church growth

Caving to Consumerism: Christian Calling or Corrupt Coercion?

I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?

From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.

I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?

I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35).

Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).

Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.

My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world?  Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?

What do you think?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, Make Disciples, missional church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

On the Impossibility of Revitalizing the Institutional Church

More and more, denominations are coming to the realization that starting new ministries is the most effective way to reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in this era of “nones” and declining church participation across the board, reaching more people is in higher demand than ever. Regardless of what we may say to the contrary, church is still primarily a numbers game, and bigger certainly wins.

They may be right.

But for good or for ill, as a pastor, that isn’t what I’m called to do. Instead of forming a new ministry with no weirdness outside of my own, I’m called to deal with decades of previous, overlapping, compounded, criss-crossing weirdnesses in addition to my own. Instead of energy put into mission in the world, I’m called to deal with energy around preserving what has been. Instead of shaping a ministry from the outset to deal with the realities of 21st century culture, I’m called to deal with memories of church in the 1970s and 80s. Although I have never been a new mission developer, I have overseen that work, admired (envied?) those with the gifts to do it, and have an understanding of the intensity of work involved. I have celebrated with new mission developers who, in part because of their exhaustive work and dedication, have seen their ministries explode in growth. I’ve wept with new mission developers who, despite their exhaustive work and dedication, had to shut down their ministries before they ever got off the ground. By and large, developing new ministries is a pretty effective way to reach new people we haven’t been able to reach before, e.g., ethnic groups, LGBTQ folks, and Millenials. It’s exciting, invigorating, and exhausting!

And yet, I’m called to reach those people through the ministries of existing congregations. I don’t have the gifts, the aptitude, or the extroversion to start a new congregation. Since I believe with all my being that the church–whether 3 minutes old or 3 centuries–is created and called by God to proclaim and participate in God’s mission in the world, I have a choice to make. I can work to preserve and maintain an institutional congregation or I can attempt the impossible–revitalize one so it can embrace the LGBTQ community in the neighborhood, the Spanish-speaking in the neighborhood, and a new generation of those largely uninterested in anything the institutional church has to say in the neighborhood.

For me there is no real choice. I’ve spent almost 30 years feeling like Don Quijote, jousting at windmills. Many say the work that I (and any number of others) are trying to do is a waste of time, since it is so rarely successful. Sometimes I agree. I can’t begin to count the number of sleepless nights I’ve spent because my congregations  have chosen status quo over mission. My wife still experiences post-traumatic stress at congregational meetings because of the hateful and anti-Christian comments that have been said about her husband over the years. I believe I could fill a lake with tears spilled over people we’ve hurt in our stubborness, neighbors we’ve neglected in our obtuseness, Spirit-given opportunities we’ve missed because of our institutionalization. My children have seen the dark under-belly of the church, and have no illusions about how badly we can behave. I’ve yelled at God until I’m hoarse, begging for some tangible sign of success or mission advancement.

Is revitalizing an existing, institutional congregation impossible? I will never believe that. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God of these status quo fortresses. Some of these institutions will die in the next generation. Others will manage to hang on. And a very few will be moved by the Holy Spirit to die to themselves and be raised again as communities boldly overflowing with mercy and grace in their surrounding neighborhoods. A very few.

And I want desperately to be part of one of those. I want to be in a faith community that uses its tradition and heritage as tools to be fully present in a broken world. I want to see the lights come on in the eyes of an 80-year-old guardian of the institutional church when he passes on his great faith to a teenager in baggy pants with his belt below his butt. I long for this.

And I’ve seen it.

Glory to God, I’ve been part of it. It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t get the glitz and the press of new mission starts. But I get glimpses of the reign of God present in the institutional church. I’ve seen a martriarch who fought me over every little change put her arms around a single mother and hold her. I’ve seen a stoic defender of the status quo mist up when serving holy communion to a disheveled stranger. I’ve watched as neighborhood children suddenly have advocates, as a quiet young mother prays with a sick and elderly woman, as a child actually shouts for joy after taking bread and wine with the rest of her congregation. I’ve been part of a church community where the mentally ill are accepted and the differently abled are treasured. I’ve been partners with the most disagreeable alligators who serve food in a homeless shelter every week, offering dignity and grace in addition to a plate of food and a warm bed.

You have too.

