american christianity

Listening in the Image of God: Part 5

This is a series on listening. Relationships are in the image of the triune God, and listening is an essential (first!) component to relationships. It can be said that listening is, in fact, in the image of God, and ought to be a higher priority for the body of Christ that perhaps it currently is. This quick series can help congregations listen to their neighborhoods–in the image of God.

A Police Ride Along:

Your local police department knows your neighborhood better than almost anyone else. Give them a call and arrange for the members of your team to ride with them on patrol for an evening. Or better yet, invite a few more congregational members not yet involved in this project to do it. Many police departments appreciate the interest and support, and can be very helpful in pointing out aspects of your town that very few people get to see. Of course, for everyone’s safety, be sure to comply with all the regulations that are part of this endeavor.

This is another good opportunity to invite more people in your congregation to participate. Who wouldn’t love to ride in a police car for a few hours? How exciting that would be! You never know who might step forward to help your team in this aspect of listening.

Meet together at a local coffee shop afterward and share your experiences. How do you see your community differently now than you did before?

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Listening in the Image of God, Part 3 of 6

This is series  on listening. Relationships are in the image of the triune God, and listening is an essential (first!) component to relationships. It can be said that listening is, in fact, in the image of God, and ought to be a higher priority for the body of Christ that perhaps it currently is. This quick series can help congregations listen to their neighborhoods–in the image of God.

Town Hall Meeting

Is there an issue or initiative that is presently burning locally? Something coming up on a ballot that is controversial? This can be a great opportunity to listen! Have your congregation host a town hall meeting with speakers from both sides. If there is a zoning issue for a new business, have someone from the local chamber of commerce come, along with someone from the environmental preservation group that is in opposition. Make sure the ground rules are clear and friendly. This is not to take sides, but to listen as well as to give your neighbors the opportunity to hear firsthand to both sides of an issue. School bond referendum coming up? Have the principal of a local school or a school board member speak to the benefits, giving equal time to a representative of the homeowners association whose taxes will be raised.

Here’s another chance to get more congregational members involved. Create an “Issue Town Hall” team or committee. Have them get speakers arranged well ahead of time. Then publicize, publicize, publicize. There’s nothing worse than a town hall meeting with no one present. You’ll have a hard time getting anyone to attend a second one, much less speak.

Make sure the moderator or facilitator is a good one. Perhaps there’s someone gifted in that area from your congregation who can do it well. If so, then fine. Just be careful that whoever moderates this event is seen as objective and fair. This person needs to be able to keep things moving and friendly. Depending on how hot the issue is, the moderator may need to be able to keep peace with some agitated attendees too. That’s fine, just make sure everyone’s clear beforehand as to the purpose and the agenda.

One word of caution here. Your congregation’s tax-exempt status rides on the church not endorsing any political candidate or issue. Be very clear that this town hall meeting is for information only, and is not any type of endorsement. Make sure there are articulate representatives on both sides present with equal opportunity to speak and relay information. Sure, there can be questions and answers, but keep things civil. Remember, the goal is to listen, not to convince.

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Listening in the Image of God, Part 2 of 6: Take a Walk

Congregations are called to be in relationship with their neighbors. It’s how God works and it’s how the body of Christ reflects the image of God in which we are created.

This is the second part of a six-part series helping congregations begin relationships by listening. The first part was introductory, and laid some theological groundwork for listening. Now we begin the first of five ways we can listen, necessary before we deepen significant relationships. We start by taking a walk.

Not all listening is done with your ears. You can get some pretty good information about the needs, wants, desires, and priorities of your congregation’s neighborhood just by looking at it. Take a walk through your neighborhood together. You’ll probably have to do this on several evenings, breaking up the neighborhood into manageable regions. That’s fine; you’re not necessarily in a hurry. Another option would be to break up into separate teams of three or four people each. You can cover more territory, but you need to listen carefully to the other teams when you debrief. This is a good time to recruit a few others from your congregation to walk with you. Get their input and observations. And you also get better communication about your process and a broader buy-in to what you’re doing.

