Category: church renewal

Visit a Ragamuffin Church

Visit a Ragamuffin Church

The following was written last summer. I was reflecting on the recent purchase of a car and how people tend to look at finding a new church in the same way. I also made an ask that people looking for a new church community look for a “dead” church where they can be of service instead of finding a church that fits their needs. Of course, I say this as the pastor of a ragamuffin, “dead” church. I hope it is of help.

Keep reading at my Medium page…

 

Delis and Supermarkets

Daniel and I in front of Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.

In early September, Daniel and I flew to San Diego to visit a friend. The next day, we drove up to Los Angeles to visit a world famous car museum and other various sites in the City of Angels.

That evening we had dinner at a real Jewish delicatessen that looked like it could have been in New York and not Los Angeles. We had the most fatty sandwiches and decadent desserts you could ever have. There was an odd juxtaposition of having a deli in the land of clean living where people eat in open air restaurants. But this deli was able to stay in business because of the good food and a place of community. You could hear people speaking in Eastern European languages as they ate their corned beff sandwiches.

Presbyterian pastor Jack Haberer wrote back in 2007 about the difference between delis and supermarkets. Delis were small places that had produce that came straight from the farm. But the delis were put out of business by the growth of supermarkets which provides a large selection of items from everywhere. He then relates this to small churches like ours. First Christian is a deli church. We are not large in space or in size. Harberer notes that at times small churches look at the larger “supermarket” churches that offer a bevy of programs and think they can’t really do what they do.

He states one idea: small churches could become places of spiritual formation. But to do that, we have to expect more:

One thing we can do is to turn our churches into universities of spiritual formation.  

We Presbyterians are smart. We are avid readers. We equip our leaders with high quality educations to instruct us in the faith. Some of us are squandering that great asset. I hate to say it — I don’t want to misjudge — but I fear that too many churches have extended their pastors an unwritten and probably unstated but well understood term of call: “You don’t expect much from us, and we won’t expect much from you.”

What those churches are trying to avoid are too many programs, too many costs, and too many classes to attend. Sunday school? That’s for kids. We have no kids? Then we don’t need Sunday school. Ah, no teachers to recruit. No curriculum to buy. What a relief!

We Disciples are also smart avid readers. Our heritage is one where the congregation was expected to study the Bible for themselves.

But as Harberer notes, small churches tend to think because they don’t have the money or people to do things start to not expect much from themselves or their pastor.

Small churches can at times think they really can’t do anything because of their time. There is some truth that a small church can’t do everything. But are we selling ourselves short? More importantly, are we selling God short? Do we not see how God can work even through the small and weak?

Haberer uses an example when he was a young pastor at a small congregation:

Churches that sleepy are few in number, but like Joe Gatta, many a church leader watches out the narthex window as the population drives by en route to one of those other service providers.

This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus was the one who commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” and many in our nation are hungering to live into that commission.

Can that be done in smaller churches? Karen DeBoer, a developer of small church children’s curriculum, says it can be done (article link). I asked her, “How can small churches become magnetic?” She responded with force and enthusiasm, “The biggest thing is for leaders to treat that program big even though it’s little. Whether you have five kids or 50 or 250, you give it the same effort because God led that child through the doors for you to minister to.”

If only to humor my youthful enthusiasm, the elders on the Session and members in the congregation rose to the challenge. They developed more programs and recruited more classes — for all ages — than ever conceived before. Our weekly calendar soon filled like that of churches three to four times our size. We stretched our resources, financial and human, almost to the breaking point but, funny, they never did break. What we did do was to develop a reputation in the community for quality educational ministries for all ages. And we drew in new members at a rate that defied local population growth trends.

Too often what we do is hope and wait that we can get enough people to do programs that will allow us to do all the things we want to do. But why do we need to wait? As I said in last week’s reflection, God gives us what we need to do God’s work. What if we looked at our children and youth and create a program even though we don’t have many kids? What if we had other people besides the pastor leading Bible Studies? What if we used the downstairs to host a community meal?

There really isn’t a silver bullet to help a church grow or become a strong church. What makes the difference is taking a risk, a leap of faith, trusting that God will be with us as we take the leap.

My guess is that deli in LA is doing such good business because they provide great service and great food. Churches need to be doing the same. We have to trust that God will be with us walk together in mission and ministry.

The Church of Tomorrow

What is church all about?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for some time. It kicked into overdrive when I read the Interim Regional Minister’s monthly column. Churches in my region were worried. Would they continue? What can they do turn things around?

