Posts Tagged With: local congregation

Listening in the Image of God, Part 6 of 6

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.

The Stylist:

You know one of the best places to listen to the people of your neighborhood? Seriously, it’s the local barbershop or salon. Don’t underestimate this amazing listening resource! While you’re getting your hair colored or trimmed, do a little bit of eavesdropping (politely, of course). For some reason, people seem to feel quite free to express honest opinions on every matter under the sun when sitting in a chair in front of someone with sharp scissors very near their scalp. I’m not sure if there’s a significant relationship between scissors and expressed opinions, but it does seem to work. Ask a question about any issue in the community and then sit back and take mental notes. You can do the same thing in the bank, the grocery store, the gas station, and so on. Some have told me that this works well in a bar too, but that, of course, would be just hearsay on my part. .  .  .

Next time everyone on your team gets a haircut or manicure or whatever, commit to utilizing this resource. Make a list of questions about which you want to know the answers regarding your neighborhood, and divide them up. Gather in a couple of weeks after everyone has their hair and/or nails done, and share your notes. Again, make sure everyone’s listening observations are recorded. Not only will this follow up meeting get you get right down to some significant listening, but it’ll probably be the best looking meeting you all attend together!

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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?

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Listening in the Image of God, Part 4

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.

The Survey (Be Careful!)

Often the first way we want to listen for information is the ever-present “conduct a survey” route. The concept is great: go door-to-door (see a problem emerging already?), asking residents some questions that will provide key information about the neighborhood. Although the idea is fine, the reality can prove more difficult if you really want it to be helpful. Anything that entails “door-to-door” smells of an imposed agenda—an attempt to sell something. Unsolicited phone calls fall into this category also. Unless the homeowner knows the person who’s knocking, they may not even answer the door. Or if they do, they might be suspicious as to your motives. Perhaps not, but it warrants some awareness in trying to get an accurate picture of the neighborhood.

Another difficulty with surveys lies with the questions themselves. Some surveys are done with a particular outcome in mind, and the questions weighted toward that outcome, e.g., do you support butterflies and rainbows that will result from “our” agenda or do you support torturing puppies that will result from “their” agenda?

Even though that wouldn’t be your tactic, sometimes we unwittingly lean one particular direction without intending to. And sometimes the questions we ask are interpreted differently by different people and therefore the feedback isn’t as helpful as it could be.

The point being that although a survey can be a helpful tool, it needs to be done with more care and planning than most people think. If you think a survey would help, and I’m not convinced it’s the best way to listen, then go ahead. It can be helpful, but make sure it isn’t the only tool in your listening toolbox. My recommendation would be to hire a professional survey group to work with you. They can help you clarify the information you’re seeking, help you compose questions that will actually elicit that information, help you decide whether a phone survey or a mailed survey would work better, and help you identify who to survey and when to survey them so you get an accurate sampling of your neighborhood. They can be expensive, but you’re much more likely to get information back that’s worth listening to. Some companies will conduct the surveys for you, but that costs more yet.

If you choose to do a survey of the residents/workers in your neighborhood on your own, here are some things to consider:

  • Utilize “” or a similar web-based survey guide. The basic plan is free, and they help you formulate questions that can get you the most helpful results.
  • Make sure you survey a large enough sample of the neighborhood. It’s not enough in a neighborhood of 5,000 people to make a couple dozen phone calls or drop off twenty fliers. Check out a survey statistics book at the library or check some survey guidelines online. An accurate sample size is necessary if you want to put any faith in your results. The larger the sample size, the more reliable your results.
  • If you are utilizing a phone or in-person survey, make sure you get a broad demographic of the neighborhood. In addition to sample size, a good cross sampling of the population will make a difference. For instance, if you make all your phone calls during the day, the majority of people in your sample will be those who don’t work outside the home during the day. You’d leave out the input of almost all working folk, which would skew your sample. Again, consult a survey book or web site for help.
  • Decide if you should conduct your survey by mail, by phone, or in person. Each has advantages, and each has disadvantages. In person or phone get faster results and require fewer “contacts,” but mail is less time intensive and more objective. Bear in mind that most mailed surveys never get returned, which means you have to mail a lot more of them to get a large enough sample for accuracy. Again, consult a book or website for helpful information on the number of mailings you need to prepare and send.

If nothing else, I hope you recognize that a survey is anything but an easy way to listen to the people of your neighborhood. It can be helpful, but must be done carefully. If you decide to use a survey, make sure that you combine it with some other listening approaches.

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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

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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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

Scottish Theological Reflections

I’ve said before that everything is theology, and I stand by that. So, here’s my theological impressions of Scotland (did you really think I wouldn’t eventually do this?)–

This culture has been shaped by Christianity and the church since its beginning. The very bedrock of this country is embedded in the church, and cannot be separated out. It’s in the architecture, the traditions, the history, the rhythm of life, the air people breathe. The Reformation was not a history lesson here, it is part of the reality everyday! You see it woven into the fabric of the society in virtually every aspect of culture.

We in the U.S. are an amazingly secular society by comparison. The foundations of the church (and the events in history that have shaped them) are distant things to be studied for us. In Scotland, however, you have no more hope of separating from the theological underpinnings that have created the church than a fish has of separating itself from the water.

That doesn’t mean the Scotland is a “Christian culture” (though I’m not sure exactly what that term means). What it does mean is that this culture has been shaped by Christian theology and history in ways that I could never have imagined living in the U.S. The relationship between church and culture is, in some ways, impossible to weigh. Attempting to do so feels like trying to discover “multiple personality disorder” in someone who doesn’t have it. They are not only intertwined and enmeshed, they are largely the exact same thing.

Though people largely don’t go to church here, the church nonetheless is built into the culture in deep and permanent ways. I’m wondering if even asking the question about the relationship between church and culture is only relevant in the U.S. I think no one here would know what I was talking about.

What will be interesting is to see how that church/culture history evolves in the future. Edinburgh is a cosmopolitan city like I’ve never seen. Not just tourists, but citizens and business owners are made up of every color, language, accent, and tradition imaginable. It’s not uncommon to walk into a “Scottish Culture” shop and discover the owner (second generation) wearing a turban. Women wearing burqas are extremely common. The pub near my house here is owned by a woman from China.

How will this influx of world cultures shape the ongoing history of this country so firmly enmeshed in Christian history? That will be interesting. But it will have to wait for another sabbatical.

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The Church Isn’t Here to Serve

Seems counter-intuitive, right? Bear with me here.

The church is the body of Christ, created to reveal the nature of God and participate with God in God’s mission of care and redemption of all creation. The church, then, by her very nature, is to reveal the nature of God.

And the nature of God is perichoretic, mutual, and reciprocal relationship. Isn’t this what the Trinity is all about? Father, Son, Spirit all distinct persons who interrelate and find their identity in their relationship with the others? Mutuality and reciprocity, giving and receiving, are central to the nature of the Triune God.

Serving is only half of relationship. If the local congregation only seeks to serve in its neighborhood, it isn’t in a full relationship there. Full relationship, based on a trinitarian model, must receive also.

If I may say so, seeking only to serve is really a power play. When you only serve others, that means you have all the resources necessary, then are  free to dispense these resources to those poor, marginalized, needy people around you.

What does the church need to receive from the poor and the powerless? How can we join God in a mutual, reciprocal, full relationship with those we seek to serve?

Rather than serving only, the church should accompany, or walk with the powerless. When we give up our pride and arrogance, it’s amazing what God can do for the church through those who are sometimes no more than objects we use to make us feel better. It is through relationship, not simply serving, that the fullest nature of God is revealed.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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