Honestly, there probably won’t be a lot of existing, institutional congregations that will look like exciting new mission starts. And some of our existing congregations need to recognize that their days are coming to an end. But God will not be denied. Resurrection is real. Perhaps our success isn’t to be measured in bunches of shiny new participants but in the straggly and disheartened ones who are touched by Christ’s love through us but will never step into our old buildings. Maybe the conflicts over carpet and wallpaper don’t overshadow the foundational love and compassion that are often shown in the neighborhood but even more often go unnoticed.

And, perhaps most importantly, we battered, bloodied, and sometimes exhausted clergy-types need to support one another in seeing God at work in our midst. Attempting to be part of the revitalization of an exising church is lonely, difficult, and endless work. The rewards are few and far between. The glamour is usually non-existent. So perhaps it would be a good idea to call a pastor in your neighborhood and take them to lunch. Listen and find ways to affirm what they are doing. Ask them to do the same for you. God’s reign is happening all around us–let’s make sure we don’t miss it due to weariness or discouragement from attempting an impossible job.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, missional church, religious, Revitalization, spirituality | 4 Comments

“I’m Just Fine Without Your Religion”

Finally, some in the  church are getting it. People aren’t looking for a church with great youth programs, good education, relevant preaching, historic liturgy, or a solid band. No, they aren’t looking for a church that will support them in difficult times. And, no, they arent looking for a place from which to be buried. The fact is, they aren’t looking for a church at all. Period. That is all.

Once we get that, we are free to be an authentic church, in relationship with our neighborhoods. From there, we are best equipped to participate in, and reveal, the reign of God. It all starts, however, with listening–something at which the church has been historically bad.

Check out this outstanding blog post by Laura Everett to get a clue about how different the future of the church is looking if we are faithful.
http://reveverett.com/2013/06/11/religious-nones/

Listen, listen, listen to those outside the church. People don’t want a church. At least not the way we’re presenting it. Perhaps not at all. Can we live with that? What does that mean for how we see ourselves? For our measurements of success? For our relationships with our neighbors?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, missional church, religious, spirituality | Leave a comment

The Church is Not for Me

I suspect you are reading this post for one of three reasons. One, that you follow this blog and find it interesting enough to continue. Second, that you read the title of this post and were hoping for more reasonable arguments you can use against your persistent church-going friends. Or, third, you know I like to play with the titles of my blog posts and were curious where I might be going. Well, you decide as you go along.
Our culture (U.S. American) is changing, and quickly. The Generation that was going to save the world–the Baby Boomers–is now retiring without having saved much. GenX is now middle aged and, by many accounts, hasn’t lived up to the hype. The Millennials are now the hope for the future, with a Generation Z (sometimes referred to as the “Homeland Generation”) being born right on their heels.
Lots of research is being done in church circles as to how to “reach” the Millennials. Some of it is helpful–especially when it comes from those who are of that generation. And some of it is unintentionally humorous, especially when it comes from Boomers who are struggling to make sense of people so different than they are. Millennials are not coming in droves into our churches, and with good reason. Our churches are not for them.
I am a late Boomer myself, so I’m part of those struggling to present excitingly good news to people who aren’t hearing it that way. My generation is now famous in the church for “seeker worship,” “entertainment evangelism,” and “safe anonymity.” Come and watch, keep to yourself, and see if there’s enough in worship to hold you. The generations  above me, the Silent Generation and the Builders, put up with this–but not happily. They’ve had their own struggles with church.
The point that has often been  made from generation to generation is that “the church’s worship isn’t relevant.” Pardon my cynicism, but it’s kinda trendy now to talk about being “spiritual but not religious,” and to avoid the church because it is “judgmental, hypocritical, narrow-minded.” Or tout new ways the church can look, e.g., “emergent church,” “ethnic-specific ministry,” “age-specific ministry.” It’s not uncommon now to even refer to the church as the source of all manner of evil. I’m not disagreeing, I’ll just deal with that in a different post. The point being that we struggle so deeply to connect to our culture to our worship (or theother way around) that we lose our anchor in the storm, i.e., the church’s purpose.
The other side of that involves churches who claim the high road of continuing the way they have been “doing church” for decades and expecting those who aren’t inside the church to connect to liturgy. Again, cynicism, but sorry; 17th century hymns and chants don’t automatically reverberate in the hearts of those not brought up with them (or even some who were).
It seems to me that we keep struggling to help the church meet every new generation in worship. What will they like? What will appeal to them? How can we get them to come? How can we convince them that what we’re doing in worship is really appealing? And so, in our desperation to be relevant, we’ve missed the point of being church. We’re still focusing on getting those outside to come “in,” even though our purpose has always been getting those inside to go out.
So how about if, instead of starting with worship as the focal point, we began with what God is doing in the world. Instead of discussing which form, style, emphasis, music, ritual, tradition, or volume of worship was better, we discussed how our worship connected those present with God’s mission? This is dangerous talk, because if we take this seriously, the church becomes less about “me,” or more about “the world.” My agenda and preference for worship style won’t be what decides how we worship. Those who control what happens on the inside of the church won’t get their (our) way. If our emphasis is on connecting worship with God’s missional activity, we don’t pick songs and hymns based on what those who come every week prefer.
For many congregations, this is scandalous at best, and a declaration of war at worst.
So, typically, my congregation is stepping in to this quagmire. This is one of our summer projects. We have had two forms of worship for about 13 years, and although there have been real benefits (including an expression of the gift of diversity), one negative outcome has been a container to hold a divided congregation. “My” worship vs. “your” worship, and never the ‘twain shall meet. For us, our disunity has affected our vision and ability to support one another in missional movement forward. So we are stripping down worship and starting over. We will pack everyone into one worship service each Sunday to express the reality that we are unified in Christ with one purpose. Our first week will be bare-bones, deliberately not appealing to “early” worshipers or “late”worshipers, but a simple service with (gasp!) no music at all. Based somewhat on congregational input, it will evolve over the summer (music will be added the second week–whew!) but the emphasis will deliberately be on unity in purpose. We exist not for ourselves but to be part of what God is doing in the world.
Worship should never have become the barometer for measuring a successful church. If we want to measure worship, it needs to be how what we do corporately on Sunday connects people to God’s missional activity around us. The church is not for me. No, it is for (and has always been for) the sake of the world. And that includes worship.
Since we are unclear as to what worship will look like at the end of the summer, I would value input and conversation around what the intertwining of God’s mission in the world with Sunday worship looks like for you. I believe we would all benefit.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, missional church, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

