. Those youth were confirmed in the presence of congregation, friends, and families. After worship, we celebrated in historic Methodist fashion—with a great meal lovingly prepared. We’d arrived at our destination—but by no means the final destination for our newly confirmed brothers and sisters in Christ. Many will serve in Vacation Bible School later this month. Others will continue to serve in various ministries where they served as part of their class experience. They’ve barely begun their discipleship journey. We expect great things from them.

Sunday was our second big day in a row. We’d spent all day Saturday at a district confirmation retreat. Youth from area churches had a chance to meet and get to know Bishop Robert Hoshibata, leader of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Those forty-plus youth and adults gained a greater understanding of the regional, national, and global dimensions of our church. They heard that story through the very approachable humanity of Bishop Bob and other conference staff who participated during the day. All of them reminded these youth powerfully that they are not the church of the future. They are the church NOW. God’s Spirit has given each one gifts to share in Spirit-inspired ways that will make a life-changing difference in the world within our reach.

After we’d all become acquainted, Bishop Bob spoke about —“Jello-ey Faith”. No, I’d never heard that before. Yes, it took a bit of processing. Jello, the bishop explained, isn’t very interesting when it comes out of the box. It’s just colored crystals. Then we add boiling water. The crystals  become a colorful liquid. Next we add ice cubes to speed cooling. Now we put the Jello in the refrigerator to set. (Bishops are supposed to be knowledgeable in many diverse areas. Bishop Bob knows far more about Jello than I do!)   After a few hours the Jello firms up. You can take it out of the fridge and shake it, perhaps even turn it upside down. Now the Jello won’t slosh around or spill. It will wobble and jiggle, but it will stay together. The church invites us on this  confirmation journey, Bishop Bob explained, to help us “firm up” our faith. Confirmation provides an opportunity to clarify and claim some bedrock beliefs and values We may not emerge from our confirmation experience with definitive answers. But at least we’ve explored some of life’s Big Questions and formulated some provisional answers. Those Big Questions include things like Who is God? Who am I? Why am I? What shall I do with this life I’ve been given to live? Where do Jesus and the Church fit into this whole picture? Confirmation is also a time to begin to form spiritual habits or disciplines. Through the day a variety of approaches to prayer, Bible study, and creative collaboration provided tools to help “firm up” our relationship with God.

Before Bishop Bob was done, I found myself thinking about another dimension of “Jello-ey faith”. Jello is both firm and flexible. Structures that are too rigid will break or shatter when shaken too hard. The “give” built into tall buildings (nearly all buildings in earthquake-prone areas) enables them to ride out that shaking. Most of the buildings flattened in recent quakes in Nepal and other third-world countries lacked that flexibility.

When life starts rocking and rolling like the San Andreas Fault. “Jello-ey faith” helps us bend but not break. That moment is always a matter of When, not If. Nobody gets a free pass. LifeQuakes hit at the least convenient times. Our poor choices jump up and bite us. Circumstances beyond our control trash our carefully-planned futures.  Disappointments derail our dreams. Our expressway to Easy Street deteriorates into a primitive jungle track to—God only knows. Plans A through Q haven’t worked. It’s time to start hatching Plan Z-73.

“Jello-ey faith” trusts infinitely God who created us, loves us, and has a place and purpose for us. It trusts far less our plans and ideas of a “good life” inspired by our consumer-driven media and culture. “Jello-ey faith” trusts the admittedly imperfect families and faith communities that have shaped us, not whichever celebrities and self-help gurus are trending today. “Jello-ey faith” trusts What God is Doing in, around, and among us today and tomorrow far more than “the way we’ve always done it”. “Jello-ey faith” approaches the wisdom of Someone with healthy skepticism. “One generation from extinction” might be true if we leave God out of the equation. But our flexibly firm faith always factors in God’s energizing, empowering Spirit. This new equation fits another one of Someone’s pronouncements: “Christianity is caught rather than taught.” This faith drives the Confirmation process in countless churches like ours. This faith drives our whole existence as the Body of Christ—old, young, and in between; from the most experienced disciples to the newest; “all sorts and conditions” of folks, as the prayer reminds us. Together we encourage each other into the image of Christ. Together we grow into “Jello-ey faith” that leads us through life in partnership with God and all God’s people. Together we work out God’s good purposes for God’s world.