My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) describes the local congregation in our Design of the Christian Church. It states:

Congregations constitute the primary expression of the community of faith within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Through congregations, individuals are brought to the saving grace of Christ, baptized into the Body of Christ, nurtured in their faith, and gather at the Lord’s Table. Joined in discipleship, congregations partner with their regions and the general ministries of the church to share the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.

Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The statement is pretty clear. The local church is physical place where people are “brought into the saving grace of Christ.” It is the place where people are baptized, nurtured and receiving communion.

The words seem clear, but at times it feels at least in our denomination that we are all confused why the local congregation exists. Why are we here? Why do we matter? Do we matter? Those congregations in Iowa wonder, how long will they be around. They are dealing with a changing culture and are unsure where to turn next.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I’m not a Regional Minister, I’m just a pastor in a small suburban church that is wondering how it will survive in a changing world.

And how the times are changing! We live in a time when the church is not so central in our culture. We also live in a time when anti-institutionalism is rampant in our culture and that way of thinking has crept into the church. How many of us have heard how Jesus didn’t care about the institutional church? It’s the belief that as long as we do good in the world, why do we need church?

So mainline/progressive churches need to ask what are churches for, and it is a question that has to be answered if congregations are going to have any future.

I think we need churches as places where people are formed as followers of Jesus. It is a communal experience where we learn from each other. We need places that are places where forgiveness is possible, there are people who long to be forgiven. That need for forgiveness is important, but mainline churches are not as comfortable of talking about sin. What they are comfortable doing is focusing on justice issues. Issues like the environment or racial justice are issues where the church need to give voice, but as Christians we understand these issues belie the fact that we are in bondage to sin. Heidi Havercamp looks back to her great-grandfather to relearn the Calvinist belief in total depravity. She writes:

In recent years, the doctrine of total depravity has caught my imagination. It’s the first tenet of the notorious “TULIP” acronym, which came into popular use among Calvinists around the time of my great-grandfather’s retirement as a way to summarize the five main points of the faith. If you’ve never heard the term before, “total depravity” might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology. Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things—but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin…

Total depravity speaks to sin in our personal lives. More importantly for me, it also gives theological definition to corporate and societal sins. It’s not just that I am unable to love everyone I meet or to live a life that is plastics-free. I have also found it impossible to untangle my individual life from systems of injustice—institutionalized racism, pollution of the air and land and water, cheap clothing and food supplies that depend on the exploitation of laborers, banks and corporations that bend the economy toward their profit. A contemporary Episcopal prayer of confession includes this line: “We repent of . . . the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” There is a lot of suffering and a lot of evil in this world, and I find I cannot consider myself entirely innocent of it.

Eric Thorson, who was a classmate of mine at Luther Seminary, understands that people are hungry for a place where they can experience forgiveness:

My work as a pastor came at a pivotal time in American Christianity.  Inclusion was the most pressing thing to be talking about.  The ideas and words we had spoken about people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender were not adequate to the reality of these people’s lives.  The ministry of the church had driven these people into hiding, hurt them, divided their families, and provided cover for the selfish hatreds people have toward those who are different.  I fought and preached and agonized over how to get the church to recognize the full equality of these beloved children of God.

My church, the ELCA, is trying to prove its relevance at a time of great unrest in society.  So many things have gone wrong.  So many wrongs have been championed in the name of religion.  How can we show we are not part of the problem?  How can we resist the tide of loveless brutality that sweeps through our society?

And yet, coming to church as a stranger, as a person merely seeking mercy and forgiveness, sometimes I have seen the basic message of the Christian faith drowned out by the struggles of the moment.  Yes, it is important to know the difference between good and evil, sin and righteousness, and yet, we should not forget that we are not good or righteous.  We need grace and mercy and life from One greater than ourselves.

I have met so many people these past years who are afraid of the church not because it fails to be inclusive, but because they believe their sins cannot be forgiven.

There is a truth in coming to the table as a beggar, to eat and drink life unearned and undeserved.  This truth should not be lost.

I think if I were to talk to those congregations, it is to tell them that there isn’t a special program that will turn their church around. Instead, I would tell them that they recover the lost lessons found in the Design. They need to be a places where people are formed into becoming followers of Jesus. They need to be places where they know that they are forgiven by God and experience the grace that has been denied to them for so long.

