Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What I Love About the UMC

Over the years I’ve served UMC congregations in three states (IN, SC, and GA), plus had the incredible privilege of partnering with UMC conferences and churches in a dozen countries. Due to my work in one of the largest UMC annual conferences in the world, and in connectional partnerships in the larger global Church, I’ve been stretched and grown in ways that are well beyond my early expectations of what I understood it would be to follow Christ. I’ll say more in detail about some of this in another blog on another day. For today, I’m thinking about a few central characteristics I’ve most loved about the UMC..

As I think back to my experiences of UMC people and churches since 1988 I’m reminded of these typical, exceptional features:

Ø  We are contextual faith communities that aren’t closed in on ourselves, but very outwardly oriented toward the community with a lot of freedom to be the church we need to be in our community. Whether urban or rural, in the United States or in any number of countries or contexts, the dynamic faith community is open and engaging of our community. A UMC person and congregation can relate positively to a variety of neighbors in shared lives and witness as a community church. There is a strong flow of the church into the community, and community into the life of the church. At our best we are not controlled by a particular system of power, personality, politics, or race, and instead are more of an outpost of God's peculiar redemptive work which crosses many boundaries and defies easy description. Congregations in the US are particularly encouraged to get after the work and left to our own with appropriate support to be the church for that place, so there is plenty of room for some variety of expression. 

Ø  We are rooted in tradition and dynamic, classical Christianity with strong interest in current, practical expression. We have a history, yet lean into the future, trusting in Holy Spirit. We have a variety of theological and practical threads in our tradition, and in many ways benefit from the strength and tension of those threads. This aids us on a journey to the Promised Land, adaptive, and trusting in God for what is next. My experience has always been that we are a large ship, a big tent, an open table type church. So, we may look more like the variety of disciples Jesus attracted in the Gospels as an unlikely, mixed group. Or perhaps like the church of Acts learning and growing each day. We expect and work for a growing family, involving new and different people of varied backgrounds, with some variety of opinion, yet give room for that variety without getting lost in a dysfunctional family fight. We do not shut the door on people, and are much more likely to swing wide the door to allow more people in. Such churches are also able to reach a more people in the community and are drawn to the edges of community, people crying out for help and for justice, and those who God sees and typically people overlook.

Ø  We allow and encourage deeper levels of thought and questioning in an environment which allows for variety of opinions. We bring our whole life to the Gospel and into the faith community. This also allows a congregation to reach the variety of people in a community, and grow in depth of relationships that fit our context. We focus on the essentials with interest in grace and unity, and recognize opinions and non-essentials of faith as secondary and not worthy of priority. The essentials would be a very short list, and the non-essentials could fill volumes and are often what we focus on when we don't live up to our best. We understand Scripture as God's word, yet focus on God's Word as revealed in Jesus Christ. So, we aren't biblical literalists as we take the Bible seriously enough to appreciate the variety, the complexity, and the abundant life it points to. This engages people in scripture from a standpoint of community and conversation. In this we don't confuse our place with God's in the conversation, i.e. none of us are God with final say and ultimate truth. While theologically motivated, we are not narrowly doctrinally driven. If there were a driving doctrine it would be around God’s grace and our continued response and growth in Christ. In many places the UMC people once had other faith or no faith, and as their old faith or belief system failed they turned to a place of incarnational relationships which allowed for a growing, abundant life. God has often used the UMC people to show another way of life and faith that was healing and redemptive to those who most need us. These approaches stand out favorably in contrast to other religious groups. 

Ø  We have a strong sense of mission and justice. This continues to make us a people with grassroots tendencies with desire to continue growing in expressing love of God and love of neighbor (as we love ourselves, and neighbor as Jesus defined, so that we are always challenged). We have a strong sense of gratitude and giftedness to be a blessing to others with our time, energy, giving, and going in service. We are a church living for others, and get involved from relief to empowerment, with a sense of holistic Christian living that hopes and acts for all to live an abundant life. Our gratitude is shown in our schedules and the ways we use our funding to be God’s blessing to others. We recognize we are stewards of grace, partners with God, and this legacy isn't ours to hoard but to freely share and give away. Such things are both an individual and family lifestyle as well as a congregational culture. 

Ø  At our best we also move beyond only congregational faith life, and experience more and grow more by deepening connections in the larger Church. This might first be at a district or conference level, but then may grow regionally, nationally, and internationally, with focus on healthy mission and ministry (not just meetings). Such a broadening of our life, and knowing and engagement with other Methodist Christians from other places with other experiences, will challenge us theologically and practically. The great good in this is that it can help us get beyond narrow experiences and understandings of God, beyond provincialism or nationalism, and beyond our thinking we have all the answers of life and faith. It helps us experience the ever deeper waters of God’s grace, God’s larger Church, and other Christians who can teach us much about following Jesus. In these redemptive relationships we might also have opportunity to share our lives in a respectful, mutually beneficial, transformational way that helps all of us experience more of God’s Kingdom and offer glimpses of heaven on earth.