Although you don’t need to cover every square foot of the neighborhood, you really do need to spend time in different areas to get a feel for it. If some members of your team live in the neighborhood, they have to be quiet, or perhaps not even present, when you walk their vicinity. You want to get fresh and objective views, and someone on your team might bias the whole listening process through vocalizing their long-held perspectives.

As you walk, what do you notice about the buildings and properties that make up the homes, schools, businesses, pastures, open areas? Are they well-kept or shoddy? Old or new? Colorful or drab? What might that indicate? If there are taller buildings, be sure to look up at the architecture above. What is depicted or symbolized there? Are buildings built to honor or remember specific people? What is the mood that seems to be prevalent? Be sure to look at the sidewalks and streets. Are they broken and rough, or well taken care of? Are there fences? How tall are they? How well-kept are they? Can neighbors see each other through them or are they built for privacy? Make mental notes as you go, pointing things out to each other.

If you meet people on your walk, casually observe them, too. What age(s) are they? What color or nationality are they? Do they greet you or ignore you? Do you feel threatened or safe (be careful that you aren’t projecting your own pre-conceived notions here)? Pay attention to who you don’t see. Are there any children? Any teenagers? Any single people? Any gay couples? Any elderly? Any particular ethnic groups not in evidence? What and who you don’t see may be as helpful as what and who you do.

Gather back together and share your observations. Make sure someone writes this stuff down; it’ll be helpful later on. Talk together about themes that emerge. Is the whole neighborhood pretty homogenous or are there different areas with different atmospheres? What was surprising? What did you notice that everyone else noticed? What did you notice that was unique to you? Be careful you don’t rush to any conclusions here; keep to actual observations. You’re just starting to listen—let the process unfold on its own!

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Listening in the Image of God: Part 1 of 6, “Whose Agenda Matters Most?”

It’s evening, and you’re finally settled at the dinner table. Just as the first spoonful of long-awaited yam and celery soup is approaching your mouth, the doorbell rings. You aren’t expecting anyone, but you experience a sinking feeling in your stomach because you strongly suspect who it is. It’s someone with an agenda that isn’t yours but who will insist that their agenda become yours. Yes, it’s someone selling something.

The single-pane aluminum frame windows in your house have been a virtual neon sign inviting every construction company and window pane producer in a five-state area to ring your bell. A recent hail storm has every roof inspector in existence descending on your neighborhood. The initiative on the next ballot will apparently affect your great-great grandchildren, either making or breaking their very lives. You will be condemned to an eternity of suffering unless you accept the religious message of the young zealots on your porch. Household break-ins are on the rise, and your only hope for securing your valuables—and maybe your life—is through signing a multi-year contract tonight with a particular home security company.

You know how it goes. These interruptions are annoying at best, and rarely have anything to do with your actual needs. Yet they keep coming. People come to your door uninvited and hope you will alter your schedule for them and their product. And they expect you to pay them for the privilege! There are even a few who will use high pressure, manipulative techniques, telling you things that may or may not be true just to get you sign on the dotted line tonight.

Not surprisingly, this is often how the residents of neighborhoods see local congregations. Our neighbors perceive a local congregation as yet one more entity primarily seeking its own profit and benefit. And, to be honest, there is good reason for that. As the church, we often are more concerned about selling our product than in being in relationship for the sake of our neighbors. We justify this by saying that what we are selling is exactly what they need. Though that may actually be true, that isn’t the issue here. No one likes someone else’s agenda imposed on them. Whether the church goes door-to-door or offers great youth programming, we are often correctly perceived as seeking to benefit ourselves, bolster our membership, fill our pews, and most importantly, increase the offering.

I know this sounds terribly cynical, but we need to be honest here. Isn’t that how we measure our success as a congregation? Using the same primary criteria for success as someone selling faulty vacuum cleaners doesn’t seem in keeping with the reign of God. It’s time to challenge our assumptions about success. It’s time to consider the kingdom of God before we consider the annual congregational report. It’s time to put the needs of our neighbors ahead of the needs of our organization. It’s time to strengthen relationships with our neighbors. It’s time to reveal the perichoretic nature of God in our communities. And, like all relationships, this starts with listening.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of coming uninvited to sell a particular product—one you may or may not need or even want—there were caring and trustworthy people who actually had your best interests at heart? Not offering you their product to increase their sales commission, but helping you, serving you, making your needs their priority? Can you imagine someone patiently taking the time to really learn what you wanted, what you needed, and only then sought to help you get it?