Finally, they need to be places where they are willing to take a risk for the Kingdom of God. The cover story in a recent edition of the City Pages focuses on Peace Lutheran church. A small congregation found on the edge of St. Paul. The church dwindled down to about 20 members and there was maybe about a year of finances left. It was then the church decided that if they were going to close they would at least do it with a bang. They opened the doors to the community and death was postponed:

“Parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So they took loving thy neighbor to a practical extreme. Peace leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.”

A church that wasn’t open much through the week was now the first place people looked to if something went wrong.  Strangers decided to donate to the congregation keeping it afloat. The little church kept going out being servants to their community.  The church is growing because the people decided to risk, to serve.

Local churches in big cities, small towns and suburbs are places that are a local example of the wider church. If people are going to see real live followers of Jesus in action, it’s going to be at the church. It’s a place where they can see God in action through the lives of everyday people. If they are going to experience grace in a world where that is in short supply, it’s going to be at the local church.

That’s why churches exist. In a time where we think it’s all about me, the church says you are you because of community. In a time where the stranger is shunned, the church opens its door. In a culture where the meritocracy pushes people to be perfect, the church says we aren’t perfect but we are forgiven.

This is the message mainline churches need to recover. We need churches. Not because we love institutions, but because 2000 years ago, small churches in the dusty corner of an empire were able to turn the world upside down. We did it then and with God’s help, we can do it again.

Why I Can’t Give Up the Mainline

presbyterian-church

A recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune got attention nationwide.  It focused on the closing a rural Lutheran church this coming summer in particular and about the Mainline Protestant Church as a whole.

The long decline of the Mainline denominations is nothing new. It’s been happening for decades, but it’s speeding up.  Over the years, I’ve agreed with some that the Mainline churches tend to at times de-emphasize the gospel to the point that the church offers little to the general public. Anyone who has read this blog over the years know that I have issues with my own denomination and the mainline church and I think those grievances are legit.

But even though I sometimes feel adrift where there is a strong focus on social justice but very little at times on the spiritual, even though there might be churches and denominations where I could find a better fit, even though there might be churches where the theology is sounder and not feel like its being tacked on to whatever cause, even if there are places where I feel like evangelism is viewed as important as social justice, I will stay in the mainline church for one very important reason:

It is the only place where I can worship God openly and safely as a gay man.

This is something that sets me apart from other people who might be evangelical, conservative, orthodox or traditional (ECOT). They can happily leave, but I can’t.  Because even though there might be places that have the “correct” theology, they are not places of welcome for me or other LGBT people. For example, I’ve always been impressed by the Evangelical Covenant Church, especially in how the deal with racial justice (there is a very good interracial church in Minneapolis focused on racial and ethnic justice), but it is not ready to accept any church that is openly welcoming of LGBT people. A lot of the more conservative churches are places where I could never be a pastor, and in some cases not even be a member.

Paul Moore, a colleague and Presbyterian minister, is also familiar with decline.  But he has also been involved in revitalizing one church and planting another, in a time when the Mainline is declining he has been a planting seeds of revival.

As someone who helped redevelop a Presbyterian church and who started a new Presbyterian church virtually from scratch, I live and breathe the question(s) of how to build a church ministry from a Mainline perspective that is appealing to the wider community.

Do I think it is possible to build a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation in 2018?  Of course I do!   I’ve seen it happen in the two contexts I’ve served.  And more importantly God hasn’t changed in the last 18 years; the stories of Jesus haven’t changed in the last 18 years; the possibility of individuals and the wider community having their lives transformed in the last 18 years haven’t changed either.

I don’t think that the path to building a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation is easy. And the ways to do this are many.

I do believe that one essential way to growth is to adapt continuously.

One of the strengths of liberal, Mainline churches is that they have been willing to welcome those that have in the past been banned or restricted. Not just gays, but allowing women to become ministers and be able to fully listen to their call. It was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, helping the nation finally live up to the promises it said it followed in the Constitution.

What has made Mainline churches go into decline is not liberalism. Instead, it is what a pastor I know has said: mainline churches are no longer good at communicating the gospel, let alone explain the role faith has in their lives. This is where evangelicals shine, because they know what they believe in. What I think needs to happen is that pastors in mainline congregations have to begin preaching the gospel, Jesus Christ and merge that with it’s social liberal outlook.

So, I want to stay to build up the lost vital center in mainline churches. We have to find ways to be strong on social justice and evangelism. We have to help people know what they believe and use their faith to preach liberty to the captives.

I believe the mainline church does have a future. It has to, for my sake. I remain, hoping to help change the church for the better, because it is the only faith home I have.