These are just a few of the exemplary characteristics I've seen consistently in my years in the UMC. These are not only the property of the UMC, though as I reflect upon the best of our United Methodist churches over the last thirty years, I’ve seen them repeatedly as features of healthy, vibrant Christians and congregations. It's been this way of connectional United Methodist spirituality that has helped me to grow, and continue growing, as a follower of Jesus Christ. The worship, discipleship, praying, serving, and whole of my Christian journey has been framed in this healthy, fruitful context. 

It is this sort of UMC that I love, and that I will continue to support, so that the next generation will have similar opportunities to grow in faith from this sort of transformational theological and practical perspective. As I reflect upon how God has transformed my life through the UMC, a deep gratitude forged of many decades wells up within me. With that I also sense a deep responsibility to both the past and the future, and a greater resolve to help others know and experience such churches and Church as I have known.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Can UMC Learn from SBC?

I first learned of Dr. Nancy Ammerman during the SBC implosion of the late '80's. This was the height of the fundamentalist takeover, and I was a seminary student in Louisville KY, and anyone who was moderate, independent, or not vocally fundamentalist or "drinking that Kool Aid" didn't have a place in the new regime. Eventually, lines were drawn which forced choosing a side. Even if one enjoyed the middle- that's me! as it allows room to go right on some issues and left on others, plus room to follow Jesus and continue to respond to Holy Spirit- soon found there was no more middle ground.

Dr. Ammerman looked at the SBC Holy War from the perspective of sociology of religion and was a helpful voice to assist many of us in understanding what seemed unbelievable and so destabilizing. There were others who would view the large group fighting and fracturing from perspectives of regionalism, hermeneutics, social political culture wars, and one outlier strand within the tradition rising to long term power to name a few other key markers.

Since then it is easy to see that one religious war merely led to others within the group. The SBC has declined similarly to all US religious groups. Despite all the rhetoric of righteousness, holiness, true belief, right interpretation, and drawing a line in the sand, the decline has been steady. And using biblical language and an "either you follow my biblical interpretation or you are an enemy" approach creates an adversarial climate which is challenging to deescalate. A generation of clergy, and diversity of congregations and people, was lost as the SBC moved more in lockstep with each other in a winner take all venture. Once a new normal takes hold it can be almost impossible to return to a previous state of normalcy.

Dr. Ammerman recently posted some tweets that I found helpful in considering the current UMC situation. While there are some differences in time and place there are plenty of comparable issues that are noteworthy. I've mentioned to some that if it took the SBC a decade or more to fracture I'd expect a denominational, connectional body to take even longer if we break up. Being a centrist, I continue to attempt to hold together a middle that may become more and more difficult to keep together. Personally, I find the traditionalist plan unMethodist, draconian, unconscionable as an attack upon the human rights of LGBTQIA, as well as detrimental to the witness of congregations in a great variety of contexts who stand for the vulnerable of society and for those children of God. We'd be much better served to strike the restrictive language from the Book of Discipline rather than continually play out this decades long fight that weakens us rather than strengthen our love of God and neighbor (as we love ourselves). Recalling the wide variety of people Jesus would spend time with in community reinforces a better way for a Christian and congregation interacting with the neighbors. 

Personally, I think the various strands of tradition within the UMC are stronger together as the holiness tradition, peace and justice tradition, mission tradition, revivalists, congregationalists, and others all need each other. We can go our separate ways, fracturing into various Methodist smaller bodies, but even after that it will take a decade or two to find some strength and clarity. If we track like the SBC, the greater likelihood is that we would only know how to fight, would continue to weaken, and after 20 years nothing turns out as expected. The old fight, of one older generation, drags on and on and is of no interest to the next generation, so is only a drain and distraction. God help us if the 60-70 year olds are making the biggest Church decisions that won't be clearly revealed for another 20 years! Better at that point to let folk in their 30's-50's drive these decisions so important to the emerging church.

I'd rather help create a church and Church that is for our neighbors, for the next generation, for people of color, for the indigenous, for LGBTQIA, for people unlike me, rather than known for sounding and acting like an angry religious crowd who are judgmental on some issues and turning a blind eye to weightier issues of vital biblical faith.

Whatever might be new and emerging from current UMC conversations and decisions would do well to learn from the mistakes of other religious groups and not make the same errors. May our prayers, conversations, and votes have the long view in mind for a vital UMC witness that our children and grandchildren will gladly receive and continue to grow.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I Rediscovered I Have a Blog

How can one forget about their blogging?

Rather easily it seems.

Even easier to forget how to access your blog if you have a new laptop.