We Will No Longer be a Welcoming Church

We’ve decided to quit being a welcoming church. No kidding. We’re giving it up. It won’t be easy, but we’re committed to it. We’ll have to do it in stages, easing our folks into it step by step. We’ll have to deal with the fear of something new, the challenge of venturing into the unknown. But we’ll do it. It will take motivation, leadership, and constant reminders. But most importantly, it will take total commitment in embracing a new focus.

Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming church. We changed worship styles, we trained greeters and ushers, we wore name tags, we percolated coffee, we went to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in the most prominent places on Sunday mornings. But we’ve realized we’ve been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.

Here’s what we’re doing instead. We are becoming an Inviting Church. That’s different. You see, “welcoming” from a missional perspective is passive. It denotes waiting for visitors and guests to drop by. When they do, we attempt treat them very well and do everything possible to make them comfortable. We’ll be willing to change who we are. We’ll follow particular formats that have proven to be more welcoming to new people. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them come back the next Sunday, even if they shouldn’t. Welcoming is about us, not about them.

“Inviting,” however, is different. That means we leave the comfort of our congregational home-court advantage. The main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. It isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.

Even that warrants a significant caveat. This is not just another gimmick to get people into the church. The foundation of this isn’t an attempt to bolster declining membership rolls and make a better parochial report to the bishop. No, it goes much deeper than that. It starts with who God has called us to be as church. It involves discovering our gifts and purpose. And it mandates joining God at work in the world. This isn’t about getting the world into God’s church; it’s about getting the church into God’s world.

If you’ve read any postings on this blog before, you know that God’s mission is what we are to be about. Everything comes from that—including the identity of the church. We exist as church only because God has a mission. Our purpose, our very identity, is called forth out of God’s loving care and redemptive activity in creation. We are steeped in God’s mission. We are drenched through baptism into this essential character of God. God is at work in the world, and creates, calls, and equips the church specifically for that work.

Each congregation has a purpose within God’s mission. Each congregation has particular gifts. Each congregation reveals the life-giving reign of God in unique ways. No congregation is everything to everyone. But every congregation is something to someone. Who can know God through your worship style? Who can experience forgiveness and grace through your congregational community? Who needs the gifts you have to offer? Who can offer gifts you need? Knowing those things, when in conversation over the backyard fence about their pain in losing a loved one, it would be natural then to invite that neighbor to your congregation’s grief support group that has made such a difference for many others. When in the employee lunch room chatting about the pressures of our jobs, it would fit to invite that co-worker to your congregation’s spiritual direction group for professionals. When sharing the struggles of parenthood with a friend while waiting for your kids to come out of school, it would make sense to invite their whole family to your cross-generational faith development where you have gained so much guidance from other parents. While paying for a car repair, your long-time mechanic lets slip that she has lost her faith, it would easily flow for you to invite her to join you (and all the other doubters who will gather this Sunday) in worship.