“Welcome…as Christ…”

“Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you…”        Romans 15:7 NRSV

It happens more and more and I like it less and less. People yell at me as soon as I enter their stores and restaurants: “Welcome to BargainBinge!” “Welcome to Fast Food Frenzy!” Certain businesses apparently require their employees to greet instantly everyone who comes through the door. The scripted greeting is shouted the moment I cross the threshold. (Are they being timed?) Some workers manage to make eye contact and not sound robotic even though it’s their 739th “Welcome to …” on this shift. A select few are skilled enough to “Welcome” me with their backs turned as they continue to perform complex tasks. I could never multi-task like that!

Yes, you felt the sharp edge. I don’t feel “welcomed” by someone who shouts from the back room without even seeing me. I don’t feel “welcomed” when that “greeting” sounds more like an alert to the staff: “Heads up, we’ve got a live one!” (I feel “targeted” more than “welcomed”.) I don’t feel “welcomed” by a mechanically repetitive greeting that’s obviously part of the “script” designed to produce a desired “customer experience”. My “customer experience” would be richer if I sensed an authentic attempt by one human being to connect with another.

A few years ago churches started paying more attention to “welcoming” and “hospitality”. A deepening (and valid) concern over membership and attendance decline was approaching panic in many circles. So we had to DO SOMETHING! I thank God that I have yet to walk into church and hear a frantic “Welcome to St. John’s by the Gas Station!” The words come from the other end of the lobby, from someone busily arranging cookies who is far more focused on optimizing the cookie layout than on me. Most of the greeters I meet on Sunday make eye contact with me. I feel genuinely welcomed. But before, during, and after their first visit to a congregation, newcomers typically confront a minefield of obstacles to full participation and authentic welcome. While many churches have made great strides, buildings and signage still offer many challenges. We offer minimal explanation or directions as we move through a worship service because “Everybody knows that.” When worship leaders start offering more guidance, complaints soon arise from members who see no need to repeat the obvious week after week. “Everybody” already knows that stuff.

Most congregations lapse into “Insider language” without even noticing . It sounds like English, but first-time visitors are painfully aware they’re not getting the full message. Insider language includes

  • Specifically religious language—“Invocation”, “benediction”,”narthex”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “eschatology”, “Wesleyan quadrilateral”;
  • Denominational shorthand—UMM, UMW, UMYF, annual conference, district conference, church conference, charge conference, general conference, jurisdictional conference, VBS, SPRC, apportionments.
  • References to people, places, and events—“See Susie if you want to sign up”; “The Friendly Fellowship will meet in Jones Hall next Friday at the usual time;” “Come to our monthly potluck next Sunday after church. Bring the dish designated for your section of the alphabet.”

Each mystifying encounter with “insider” language and customs leaves newcomers feeling more distant from the people in this faith community rather than closer to them. And they had hoped this might become their “home”. And we insiders don’t care. At least not  enough to change OUR CHURCH; not enough to rise up out of our comfortable padded pews, step across the aisle, and see life and OUR CHURCH through the eyes of the stranger who’s just walked through our door for the first time. All the welcoming gimmicks, hospitality hacks, and marketing magic in our bag of tricks can’t create a genuinely welcoming congregation. Like most everything that matters in the church, welcoming ISN’T ABOUT US! (It’s not OUR CHURCH, it’s Christ’s Body into which we’re all graciously invited. “Welcoming…as Christ..” means helping each stranger whom the Spirit draws into our midst experience God’s welcome for everyone in God’s widely-scattered family that is being drawn together in Christ.