My day job is with the conference office of the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church. After 25 years in congregational ministry, in October 2014 I was appointed in a new, different position working 2/3 time for North Georgia with Connectional Ministries with focus on mission, and 1/3 time working with our UMC Global Ministries. Starting July 2018 I became 100% North GA conference employee though I continued to relate to Global Ministries as they are in Atlanta, and so much of my work has connection to mission. For North Georgia, our Connectional Ministries office (relating to the wide variety of congregational ministries) joined with New Church Development to become the Center for Congregational Excellence. Our unit is a stellar crew of program ministry people who serve as true circuit riders serving hundreds of churches as we train, consult, network, and encourage churches in taking next steps in effectiveness. My area relates to mission and disaster response, though much of what I do seems to be community engagement and helping churches become outward focused. In many ways, I continue to be a program director, as I help churches know their context, evaluate what they are doing, and adjust to be more useful to God and neighbor. It's a fun, challenging ride that I love and grow in every day.

I suppose I lost my practice of blogging due to the miles and meetings. If you know Georgia geography, I live near Augusta, and much of my work is around metro Atlanta. Augusta is 2 to 2 1/2 hours away from everything. Add to it that in the last couple of years, we've continued to have major hurricanes in the region, so my disaster response portfolio has grown significantly. I also work with One Board/ Simplified Accountability Structure for congregations, as well as Fresh Expressions. Another fun area is missional discipleship, especially as it relates to being new forms of church, i.e. not cookie cutter institutional congregations but vital, dynamic, contextually adaptive faith movements. So, we add, adapt, and get into more adventures to help churches both in their decision making structures as well as their local outreach and expression.

Don't even get me started on the UMC denominational mess of General Conference, delegates, special conferences, and everyone with opinions. In many ways it seems we opine on the things we can't control, or vote on, and don't attend to what is closest, local, and we can control. It's such a mess, and while I will hesitate to add to the noise, I have some thoughts. Or, more likely, I'll share some of the "best of the best" that I see being shared. My primarily interest will be in the approaches and systems that elevate a United Methodist witness and connectional ministry.

More in the days ahead as I attempt to get back into a routine. The discoveries I share might relate to Church, or farm, or food, or photo, or other things I learn or question along the way. You know, unless I lose my blog again.






Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Egg Counting

I live on a small farm, so that when I'm not working my day job in the Church, I usually have plenty to get into that works mind and body. For me, in working with animals or garden it's a grounding sort of soul work that connects me with creation, with a place, and with my people (past and present).

January is often a time for dreaming of the spring and active preparation for the next season. While this year has been unusually cold for us it's not too different than normal. I just find I'm spending more time trying to keep fresh, unfrozen water for our livestock and poultry. As is my custom, I'm using January to look over seed catalogs and ordering a few things, and starting some chicken eggs in the incubator.

We've just locked down the incubator with 25 chicken eggs. For me that's always the nervous last few days when you stop rotating the eggs, increase the humidity, and wait to see the results in 3 days. There are all sorts of variables that can hamper a solid percentage of the eggs hatching in this mechanical incubator. Plus, I've got a new incubator with this batch, so there's sometimes a small learning curve about using a particular incubator in terms of how well it holds temperature and humidity.

I'm hopeful, as these eggs were beautiful and represented some of the best from our mixed flock of Welsummer and Easter Egger birds. 

Nervous days.

I guess that timely folk saying is true. "Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

But I am hopeful and working toward the best possibilities!


Monday, December 11, 2017

Mission Year in Review

This is that time of year where, if people have the capacity to get beyond Christmas, so many folk break out their "year in review" story. I can't recall sharing a year in review, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Of course, this is from my perspective, so the focus will be on the 2017 congregational mission year in review! But I'll do this in a way that I hope will help you to think through and write up your own "year in review" or perhaps tackle a "state of the church and community" in the new year.

I suppose the lead story is that too many churches are still doing what we do totally separated from the community and culture. Can you tell if it is 1997 or 2017 in your church? If our church story has no connection or relation to the bigger community and world stories we are probably missing out.  How are you part of the biggest conversations, needs, hopes of your community? Where are you going to listen, learn, and dialogue in such conversations? Often we church folk wonder why folk outside the church say we are irrelevant. 

By this I don't intend that a congregation be absorbed by the culture, but as it stands many congregations are merely absorbed by their closed system congregational culture. 

Further, many churches practice mission totally separated from the other practices of Christian and church. It's like we can choose whether to be in God's mission or not. In many ways the last chapter of church and Church life have been definitions of silos. The healthier practice is an integrated practice of the church which helps mission avoid being a busy bee do-gooderism that only engages the small percentage of people who have the time, funding, and skills to do a project. 

Here are a few questions as you consider what it means for your church to be the Body of Christ and follow the ways of Jesus out among your neighbors:

How has your church been engaged by the current cultural and political turmoil in healthy, productive ways? How are you involved in ministries of reconciliation? How are you helping the community to grow in peace, health, and into maturity?