With all the problems it has,with all the ways it seems out of step with my faith, I want to stay in the mainline church. I want to stay to reform it, since at the end of the day, it’s my only home.

Preach the Gospel. Use Words.

When I was in seminary, I learned one of those ten dollar words that mean something to the art of being a pastor.  That word is proclamation or its even more fancy Greek version,κήρυγμα or kerygma. Kerygma means preaching.  When a pastor gives a sermon, he or she should be participating in proclaiming or kerygma.

But while preaching is kerygma, it isn’t everything.  Kerygma has a larger meaning; it’s about telling a story, telling a specific story.  The ethical teachings of Jesus had to be placed in a context.  The early Christians found a way to tell the story of Jesus and they called it, the proclamation or kerygma. This is how theologian C.H. Dodd described it:

According to the evidence of the New Testament, the earliest exponents of the Christian religion worked out a distinctive way of presenting the fundamental convictions of their faith, in a formula which they called “the proclamation. The Greek word here is kerygma. Our translators of the Bible commonly render it “preaching” but in its current implications at the present day the word is misleading. Kerygma properly means a public announcement or declaration, whether by a town crier, or by an auctioneer commending his goods to the public, or by the herald of a sovereign state dispatched on a solemn mission, to present an ultimatum, it may be, or to announce terms of peace.

The Christian “preacher” thought of himself as an announcer of very important news. He called it quite simply “the good news,” or in our traditional translation, “the gospel. ” It was this “good news” that was embedded in the “proclamation”, the kerygma. It was essentially a public announcement of events of public importance.

Dodd goes on to say that the proclamation could be recovered from the New Testament and the proclaimation had a purpose; to be confronted by the living God:

The form and content of the proclamation, the kerygma, can be recovered from the New Testament with reasonable accuracy. It recounted in brief the life, and work of Jesus Christ, His conflicts. sufferings. and death. and His resurrection from the dead; and it went on to declare that in these events the divinely guided history of Israel through long centuries had reached its climax. God Himself , had acted decisively in this way to inaugurate His kingdom upon earth. This was the core of all early Christian preaching, however it might be elaborated, illustrated, and explained.

The preacher’s aim was to convince his hearers that they were. indeed confronted by the eternal God in His kingdom, power, and glory; that they, like all men. stood under His judgment upon what they had done and upon what they were, and that this judgment was now immediate and inescapable; further. that those who would put themselves under God’s judgment would, through His mercy. find an opportunity open to them to enter upon a new life; that actually, as a result of these facts which they proclaimed, a new era in the relations between God and man had begun.

Those who responded to this appeal and placed themselves under the judgment and mercy of God as declared in Jesus Christ, became members of the community, the Church, within which the new life could be lived. These members were then instructed in the ethical principles and obligations of the Christian life. This course of instruction in morals, as distinct from the proclamation of the gospel, is covered by the term “‘teaching,” which in Greek is didaché.

This order of approach, first the proclamation, then the beginning of instruction in morals, first kerygma, then didaché, seems to have been thoroughly characteristic of the Christian mission; it is precisely this order, first kerygma. then didaché, which we have seen to be general in the New Testament writings.

So proclamation wasn’t just saying something to say something. It was about telling a story, THE story and connecting it to the lives of those around them.

So proclamation is about speaking something. It isn’t something that can be achieved without words. Which means that the old saying attributed to St. Francis (but really isn’t his words), ““Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary,” might not actually make sense.

Now, most mainline Christians love this passage for one simple reason: you don’t have to talk about Jesus to people. You don’t have to look weird or like those evangelicals down the street. But as evangelical theologian Ed Stetzer said in a 2015 article, preaching the gospel is about preaching about the saving work of Jesus. Since Jesus is the gospel, we can’t really “live out the gospel,” but instead have to announce the gospel:

The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

He goes on to say that proclamation is the central task of the church (which means it isn’t just the job of the pastor):

It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.

So, why am I talk about proclamation at this moment?

Because it has implications for some of my work outside the pulpit and because this is a major weakpoint of mainline churches.

Communication, about who we are and what we do is not a very prominent mission within mainline churches.  There are some bright spots among the Lutherans and Episcopalians, but for the most part the task of communication is not considered very important.

About 10 years ago, things were different.  The birth of social media breathed new life into the task of communicating. Positions were created that were communications-focused. Conferences were held to help churches become more tech savvy.  But then, all of this stopped.  It might have been the Great Recession, but all of the sudden, it wasn’t so important to have a good website or effective social media presence.  Positions created a few years prior were cut with churches and middle judicatories putting the task of communications on already burdened administrative assistants or volunteers.