Yeah, right. That door-to-door company wouldn’t last long.

But that’s really the point: the church isn’t a door-to-door sales company.

Can we be the organization that takes the time to listen, to learn, to meet needs that emerge from relationships rather than the organization’s agenda? Shouldn’t the church be this? Relationship is the nature of the triune God, the God we are called and sent to reveal. Relationships, then, need to be our first priority as the church. Relationships involve trust. Trust takes time to develop. That, again, begins with listening.

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A Response to “Why I Hate Religion—But Love Jesus”

It’s more or less viral. The snazzy YouTube with the young Christian man professing his love for Jesus right alongside his hate for what he calls “false religion.” Because so many will watch this video without thinking it through, and follow a cultural assumption that seems pretty popular right now, it warrants a response.

Full confession: I’m a religious person—in fact, a professional religious person—therefore I have a bias. I also love Jesus, and therefore have a bias. Keep that in mind.

I think this devout Christian young man has some points to make that the Christian religious institution should heed. We aren’t perfect—we are at least as sinful and corrupt and broken as everyone else. And that includes those who have little use for religion. Many of this YouTube poet’s accusations are valid. We ain’t perfect, folks. We need to do a much better job of confessing that, recognizing we are forgiven for that, getting over ourselves, and getting on with Jesus’ work in the world.

But here’s the problem: it’s impossible to separate our views of Jesus from our religion. In fact, whatever it is that has shaped our views/relationship/love for Jesus IS in fact our religion. To believe one can come to some objective and clear perspective on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus all by one’s self is naïve at best, foolish at worst. We are all products of our culture. We have been shaped by societal, historical movements and see the world through the lenses produced. Scientific method, empiricism, individualism, the industrial revolution are only recent influences that have formed our perspectives. Our religious eyes are part of who we are, and we are products of our culture.

So when an enthusiastic young Christian vows the worthlessness of religion, he’s expressing a shallow view and a misunderstanding of who he is. Disavowing “religion” as an institution is actually a religious perspective. It’s just one that is shaped by current cultural trends rather than the wisdom and struggle of wise followers throughout the centuries.

I have a bias, yes. But I will choose to make sure I listen to those ancient Godly people—most of whom are wiser and more spiritual than me—who’ve learned from God, wrestled with God, and gained some insight from God. The forms and practices of Christian religion have weathered the centuries and helped create some sacred space for people like our YouTube poet to come to know, and to love, Jesus.

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Adjusting Our Sensibilities to Hope

Message for December 18, 2011: Fourth Sunday of Advent (B)

2 Sam 7:1-11,16; Luke 1:46b-55; Luke 1:26-38

 Regardless of our expectations, participations, anticipations, God is bringing Hope into the world. We can accept what God is doing or we can overlook it.

Regardless of our philosophies, biologies, or theologies, Jesus Christ is the Hope God brings. We can believe God or we can ignore God.

Regardless of our activities, proclivities, or serendipities, Jesus–God’s Hope for the world–comes among us. We can adjust our sensibilites and follow, or we can or we can brush off the invitation.

Mary hears the invitation. She is trusting her life into God’s direction. She is risking everything. This young peasant girl is taking a huge chance, an enormous leap of faith. She is trusting that God is acting and moving in the world—and in her life–in this unusual way. She’s trusting that God really is entering creation to save it, and is doing so through the child she is bearing.

What if it had been different? What if Mary overlooked what God was doing? Ignored God? Brushed off the invitation? What if she had chosen to live as if God would only act in ways she could understand and approve of? What if she had chosen to live within the confines of her sensibilities? The salvation of the whole world is at stake—and Mary risks everything to be part of what God is doing.