How does your church break the cycle of fake news and echo chambers? Or do you contribute to the problems of community and country? 

How has your church been attentive and a community and world citizen to the numerous disasters of this year- both natural disasters as well as shootings? What is your short term, and long term, plans as you pray, give, and go to be part of the rebuilding of lives and community? Note that many families and communities are still struggling years after the disaster.  

How is your congregation alive to your community, and responsive to God, in the current mission movement in your context? This is likely not in the news, not old repetition of mission projects, but something that is highly relational and a sign of what the church is becoming. This could be related to some of the big news stories of the year, and the larger mission movement seen across the world, related to people groups on the edge of the community, e.g. the poor, refugees/ migrants, prisoners, orphans, widows, and others who are among the most vulnerable. 

The reality in many congregations is the continued decline of many churches, the loss of the last generation or two, and some denominational struggle and uncertainty on top of the local struggles. Both laity and clergy have proven we aren't very adaptable and prefer what we have known and where are comfortable.

A recurring theme I've seen throughout 2017 include churches redefining local mission and ministry. While we should continue to worship, pray, study, serve, and practice what it means to be a redemptive community, the way this looks must adjust to current and future neighbors in the community. Too many of our churches are trapped in the past by our traditions and preferences. We must define mission and ministry in fresh, vital ways for people today as more than a fad or gimmick. We must escape our church walls, our church traditions, and our church inhibitions to once again become a people or authentic, living giving/ sharing, incarnational ministry.  

A new year brings new opportunities. How will you and your congregation catch the wave of the mission movement in your community in this new year? 

I'm excited about another year:
  •  to have adventures of following Jesus in the community,
  • to know and join alongside people groups on the edge of community who are in the middle of God's movement of grace, 
  • to grow in experience and skill of being a cross-cultural person as I learn from others and God,
  • to help people find their place in participation and leadership in partnering with God and neighbor,
  • to more boldly advance local, regional, national, and international ministries of reconciliation,
  • and to encourage and teach more churches how to break out the walls of their cloister and confinement to be a church in/ of the community. 


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cultural Lectionary and Advent

In so many ways Advent is totally out of step with current U.S. culture. That's okay, but it does make it a challenge to connect with what people are thinking about, feeling, and needing when the holiday season and cultural machinery is cranking so strongly by mid-November.

Yet, in this Christian season and every other season, there are themes that might work well.

In these tumultuous social and political days, our larger context seems to revolve around a distant, perhaps dangerous ruler, cultural uncertainty and upheaval with strong divisions of opinion, and maybe some hope and expectation despite the craziness of the times. Hear any stirring of Advent or Christmas themes here that works for the proclamation of Good News in your community and church?

I'm especially drawn to ways the Advent story may be a help and a comfort for the larger community a church is in. In particular I wonder about the cultural lectionary, the ideas catching a lot of the current stories, related to power. More specifically, note how often power is a theme in the current stories of political intrigue, ongoing racial tensions and division, and allegations of sexual misconduct. Every day seems to bring another outrageous story! Now, don't let this devolve into another easy political rant. Instead, note that every party is drawn to power, wants to use their power, and does everything they can to retain power. So, this isn't partisan, but a truth for all times, places, and political groupings. Or note the celebrities, in their rise and fall, as they seem to present one persona, and over time seem to use their power and position that often results in a scandalous fall. I hear echoes of the Old Testament definition of idols, and the New Testament story of Jesus in the desert facing those temptations which we all face, including the allure of power and being king or queen of the world.

Recall that emotion is usually strong around these subjects, and our emotion and hectic pace this time of year will only heighten the tension in our personal and community life, so delve into this with your best footwork as you walk that tightrope of engagement, preaching in this moment of opportunity, and pastoral care of a people who are likely wounded and somewhat shaky. This could be a great opportunity to give voice to the community and to help folk tap into their soul as you give words to the challenges of our time.

The first Sunday of Advent this year certainly captures some of the sense of God's power, and God's distance, and the ways we humans are, in Isaiah 64:1-9. Be sure if you define 64:5, and "those who do right," that you don't fall into a trap. It's likely safer to go with the latter part of the verse as the lead for what is right. Verse 7, while rather bleak, captures some of the problem of our day. Be sure to emphasize that it is "our iniquity" and don't go the route of the easy to preach "your iniquity," i.e. it's not my sin problem it's your sin problem. Emphasize the plural in this as you study, pray, prepare, and preach, and see where it leads. If preaching in a contemporary service you might help the worship leader and congregation accept the personal pronoun early in a song, but at some point transition to the plural, i.e. please move from "I" to "we" and from "me" to "us!" If our music only reinforces a solitary Christianity and Christmas then we've lost an opportunity.

