Posts Tagged With: transition

Love Means Attending to What is Urgent: How the “Black Lives Matter” Movement Proclaims the Gospel of Jesus.

Everyone can probably agree that the heart of the gospel is about God’s love for creation, which overflows in us loving others. Love everyone, Jesus says: friends and enemies, rich and poor, people of all races, people of all sexual identities, immigrants and natural born, people of all religions, etc. We may not agree on what that looks like or how best to do that, but most would agree that love is at the heart of the gospel message.

One of our mistakes is assuming that love for one looks the same as love for all. Obviously this isn’t true. We are at different places and that must be taken into account. If your house is on fire, love dictates that it is more urgent to get firefighters to your house than to mine. That’s not saying my house is less important than yours, just that your situation is more urgent. Showing love for those with full stomachs may not mean giving them food. Yet for someone who is hungry, love requires providing them food. Love means attending to what is urgent.

Jesus makes this clear in (among many others) the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). All are given a day’s wage regardless of how long they worked. It’s not that those who worked all day are less important, it’s just that others need to eat today also. A day’s wage allows all to eat today. Those who worked all day complained because they believed they deserved more for working longer hours. And they actually do have a point. This pay scale isn’t “fair,” because it is favoring those who worked less. But the point Jesus makes is that love means attending to what is urgent.

Systemic racism in our culture reveals an urgent situation. Blacks in the US start at a different place than whites. Some might complain that the BLM movement isn’t “fair” because, they say, blacks deserve equal-to-but-not-more-than whites. But the house of African Americans is on fire. Love dictates that it is more urgent to get firefighters there. Love means attending to what is urgent. The situation of racism is urgent.

When parents of African American boys are forced to have “the conversation” in order to provide the best chance of safety when (not if) their sons are pulled over by police, the situation is urgent (see the NY Times op-doc, http://www.theconversationseries.org/).

When 80% of police stops in NYC were of blacks and Latinos and only 10% were of whites, the situation is urgent (this and the following statistics are cited and referenced at http://www.jbwtucker.com/ultimate-white-privilege-statistics/).

When blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked than whites in Los Angeles, even though they are 42% less likely to be found with a weapon, the situation is urgent.

When blacks aged 18-25 are less likely than whites to have use marijuana in the last 12 months, but are arrested at an astronomically higher rate than whites of the same age for possession, the situation is urgent.

When African American juveniles are 16% of the US population but are 28% of juvenile arrests, the situation is urgent.

When black men are nearly twice as likely to be arraigned on charges that carry a mandatory minimum, and are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison that whites (and receive sentences 10% longer than whites for the same crimes), the situation is urgent.

When whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color, the situation is urgent.

When black students are 3.5 times more likely to be expelled from school than their white peers, the situation is urgent.

When a white male with a criminal record is 5% more likely to get a job than an equally qualified person of color with a clean record, the situation is urgent.

When a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000 while a college-educated black American has an average net worth of less than $17,500, the situation is urgent.

When a black man makes $0.72 for every dollar a white man makes (which, by the way, is $0.06 less than a white woman makes), the situation is urgent.

When voter ID laws disenfranchise millions of blacks and Latinos while purportedly preventing a kind of voter fraud that does not even exist, the situation is urgent.

Contrary to much white privilege thinking, BLM isn’t saying “only” black lives matter, but that love means attending to what is urgent. There is an urgency in recognizing the evidence that (whether we want to admit it or not) black lives actually do not matter as much as white lives in our culture. There is an urgency in giving priority to the house that is on fire; love means attending to what is urgent. Just as we would proclaim the priority that the hungry be fed and that the homeless be sheltered, Jesus’ gospel teaching on love declares that black lives matter.