But what if she was wrong? What if she risks her whole future—her marriage, her reputation, her family’s reputation, her security, her standing in the church and community, perhaps even her life—and turns out to be wrong? What if this wasn’t an angel from God at all, but merely the result of a little too much garlic on her kosher pizza?

Mary takes the risk and accepts God’s invitation. She’s an Advent prophet, not because she’s so smart or religious, but because she risks everything in speaking and living in the hope that this child will save the world. God called her to participate. She accepts what God is doing. Believes God. Adjusts her sensibilities and follows.

I wonder how often God invites us to participate with God in the world. I wonder how often we listen to the messenger of God. And even if we hear, I wonder how often we would speak it to the world (Magnificat), much less trust our lives to it. God’s invitation can seem impossible, beyond reason, is outside our sensibilities. And so, even if we hear it, how much are we willing to risk for it? We receive God’s invitation to be part of something big, something real, something that brings hope and comfort to people. We are invited by God to into that which seems impossible, non-sensical, something that would be so much easier to ignore. And often we do. We choose to live in comfort, we choose to live in our own security, we choose to live avoiding risks or looking stupid, we choose to live a life clinging to our possessions and sensibilities. We choose to live as if God weren’t really doing much of anything that makes a difference in the world.

We who live on this side of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection already know the commitment of God. We know the direction of God. We know that God works in unlikely ways. We know that God is moving to calm our deepest fears, to cast aside our anxieties, to heal our wounded hearts, to alleviate our loneliness. God is directing reconciliation and forgiveness among us and among communities—even nations. God is acting to overcome addictions, establishing justice in the world, bringing peace on a global scale, creating an end to poverty and hunger.

Seem too far-fetched that God would invite you and me to participate in these plans? Seem too big for little ol’ us to be involved? If you knew that God was inviting you to change lives, to bring the hope that is Christ to a community, to proclaim this life-saving gospel to those who need to hear it, would you?

The easy answer is yes, but Mary’s prophetic voice and life tell us it is risky; it will cost; that it will make us uncomfortable—or even look silly.

And yet, God’s messenger is sharing with us even now God’s invitation—an opportunity for us to be a voice, a congregation that reveals the power of Jesus Christ in the world. Dare we take the risk of accepting that invitation? Dare we live as if we really believed that forgiveness, mercy, and generosity were the most important things?

Confessing to be Christians means we are willing to risk our comfort, our our sensibilities, our current lives for the sake of putting flesh on the gospel. Would you be willing to let your life be changed? Would you be willing understand forgiveness so deeply that you were compelled to forgive the same way? Would you be willing to have your finances adjusted to put the proclamation of the gospel at the center? We hear and we watch Mary, who when she heard God’s outrageous plan, moved her entire life to participate. That’s what happens when hope is real, when God invites, when Christ comes among us.

Regardless of our expectations, participations, anticipations, God is bringing Hope into the world. We can accept what God is doing or we can overlook it.

Regardless of our philosophies, biologies, or theologies, Jesus Christ is the Hope God brings. We can believe God or we can ignore God.

Regardless of our activities, proclivities, or serendipities, Jesus–God’s Hope for the world–comes among us. We can adjust our sensibilites and follow, or we can or we can brush off the invitation.

The point is, with us or without us, God is about the business of bringing hope to the world—and Jesus is the way God is doing it. Hope has come! We’re invited to be part of it.

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Are There Too Many Christian Congregations?

The sad truth about congregations doing the will of God in our neighborhoods is that we really don’t want to do it. For most of us, congregational life is more a way to justify ourselves and less about participating in the reign of God. Sound cynical? Maybe, but more importantly, it’s reality. Let me explain.

First, are we serious about what God is doing in our neighborhoods? For an easy example, one biblical theme on which the church as a whole agrees is that poverty and hunger are contrary to the will of God. And yet how many congregations actually know the poor, the homeless, the marginalized in our neighborhoods? Relationships with those we are joining God in serving seem obvious, but can prove difficult to actually accomplish for a variety of reasons; not the least of which is that we really don’t want to.