Advent 2B offers the beloved text from Isaiah 40:1-11 with a focus on temporary humanity and eternal God. There is strong penalty for human sin, yet the comfort, power, and new beginnings offered by God are also an option. I'm somewhat captivated in this reading with our current cultural context with "...do not fear" and "Here is your God!" It offers a striking contrast with some of the current mood of "Fear, and more fear" and "where is your God" or perhaps a small, diminished god of our own making that is so much less than the living God.

Isaiah 61:1-11 in Advent 3B is a powerful passage that turns the whole world order upside down! While I believe, and have experienced, that this points to Jesus, I also believe it points to the way a church can be in the community. As individuals, and a congregation, how might we practice these ways every day in our community? Check out how this can be a populist, grassroots movement that better defines power, overcomes some of the biggest issues of our day one person at a time, and makes right so much that is wrong. This is both a God movement, and our response to God's work in our lives so that we practice Sabbath/ Jubilee in transformational community ways. This is personal renewal, church renewal, and community renewal in ways that offer abundant life.

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve the same day I know many clergy friends are making certain adjustments in order to help it all work well for their congregation. Sticking with Advent 4, I like Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1:39-56. Of course, this power theme is a key concept in Luke, so it's easy to continue the exploration of power and community, and Jesus who offers redemption of both individual and "us!" "...He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Don't soften the "rich" language, and don't lose the way God is working, and which we should join in on.  

Venture beyond the normal, generic, sanitized, sweet Christmas story- if that is possible- and find ways to bring the reality of life to life in the church. You might engage your community in some of the best themes of the season that may meet their fear and angst with a shared hope for a better day.  Welcome the cultural lectionary into your worship and preaching and you'll find stronger ways to connect with the community this Advent.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Church Trick or Treat: Do You DRAW or SCARE

I have experienced a lot of churches over the years, and in the last 3 years have significantly stepped up those experiences. You name it- worship, study groups, special events, projects, fundraisers, and any combination of church mission and ministries- and I've seen it. A lot of church life is "insider" club stuff, and we've forgotten how to know and relate to our neighbors.

In recent years I've become more aware of the dual role of both the individual and the corporate engagement, hospitality, and practices of discipleship and evangelism.

These days I attend many churches one time as a participant, and can either fly under the radar or find that most churches are very comfortable being who they are, so that they act their normal ways and don't put on a show for me. In many ways I often feel like one audience member among many in most churches.

I have a twofold observation:

  • most churches are overly reliant on the "big systems" approach to visitors/ guests to the point that often a person can go into a church and never have anyone interact with them except the people who are supposed to, i.e. the greeters and the ushers. The mandatory "meet and greet" in worship doesn't count except that it is awkward and too often heightens the problem. I'm observing this not only in large churches, but surprisingly often in small and medium attendance congregations. 
  • most churches appear overly reliant upon the paid clergy or staff being the ones who hold it all together, so that hospitality, discipleship, evangelism, or whatever you want to call it is left to the pros. In truth, I'm often more interested in how the average folk in the people are, how they engage, and take this as a sign of the culture of the church and the type of Jesus the group lifts up and follows.
The days of institutions having drawing power have past, and while churches should offer quality experiences, it is imperative for us to reclaim the power of individual relationships, what we once spoke of as the priesthood of all believers, and the sort of authentic, everyday following of Jesus that will transform us, our communities, and our churches. I think this is where renewal will happen for a congregation IF folk can change their ways. 

These thoughts, and that second bullet, make me wonder about the culture, the personality, of any given congregation. Your normal practices reflect who you are, as a church, and also might be the reason folk don't come back! 

I've realized a time or two recently that a congregation, and all the individuals of a church, can either DRAW people to church or SCARE folk away. 

This isn't always what it seem though.

Sometimes it's obvious element of a visit that - someone tells you to get out of their pew, or the worship is just awful, or the experience is either dull or freaky! Occasionally there's just a "not right" feeling" which causes you to wonder why is that church so apathetic, or unrealistic, or even "what are they thinking?" I find many churches seem to have been lulled into a "copycat" sort of generic religion which is so plain, generic, and doesn't seem to fit their context or next best steps as a church. 

But, more often than not, I often find there are layers to a visit, and typically there are less overt cues that let me know if I belong or not, and inform me on how I feel about a church. 

There are all sorts of ways to be mean, offensive, or indicate in overt or subtle ways that "you don't belong" at this church. After all, the vast majority of churches run along socio-economic, racial, and cultural lines. It's the uncommon church these days that is a congregation for the whole community and creates a level playing field in church life that seems like heaven, i.e. all classes, races, political stripes, etc. in one family.

Some churches never get the visitor because I know if I'm a factory worker, and the church is full of the bosses and management, it won't likely be any different in church than it is at work. 

If church represents the power of the community, the normal interactions and classism of work, and the politics of the "haves" and "have nots," then how is it a reflection of the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, and elevating of Christian values as opposed to everyday reality?