The BLM movement is loudly declaring the urgency of the racism situation in our culture. When the situation is urgent, love means attending to what is urgent. In Denver, Colorado, the Black Lives Matter 5280 chapter states their mission in part,

Black Lives Matter 5280 assists in building more loving and united Black communities while eliminating anti-Black violence and racism. . . . Our work is to cultivate communities of abundant joy where all Black people are emboldened and empowered to lead, love, heal, and thrive.   http://www.blacklivesmatter5280.com/

Love means attending to what is urgent. That’s how the wolf and the lamb can lie down together. That’s how the rough places are made smooth. That’s how all earn enough to eat today. As Jesus taught, this is the gospel. And it is good news. Black Lives Matter.

Categories: american christianity, Black Lives Matter, Church in Context, missional church, racism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

New Resource for Congregations!

TheNeighborhoodChurch.flyer

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, medium church, missional church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Neighborhood Church: God’s Vision of Success”

My new book is available, and at a discount price! Retail is $13.00, but order now for only $10.40 at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Neighborhood_Church_Gods_Vision_of_Success
A great resource for congregations who wish to engage more fully in being part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, kingdom of God, Make Disciples, missional church, Revitalization | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

No More “Recovery” Ministry: Millenials and the Church

The Church as a whole is bemoaning its inability to keep — much less attract —  “Millenials,” those born between 1980 and 2000 (plus or minus). Basically, this means teens and young adults. Guest blogger Pastor Brigette Weier points out some of the hard-to-hear reasons for this generational gap and what the “typical,” i.e., Baby Boomer, congregation can do to turn this around. If the gospel of Christ proclaimed by the church is for all people, the Church of the Baby Boomers has some changing to do. For more about Pastor Brigette’s cross-generational ministry, see her web site at http://faithformationjourneys.org.

On Sunday evening, I worshiped and ate with Pastor Zach Parris and the young Millennials of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Campus Ministry at the University of Colorado. I had brought two of my high school youth, one of whom will be attending CU in the fall. We listened to guitar music, heard the scripture read, listened to a pretty darn good sermon, heard words of love and forgiveness, shared in the bread and the wine, as well as pizza, salad, cookies and soda. It was the last such gathering of the semester and five young adults in the group who were graduating. Through tears and laughter they reminisced about what it meant to be part of this small, but impactful group. They had traveled on service trips together, braved snow and cold to hand cookies out to fellow students studying for finals, gathered for meals, teased one another, and prayed for each other. This is not a large ministry. At a major university that serves tens of thousands of students, only about 8-10 consistently gather in the basement of Grace Lutheran Church in Boulder each week. It’s such a breathtakingly beautiful and authentic community that I can’t help but to wonder why isn’t this room packed to the ceiling with young adults?

I began to reflect on how different this “worship” experience is from what we in the “traditional” congregations offer for worship. There was casual conversation, interaction, REAL FOOD, authentic emotion, and integration of daily life with this sacred time set apart. Many youth (my own teenagers, as well as youth in my congregation) probably would not say that these are experiences that they have in their Sunday morning experience where adults lead worship (except the acolytes–confirmand rite of passage, you know), adults preach, adults administer the sacraments, adults shuttle them upstairs (or downstairs) for age segregated “education,” and most of the morning is spent being told to sit and listen and to act a certain way. No wonder by the time they are seniors in high school looking at going away to college, the last thing they will consider is where to go to church on a Sunday morning. We have trained them to not be too engaged in their own faith and that church is not really for them.

And then consider that when these young people do graduate from college, the norm in today’s economic reality is to move back home for a period of time with mom and dad–therefore back to the home congregation. So for the small percentage that does participate in four-or-so years of active engagement and involvement in campus ministry (that is not “to” them or “for” them but BY them), the church that they grew up with will indeed be inauthentic, irrelevant and not desirable.

