Posts Tagged With: suburban church

Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Sized Chunks. Pt. 3

A few weeks ago, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” This is a move from passivity to activity, and must be done in keeping with God’s missional activity in our neighborhoods. I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in the initial, Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases. The first of those, “Motivation for Inviting,” is available here. This, now, is the second emphasis, “Inviting (Not Welcoming) in Bite-Size Chunks.”

Let’s face it, change is hard. Most of us resist it, grudgingly accepting its reality only when it is forced upon us. Partly this is true because change is scary, and partly because it forces us to acknowledge we can’t always control it (well, actually, that’s scary too). So I guess when you come down to it, change is frightening. Is it any wonder, then, that we generally resist stepping way outside our comfort zone and established pattern of behavior to invite a friend to come to worship? This is terrifying! We are all afraid a) that our friend will laugh us out of the room, b) that they will tell all their friends that we’re narrow-minded, judgmental, hypocritical Bible-thumpers, or c) that they might actually come. Then what?

Because the change we are asking congregational members to make is too much, too big, too audacious, to frightening, we simply don’t ask, and they simply wouldn’t do it anyway. Let’s accept that reality and quit fighting it. Then, perhaps, we can make some progress.

You know the old joke, “Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.” OK, it’s not funny, but it is true. The same strategy holds true for inviting. It’s just too much for most people to risk or try. So how about breaking it down into bite-size chunks that people actually can do? Here’s the way we’re doing it in my congregation. See if something along these lines might work for you.

Month 1: We ask people to use the phrase “my church” in a conversation with one person each week. Really simple. “Just go two blocks past my church and you’ll see the grocery store.” “No, I can’t go camping this weekend; I’ve already made plans to be at my church.” “Yes, I saw the sunset last night. The view from my church  was amazing!” Just one person, one time each week during the month. Have them make up scenarios and practice with each other before worship on Sundays.

We purchased some promotional items with our church logo on them to aid in these conversations. Cloth grocery totes, string packs, water bottles, etc. Things that people will have with them in public. They aren’t all that expensive and you can pretty easily recoup the expense by selling them to your members at a reasonable price. So when you go to the bank, the bank teller may well ask, “What a handy back pack. Where’d you get that?” And we would answer, “I got this at (all together, now) my church.

Month 2: We ask people to consider one word or phrase that describes our church well. Then use that word to finish the phrase, “my church is _____.” Again, do this in conversation with one person per week during the month. “My church is struggling with that very issue.” “School violence? My church is hosting a forum about that next month.” “That’s a hard situation. I’ve found my church is very supportive in difficult times.”

When people are watching for opportunities to do these quick, relatively small steps toward invitation, it’s amazing how many opportunities there suddenly are to take them. Ask them to share their stories with each other of their experiences. You can even award prizes for the funniest, the most awkward, the most creative, etc. Make this fun, but keep it in front of them.

Month 3: We ask people to think about one thing our congregation does very well. Perhaps it’s children’s ministry, education, music, social activism, or making the parking lot available for ride-sharing. Then use that to finish the phrase, “My church is really good at _____.” Again, one time per week to one person in a conversation. By now, some of them are getting the hang of this. A few might even be eager! Let them roll with it. That enthusiasm can become contagious. Encourage them to practice on each other and share their impressions of what their church is good at. This can feed into the motivational part covered in the previous post.

Month 4: We ask people to invite one person to check out something in which our church is involved. “Check out our volunteer day at the food pantry.” “Check out my church’s Alcoholics Anonymous Group.” “Check out the hiking trip my church is sponsoring.” This is all done in appropriate conversations when an opening presents itself. People are understanding the organic nature of these statements, and that they shouldn’t be forced or manipulated. By this time, people are actually seeing appropriate openings and are better able to bring up their church in a way that is natural and not off-putting.

Month 5: We ask people to invite someone to come to worship with them. This seems to be the most frightening invitation for many to make. But when broken into bite-size pieces, it can be attained.

Worship attendance isn’t necessarily the most important invitation, but it seems to be the hardest—leaving people feeling the most vulnerable. So we include it. If folks can invite to worship, they can make appropriate invitations to pretty much anything.

Now the question becomes, “what happens when our folks start inviting others to worship? How will these people be received? Will it be worth their time?” That, my friends, is the next installment of this invitational series. I invite your comments and partnership along the journey.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, faith practices | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

God’s Test Plot

What do God’s values look like in your context?

No, really, what are the results of forgiveness, love, grace, and generosity being lived in your neighborhood?

Here’s the deal: God is bringing a new future that lines up with God’s own priorities. God is actively doing this. It will happen. It is happening. Right now. Jesus is the visible, tangible, focal point of that reality. God’s mission is all about redeeming a broken creation. Period. In the death and resurrection of Christ, God shows creation just how committed God is to that future. It’s here. We get to see samples of it now and again.

So God has gathered a community of people and elected them to be a “test plot” for this new future. According to an article published by Purdue University (full article), the goal of an agricultural test plot “is to identify differences among ‘treatments’ under ‘real world’ conditions.” In other words, this new community is “treated” by God with forgiveness, unconditional love, unlimited mercy, and extravagant generosity, then lives these values in the midst of the world as a sample of God’s new future.