A wide variety of questions come to mind as I think about the wonderful, diverse mix of people in most communities: If I'm a person of color why would I go to that church? If I'm of a different social opinion why would I subject myself to your message? If I have done certain things which I suspect you are against, or if I made a  mistake at some point in life, would you really accept me and practice the redemption and salvation you talk and sing about, or is that only reserved in some mysterious way for you and people like you? Is your church practicing following Jesus and can you make room in your church family for me if I am different than you?

Or, check out this different way to track what might DRAW and what might SCARE. When I drive into a church parking lot I can often know much about who makes up the church. After all, our cars are our status symbols (idols? oh, no, that might be another blog post). That's a strong first impression. Second impression would be any magnets or stickers on the vehicles. If they all lean one way or another I quickly know if folk are in lockstep or are diverse in their thinking, politics, social organizations, and favorites.  If any of this looks too different from what I'd see at the local public school, or the mall or movie theater, then I get a quick idea of what segment of the community makes up the church. Even if the congregations doesn't claim a certain people group, or tribe if you want to use old, colonial missional language, you give yourselves away in conscious and unconscious ways. 

So, there are many, many ways to DRAW people to or SCARE people away from a congregation. All of these issues make it even more important for individuals and the whole congregation to actively engage a community and practice our following of Jesus every day. 

Some of the powerful practices I see that DRAW people to a congregation is a loving, inclusive, community engaged and open church that is authentic and full of life.  This could be any size church, but there is always a sense that God is doing something powerful in my/our lives, that I/we are called to die to ourselves and serve others- including changing and adapting to include others, and an everyday practice of prayer, study, and service as I/we live out this adventure of following Christ knowing that God can use us to help other people in their lives. So, this is a hopeful, anticipatory, vibrant faith that is growing and developing as God creates the Church desired for the community. 

In this day of so much hostility, anxiety, and division, you and your church have a great opportunity to DRAW people to church. But you will need to live into some new practices of faith as you love God and love your neighbor as yourself. You will need to practice more Christ-like ways, both individually and as a congregation, of going into your community and breaking down barriers. The best days of a congregation are today and tomorrow, IF we learn to be a treat to our community and world and not the same old religious trick. 

 


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

5 Things Your Community Needs From Your Church Today

"Would your community even notice if your church died today?" is one of those difficult questions to even consider. Most congregations are so inwardly focused, and begin a long, slow descent into atrophy and death, that by the time we begin to ask such questions it is probably too late. We don't usually think, program, and act with continued outward engagement/ sharing and our legacy in mind. I mean, who invites everyone into the family? Who gives away the business, the seat of power, and the opportunities to those outsiders?

This is where all the children yell, "JESUS!"

Too many church conversations tend to revolve around what the church needs. I find a more productive path in considering how a church might give ourselves away to the community. Pick any Jesus story, or Jesus disciple story, and find models of how this might still have transformational impact today- both for the servant and the one served.

Find here some values, some lifestyle, some practices which every church would do well to share. I wonder if any churches orient their ministry practices and calendars around this? I don't have all the answers on what this looks like in your church and community. Rather, I suspect that it can be tailored to any context, any church scale, and stands the biblical and theological test. It may be a way of assessing our church efforts, activities, and practices. The larger challenge may be helping the church out of the routines and into a new way of mission and ministry.

I'm thinking about this both in individual and corporate terms. I'm also thinking of this as defining for the church for strategy and lifestyle. How might worship, discipleship, prayer, fellowship, outreach, etc. revolve around these sorts of primary church functions? It is certainly challenging to think of church activities through this lens. Personally, many of these concepts have high appeal and seem to be priority needs for many individuals and communities today. It doesn't matter if you are moderate, conservative, or liberal theologically. But I'm afraid that many churches-  many sermons, much teaching, and activity-never delves into these areas. Is it that they are too controversial, or that for institutional church, and keeping the majority happy, we prefer watered down, controlled, "folk like us" sort of religion? Or, most likely, we just know to do what we've learned to do, and change beyond our experiences is very intimidating. Group change is some next level of challenge!

As we seek to love God, and love our neighbors (as we do ourselves!), perhaps we'll hear what our community needs of our church. Watch the news, listen to the stories of locals, and imagine your church reorienting itself to your neighbors. Live your way into the next chapter of church ministry based on God and your neighbors and see what develops. Prayerfully evaluate your current church activities in light of the higher claims of the Gospel. If your church stuff doesn't hit any of these it may be worth questioning. Also, which of these can be done inside a church building, which must be practiced beyond the church walls, and what are the bridges or connecting points between the building and the community?

Here are the 5 things the community needs your church to be doing today:

  • Reconciling- e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:11-21


  • Neighboring- e.g. Luke 10:25-37


  • Empowering- e.g. I Thessalonians 5:12-22


  • Healing- take your pick from MANY stories of Jesus in the Gospels!