“Welcome one another…as Christ has welcomed you…” The early church’s wisdom remains the “best practice”. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) God in Christ set out to remove every obstacle that separates us from God and God’s people. We aren’t required to gain a transforming insight; to evolve to a higher spiritual plane; to finally make precisely the right move toward God in precisely the ri ght way. God made that first move toward us—“The Word became flesh and blood”. God set aside the obstacle of God’s Otherness and chose to “move into the neighborhood” where we live, work, play, eat, struggle, and love. God comes to share life just as we live it–our “everyday, ordinary…sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life…” (Romans 12:1 MSG).

We could tell the story of Jesus’ ministry in terms of the way he removed obstacles between people and God. He healed people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual “dis-eases” (e.g.Mark 1:32-34). Conventional religion believed these conditions made people “unclean” in God’s sight. Jesus’ healing removed that obstacle. Jesus welcomed those whom society shunned. He shared meals with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15-17). He invited one tax collector (Matthew) to be his disciple and invited himself to dinner at the home of another (Zaccheus). Thus Jesus removed the obstacle of alienation by forming an alternative community that welcomed precisely those whom “polite society” rejected. Jesus’ death and resurrection finally and completely remove every obstacle to our relationship from God’s side.

“Welcome one another…as Christ has welcomed you…”  “Welcome…as Christ” means continually evaluating our life together as a church to find and remove obstacles that keep folks feeling like strangers more than family. “Welcome…as Christ…” also means a continual effort to overcome “insider-outsider” polarizations. Some translations render this passage, Accept one another as Christ has accepted you…” Can we become that “welcoming/accepting” community that sees deeper than skin color, dress code, class, culture, and ideology? “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female…we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28 MSG)When our “welcome” is that authentic, all the details we worry about will resolve themselves.

 

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.

 

Alaska Journal 3–The Power of Weakness

I intended to write this soon after Part 2, which I posted nearly a month ago. But Life intervened, first in the form of my granddaughter’s curiosity about the Frank Schaefer trial. She stimulated me to write “This Is Our Witness?” Impulses that strong usually generate some of my best writing, so I’ve learned to go with them. Life also intervened in the form of family Thanksgiving, including grandchildren, travel, and miscellaneous fun. Life’s apparent interruptions also put me in sync with God’s timing, which always trumps my hyper-scheduling and micro-managing. I think you’ll agree that this last part belongs in the Christmas season.

Two churches, Galena Bible Church (GBC) and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, serve the 500 people who live in Galena, Alaska, the town where I worked last summer as one of 80+ United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) helping with Yukon River flood recovery. Our team worshiped with GBC both Sundays we were in town. (Some will say we went to church in order to share the potluck feast that followed worship each week.) A few of us built shelves for GBC’s community pantry one day. This church of 21 members facilitated the work of another 220+  volunteers. Their cots, sleeping bags, and luggage were stacked around the edges of GBC’s multipurpose room all week, sometimes even during worship on Sunday. One Sunday a power tool battery sat in its charger on the platform just a few feet from Pastor Chris Kopp as he preached. The Altar Guild didn’t revolt because of the unorthodox liturgical decoration. For me the “functional” décor proclaimed that worship is meaningless if it doesn’t fuel and focus the church’s ongoing involvement in the life of its community—power tools and all!

Battery charging on the platform during worship.

I wanted to know more about GBC’s engagement with its community. But our team was involved with our work and Pastor Chris was rushing madly in all directions much of the time. After returning home, I emailed him and asked him to tell me more about the church and its ministry. He described how the church had called him as their pastor three years earlier. Eighteen months into his ministry he began working with GBC’s leaders to discern the church’s future direction. Study, dialog, prayer, and fasting led them to affirm that “…our gospel goal was that in five years we wanted any long-term resident of Galena to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.”

