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! 

Monday, August 21, 2017




           and wonder...

at large movements
beyond your knowing,

at unusual spectacles
that demand attention,

at your smallness

and the passing of time

and measurements greater than years.

Find your place in the mysteries.

August, 21, 2017
Scott Parrish

Monday, June 19, 2017

Clergy Planning for the Next Year: Lectionary and Missio Dei

There are great possibilities using the lectionary readings, or any plan of biblical readings for sermons and worship, to emphasize the mission of God. Note that missio Dei is more than mission projects and certain practices or people of a congregation. This is a focus on the whole church in God’s mission following the ways of Jesus and depending upon the Holy Spirit. Missio Dei as a driving hermeneutical lens helps a preacher get beyond only offering individualistic spiritual advice and in many ways further helps a congregation reclaim its role as part of the mission movement IN the community.  Here are some ideas on flow, concepts, and momentum building which you might then easily adapt with title and content that matches your context.

For example:

The September 10- October 1 readings in 2017 offer a nice movement toward World Communion Sunday. What better day to remember this global movement of God in Church and community? Think of this as a “Community Building” series. This also offers a great way to build momentum toward church, challenge the church to stretch more and be even more invitational and hospitable in community, and align all the ministries of the church (prayer, discipleship, all age level ministries, etc.) toward a theme and BIG Sunday.  You come u with your own themes

September 10- Matthew 18:15-20 “Time to be Free” might focus on our being free from sin and how we might use that to listen to each other, agreeing together, and that heavenly power possible as we team well.

September 17- Matthew 18:21-35  “Time to Forgive” offers many options relevant to our day which one might narrow down for a specific community context or best next steps of a congregation in community.

September 24 Matthew 20:1-16 “Time to Work” delves into the Kingdom of God and the laborers, the generosity of God, and offers plenty of room to prayerfully discover what this might look like in the community as God continues to work with all sorts of people.

October 1 Philippians 2:1-4 “Time to Celebrate!” Create a party atmosphere, a fiesta, a celebration that is easy to invite the community to which models serving others. In this day of incredible technology some churches incorporate an international mission partner church into worship and enjoy a simultaneous interactive worship experience. There are many ways that worship and discipleship on that day might reflect the dynamic global church and the salvation of God that is alive in so many countries and cultures.

Later in the fall you might find that even the momentum culminating in a stewardship Sunday can revolve around the larger community rather than only the congregational needs. This emphasis lends itself to a focus on love of God and love of neighbor (as we love ourselves) thus calling on the full range of stewardship in study, praying, giving, and going. Check out the lectionary starting October 8 through October 29 and see if the Epistle readings lend themselves to Gospel Power, Gospel Living, Gospel Rescue, and Gospel Witness. Or a congregation will find similarly powerful stories in the Old Testament with faithful hearing, faithful memory, faithful action, and faithful legacy. The Kingdom of God stories in Matthew offer similar movement that calls for participation and action.

Or consider the block of time from January 7- February 11. The start to the year offers a solid time to focus on new beginnings, epiphanies, covenant renewal, and gain some momentum as individuals and group launching into new beginnings. Why not have a special Sunday, maybe even something from the “cultural” lectionary like Super Bowl Sunday, to be a big, fun, invitational, party for the community? This could be like a “Friends Sunday” and “Rivalry Sunday” (built in competition!) all rolled into one with the ready made Super Bowl Sunday. Dress casually, have food and fun, and create a dynamic environment.

Your big event might be a Mission Celebration culminating on either February 4 or 11. This would have a strong, strategic focus in community mission that would require more than just your congregation and be easy to invite others to because of the inspiring worship, dynamic teaching, and incredible potential as a larger team gathers together for a God sized calling. So, the “Stairway to heaven” would intentionally be BOTH an individual faith exercise AND a congregational and community movement that better reflects the Kingdom of God being established in your community. This would require much planning, could be advertised in early Advent and especially at Christmas, and would certainly be publicized even more aggressively in both church and community throughout January. Plus all the prayer, education, age and stage level ministries, and whole life of the church would point toward this throughout January.  Get the picture of the potential of such a big event? Throw in some element of Valentines if that helps you. February 11 is Scouting Sunday in many congregations and your local scouts to easily be part of this. The more the merrier! But don’t lose your focus in worship, nor your hospitality and engagement of everyone as the church reflects who you are and who God’s family is called to be.