  • Redeeming- e.g. Galatians 4:1-7 & our role in helping our community know and experience they are adopted by God. 
Give it a go! Such activities might very well change the world!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

SPAR for Better Mission

Often I find that both discipleship groups and mission groups are somewhat anemic. They accomplish something, but there is a diminished vitality, force, spirit, that is less than expected. We all easily get locked into certain practices and fail to see how we are losing a step, don't have the energy we once had, and can't figure out what is wrong.

I believe that scripture and historic faith practices point to the more life giving, transformational ways of both discipleship and mission which we are called to live out. So, this isn't new to me or us, except it is new to all of us in that we must continually work out these practices in our context and in our following of Jesus as we love God and love our neighbors (as we do ourselves!).

I think of this as a SPAR approach, and hope I haven't heard/ read this somewhere in the distant past only for it to take root in my mind with loss of the originator. If you read this and think, "Oh, so and so, wrote that." please let me know so we get the attribution correct.

In my experiences our modern mission and ministry tendency is to do things. Often we end up with somewhat disconnected pieces of activity. If we read the ministry of Jesus and the early church there was a rhythm that was shown as they engaged in the everyday mission of God.  Now, in my reading there is a flow between these elements, so they build on each other and feed off of each other. Said another way, it isn't mandatory to start at any particular point, but it is essential that these pieces are networked, woven, interlaced, dovetailed, or pick you word/ concept that reinforces flow and interaction.

So, a person, or group could start with 3, then go to 2, then 1, and 4. And these wouldn't be awkward movements, but natural, organic, true to life, and to the Spirit in the moment. This wouldn't be reading curriculum cold for the first time in the group. Rather, it would be more akin to driving a stick shift car and a responsive, fluid movement that starts and stops where appropriate, avoids danger, maintains speed, picks up more travelers, and arrives at the destination. This isn't a stilted box step style dancing, and instead a joyous celebration alive to the music, to the crowd, to the expression of life.

Think of SPAR as study, prayer, action, and reflection. This is a life based missional approach that necessarily follows the ways Jesus lived. It's both individual and a group way of being. Further, it's seeking a balance so that a participant- or group- doesn't get lost in any particular element of the approach. This also helps avoid groups getting locked in to "we only study" or "we only pray or we only do things." Too many of our churches and individual Christians are "locked in" and that's part of our problem. It turns out that the fight isn't so much against others as it is against ourselves. We must continue practice dying to ourselves and being alive to Christ (choose from any number of verses as I point to Luke 9:23-24). SPAR is a helpful way for individual and group to die to self and conform to Christ. This also helps with a missional way of living, of praying and reading scripture, and creates a dynamic adventure of following Christ today.

The reflection element of SPAR is somewhat different than study as it is a way of bringing together the other pieces of the approach as a way of considering what this all means in the salvation of God- for individual, for group, for church, and for the world. In my experience, this is a critically missing intentional step of many discipleship and mission groups. Just as a preacher might apply the "so what?!" test to a sermon, this is a way of applying "so what?!" to our mission and ministry and placing our vulnerability before God and group member.

SPAR likely should be applied to all our church mission and ministry groups. This approach also reminds me of a few dynamic ministries which many churches have lost or failed to organize, which could have strong community appeal with certain groups, and which could open new relationships and potential for many churches. These sorts of ministries lend themselves to the SPAR approach. Consider:

  • disaster response
  • creation care
  • drug and alcohol abuse prevention
  • racial reconciliation
  • prison ministries
When I read scripture I most notice that Jesus, and those early disciples, turned the world upside down as they experienced the power of God and the present Kingdom of God. I think that can happen in churches today if we get out of our routines, beyond the institution and into community relationships and action, and give ourselves away to new habits and new ways of relating to our neighbors.

SPAR for better mission and ministry and let me know what happens in your world. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Church Budgeting for God’s Local Mission

As your church moves into the end of the year, be sure to connect mission and ministry assessment with your budgeting processes. There are some big and small questions which may be helpful as we live into this next chapter of church life. While a committee should tackle the separate areas of ministry with this sort of evaluative mindset I’ll share some thoughts specific to mission and outreach.

Some of the big questions include: What percentage of your church funding is spent inside the church or to serve the church insiders? How much goes outside to serve, engage, & relate to others? Why are we funding this project or activity? Answers to these questions may then spur all sorts of additional curiosities. Many congregations are closed system, i.e. completely are almost closed inward focused and cut off from their community, and in addition to other ways of finding this truth the funding picture will also reflect this. Reorient funding toward getting the church out of the building and creating momentum in community relationships and being the church in the community.  

I find many, many congregations are stuck, if not trapped, in the past. The history of what has been strangles the work of mission and ministry, and often leaves little room for new possibilities today and tomorrow. These patterns of “things past” are shown in the calendar and in the budget, and while obvious to the “outsider” may be a comfortable routine for the church and accepted rather than discussed.