Welcoming involves hoping whoever happens to find you will join. Inviting involves sharing God’s specific gifts—made real in your congregation—in the world.

Based on a council study of the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath (Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc., N.Y. Copyright © 2010 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath) http://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard, my congregation is going about this transition from being welcoming to becoming inviting in three specific ways. One leadership team is taking the lead for each portion. Each of these three approaches will be the topic of an upcoming post on this blog. As a preview, however, they are: motivating people to invite, taking on invitation in bite-size pieces, and changing the inviting environment. We aren’t sure what the final results will be, but we’re excited to find out. Join us on this journey as we jump off the cliff and (hopefully) learn to fly. Please offer feedback, ideas, and help along the way.

Categories: church growth, Church in Transition, missional | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 149 Comments

Dying to Succeed

In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’”

I believe this to be the heart of Christian discipleship. Not only for us as individual followers of Jesus Christ, but for Christian congregations and denominations as well. As individuals, perhaps sometimes we do it well, perhaps we don’t. But that’s for another blog post on another day. This post is referring more to a congregational level of losing our life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel.

I can’t begin to recall how many times I hear congregational members and their staff/pastors talking about how they need to grow. They adopt programs, set goals, hire staff, build buildings, set up neighborhood outreach campaigns, and rework their thinking in order to get bigger. As if that was the goal. As if that was discipleship. Sometimes this happens as a result of dwindling membership—to the point of fearing for congregational survival. Other times it happens because we don’t know what else to do. And still other times because we believe this is what we need to do to be successful, with all the ego-boosts and accolades that accompany it.

It seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously in Mark 8:34-35, as soon as we try to save our congregational lives, we have lost them. If our primary effort and energy are going into bolstering congregational numbers, we are no longer a congregation picking up a cross and following. Congregations who carry the name of Jesus must be willing to die in order to live. This can’t really be measured by tracking membership numbers. Whether we are a congregation that is statistically going up or going down, those trends probably aren’t revealing our willingness to lose our life for Jesus’ sake.

Our purpose as congregations is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not our own survival. We do this not through increased butts in pews but through the revealing of unconditional forgiveness and love, extravagant generosity and compassion in our neighborhoods and in the world. As congregations, we proclaim Jesus through self-giving relationships with other entities, institutions, and individuals in the broader community. It’s not about us, it’s about them. It’s not whether they join us, but whether we join them. We are to lose our congregational life in order to save it.

This is risky, because in giving up their lives for the sake of the gospel, some congregations actually will die. My contention is that unless they are taking up their cross and following Jesus in a willingness to lose their life for his sake, they aren’t really living anyway.

What our neighborhoods need are not bigger churches but the crucified and risen Christ. If we as communities created and called in his name aren’t willing to risk our existence to reveal him in our neighborhoods, then what are we doing? We are placed by God in specific neighborhoods to join Jesus in revealing the reign of God there, not to get the neighborhood to join us here.

I believe there’s a way for us as congregations to measure our willingness to pick up our crosses and follow. There’s a basic step we can take to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the gospel. For us, it can begin with extravagant generosity. How much of your congregational budget do you give away? If you’re doing well, perhaps you go as high as giving away 10% to your denomination and/or local food banks, etc. Wonderful! Some congregations may even do more than that.

How about a goal of giving away 50% or more? If you were to propose that in your congregational budget meeting, what would be the reaction? Maybe something like, “We’d have to cut too many staff and ministries.” “Much of what we fund internally is for the sake of the broader community anyway.” “We’d never survive that.” “That’s just silly nonsense.” “No one in their right mind would ever do that.” More importantly, why would that be the reaction? Chances are because we are still trying to save our congregational lives.

Until we as congregations take Mark 8:34-35 seriously, we aren’t going to be as effective as we might otherwise be. Until we actually take the risk of losing our congregational lives, we won’t save them. Until we put down our self-centered commitments to get bigger in order to take up our crosses, we aren’t following Jesus. Who knows, perhaps dying to self will result in increased numbers. Or perhaps it will result in fewer congregations (or even denominations). But the point must not be us; it must be Christ crucified and risen. Even if that means we lose our lives for his sake.

Categories: church growth, kingdom of God | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Sermon, suburban church | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruning. 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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