“Those are a group of people who love and care about each other.” It’s not rocket science, folks! Our life together is our most powerful witness to our immediate neighbors. Pastor Chris led that GBC congregation beyond “liking one another” to loving each other: “Just as I have loved you, Jesus told his disciples, “you also should love one another.” (John 13:34).By the way, Pastor Chris would insist that at most he’d led folks to be open to the Holy Spirit. That in itself is huge.

The quality of a church’s common life speaks powerfully to its neighbors, for better or worse. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus continues, “if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). Tertullian was a bishop in North Africa in the late second and early third centuries. The Christians under his care generously shared food, clothing, jobs, whatever they had that others needed. Love erased boundaries between believers and non-believers. Tertullian wrote that such love moved non-believers to say with amazement, “See how these Christians love one another!”

 GBC has grown (and continues to grow) into a community of people who deeply and truly love each other.  GBC had also unknowingly positioned itself to respond to last May’s disastrous Yukon River flood. Pastor Chris says that when the flood came, “What else could we do but respond according to the burden that God had put on our hearts?”  GBC partnered with parachurch mission agencies, its supporting churches, local, state, and federal government agencies to bring help and hope into the stricken community. How did this church of 21 members, most of whom were coping with flood damage to their own homes and to the church, pull it off?   “It is impossible to explain…,” according to Pastor Chris, “other…than to say it was the power of God made evident in our weakness. “

Sounds like Christmas to me. Peel away the layers of tradition and commercialism and we find two peasants welcoming their first child into the world in a stable far from home and family. We who follow Jesus see in this story God’s limitless, world-creating love going to incredible, unfathomable extremes to heal the brokenness between God and humanity. Love empties itself, sets aside power and privilege, and takes on our human weakness in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire. Thirty years later this baby grows up and starts traveling through the countryside teaching people a whole new way to understand life, God, and one another. His enemies engineer his execution, but he doesn’t die. Jesus’ followers insist that his life continues in them and beyond them. An early Christian hymn affirms “…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) At Christmas “all the fullness of God” chose to enter our world in “…the power of God made evident in…weakness”. “All the fullness of God” focused in one human life lived in very humble circumstances: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) The people of Galena, Alaska know that as the people of GBC love and serve their neighbors day after day through “the power of God made evident in our weakness”.

“…In five years we wanted any long-term resident…to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.” It’s a worthy mission/vision for churches of all sizes, shapes, styles, and settings. It’s a great way to proclaim Good News without getting too many words in the way. It’s a way to celebrate authentic Christmas: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Your neighborhood. My neighborhood. That neighborhood we’re afraid to drive through, especially after dark. Every neighborhood. Everywhere. For ever and ever. Amen.

This Is Our Witness?

My oldest grandchild texted me this link a couple of days ago. “Take a look at this,” she wrote, “and tell me what you think when you get a chance.” The link opens an article about the church trial of United Methodist pastor  Frank Schaefer for officiating at his gay son’s wedding six years ago. His action violated the denomination’s clear prohibition of clergy performing same-sex marriages.  Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating the policy and suspended for thirty days. At the end of his suspension he must either agree to follow all provisions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the denomination’s law book) or surrender his ministerial orders.

This whole affair was news to my granddaughter. She’s not a United Methodist, so she hasn’t followed our internal conflict closely. She’s been raised Catholic, and has grown into an intelligent, curious young adult with intense curiosity about a wide range of issues. Like many young adults a couple of years out of high school, she’s working, taking college basics, and figuring out what’s next.