How should experiences in campus ministry inform what congregations offer this generation? How can all generations be truly integrated on a Sunday morning? I believe that it is possible for our congregations and for our Church to take a cue from these young adults who faithfully gather in Boulder, CO at 5:11 p.m. every Sunday evening. We need to consider what it is to be affirming and authentic community that builds everyone up so that no one is excluded or felt to be on the outside. While I appreciate and am grateful for the work that some of my colleagues do around creating a space to welcome back those who have become disenfranchised from the Church for one reason or another (what I call “recovery ministry”), I can’t help but to think-what if they were never disenfranchised to begin with? What if they felt that this Church with her message of eternal love, radical inclusivity and abundant grace and forgiveness from an ever present God was always for them, by them and with them? What if we as a people of God really decided to live this out? What if we declared that there would no longer be a need for “recovery ministry” because all people would experience church as a real home-safe, freeing and full of unconditional love? For me, it would be the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Categories: american christianity, Church in Context, Church in Transition, Evangelism, missional church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We Will No Longer Be A Welcoming Church, Pt. 2: The Motivation!

Last week, I posted on this site that my congregation is no longer going to emphasize “welcoming.” Instead, we are going to emphasize “inviting.” I encourage you to get the vision, theology, and definitions that are foundational in that Part 1 post at: We-Will-No-Longer-be-a-Welcoming-Church. There, I wrote that we are making this change with three emphases—this post is the first of those three: Motivation for Inviting.

The fact is that you can encourage, threaten, explain, and even manipulate all you want. But if people aren’t motivated to invite others, it pretty much isn’t going to happen. Especially when it comes to church, because—let’s face it—we’ve done a poor job of making the church a desirable (much less helpful) community of which to be a part. My congregational folks know it and so do yours. That’s why they rarely invite. Isn’t there a statistic somewhere that says the average mainline person invites someone to worship once every fourteen years? There are reasons for that! Yes, our folks are happy to welcome new people if they happen to show up at church, but the vast majority of people in our congregations just aren’t motivated to invite others.

We can work really hard to try to get people to invite anyway—attempting to explain that a lot of people actually are open to coming to a church if invited (there are statistics on that too; again, not the point). But they aren’t going to go for it. Probably just like you, we’ve worked that angle too. Folks aren’t willing to take that risk. To me, that approach has, by and large, been a waste of time.

So rather than continue to push water uphill, we are going to try a different approach. We will simply raise the motivation to invite above the reluctance to invite. Sounds simple, right? Here are some ways we are attempting this:

Discover Your Ministries.

My congregation is not a large one. In my denomination we are pretty much a medium sized church. And yet, even in a place where people think they know everyone and everything that goes on, we find that no one knows all the ministry that actually is happening through our congregation. It’s surprising, actually. It turns out that lots of people in our church are doing some pretty exciting things—and hardly anyone knows about it. Sure, there’s all the normal (and wonderful!) things that are in the monthly newsletter: the food pantry drive, the youth mission trip to Tijuana (BTW, watch for a future blog post on why calling these trips “mission trips” does a huge disservice to our theology and purpose as church!), and the dedicated crew that works with Habitat for Humanity. But when you take the time to listen, people in our churches are living their faith in the broader community in amazing ways! Find those hidden gems; the reign of God is being revealed in ways that haven’t had much press. So, we are discovering these ministries and finding ways to highlight them. Awareness of what we, collectively, are actually doing is a must in order to be motivated to invite. Who knows, in a conversation with a friend, you may discover that an already existing ministry in your church actually would benefit them.

Articulate the Passion.

We are asking people in our congregation what they love about it. We are videoing any number of people asking that question and will be using our social media sites, as well as other ways, to share the answers. There are people who are committed to your congregation, right? Find out why! Give them an opportunity to say it out loud—let them articulate their passion. Helping people vocalize their love for their church not only concretizes those reasons in their own minds, but gives them good practice in saying it out loud. Young, old, male, female, straight-laced, free-spirited, etc.—the more diverse you can make the answers, the bigger a picture of the giftedness of your congregation will be revealed. Again, use whatever means you can think of to highlight these things that make your congregation special. Write them up, make posters, presentations, put them on your web page, and more. It is important that all these reasons for being part of your congregation be known to as many as possible. Enthusiasm is contagious. Let it work for you!

Go Public.

