Posts Tagged 'church'

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.

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.

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?

We Can’t Do It the Same Old Way–But We Can Still Do It

Recently I participated in a memorial service at the church where my sisters and I grew up. Our family was actively involved with Maynard Memorial Methodist Church and its successor, Culver Palms UMC, for sixty years. Darlene, whose life we celebrated that day, was the wife and mother in another family that was also connected to the church at least that long. She moved into the community with her husband and their small children a few years after my parents moved me there. Darlene and Glenn’s children were close in age to me and my younger sisters. The six of us (along with some others) moved through Sunday School and an active youth group together. Eventually life scattered most of us. Maynard merged with nearby Palms Evangelical United Brethren church following the merger of the two denominations in 1968. The newly-formed Culver Palms United Methodist Church eventually sold both properties, built a new facility in a much more advantageous location, and continued its strong ministry.

Maynard Memorial provided a solid faith foundation for the children in our families and a number of others. Granted, the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s were prime time for families and churches. But the people at Maynard took their ministry with children and youth seriously and did it well. In my own ministry I’ve looked back frequently at my experience growing up in the church and wondered: How could the church I was serving offer an equally foundational experience for the children and youth we served? A few times I think we got it right. Some other times I know we didn’t.

The memorial service brought together many of us who grew up in the church during that era, along with some of the leaders and teachers who shaped and guided us. That “homecoming” has me asking again: What made that church experience so pivotal in so many of our lives? Obviously we can’t do ministry the way we did fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten. Too many have already tried and failed! But I believe it’s absolutely essential for today’s churches to offer equally strong, life-shaping ministry with today’s children and their families.

This is the first of two parts. In the rest of this post I want to describe briefly what I believe were key aspects of the ministry we experienced as children and youth at Maynard. Next time I will suggest ways today’s churches can build those qualities into their ministry with children, youth, and their families. Obviously I don’t have all the answers. (Otherwise I’d be on a book tour right now!) But I hope we’ll begin a productive discussion that leads to positive changes.

Five key qualities shaped the ministry I experienced at Maynard Memorial Methodist Church:

1)      Church and family partnered in the faith formation of children and youthYes, it was a different era. Yes, it was a simpler time. Yes, “family” ain’t what it used to be.  But here’s the truth: The families whose children grew most from the church’s ministry didn’t “outsource” their children’s spiritual development to the church. They took ownership of the ministry. They intentionally structured their family life to make church participation a priority. Most volunteered at some level. This group included some single-parent families, a rarity in that era. They were often looked down upon by church folks who lived more conventional lives. But Maynard welcomed and included single-parent families.

2)      The whole congregation valued and cared for children and youth. One woman (just a kid last time I saw her) spoke gratefully of specific ways Darlene and others had loved and valued her and all the children. I remember a number of adults who regularly greeted me by name and spoke to me. Some extraordinary laypeople invested years of love, time, and energy in various aspects of children’s and youth ministry. They involved us early and often in meaningful projects within and beyond the church. As soon as we were capable, those of us with even the faintest glimmer of musical ability were invited (OK, sometimes corralled) to sing in a junior choir or other groups. Non-musical folks had other opportunities to serve in worship and other areas. These were not “show” opportunities. They were real ways to offer meaningful service.

3)      Children and youth were integrated into adult-level ministries wherever possible.  In the early ‘60’s our very white church exchanged pastors and choirs one Sunday with a very black church. It was a Big Deal. Racial views in our church were far from unanimous. The community where most of our members lived had mechanisms in place designed to exclude “Negroes” (the term then in use) from purchasing homes in the community. Four of us high school students in the adult choir were full participants in that exchange.

4)      The church stretched us by exposing us to the wider world. As we grew into adolescence, we had numerous opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith experiences. We met missionaries up close and personal. We were exposed to all sides of controversial issues. Pastors and other adult leaders shared their opinions when asked, but always encouraged the wide-ranging questioning and curiosity of which youth are capable.

5)      Clear values were consistently taught and modeled.  Our pastors and key leaders didn’t just talk a good game. None of them were perfect, of course. But their through-the-week walk matched up with their Sunday morning talk more often than not. Most of the vocal supporters of civil rights and integration already had close relationships with folks of other races. Some other folks corresponded with and visited Japanese-Americans imprisoned in camps by our government during World War II. These Japanese were Christians and US citizens. But the government deemed them a security threat after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and completely uprooted their lives. At least one of those families became core members of Maynard. The commitment to peacemaking extended even to fellow church members. The congregation worked through many controversial social, political, and church issues. Sometimes some people didn’t behave well. Live human beings are that way, aren’t we? But for the most part the folks who talked a good game of peace and justice extended that to their relationships with one another even in times of conflict.