As I’ve met with churches they’ve taught me that, more often than not, the way they view mission is a diffused smattering of financial giving and varied “do gooder” activities. Perhaps a denominational leader, or pastor, or laity spark plug in the church encouraged the support at some point. The response was relational, and perhaps not so strategic in terms of congregational mission. When most congregations write all of these “missions” down to show me the giving and participation it typically looks like a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep, except there is little to nothing to show any interconnectedness or strategic decisions making in the scheme. Further, it can be challenging for many in a congregation to show ANY relationship of the mission “plan” to the whole life of the church. Or for anyone in the group to share theologically the importance or prioritization of these activities for the whole congregation as they express what it means to be the Body of Christ.  Some churches even confess that as long as those “lone rangers” in mission don’t cause any trouble it’s best to leave well enough alone.

That’s fine, I guess, if a church has too many people and too much money! But for most congregations that’s not the case anymore. So, it’s more important than ever for congregations to have a laser focus in mission and ministry, to have great alignment of all the ministries pulling in the same direction, and for the church to let go of the past and live into the future that God is creating.

Better budgeting for mission would likely be built on:
  • A strategic plan for the whole congregation engaged as the Body of Christ which aligns mission with worship, discipleship, prayer, evangelism, and the totality of church life.

  • A prioritization of the mission of God with strong local foundation and solidly rooted in the church in community, i.e. not just giving church funds and people as volunteers to a non-profit.

  • A focused plan that engages every age and stage of the congregation in mission throughout the year through education, prayer, and participation and have sufficient funding for such a holistic approach.

  • A strong present and future orientation, which is built on the past but not trapped by it, which helps the congregation respond in active participation to the love of God and love of neighbor (as ourselves). This will have a practical, healthy evangelism and outreach component.   

  • Renewal of the church as a mission outpost with mission of God as a way to help the church be the church “in” and “of” the community. Escape the cloistered building, create the living church in the community, follow Jesus out in the streets, and help the congregation to be a movement that serves the community. 

In my mind such a budget might wisely focus on a few primary areas. Put most of the budget and calendaring emphasis on local community mission. Don’t only define local mission as giving funds and volunteers to outside organizations! Focus on the congregation being primary in God’s mission in the community. This is “home base” and where your congregation has the most access of time and interest. If you fail to develop this, or relegate it to specialized non-profits, you’ll undermine the appropriate, primary church mission field in your own community. This isn’t to say you can stop at only doing local mission, as we are challenged to practice mission and ministry from our local streets to the ends of the earth.

Locally I’d put emphasis on the following:

Partner in BIG ways with the nearest public elementary school. If you have capacity add the middle school and high school. Or partner with the community recreation department. This looks different in various locations, but most schools look for volunteers, for tutors, and for PTA & funding. Get to know the school, support the community efforts, and make the church available in consistent, and ongoing ways. If your congregation doesn’t look like these places the best conversation in church can be “why not” and “what must we do to change that” to become a community church.

Be a disaster ready congregation. Be trained, be prepared, and both partner well, but also serve those partners and your community well. This would engage a variety of skill sets ranging from sheltering/ feeding, counselors and ministers, to organizational and communication workers, to construction, chainsaw, and medical workers, to lots of helpers of all sorts depending on the type of crisis. This also prepares a congregation and makes you most helpful in a time of community need. Partnering well with the local Red Cross and EMA means they bring local assets, resources, and expertise to you, as well as connecting your congregation into the larger framework of disaster response across the state and region. 

Community Partnering- by this I mean for the congregation to be alive and active in the community. If you congregation isn’t the community center, are you either highly involved or a leader in community happenings? This doesn’t need to be something that detracts from being the church, and instead is the church alive in the community, building relationships, and breaking down barriers in order to be effective in ministry. In addition to enjoying what you can learn from the community as you sink deep roots in your local context, consider what the church should offer the community. What do you need to build into the budget as you live out a mission strategy of loving the community as much as you love your church? Be at the primary parade and festival, or help create a celebration.

In similar ways, a congregation can then create an expanded, holistic strategy for state, region, national, and international mission which builds on and interacts with local mission. Think of a flow in between those different arenas for mission so that they all enhance and feed the other geographies. For instance, if we have community neighbors from Mexico, I’d think in the direction of a range of ministries to know and engage those local neighbors, and additional experiences in the different geographies so that we are practicing the love of God, and love of neighbor (as we love ourselves!) both “here” and “there.” This is a much more dynamic, transformational, productive model of mission than most churches experience.


It’s often been said that our calendar and our check book reflect our priorities. Churches would be wise to embrace a new day of ministry which defines local mission in more dynamic ways. That will include reorienting our church budgets to focus greater percentages on outreach, relationship building, and community engagement, and doing well at this locally is an imperative. Change your budget to change your world!