I texted her back that a meaningful response required more than 140 characters and followed up with an extensive email. It included a brief history of the issue (we’ve been arguing for forty years without settling anything), and outlined what defines the “sides” in both church and culture. I described how cultural attitudes have changed as our understanding of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular have evolved. I described the impasse at the 2012 General Conference and the subsequent responses of “Biblical Obedience” , a form of ecclesiastical civil disobedience advocated by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference and others who continue to work to change the church’s policy, and the insistence by the Good News organization and others that “rules are rules” and those who break them should bear the consequences. Finally I mentioned Bishop Mel Talbert’s presiding over a gay marriage in Alabama in late October  and the subsequent action of the Council of Bishops requesting that a complaint be filed against him.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that this was where we’d find ourselves, I would have doubted your sanity. We’re dragging our pastors into church courts for performing their children’s weddings? For forty years we’ve held together the tension between “All persons are of sacred worth” and “…homosexuality is incompatible with Christian practice”? No wonder things are coming apart! Successive General Conferences have chosen power politics (vote-counting and arm-twisting worthy of Congress!) over acknowledging that people of deep faith are on all sides of this issue? We’d choose to resolve our differences with a series of church trials that at least one writer calls “A Methodist Inquisition” ? This is our public witness in the second decade of the 21st century?

Call in the spin doctors!. Maybe we can airbrush away the wrinkles, blemishes, and parts we want to hide in the darkness. Too late. This is who we are right now and the whole world sees. Young adults like my granddaughter see it. Faithful young United Methodists feeling called to ministry see, and wonder whether they can fulfill their calling with integrity in a polarized church; folks attracted by  our “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” marketing struggle to reconcile the promise with the closed minds, hearts, and doors in this bizarre tale.

We have to do better. For God’s sake we can and must do better. Let our public witness lift up the life-changing role of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in disaster relief and recovery in the Philippines and all over our planet. Let our public witness spotlight urban ministries that are transforming cities all over our country. Let our public witness show how “Imagining” No Malaria has fueled a wide-ranging partnership among diverse people and institutions that’s making “No Malaria” a growing reality. Let our public witness tell the story of thousands of faithful ordinary congregations in all sorts of circumstances. Let our public witness highlight countercultural faith communities that welcome those who are unwelcome everywhere else. Let our honest, prayerful, Christ-centered process of working through this conflict and its underlying biblical and philosophical issues become our powerful public witness.

I don’t know the next step. I do know that folks on various sides of the issue will have to step up in remarkable, Christlike ways. I do know what Paul wrote to some early Christians who’d rather fight than reconcile: “…to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” (1 Corinthians 6:7 NRSV) I know that Paul identified Christlike love as the ultimate spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13). I know the advice about Christian maturity in Ephesians 4 which includes “…speaking the truth in love…” (v. 15), “be angry but do not sin” (v. 26), “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander…”(v. 31) and “…live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (5:2).

Most of all I know that every new chapter in this “Methodist Inquisition” leads to death, not life. We’re not that far from becoming a circular firing squad. Everyone stands in a circle with their guns pointed toward the center. At the command “Ready, Aim, Fire!” all fire simultaneously—and you know the rest of that story. We can, must, I pray will, find another way. It’s not just a survival issue for our church. It’s far more important. It’s a life-and death issue for millions who need the Love that’s made us who we are and now reaches out to love others through us. It’s a matter of faithfulness to all who have loved us to life in Christ; to all who have gone before us in the history of the church; to succeeding generations like my granddaughter who would love to be part of an authentically- loving faith community. Most of all, finding a new way forward is a matter of faithfulness to our Lord who goes before us to build a New Creation–with or without our participation.

SURVIVAL WILL KILL YOUR CHURCH (A RANT ON STEWARDSHIP PRACTICES)

It’s Stewardship season again in most churches. At best, church leaders and pastors take time to reflect with their congregations on how God has blessed them and on how God calls them to share those blessings (financial and otherwise) to accomplish what God is calling the congregation to do in the community and beyond.  At less than the best, Stewardship season becomes Survival season.  Pastors and leaders bombard the membership with facts and figures, usually including abundant red ink. “If these trends continue, we can’t keep on much longer.”  “It costs $XXXX per day/week/month/year to run this church. That means each member’s share is $X.  But since some people give little or nothing, the cost per giving individual or family is $XX.” (Naturally you’ll give at least $XX if you’re financially solvent and care about your church.)  Abundant begging, pleading, whining, fear, and guilt augment the sincere but desperate and usually counter-productive effort of concerned leaders to generate minimally-sufficient funding to enable the church to cling by its fingernails to the status quo for at least one more year.

