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!