The purpose of this new community, the church, is to allow the world to sample God’s future now, in the context of their everyday lives. The church is comprised of us who are baptized into this community in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We exist as church for the sake of being a sample of God’s future in the world. For the sake of the world.

This means the church stands for some things. And it means the church stands against other things.  For example, the church does not exist to get people into heaven when they die. It does not exist to get people to believe a certain way. It does not exist for its own sake. It does not exist to gain members or improve programs or enlarge its own budget. Rather, the church is placed in neighborhoods so that those neighborhoods have the opportunity to sample the love, forgiveness, authentic relationships, and generosity of God’s present/coming reign. And having experienced its effects, are then changed by them.

The ways that the church can participate as test plots of grace and unconditional love are innumerable. Though the values of God’s present/coming reign are the same in all places and in all times, the world culture in which those kingdom values are lived varies incredibly. The context of each congregational community is unique. Therefore, when the values of God’s reign are introduced into each context, it will look different according to each context. More on that next time. But for now, consider how you are living the forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity of God in your own context. What are the results?

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, kingdom of God, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Breaking a 1700 Year Paradigm

2nd Pentecost (A)

Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42

 I’m starting my sabbatical in five days. I’ll be resting, writing, and researching during the next twelve weeks. Most of that time will be spent in Scotland and Ireland. I’ll be a guest in a foreign country for eight weeks. I’m mindful that everything I do and say represents not only the U.S., but Christianity, Lutheranism, and this congregation. These communities are all parts of my identity, and I want to reflect well on them. That makes me think that I’ll be pretty careful about what I say, what I do, how I treat people.

I will be a guest. That means I need to obey their laws and follow their customs. I will be somewhat vulnerable, because I’m a guest there. If I miss something, say something wrong, or do something that by their customs is really stupid, I risk reflecting badly on all of you. I will be careful, but if you hear anything untoward, try to remember to listen to my side before you rush to judgment.

My anticipation of being a guest in foreign countries makes me somewhat sensitive to the situation of the disciples in Matthew here. Jesus is sending them to other towns and villages on their own. They are being sent and will therefore be guests. They will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. They will be somewhat vulnerable, because they will be guests. If they do or say something stupid they risk  reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.

Never in the last 1600-1700 years has this text been a more appropriate description of the church today. We’re no longer the hosts in our neighborhood, we are guests. We don’t dictate laws or customs, our culture does. We’ve got to accept the reality that we, as church, are guests in our own culture. We are being sent into this culture and are therefore guests. We will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. We will be somewhat vulnerable, because we are guests. If we do or say something stupid we risk reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.

For the early church, that was understood. The concept of the disciples of Jesus being guests in the surrounding culture was normal. And however the culture treats us is, well, how they’re going to treat us. Whoever goes out representing God gets whatever the host culture gives them. Prophets speak for God, and sometimes their “reward” wasn’t too terrific. Righteous people act for God, and sometimes their “reward” was better. But however the surrounding culture responds to us is how they’re going to respond—both good and not so good. Getting them to respond one way or another isn’t the point. The point is that we are sent.

That’s what Jesus is making clear to his early disciples; and making clear to us. We are sent to be guests in a different culture—revealing the forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love of the kingdom of God. Sometimes the response will be great; other times not so much. Regardless, go. Rather than putting so much effort into controlling the response (conversion, joining the church), we in today’s church might want to try putting effort into revealing Christ to our host culture regardless of the response.

I wonder what would happen if we really took that to heart. What would be different if we quit emphasizing people coming here to us, and instead emphasized our being sent to them. Instead of them joining us, it should be us joining them. The ultimate goal is not membership here, but forgiveness there. We are given the name of Jesus and sent to bear his presence to every person we meet out there. Not in order to convert them. Not in order to get them to come to church. But to make sure they meet Jesus who has made us his own in baptism; who has filled us with the Holy Spirit so that we can reveal him in the world.

This doesn’t make us better than our hosts, any more than I will be better than the Scots and the Irish I’ll be meeting. We are called by God, given the name of Jesus Christ, and equipped by the Holy Spirit to expose Jesus present in the world. We are sent into what amounts to a foreign land to bear the reality of Jesus. That may be accepted, or it may be rejected. The response is not so much our concern.

Think about it this way. There’s a huge difference between approaching a friend with, “If you were to die tonight, do you know what would happen to your eternal soul?” and, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” Which reveals Jesus?

There’s a huge difference between spending time passing out Gideon Bibles in hotels and spending time volunteering at the Jeffco Action Center, a hospital, or Habitat for Humanity. Which reveals Jesus?

There’s a huge difference between feeding a poker table in Blackhawk and feeding a homeless child recovering from the tornado in Joplin, MO. Both will cost you $100: which reveals Jesus?

There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’ll get you for that,” and “I forgive you for that.” Which reveals Jesus?