In March 2017 I heard that block of lectionary Scriptures from early January to early February read aloud (check out Kindling the Fire and imagine a bunch of creative clergy hearing the texts and dreaming/ planning for their context. See  ) I was drawn to the opposite imagery of the January 28 epistle reading from I Corinthians 8 about the stumbling block and wondered about a “Stairway to Heaven” worship series to start the year. You can easily create your own movement toward a big Sunday that engages and mobilizes your group to invite many others to the fun. For our “Stairway to Heaven” I thought about:

January 7- Genesis 1:1-5 with focus on “Our Creating God”

January 14- I Samuel 3:1-10 “Our Calling God”

January 21- Jonah 3:1-5,10 & Mark 1: 14-20 “Our Sending God”

January 28- Mark 1:21-28 marks a subtle shift with focus on Jesus as Lord with “God of Power”

February 4- Mark 1:29-39 “God of GO!” or “God of the City” (or Neighborhood or term that fits your context)

February 11- 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6 “God of Good News!” Mission Celebration

Missio Dei is a strong lens with which to develop sermons and worship, and can help with the development of congregational momentum and a call to action. As you reorient your congregation around missio Dei, and every member as a "sent" missionary, you will get beyond "business as usual" in your congregation and create a dynamic new chapter of mission and ministry. Give it a try, experiment in your context, and share your ideas and what you've learned with me.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mission Reboot

Every now and then it seems I need to reboot, to start over, with my electronics. A return to a strong default setting is necessary and helpful with computers. If your computer is too slow, using too much memory, or has some conflicts, the reboot might just solve your issue. The reboot often fixes problems, gets the system back into alignment and communication, and allows for more effective power use. In fact, a lot of operating system and software problems actually require the restart.

So much of this make me wonder how a congregation might reboot (how ironic we apply Advent and Lent to the individual yet seldom bother the congregation with what God is doing or requiring of us). In particular, with most churches in mission, the program is a clutter of small system process (maybe too personality driven), historic activities, and seems to use a lot of energy and often it's not clear WHY the church is into particular mission promoting, giving, or serving. The activity seems rooted in some sort of church history or relationship, but may offer little rootedness or depth by way of theology, Methodist Christian witness, all church interest, or interconnection with the whole of church life or missional expression.

I've been pondering the dream mission plan if a church can start from scratch, or reboot their mission system, and have shared elements of this with a couple of clergy friends. The attempt is to have a strong foundation in missio Dei, great best practices which focus on love God and love our neighbors as we do ourselves, and the strong indigenous, contextual, sustainable hallmarks of a movement (rather than a program or project). Of course, some of this reset also has powerful implications for worship, discipleship, prayer, and all the ministries of individual and church as it draws us beyond ourselves, our expectations, and our traditions and renews the focus of both Church and Christian upon the Kingdom of God. If you are running an existing program you would do well to check out the following and consider how the church might advance in the missio Dei.

Now, it is important to say that this doesn’t intend to dismiss the "last chapter of mission" for the congregation, but it is an attempt to strategically focus the entire congregation on a bold next step of faith as we follow in the ways of Christ. Thus, by its very intention, it would be a major all-church effort at every level which would take time to unveil in both big and small ways for the church. This is why many churches may choose a word other than “mission” to define this next stage of congregational life, e.g. outreach, community building, compassion, etc. Or be ready to continually define, and redefine, this new lifestyle and practice of following the ways of Jesus.

This holistic reboot of mission would make sure it isn't projects for a small percentage of the church, but a way of life for individuals, families, and the corporate congregation. This is the church being the Body of Christ and expressing the Kingdom of God, and intentionally getting out of the building and typically closed system processes and taking the church into the street and neighborhood. So, we'd look to have local mission as the foundation, and then weave in state, regional, national, and international elements of practicing what it means for the congregation to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We would build in some variety so that every age and stage in the church can learn, pray, give, and serve in these missional partnerships. We'd also make sure that all of these are very closely aligned to our United Methodist sensibilities and would have preference for partnering with Methodist Christian mission. While this wouldn't preclude other partnerships it would recognize that many organizations and missionaries would not have a shared theology or polity which would offer the most "take home" value for our congregation and our individual lives of faith.

You would need to do your own "community discovery" in your area, but here are a few key areas that would help many congregations awaken to their community and be of more use while also developing significant, transformational relationships. Do note that this is a two way transformation as the church needs the community and the community needs the church!