Permanent and real partnerships with agencies seeking to lift our neighbors out of poverty and feed the hungry also need to be central in our congregational life. Many of us collect food items to give away or write checks–which is great–but these efforts are often aimed at easing consciences rather than actually solving the problems within our communities. Congregations seeking to participate in God’s will are those leading their neighborhoods in efforts to actually change the “contrary to the will of God” demographics of their neighborhoods. Too often we simply tag along behind the “real” agencies committed to dealing with these issues.

Second, how do congregations measure their success? Is it butts in the seats on a Sunday morning or is it members involved in neighborhood policy-making? Is it an increased budget or a decreased homeless population? Is it the percentage of kids in our youth programs or the percentage of neighborhood kids learning to read? In too many cases, we as congregations measure our success based on the benefit to ourselves rather than the benefit to the neighborhood.

Third, where is the primary energy expended? For instance, at congregational meetings the topic most hotly debated is likely the budget. That is important, to be sure, as we are called to be responsible with the financial resources entrusted to us. Yet the budget debates are not usually about the will of God, but more often about particular line items in which someone has a deep vested interest. Which comes first, our boiler fund or the local homeless shelter? Rarely does a voting member stand up and defend a line item based on a biblical affirmation of God’s will for the church. Generally it’s an appeal to the congregation’s survival, programming, and self-benefit. And if the budget needs cutting, benevolent giving from the church to the denomination or other agencies is often the first line item on the chopping block. The budget often reveals the areas of greatest energy and focus.

Fourth, on what basis are leaders selected? In many congregations, leaders are put into place based on things like their ability to run a meeting, their success in their work life, or sometimes (God forbid) even on a desire by some to get them more involved in the church! Some of these factors need to be considered as we entrust the direction of our congregations to these people, but what about their prayer life? Or their understanding of the neighborhood demographics? Or an ability to make decisions based on God’s call to the congregation (or a desire to discover God’s call to the congregation)? Leaders should be primarily concerned with the congregation’s participation in God’s mission–above the benefit of the congregation in dollars or members.

So, how can we change our approach to congregational life? How do we move away from self serving and toward participating in the reign of God in our local neighborhoods? In a word, leadership.

First of all, it takes well-informed leadership. Congregational leaders, starting with the pastor, need to make a commitment to studying, praying, discussing, and risking for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Leader retreats where a large block of time is dedicated to the discovery of God’s activity in the neighborhood are a great way to introduce leaders to their role in the congregation. Bible study specifically around God’s mission centering in the cross and resurrection of Jesus can become standard. Holding each other accountable to the discerned congregational purpose and values can become the norm in any decision-making. Constant updating on neighborhood demographics should be a regular part of  leadership meetings. A special team can be commissioned to seek out that information and keep it current. An awareness of congregational members’ spiritual gifts and passions is extremely useful in planning ways for the congregation to become more deeply involved in neighborhood relationships.

Next, it takes courageous leaders. When the will of God is sought and a commitment is made to follow the Holy Spirit in that direction, it can be unnerving. The status quo which has kept the peace for years is suddenly turned upside down. Individual and personal agendas become exposed and chaos can become the rule of the day. Courageous leaders hold steady in the midst of the storm that will arise. The fact is, when competing agendas that have been camouflaged within the standard workings of the congregation are brought into the light, the individuals holding to those agendas become upset. They may fight back. They may feel attacked, may claim the congregation is in terrible shape, or may attempt to create alliances to keep their agendas on track. Courageous leaders listen, assure, communicate, but most of all, remain faithful to God’s mission rather than to power agendas from within the church. Membership may decrease as those whose personal agendas aren’t being met decide to leave. Courageous leaders stay the course when they are criticized for letting the church deteriorate from the fondly-remembered glory days of decades ago. Courageous leaders understand that, like in John 15, the body of Christ sometimes needs to be pruned in order to bear more fruit. Other, competing agendas must be cut away before the church can increase its ability to bear the fruit of the kingdom.