The Holy Spirit gives us the name of Jesus, gives us a new identity in him, gives us a new-and-forgiven life in order be sent. And we are sent in order to reveal the nature of Christ. Accepted or rejected. Believed or not believed. Welcomed or turned away. We are made new, equipped, and sent to reveal the nature, the reality, the person of Jesus to those we meet in the world this week.

I will be very mindful of that in Scotland and Ireland as I’m a guest in those countries.

This text is reminding you to be mindful of the same thing right here. We bear the name of Christ. We are sent. As guests in the world, we cannot control the response we get. But whoever welcomes us welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent Christ. Truly, none of these will lose their reward. Amen.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, Sermon, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is There Mission in the Suburbs?

Ah, yes, the suburbs. The ideal in American living. The place where life is good, where there’s no pain, no trauma, and no difficulty. Suburban life is what so many people strive for and hope to achieve. It is, in many ways, the ultimate sign of success. Oh, really?

What’s God up to in the suburbs? How is the biblical mandate of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned manifested when there don’t appear to be any hungry, naked, or imprisoned people? Are churches in the suburbs resigned to helping and serving those in the inner city? In foreign countries? Is there any place for the suburban church within the realm of God’s mission beyond simply getting bigger? Is there any relevance to a congregation in America’s suburbs outside of becoming a mega-church with an elaborate building, an enormous attendance, and an incredible budget?

I’ve served a rural church, a small town church, and have now been serving with a suburban church for thirteen years. I’m here to tell you, suburban ministry is the by far the most exhausting ministry I’ve experienced. How do you proclaim forgiveness, compassion, and service among people who cannot acknowledge they need any of those things?

And there’s the rub. I’ve come to believe the real definition of suburban life is, “the place where everyone’s life is perfect . . . except mine.” Brokenness is very real in the suburbs, it’s often just one level below the surface.

The pain that people in other walks of life experience is equally real to suburbanites. Rather than obvious homelessness, the suburbs are full of people one paycheck away from losing their homes. Rather than obvious violence, suburbanites live with revenge just slightly camouflaged–concealed just enough to avoid discussion. Not overtly racist, the suburbs often have a subdued, hidden, and unspoken racism that is just as evil, just as deadly. Divorce, sickness, death, addiction, loss, persecution, hardship are all present in the suburbs. The difference is that no one feels they can talk about these painful issues. Suburbanites deal with many of the same heartbreaks as people in other cultures of America, but do it alone. Brokenness is hidden in the suburbs. Hopelessness is dealt with in private. Loss is handled on an individual’s strength alone. And often less than successfully. Suicide, depression, despair, and loneliness are the secret curse of suburban life.

Enter the church. God has compassion for those living in pain in suburbia. Jesus died for suburbanites. The wind of the Spirit blows in the suburbs just as it does in the poorest inner city neighborhood and the most remote rural community. The suburban congregation is called to provide the very real kingdom of  God compassion, care, forgiveness, and redemptive hope.

The question is, how? Suburban churches, in their attempts to reveal the kingdom of God in their neighborhoods, are often the target of ridicule for trying new ways to be part of what God is doing there. I’m the first to admit, this ridicule is far too often deserved. And yet, I have a growing concern that the body of Christ is less than forgiving of congregations that are willing to try something outside the traditional box. A recent article in my local newspaper highlighted an new, emerging inner city congregation. One member, in enthusiastically describing this congregation, said, “this is a liturgical and sacramental ministry. It’s no happy-clappy suburban church.” The implication of this and other comments was that what his congregation is doing is real ministry, as opposed to the suburbs, where the only concern is how many instruments can fit on the professionally lit stage during performance-style worship?

Granted, performance cannot be at the heart of Spirit-filled worship (and I’ll admit too often is). But implying that the quality of music and programs that exist in some suburban churches is somehow in opposition to God’s mission is narrow-minded, exclusionary, self-righteous, and just plain ignorant.

I applaud suburban ministries that dare to try revealing the reign of God in their contexts, that are brave enough to attempt to find a way to strengthen the relationships within suburban neighborhoods. Like any other congregation in any other context, we goof it up–and badly. We get full of ourselves and end up with boneheaded priorities that make for easy stereotyping. We really do need to quit that.

The struggle isn’t about form or instrumentation or lighting or size or program or budget or building. The struggle in the suburban setting is about authentic relationships. How can you proclaim good news to people for whom the expression of any need is cardinal rule-breaking? How can you establish real relationships with people who are ostracized for having their pain exposed? How do you help, walk with, and befriend those whose context prohibits them from being helped, walked with, or befriended? The struggle is exhausting.

We in the suburbs have our work cut out for us. We aren’t always able to set up a food pantry and become successful in our neighborhoods. Our ministry usually involves feeding a much deeper hunger–a hunger whose very admission is anathema. Though we get sidetracked for the sake of a successful appearance (who doesn’t?), we are part of the body of Christ. We are Word and sacrament ministries. We take very seriously the leading of the Holy Spirit in our contexts, and, though often stumbling and imperfect, manage to be used by God for real, live, authentic, missional, reign of God ministry. The kingdom of God is revealed in the suburbs, thanks be to God.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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