If I were designing local mission from scratch I'd emphasize 1-2 of these in EVERY congregation and perhaps all of them (& more along the same lines) in a medium to large membership church: 
  • Partnering deeply with the local public school/s nearest the church
  • Some element of local interest in Creation Care ministry
  • Being a Disaster Ready congregation ready at any moment to serve the community
  • A strong focus on Alcohol and Substance Abuse prevention & corollary ministries
  • Focus on consistently and intentionally building cross cultural relationships and competencies
  • Establishing a "Ministry With" approach with neighbors in poverty
Note there would be all sorts of "spin off" possibilities in mission based upon these relational, and ever growing relationships. Further, there can be a variety of opportunities ranging from simple to complex, from one time assistance to ongoing involvement. Of course, we'd also be advancing elements of "best practices" in mission. Do note we might partner well with organizations and groups in the community, but this is an expression of a church alive to the community, so we wouldn't rely on groups to do what the church needs to do and be in the life of the community. In the past, far too often, UMC churches have defined "missions" as giving money, doing projects, and tended toward some specialized skills, funds, time, or availability so that mission is done by a few who choose it. We want to avoid this and build deep relationships as we all follow the ways of Jesus, and give folk many opportunities to love God and love our neighbors as we do ourselves. 

In addition, in your town or a nearby city it would be helpful to establish a long term, sister church relationship with a congregation and community that is very different than your home area. This wouldn't be a hostile nor informal takeover! Instead, it would be a way to know and partner with a sister UMC in a collegial mutual partnership (50/50). This could effectively build upon developing cross cultural relationships and competencies, and may relate to other priorities a church explores locally or build around the gifts and calling of a congregation.

Note that all of the possible bullet items above and sister church partnership can then be built upon with missional partnerships in other geographic locations. So, your mission teams and disaster response teams are built at the local level where everyone is involved, and then district, state, regional, national, and international options may be added. This sort of connectivity between local, national, and international is seldom seen in the random patchwork quilt of congregational mission. It is essential for every church to have that complexity of opportunities as it is part of the biblical movement of missio Dei and the "sending" God.

Rebooting our mission system for a congregation allows us to better be in the missio Dei today and tomorrow rather than merely replicating old projects and a history of disconnected mission. A Mission Reboot can be an exciting advance toward what God wants and your community and world needs of your church!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Time Flies!


So, how was your fall?!

I continue working for the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church with Connectional Ministries AND with our UMC Global Ministries with the Center for Mission Innovation. Think of me as a field agent with focus on the very best of mission. When I'm home I'm now on a 13 acre farm and there are usually plenty of little jobs to catch up on there when I do have some extra time. So, high demand job with lots of travel and meetings means things like a personal blog seem much neglected.

I've got some thoughts percolating today based on some of my fall work that I might publish later today. You know, if I can get enough coffee and not get distracted with the day job or farm work.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Against Congregation As Echo Chamber

This article recently made the social media rounds. The writer reinforces not demonizing folk, listening to people, and that the "other side" isn't stupid, but has experience and reason for their position. The "Controversial Opinion" game is especially useful to explore only asking questions as a way of dialogue on "hot topic" issues.

Earlier in my career, and occasionally today, I experience churches with a variety of people in the congregation who wouldn't be lockstep in their thoughts, but highly relational and effective in both church and community due to their ability to work together.

Today it seems more and more of our congregations reflect rather narrow perspectives with some sensibility that "we are all alike." Church often looks like our political affiliations, our social organizations, and our network of friends. Dig into the above article and consider the role false-consensus bias plays in your congregation and your communication of the gospel. This can also play to a "Holy War" mentality when combined with the way a group interprets faith and "the other." In our day when folk self select their media/ news, with tendencies to only partake in communicators who already state what the listener believes, it is important for churches to be aware of the dynamics as well as the challenges and possibilities. Yet, our community and world is rather diverse (and maybe even our faith or denomination if we get beyond our particular congregation).

What is the opposite of an echo chamber?

An echo chamber is a description of a closed system with limited views and voices which reinforce each other. There is little to no room for true dialogue, for variety of opinion, or for the tension of unresolved issues or what might be in a state of becoming.

If your church, or group, is an echo chamber you probably need to figure out how to get beyond that.

In my experience, church - think holistically of the living, dynamic Body of Christ in worship, discipleship, prayer, action, etc.- ought to be an ongoing relationship and dialogue with God, with one another, and with our neighbors. I'm not sure what the antonym of "echo chamber" might be, but I think of this with imagery like visiting with someone in great conversation on a front porch or in a coffee shop. It's more like the free flow of activity and conversation on a playground, at a festival, or in a concert. It gathers folk of the variety of political parties, the variety of experiences and expectations, the diversity of the community. It would look more like that odd bunch that Jesus gathered together long ago. Such a church would be a practical glimpse and everyday reminder of what heaven looks like.