Truth be told, some congregations may not be able to survive this kind of pruning. As hard as it is to say, much less experience, the mission of God comes before a particular congregation’s survival. As Jesus came among us and humbled himself to the point of death–even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8), so a congregation, as part of the body of Christ, may be called to do the same.

Congregations seeking to be part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods would benefit from mutual support and encouragement. Doing this alone–either as a leader or as a congregation–is unwise. The journey is difficult, and the vision can be clouded. Sharing the journey together makes it possible, and much more pleasant. Find out which congregations in your neighborhood are committed (or are seeking to become committed) to relationships within the neighborhood. Get your leaders together with theirs over a big meal. Discuss ways you can support each other without competing or duplicating specific strategies. Most of all, pray together and watch for the reign of God in Christ revealed in your neighborhood together.

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What Makes for Successful Church Community Life?

It happens in every family, within every household. A relationship ends, an accident takes a life, an addiction is discovered, a job is lost, a medical expense overwhelms, a home goes into foreclosure, a son or daughter makes a bad choice. As much as we try to avoid them, these and similar devastating experiences strike all of us at one time or another. Yet we find ourselves woefully unprepared to deal with them.

To make matters worse, we are often embarrassed by these situations. Somehow, in the midst of adversity or failure, there is a culturally ingrained impulse to withdraw, to isolate, to deny that anything is wrong. We feel the necessity to handle the consequences of difficulties “in house.” Often unaware of how to navigate these troubled waters in our lives, we bravely struggle on, emotionally drained, spiritually exhausted, and sometimes even physically depleted. “We’ve got to be strong,” is usually how we approach these situations. “We’ve got to hang on until the storm passes.” The burden can be, quite frankly, too much to bear alone.

Nor should we have to. Humans are by nature communal beings. Created in the image of a triune God, we are relational at our very core. We understand God as “three-in-one,” Father, Son, Spirit all interacting, relating, serving, loving, and existing as the one God. Each person of the Holy Trinity finds their identity in the relationship with the other two. God is relationship—self-giving in nature and uniquely communal. God could not be God alone; and this is the image in which we are created.

When seen in this light, creation makes all kinds of sense. God, relational in nature, creates people with whom God can be in relationship—and who can be in relationship with God. God created us to share in the communal joy that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience since before time began. God the Son, born as Jesus, entered the world to face the powers that separate us from God and from one another. Jesus faced down these principalities, clashed with them, was killed by them, and won victory over them. All out of a need for relationship.

As the church, we are called and equipped to reveal and to proclaim the nature of God to the world. The existence of the church denotes relationship—with God, with a congregational community, and with the rest of the world. The strength of the church is relationship; it reveals the essence of who God is most completely. This is why individual spirituality is contrary to Christianity. One cannot be a Christian alone. We are gathered into congregational communities so that relationships centered in a triune God can be experienced. The character of God; the character of the church.

Which is why I become so frustrated when a household within a congregation pulls away when they are experiencing hard times. It happens all the time. Just when the church can actually act as church for one another, that opportunity is lost (or at least made difficult) because those experiencing tragedy feel they must do so alone. “I don’t want to be a burden,” we say. “Others need help more than me.” “I can handle this; I’m fine. Really.” Not only are we less likely to deal with our hardships in a life-giving way by ourselves, but we are robbing the church of a key aspect of its purpose—living as a holy community revealing the relational (and unconditional) nature of God to one another.

What’s worse, congregational members often separate themselves from their church community for far less tragic reasons. Hurt feelings, disagreements, unintended (or intended) insults, or my favorite, consumer desires not satisfactorily met (often articulated as “I’m not being fed,” or “Such-and-such church has a such exciting programs”) are all stated reasons as to why church members separate from a congregation.

I’m concerned that we are taking holy relationship so lightly. Embarrassment and individualism are taking precedence over the nature of God. Personal desires are taking priority over communal existence. A projection of strength is outranking our authentic vulnerability. All of which are contrary to the nature of the triune God, and therefore to us as human beings—particularly as the body of Christ.