These qualities marked the strong healthy church experience that helped shape a number of us. Next time—How can we build these qualities into ministry in our very different 21st-century context?

Death Rattles or Birth Pangs?

My wife Dianna and I went to a church meeting last night. It was a historic occasion. During my nearly two years of retirement from active ministry I’ve religiously avoided church meetings other than choir rehearsal. This one was advertised as “brainstorming” for the church’s future.  Technically it didn’t qualify as “brainstorming”, but that didn’t matter. In the course of 40+ years of pastoral ministry I led dozens of similar sessions variously identified as “brainstorming”, “goal-setting”, “long-range-planning”, “visioning”, “strategic planning”, etc. Nearly every congregation, from house-church- size to mega-mega, does this regularly on some level.

I went to listen. Would I hear death rattles or birth pangs? Even without knowing the congregation I could have written much of the script for this church meeting and thousands like it. We’d hear concerns expressed about:

  • Survival—attracting more (younger/healthier/energetic) people who’d give more money and time.
  • Attracting and serving families with children (like the children and grandchildren of the retirees who composed most of that group and congregation—now including Dianna and me!).
  • Financial stability/sufficiency/survival.
  • Maintaining and improving the building and grounds—a growing challenge (bordering on burden) for a heroically faithful but declining, aging, and increasingly-burned-out group of volunteers.
  • Increasing the volunteer base, primarily by recruiting more people to serve on existing committees and groups.  

Everyone read their lines about as expected.  I heard what I was afraid I’d hear. I heard death rattles of a church (terminally?) turned inward on itself, afraid to die and afraid to change. I’m not blaming anybody in past or present leadership. I’m just telling the truth for a disturbing number of churches in this country. They/we keep doing things the same way we have for decades and expecting different results. As you may know, that’s one definition of insanity. Institutionally speaking, it’s suicidal behavior.

But I also heard faint cries I pray are birth pangs of new life (Romans 8:18-25):

  •  Genuine concern for children in the community—not just to fill up empty classrooms, but to help them discover the wonder of being children of God and part of the Family of God.
  • Passion to care for caregivers. “Caregivers” includes anyone caring for a family member who requires significant assistance due to some physical, emotional, developmental, or other issue. This small congregation seems to have more than its share of such situations. The folks raising this issue (feeling this calling?) understood that this ministry requires us to form creative partnerships with other community resources.
  • Desire to move mission beyond arm’s-length donation to personal relationship. In the interest of full disclosure, this was my contribution. This church (like so many others) does a good job of raising and sending money and “stuff”, e.g., food for the local food bank and those well-filled Christmastime shoe-boxes. A few individuals volunteer faithfully with various organizations. But I don’t think that in its nearly forty years of existence the church has ever sent a mission team to serve beyond its local community. I believe authentic Christ-following mission means that we go in person wherever and whenever possible. The big theological word for that is “incarnational” mission–going in the flesh, the way God did in Jesus!  I identify this as a possible “birth pang” not because it was my brilliant idea but because it seemed to resonate with some other folks.

Death rattles or birth pangs? It’s far too early to tell. It depends on the follow-up from that session. It depends on the presence and practice of persistent, courageous leadership. It depends on our willingness to respond faithfully to the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudges (and less-than-gentle shoves) toward the future.  It depends also on the preponderance of the congregation that wasn’t present at last night’s meeting. They can lead, follow, or get in the way. They can choose life—the harder way, the uncomfortable way, the messier and more chaotic way. Or they can choose slow, lingering death.

God set the prophet Ezekiel in the middle of a vast valley filled with dry, parched bones. “…can these bones live?” God asked the prophet. “Master God, only you know that,” Ezekiel replied.(Ezekiel 37:3) That’s where our church and many others in North America find ourselves today. One of the church’s traditional rituals affirms that “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time…”  Particular churches come and go. They come into being when God’s Spirit calls some people together into a new expression of the Body of Christ, the Church, in order to accomplish God’s purposes with people in a particular community. They  pass out of existence when God no longer needs that congregation in that particular setting, or when God finds other, more suitable instruments to accomplish God’s purposes in that particular setting. I think God can still use this congregation in this place. Will the congregation choose to be sufficiently responsive to still be usable by God?

