Wednesday, February 3, 2016

What's Your Momentum?

I likely should call some of these "Coffee Diaries" as I jot down thoughts based on recent conversations in a rather unedited, stream of consciousness style. Perhaps some of this will flow, and not have too many grammar or spelling problems, and might be useful in your personal and corporate church ministry.

I'm now involved with many churches in a variety of locations. Rural and urban, small membership and large, in the United States and around the world, and all the "in between" descriptors are now my world. In my own home annual conference we have 912 congregations spread across North Georgia. In many respects learning about, and growing in relationship and partnership with so many congregations, is similar to getting to know thousands of people. There are many similarities, yet each church with it's own context, history, and personality.

What is your approach when you are getting to know a congregation in a visit? For me it is always interesting to learn who they are, what they do as a church, and how they present themselves and that vibe that they give off. Some congregations present as young and sassy (sometimes full of themselves!), and others seem old and frail. Most are somewhere between birth and death, but where?

Have you ever walked into a congregation and thought, "This seems like a dynamic place full of the Holy Spirit!" Or perhaps you've been to a church and sense gloom and doom and wondered, "YIKES, what is going on here?" But, more often than not, most congregations seem to be in their particular "groove," doing what they do, with a certain routine and normalcy that they expect and perhaps even demand. As a visitor or outsider it's sometimes a challenge to really experience and know the congregation and have a "clear read" on who the church is and who they are becoming.

No matter the "age or stage" of a congregation, I'm often curious what the momentum of the church is. Is the congregation stable, declining, or advancing? How long have they been in this movement, or lack of it, and how does this match with what God and the people expect? If a church has been in decline 10-20 years, and the "youngster" in the church is 75, and all the members live outside the immediate neighborhood of the church, how are they feeling and what are they expecting as a congregation?

Here's another image that might work for you as you think about your congregation. In some ways this is somewhat similar to boarding a ship and expecting a great journey, an adventure, and that everyone must be together, work together. Along the way you'll have opportunity to add others to the crew. It's a working crew experience! To "arrive" you'll need everyone to give their all, and to add new crew along the way. With such a visual where's your ship? Are you in the harbor ready to set out again? Do you have enough hands on deck to move the ship and get up some speed? Perhaps your church is more like a ship adrift, or maybe in even worse shape stuck on a reef or with a hole in the hull! In this we also recognize there can be negative momentum or positive momentum. Once the speed picks up, in either direction, the movement itself can take on a life of it's own which might not be easily controlled.

When I think about church momentum I'm reminded of the type advance, movement, growth, engagement, and Body of Christ found in the Acts of the Apostles. This is a living proclamation in word and deed. The church is in desperate need of experiencing this as more than an old story, but reclaiming again the experience and current redemptive story of God as our way of being. If you want to track some of this skim through the book again and consider what this might look like if alive in your church and community. For me, I'm always drawn to Acts 2:42-47, Acts 5:12-16, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 8:7-8 (healing and "much joy in that city"), Acts 9:31,  Acts 10 (proclamation and response from variety ethnic groups- an ongoing theme in Acts), Acts 12:12, Acts 13:48-52 (possibility AND challenge!), Acts 16:5, and you will find other passages that reinforce this idea and form a great study for a church. Note there can be/will be opposition and persecution in such a movement (& not just silly culture skirmishes but the real thing which our international Christian brothers and sisters know too much about! Read Acts 7-8, Acts 12, and other passages again if you doubt or minimize this reality).

As you continue to read in Acts realize that Paul and company were active, unafraid of tension, and in fact saw the value of a call to response, repentance, and following in this Way of Christ. Find MANY clues about momentum in church and community in the Acts of the Apostles that could well be lived out again today.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Evaluate Your Church Missions

Here’s a quick note on an issue that keeps coming up in conversations. I’ll return at some point to edit and make clarifications where needed. So, it’s percolating for me, but I’ve got to race on to something else…

Many, many churches have a struggle with doing any form of assessment or evaluation of their ministries. It is an uneasy proposition for many to evaluate in both quantitative and qualitative ways what is occurring. Of course, the alternative (which too many congregations fall into), is a rather haphazard ministry approach which ends up being built upon personalities and projects. Laity may have qualms about evaluation because they don’t want to upset friends or “rock the boat.” Or perhaps we’ve had bad experience with this before and it seems more like business than church. Or maybe we don’t want to accept the reality of our church situation. Does this rather typical church scenario sound familiar in your setting?