In a previous posting on this blog I wrote, “The Church’s Future and God’s Pruning” (based on John 15:1-5). And I’m wondering if, in order to reveal and participate in the communal nature of God, those whose attachment is shallower are being “pruned” from the church. Now hear me, I’m not saying we should cold-heartedly abandon those whose commitment level isn’t up to snuff! To the contrary, the church is to reveal unconditional love and support to such as these. But I am curious as to whether we should be feeling such a sense of failure when those who insist on being alone actually do so. One of the greatest gifts a congregation can offer its neighborhood residents is authentic, perichoretic community modeled on and created by the God of Three-in-One. Some people are simply not at a point where they can handle that or feel a pressing need for that. On the other hand, some desperately need that kind of support and are willing to offer it as well.

Perhaps our congregational energy would be better spent living as authentic community in the midst of our neighborhoods rather than becoming larger, impersonal gathering places for individuals. Which one reveals the nature of God to the world most realistically?

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The Church’s Future and God’s Pruning

It may be presumptuous to say that for over 1700 years the church has needed to change its understanding of its purpose. Be that as it may, I’m saying it. Without a doubt, there are things the church has done well over the centuries in accordance with the reign of God: developing education, advancing health care, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, enhancing disaster relief, and serving the poor are chief among these. Sometimes we’ve proclaimed the gospel with clarity and love. And sometimes God’s mercy and compassion are made real in the lives of many all over this planet because of the work of Christ’s church.

And yet with a history all of this for 20 centuries, the Christian church in America in recent decades continues to decline. What are we doing wrong? Where do we need to work harder? What do we need to improve? How can we do better?

The decline in numbers of American Christianity has nothing to do with inefficiency or laziness. Churches and church leaders are working harder and longer than ever before—to the point of rostered leaders burning out at an alarming rate (but that’s another book). Our numerical decline has little to do with our faith or faith practices. And it’s not because we aren’t teaching our children well enough, aren’t relevant enough, don’t have updated projection or sound systems in our worship areas, or don’t have enough programs for young adults. No, it’s much simpler and yet much deeper than all that. Simply put, we are being pruned. Jesus is speaking about us and to us when he said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-2, 5). The church in the United States is being pruned in order to bear more fruit.

As I’m sure you know (but just to be official), pruning is a horticultural practice where parts of a plant are removed to help improve or maintain health, reduce risk from falling branches, and to increase the yield or quality of flowers and fruits.[1] Jesus says the branches that bear no fruit at all are removed, but those that bear fruit will be pruned in order to bear more. We can take some comfort in the fact that we are being pruned. That means that we, the church, the body of Christ continue to bear fruit, but God is preparing us to bear more.

Which begs the question, “Exactly what fruit is Jesus talking about?” That’s where we get into trouble. I think we’ve confused branches and fruit over the course of the last seventeen centuries or so. Branches are a permanent part of the plant. They grow from the vine and always stay in the vine. That’s the church, the people, the disciples. The fruit can be picked, eaten, used for sustenance, and it is where the seeds are. Those seeds are meant to be cast, planted, tossed into the world.

Our mistake is that we’ve come to believe that our purpose as the church is to get as many branches as possible—sometimes at the expense of the fruit. We’ve been so deliberate about gaining members in the church that we’ve put the main purpose of the vine—the fruit—on hold. We’ve become more concerned about our membership numbers than about revealing God’s mercy, compassion, love, forgiveness, and grace in the world. Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit to the Galatian churches, “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”(Galatians 5:22-23). This is the purpose of the church: to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

A vine that has too many branches isn’t healthy. It cannot effectively do what it was planted to do: bear fruit. In order to help the vine as a whole plant bear the fruit it is intended to bear, it must be pruned. As the vinegrower, God is pruning the church to restore our health and to allow us to be about God purpose in planting the vine in the first place. It’s much more about the fruit and a lot less about the branches. We’ve forgotten our purpose. We need the vinegrower to step in and restore us. We need pruning. And God is accomplishing it.

[1] Accessed September 8, 2011.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Transition, medium church, small church, suburban church, true vine | Leave a comment

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