 

Gordon Cosby–A Saint Worth Knowing and Following

Gordon Cosby died recently at the age of 94. Cosby was born in a small town in Virginia. The Baptist church in that community helped him grow up into Christ and to discover and respond to God’s claim on his life. Cosby served as a military chaplain in World War II. Following his military service, Gordon and his wife Mary started the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.’s Addams Morgan neighborhood. Their intent from the very beginning was to build a no-frills, intensely-focused faith community that would make maximum impact on its community and the wider world. Cosby described that lifelong purpose in his writing: “For me the central question is what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. What is its nature? Its essence? And how can that essence be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?”(Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

Church of the Savior understood that its calling was to serve those whom we more fortunate people call “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45). Not coincidentally, these were the very folks Jesus claimed as the focus of his mission—“the poor…prisoners…the blind…the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) The church warmly welcomed all to worship and to participate in its life and ministry. But the bar for membership was (and is) set very high compared to typical mainline churches. “Apprentice” members attend the School of Christian Living one evening a week for two years before they may become full members. This period of preparation equips apprentice members either to join an existing mission group or, along with at least two other persons, to  call together a new mission group. An apprentice may become a full member only after completing the two-year School of Christian Living and becoming an active part of one of the church’s mission teams. Members may join for only one year at a time and must re-apply each year. If you don’t re-apply, your membership automatically lapses.

How has this policy worked? Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Monte Sahlin, a long-time friend and colleague of Cosby and the Church of the Savior, writes that “Hundreds of faith-based ministries have been started over the years, including a community health center, a residential treatment center for women with AIDS, hundreds of units of low-cost housing, a jobs program that placed 800 unemployed individuals last year, FLOC (For the Love of Children, a movement that revamped how foster care is done in DC), Alabaster Jar (a movement of artists who are people of faith and express faith in their art), the influential Wellspring retreat center, a small college, and Potter’s House, what many consider the original Christian coffeehouse ministry which still operates in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood on Columbia Road in Washington.”

Church of the Savior clearly wasn’t and isn’t for everybody.  Cosby’s own words describe the sort of people who came to call this faith community “home”: “If you love the church but are disillusioned, disheartened, discouraged by what it has become- we invite you to dream with us. If you are weighted down by the choices you have made for your own life, and you long to become the freed and freeing person that God desires, unleashing the gift of who you really are- we want you to dream with us. If you are hungry for the passionate, healing way of Jesus and would be our companion on the journey–we need you to dream with us.” –(N. Gordon Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

No frills. No meaningless “church busy work”. No “playing church”. No spectators allowed. Everybody’s in the game all the time. No “holier-than-thou” contests. No power struggles worthy of a corporate boardroom. No petty church fights over who gets the credit or the blame. Church of the Savior, like every  faith community, is composed of human beings for better and for worse! But they follow Jesus together with the intense single-minded focus taught and modeled by their long-time pastor. (He retired officially in 2008.) United Methodist pastor Dr. Dean Snyder describes “…Gordon’s passion, his willingness to take risks, his determination to do something rather than nothing about the wrongs of our society, his always wanting to figure out how to do it more effectively and in more Christ-like ways, his doggedness to get past symptoms to the heart of the matter…Gordon did not seem to care about credit. His concentration was totally upon applying the truth of Christ to conquer and heal poverty, racism, addiction and disease…”

Gordon’s “passion…willingness to take risks…determination…doggedness…concentration…” have made him one of the most famous “not-famous” people on our planet. You can’t find him in Wikipedia! His passion for “applying the truth of Christ” squeezed out worldly pursuits like building an impressively-padded resume,  writing  (and profiting from) “How I Did It and So Can You” books for those who’d rather imitate than innovate, or building a church monument to himself.

Today is Good Friday. I can’t escape observing that Cosby’s discipleship model of “…passion…willingness to take risks…determination…doggedness…concentration…’ turned out to be the recipe for Jesus’ crucifixion—and for the world-changing revolutionary movement that followed. Do we dare  embrace and follow Cosby’s discipleship model? Doing so would launch us on a journey of discovery through which we’d discover, each in our own context,  transforming answers to the question that drove and shaped Gordon Cosby’s remarkable mnistry: “…what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected…And how can that…be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?”


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