In many respects a stronger theological and practical expression of church also seeks a congregation that is an oddball collection of sinners and saints. And the truth is this is both a corporate and individual reality! None of us have it all figured out, none of us have attained perfection, and none of us should be confused for God, Jesus, or Holy Spirit. Instead, we continue to practice loving God and loving our neighbors as we do ourselves, yet we are prone to sin, failure, idolatry, and seeking our own kingdom rather than the Kingdom of God. Imagine Jesus and his early entourage; the variety of people and personalities and expectations are a key part of the story which we too often overlook. We are much stronger together, and better able to be the Church God desires, if we allow this sort of tension to remain yet with a discontent that doesn't demonize the "other" and instead pushes us to continue following Jesus in the larger community. This variety of people following Jesus better allows us to communicate with and reach more of our neighbors.

The greater adventure is outside the walls of the echo chamber and in the streets of community where we follow the way that Jesus has shown us into abundant life!

Worship & Community Voice

In the last couple of years I have found myself in MANY different church and conference worship services. In recent months I have again been reminded of the power of having many people and voices as worship leaders. Often I may have a Sunday morning where I go from a suburban to an urban setting and I'm becoming more aware of some dynamics at play.

Sometimes I'm in church worship and it is dominated by one voice, one presence, one personality. I'm not sure if we fell into this with emphasis on preachers, or revivalists, or paid staff, but the "one talker" phenomena is a tough gig. It takes a lot of energy, presence, and work for one primary player to fill the role. It may be strong in some respects- continuity, expectations, control, etc. But it also has a down side in connecting to many people and personalities in a community. If the community is all the same this might work though eventually boredom is liable to set in. Even professionals with monologues tend to have a stable of writers, and take a lot of time (and time off) to keep up the creativity and sharpness of their work.

The solo voice also lends itself to worship being primarily a spectator sport. It's like attending a performance where the music is presented and then an actor shares a monologue.

Of course, theologically, there are serious deficits to this as well. How does one person, from their experience, intellect, and voice, adequately share a message from God in worship Sunday after Sunday? More voices, developed and working together, may better represent both God and community and therefore enhance our church communication. Practically, one voice seldom represents and communicates well with a community and all the sub-cultures and people groups that call the place home.

My experience in worship has been wonderfully stretched by my involvement with the larger Church. I deeply appreciate the variety of languages, musical styles, and voices which can enliven worship and our experience of God. Often you may only see this on a mission Sunday or at a large worship gathering that is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic. Again, this reminds us of the deficiencies of some of our practices which too quickly narrow the possible audience of the entire community to only one group or sub-culture of the community.

I recently attended a suburban church that had a somewhat typical format where a liturgist also served as the music director, and the preacher had most of the speaking parts in worship. There were a few hundred people present and a certain "sameness" to everyone in attendance. There was a time of prayer where folk from the crowd could share a joy or concern, but often in the sanctuary the sharing couldn't be heard. So, even this, proved not to be intimate and community building, and instead seems to reinforce the suburban isolation and separation. Of course, there was a choir, and the congregation shared music. It was all very routine, easily anticipated, and carefully scripted and managed. In this more formal setting a video of recent church ministry seemed to be the primary way to get more voices into worship. Such worship seems more like a production, more like a monologue, and is interesting yet predictable as a spectator sport.

I also recently attended worship in an urban church. Think tough, declining neighborhood and a church which has grown in recent years to match the folk from the immediate community. The church was formerly all white and is now about 50/50 black and white. In contrast to the highly scripted suburban church this was a little more like a "pick up" game of basketball. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the key players knew their role and had rehearsed for music, solo, readings, and sermon. But you could tell everyone had a voice here and so the banter, the invitation to talk, was modeled by many. This gathering of 60 people had most actively participating in some way. When there is a call to prayer the various individuals who spoke could be heard and got into details- e.g. challenges of a job, friend in prison, family with cancer, the state of the neighborhood, a recent ministry of the church, etc. In this less formal, highly relational setting there were a variety of voices which lent to a strong sense of worship flow and balance. While the preacher did have 20-25 minutes of the hour there was something about the authenticity and revealing of it all that was more like a dialogue which called for participation.

As I continue to hear what this is teaching me I'm drawn to concepts of worship better reflecting the community. Any church interested in greater effectiveness in reaching the community, especially multi-cultural or multi-ethnic individuals or families, would do well to always have a variety of people consistently active in worship and church leadership. This may run counter to some church cultures (e.g. "What are we paying the preacher for?"), or some clergy personalities (it takes more time and energy to engage more people in worship as opposed to it being a "one man show"), but there is a great power in this in terms of better reflecting the community and reaching more people.

A church culture which leans toward authentic following of Christ in the neighborhood, and reflecting God through the variety of people found in those streets, will greatly benefit from engaging everyone in the sanctuary in some element of active worship leadership. Giving the community voice in the sanctuary and church life will help people of the community to find God through the ministries of the congregation.