One of the big surprises as this process unfolds is that it is becoming apparent that our church is actually more than any of us thought. Instead of being a small, typical, 50-year-old mainline church, we are closer to being a well-kept secret gold mine. So we are making our giftedness public. Sure, we have a web site and a Facebook page. But they are pretty underutilized. We are making social media our best friend. You’d be surprised how many 80 year olds have a Facebook account! So we are asking all our ministry leaders to take photos and/or videos of their ministry in action (or inaction), and post them on our congregation’s Facebook page. Most people have a cell phone with a camera on it, encourage them to use it! We have someone monitoring these posts just to make sure that everything up there is more or less appropriate (we are getting written parental permission for kids’ pictures to be on our social media sites), but pretty much anything goes. We are also asking members to encourage their Facebook friends to “like” our congregation’s page. We’re considering having a “1,000 new likes in the next month” or something like that.

The reason for all this social media stuff is partly about getting helpful information about our church into a public arena. But just as importantly, it’s about getting our own members to be more aware of all that is happening in their own church! The Holy Spirit is at work among us in ways we may not see. Social media is accessible, instant, and already utilized by many people in our congregations. And even if you discover there aren’t that many on Facebook (though you’ll be surprised how many are), teach them how to use it. I needed someone to show me how to post pictures to the church social media sites (and need periodic re-training), but any twelve year old in your church can teach that. And what a wonderful way to help younger members understand that they have something valuable to offer. The technology they take for granted is important to the rest of the church! While you’re at it, have that twelve year old link your church’s web page, Facebook page (start one today!), and Twitter account (start that one too!).

Social media is great for instant communication, connection, and information. But don’t stop there. Collect all the pictures and videos that people are taking and put together PowerPoint presentations to show after worship on several Sundays. Emphasize different aspects, e.g., “why I love my church” one week, “little known ministries we do in our world” another week, and “one thing I’ve learned about my church in the last month” on another week. The more people know about their church, the more amazed they are and excited they become. And the more excited they become, the more motivated they are, perhaps, to invite someone to experience the faith community they love.

The basis of our identity as people of God is our new life given to us in Jesus Christ. When we quit pushing that on others and simply “be” that through caring relationships with others, we reveal the love of God. And who knows? Those that are invited might reveal something about God that we didn’t know before. Oh, but wait. Remember? This isn’t about how the church can benefit, but how our neighbors can. Jesus Christ is alive and creating new life in the world—including in our congregations. How life-giving it is when we notice that, articulate that, and thereby are motivated to share that.

The next post will be about “Inviting in Bite-Sized Chunks.” In the meantime, join the journey. Post comments, questions, and insights. Let’s share this together.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, missional, small church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 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

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.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition | 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

Missional Church is Not a Project

Some advice from Alan Roxburgh on trying to transition an institutional church to a missional one, quoted from an interview with Michael Wallenmeyer at:
http://missionalinsuburbia.com/the-church-returns-to-the-neighborhood-post-6-missional-in-suburbia-interviews-alan-roxburgh/2011/05.

“Stop trying to change and transition your people. That makes them a project. Start loving them for who and where they are just now. This creates safe space. You start to model what you believe the Spirit is calling your church toward. In other words, YOU move back into the neighborhood and start practicing Luke 10. Until you do that stop trying to change others.

“Share the stories of what God is doing in the neighborhood and be a detective
of divinity by looking at where the Spirit is stirring heart desire in others
in the church. Encourage them, work with them.

“Become an interpreter of the Biblical narratives so people can start to read
their neighborhoods with God’s eyes.

“Stay put, stop moving from church to church.”

Joining God at work in our neighborhoods involves a focus on Jesus and the Spirit’s activity already happening inside and outside our church walls. It means that church leaders need to lead–not in programs or activities or meetings, but in discerning the activity of God and participating in it.

We start in our own neighborhoods.

I would recommend Alan Roxburgh (again) and his work on joining God in the neighborhood. He has a great blog at: http://www.roxburghmissionalnet.com/

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

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