Posts Tagged With: neighborhood church

Create Neighborhood Trust

I wrote the following article for the April, 2015 edition of “The Lutheran” magazine, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With their permission, I’m reprinting it here.

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Jennifer and her 7th grade daughter, Maria, attended a congregation’s confirmation ministry for the first time. The family has no church home, but Jennifer wanted her daughter to be part of a community that would show her love, care, and support.

Jim, a guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, is working with a congregation to provide much needed career mentors for students who may fall through the cracks after graduating.

Rosa, an elementary school principal, not only encourages members of a church to come to the school library to help students with homework, but asked other local principals to do the same. Not interested in church herself, she nonetheless has invited members of this same church to offer a Bible study for parents and families in the school building.

These examples of trusting partnerships are happening, but are coming about in a way that may be counter-intuitive to many of us. Authentic relationships involve mutual trust and dying to our own agendas.

Christian congregations, which for decades have been the trusted center of our communities, have in many cases become disconnected from their neighbors. Some congregations are now seen as self-serving, judgmental, and unsafe places. There is good reason for this skepticism. Instead of unconditionally loving their neighbors, they have looked at them primarily as a way to bolster the church’s membership.

In a time of numerical decline in congregations across denominations and the country, it’s tempting to think of the neighborhood around the church as merely a resource to be tapped. So we advertise programs, exude hospitality, jazz up our worship and more, all in an attempt to get the neighbors into our building.

We all want to dodge the “congregation-in-decline” label and can become frantic in our efforts to avoid it. With good intentions, we pour increasing amounts of energy into improving our worship attendance numbers but often don’t see the intended results.

As long as filling pews on a Sunday morning is our motivation, our neighborhood will rightly perceive the church as self-serving and will be less likely to trust us. Whether we mean to or not, the message our neighbors hear is: “We don’t really care about you, we just want you to fill our building (as well as our offering plate).”

Jesus speaks to this and reminds us: “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).

Our internal focus is partially understandable, as we love our congregations and authentically want to share the joy and meaning we’ve found there with others. But in our efforts to stop the decline in our numbers, we can forget why we are there in the first place. Consider the possibility that the more energy we put into improving our numbers, the less energy we may be putting into developing trusting relationships with our neighbors.

What’s more, not only are trusting, self-giving relationships between neighborhoods and congregations a good strategy for the work of the church, they are also in the image of God.

The Trinity can authentically be described as God-in-relationship. The identity of one person of the Trinity can best be understood through one’s relationship with the other two. Throughout biblical history, God has worked by establishing relationships with individuals or groups, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. A relationship with God was opened to all directly through the Son, Jesus.

Relationships are God’s way of revealing God’s self and mission of love, grace and forgiveness to us. Relationships are the way we trust God’s invitation to be part of that mission. And relationships are how we do God’s work in the world—the work to which we have been called through baptism as the body of Christ.

In putting aside our agenda of playing the numbers game, we can begin to develop trust within our neighborhoods. As we do so, we reveal the very nature of God. By being part of our neighborhood for the sake of the neighborhood, we are better able to be about the purpose of the church.

Without considering whether it will bring in any new members, try some things that allow you to listen to the neighborhood around you.

  • Sit down with principals and teachers, listening as they tell you what would be helpful for their schools.
  • Host a town-hall meeting in your community about a particularly hot issue that may be arising. Do so without an agenda other than to listen, allowing all sides to be heard.
  • Talk to the local police department, perhaps riding along in squad cars to get their perspective on your neighborhood.

Activities such as these over time will allow our congregations to develop trust within our neighborhoods. Through trusting relationships God is revealed and the reign of God is present. Perhaps then we can all see—and together join—God at work in our neighborhoods.

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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

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