Over the years we’ve seen what can happen when we find a focus and get more intentional about strengthening ministry. Think about church music, or Bible study, or your favorite ministry area that exhibits vigor, growth, and a sensibility of “doing it right.” Once upon a time, I can remember when a church would be glad to get anybody to teach the middle school boys class. It’s a powerful change when a church moves to identifying someone who has calling, interest, time, and hones their skill and devotes themselves to doing their best. As a church adopts such a strategy it has impact across the life of the congregation.   

Often many ministry areas of a church may have some focus and goal/s by virtue of the defined task at hand. So, Bible studies or age level ministry or other ministries at the core of most congregational functioning may be rather prescribed in approach. It’s the ministry areas where there is less definition that a church can really get into a mess with a fuzzy, nebulous approach. Often these ministry areas may operate on the edge of an “all church” concern. In many situations such ministries may be well outside the primary interest of clergy or key committees, so as long as a group or individuals don’t disturb the “all church” functioning, or break some major rules of etiquette (formal or informal), the group/s will be allowed to continue. It’s likely that some personality driven character can make something happen, and when we lack that person everything crumbles.

For instance, many congregations do some sort of mission/missions. Now, this is one of those fascinating words as it can mean just about anything under the sun depending on who you talk to (that’s a topic for another day to compare the biblical or theological roots with our understanding and practice. Read up on “missio Dei,” the mission of God, as every mission committee and church needs to be encouraged to “go big” in this calling!). I find many churches where “missions” is a conglomeration of any and every “do gooder” activity imaginable. It’s as if all activity that is a helping action is on equal footing.  Perhaps this started out as the outside agencies being a “tool” or resource for a congregation, but at some stage a confusion in thinking and practice begins so that the outside organization seems on equal footing as the church. In such settings church is merely a vehicle for funding and volunteers for a range of other helping agencies from local, state, national, and international settings. We’ve lost the “flavor” of what it means to be church and to have our own church mission!

One element to the process of ministry discovery and advance can happen through evaluation each year in all of the church areas. I would strongly encourage a mix of key numbers (quantity which might compare quarter to quarter and year to year) and attempt to get a sense of the qualitative, redemptive, life giving characteristics of a church living for God. Some key questions would likely be: How have we been the church God is calling us to be this year through this ministry? How have we grown in our faith by following Jesus in this ministry? How have we relied upon the Holy Spirit in new, dynamic ways in this ministry? How many church participants have we had in this ministry? How many community members and neighbors have we gotten to know through this ministry? What have been the transformational effects of this ministry in our personal lives, church life, and community through this ministry? How many leaders do we have? How many leaders are we developing? What have been our great successes in the last year as we’ve been empowered by God (and what have we learned from that which we must remember)? What have been our great failures (and what have we learned from that which we must remember)? How is God leading us in new and different ways in this next season? How are we becoming the church God is calling us to be? Are we effectively reaching the people group/s (tribe/s) we are called to reach? What do we need to do/be differently this next season as we love God and love our as ourselves neighbor (locally, nationally, & internationally as God defines)?

If all the ministry areas do such a reflection there would likely be a new day for the church as there would be greater intersection and teamwork between ministries as we share in a common task of being the church and calling people to follow Christ. This would help us shed some baggage built up over the years and focus on the essentials.

If we continue to think specifically about mission, such an approach would certainly assist in going deeper in faith and practice and get away from some of the mission traps of the last decade or two. We may then lean more into the future than replicating the past. Mission ought to be the ministry advance of the church, the ship with a full sail set, and not an anchor only to the past. You probably want to cultivate a culture of this type sensibility, so that it is part of the ongoing strategy and discussion, while also having a set evaluation period to get into in-depth consideration of the state of missio Dei in your place.