Yes, I overstate the case—but not that much. I’m driven to Ranting because I’ve watched too many congregations, including some I’ve served, employ “less-than-best” stewardship practices year after year with minimal success. This is Stewardship Insanity—“repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result”. I’m Ranting because we know better, but we don’t do better. Both pastors and lay leaders in our churches have been taught better.

For example, four years ago nearly four hundred United Methodist clergy and lay leaders in Arizona and Southern Nevada gathered for a whole day with Clif Christopher , currently one of the brighter lights in this field. All that education didn’t change much. Yes, I know some stories of change and growth. But overall I don’t see “stewardship best practices” more widely and consistently practiced. The leaders of too many congregations still ask members to give so that the church can continue to exist for another year at about the same level. The “ask” isn’t, “Help us change the world.” It’s, “Help us maintain this institution”. Sooner or later in such situations,  the issue escalates from support and maintenance to survival. “Help” becomes “HELP!” When institutional survival becomes the stated or publicly perceived mission of a church, pursuing that survival mission will kill the church.

As I’ve watched, listened, and read in this stewardship season, I’ve found myself asking repeatedly, “Show me the difference my gift to your church would make in someone’s life. Introduce me to people whose lives are better because of your church’s ministry. Describe the impact you’re making outside of your own religious club.” I know churches where concern for institutional maintenance and survival out-shouts the voice straining to tell those compelling stories. I know other churches that tell precious few hopeful stories. Their survival struggle has drained them dry. Faithful, hardworking leaders have tried everything and nothing has worked. Somewhere along the way their focus shifted from “What is God calling us to do and to be here and now?” to “How can we keep our sinking ship afloat?” Mature disciples understand that such a shift has a critical, indeed potentially fatal impact on our spiritual health. A survival-based stewardship emphasis will kill your church—perhaps not this year, or the next, but eventually.

So what does a healthy, biblically sound, “best-practices” stewardship emphasis look like? In a few words:

  • Focus on God’s abundance–God provides all the resources that sustain each of our lives. God provides whatever it takes for us to accomplish the part of God’s mission to which God has called us as ABC Church in this time and place. “…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9;8 NRSV)
  • Faith-, not fear-based; Mission over maintenance/survival, Present and future focus—If we believe the first point, then we ask: What’s God up to in our neighborhood? How can we get in on the action? Are the greatest days of our church ahead of us or behind us?
  • Tell the story through faces more than facts and figures. A few always want to see numbers and spreadsheets. Most people want to see the faces of our ministry and the difference we’re making. Whose lives does our ministry touch? How are our neighbors’ lives different because of our presence in this community?
  • For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8 RSV)Our giving is our generous, free, and joyful response to God’s Limitless Love poured into our lives through Christ. Purge every trace of “ought” and legalism from your public communications. When we suggest that each member’s share is $X, even when we rigidly demand a 10% tithe, we may inadvertently cap the giving of someone who was ready to do much more. We also imply that lesser gifts are less worthy, which is clearly not the case. Read 2 Corinthians 8-9 and encourage folks into the joyfully free giving that Paul describes.
  • As soon as this year’s stewardship emphasis is complete, next year’s begins. 1) Evaluate both the process and the principles used. How can you move closer to “best practices”? What congregational cultural issues need to be addressed? It will take time to get leaders aboard and make needed changes. 2) How will you teach these principles to the whole congregation through the year? A continuing message throughout the year will be far more effective than a bombardment at the time experienced church folks know they should have their guard up.

END OF RANT—for now. If spreading God’s love through the Church of Jesus Christ is as important as we tell each other it is, why would we ever settle for less than the best of which we are capable? Look your leadership team in the eye, ask one another that question, and dare to answer honestly and prayerfully. For Christ’s sake, don’t let survival kill your church.

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?


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