Perhaps you or your team might find some of these questions useful. Note that I have intentionally not formatted this as a “scorecard” or excel spreadsheet and opted instead for a more conversational way of talking and praying over who a church is in mission. You could easily adapt this, plus add your own wisdom, into an approach that fits your church. The key is to get into an annual process of mission evaluation and discernment which helps your church to encourage the mission movement in your congregation and community.

When working with a mission committee discussing the “state of the church in mission” here are a few areas for consideration for evaluation:

What are the church key priorities (perhaps redundant to say "key" but we can't have 10 formal informal priorities!)? What are the few critical focal points that the whole church is working on/working out/living out? This might be a set of emphases for a year or multi-year period. Just be sure that the mission team is a vital part of the church team! Reinforce that the mission committee and teams serve under the umbrella of the church and are therefore our aim is to not create a silo, or small kingdom, or group/s of Lone Rangers or renegades.

How does mission intersect with these key church priorities? Where are the natural intersections with worship, discipleship, prayer, age level ministries, etc.? How do we more effectively interact with the whole church so that the mission culture of a congregation is as primary, and natural, as the main ministry areas?

What are the key mission partnerships and priorities for the congregation? Local? State/nation? International? Are there key mission groupings (e.g. hunger, housing, community development, church development, evangelism, children and youth, racial reconciliation, cultural immersion, etc.)  which we have, or which we lack, as we reflect on the last year? If we think of the church having a “mission portfolio” what does this look like? If we map this does it look like a shotgun pattern of many dots with little depth? Why is this so? Where do we have depth of mission? What might we give up that will make room for an “all church” focus on mission? Think in terms of engaging the entire church as opposed to only specialized skills in mission.

What are the entry points for the congregation and do we have a variety of offerings from entry level to advanced, from one time activity to long term commitment? What does this look like on an emphasis or activity calendar for a year? How do these various partnerships “feed” each other or reinforce each other? Or have we merely created different mission camps/silos within the congregation? Does this approach help us to create a church in the mission movement, and our congregation within the larger Church as a mission movement?

Do we have a current understanding and experience of the various mission partners? Is it a 50/50 partnership between our congregation and the mission partner? Or do they really only want our volunteers and funding? Perhaps there is a place for the partnership in the church “mission portfolio,” and if so, name what the partnership is good for in the functioning of the congregation and in the “next steps” the church is called to take in the next year. Is the mission partner effective and adding to our effectiveness in being the church?

How is our United Methodist congregation part of connectional mission in the city or county? In the district? In the conference? In the general Church in our country or internationally? If we are working with other groups (parachurch, nonprofit or for profit, other denomination, etc.) do we have appropriate accountability measures in place regarding our activities, funding, and partnership in case there are challenges or problems? Does the partner organization or group have appropriate “checks and balances” in place and do we have all the details for a mission committee to review annually? If we are working with another church or organization are we doing this in a location with an existing Methodist or United Methodist church (This gets complicated! But think how offensive and contrary this would be if an outside church or organization moved in on your location in your UMC conference. You can always check this at or or check with me if you need assistance. Please note that not everything called Methodist is actually vetted and in good UMC standing or they serve in some other capacity.)? Too often we have gotten looking in all sorts of places for the very relationships, resources, and opportunities that our “home team” provides.

How is the congregation in mission and part of the mission movement? How many church members are active in mission (think about both the formal corporate structure and the culture of mission)? How many folk are new in mission or have taken a step in mission? How many new leaders are we developing in mission? Are we known in the community as a “serving” church or some other descriptor which reflects who we are called to be as the Body of Christ? How might the church mission portfolio adapt to enhance what we have learned and respond to God’s call upon us in this next season?

An annual assessment of your congregation in mission can be a powerful way to listen to God and to one another if you are interested in helping your church with the next steps of faith in following Christ today. To choose not to do an annual evaluation is to choose a certain style of assessment which lends itself to maintaining the status quo and more individualist, small movement approach in mission. Choose an evaluation approach which helps your congregation to be strategic, have focus and alignment, work better as a team, and lean into the future God is calling your church into!