The thing is, mainline churches have long thought what was important is what we do, not what we say.  Except, if we don’t tell people why we are feeding the homeless or why we are taking part in this protest, then people don’t know we are doing this because we follow Jesus.  They will assume you are just nice people.

The fact of the matter is that we are called to preach the gospel. NOT be the gospel; that’s something onlyJesus can do. NOT live out the gospel, because again, Jesus.  We are called to preach the gospel and since we don’t possess the power to speak telepathically to people, we have to say something.

In a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Communicators Network meeting in North Carolina in 2008, I said that being church communicators mean looking out to see what God is doing in the world:

Whether we are communicators at the church, presbytery, synod or General Assembly level, this is our charge: to find out what God is up to in the world, to be empowered by the Spirit to tell the story of healing and love to a world that desparately needs to hear it.

But most churches and middle judicatories don’t act as if this is such an important task. Most churches ask an admin to do it, if they have the skills. The same might go for middle judicatories.

Evangelical churches have tended to be light years away from mainline churches when it comes to communications. But they also tend to be better at proclaiming the gospel. I might not agree with how it is done at times, but they do show they have the skills to make sure their social media sites, webpage and newsletters are proclaiming the gospel message.

Historically, mainline churches weren’t very strong with communicating the gospel, because culture was soaked enough with the faith that we didn’t have to. But those days are gone and it’s time to focus on how to learn to preach the good news through communication as well as other methods.

Because we have to preach the gospel and we need to use words.

Questions on the Disciples and the Local Church

Disclaimer: I have to start this blog post off by saying that the following criticism is not directed at any one person.  It is NOT a personal attack on anybody.  This is a critique of a larger system that people might be a part of, but again my beef is with the system and not any person.

church-you-can-see-through-10I think congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are in trouble and parts of the  General and Regional Church bodies are not prepared to deal with it.

They aren’t ready because they are not geared towards helping congregations as they are focused on their own agendas and a less corporate spirituality.

They also aren’t ready because in the past, the churches were doing well.  In the heyday of the Disciples, the churches were full and sent their monies to the various ministries.  Not every church was great, but churches were not dealing with the massive change they are now so whatever issues there were might have been easily solvable.

None of this was intentional.  I don’t think there are folks in Indianapolis sitting around finding ways to destabilize local churches.  That said, I think churches are struggling to be relevant and sustainable in this new century and time of being church and the various agencies of the denomination are not responsive enough to the changing mission field.

They also aren’t ready because the current structure of the denomination, now nearly 50 years old, isn’t designed to help congregations of the 21st century. I’ve said it a few times before, and it bears repeating now. According a video shown at the 2013 General Assembly, only 18 percent of Disciple congregations are considered sustainable according to 20th century standards, meaning the ability to pay a full time pastor among other factors.  I said in a post a year ago, that my current congregation is not considered susatainable according to these standards.  Which means we have to find a new standard.  What makes a congregation sustainable and vital?  That’s a question that people at the General church and the Regional church have to answer.  I think there are a lot of churches like First Christian-St. Paul that are not considered sustainable according to the mid-20th century standards, but they are still places filled with vitality.  How is the wider church reaching out to them and helping them with resources?

How are we handling churches that decide to close?  Are we working with the leadership to look at using the sale of buildings to further ministry?  Are we helping them “die with dignity?” Do we offer pastoral care for the members?

How do we help congregations understand their ministry context?  How is Regional staff working to help these churches do ministry in this post-establishment era of mainline churches?  Is there a way for churches to share their best practices?  In the past, tools that help churches understand the demographics of their neighborhood were available in the Region.  A few years ago, it seemed that Hope Partnership could do this but for a fee.  Can this be made free again so that churches can access this resource?

Here’s a basic one: do we even know why we need congregations?  My take is at times we don’t know.  It could be why new church ministry languishes in some regions. Speaking of new church, are Regions working on ways to have staff support for this endeavor? Do we understand how these churches can introduce people to a loving God?  Do we understand that churches are small examples of the kingdom God is bringing forth?

That’s just some of the questions I have right now about Disciple congregations.  I’m curious to know if others have the same questions or even if they have questions.  I’d like to hear from fellow Disciples on this.

 

 

The Church for Today (and not 1955)

First Christian Church of St. Paul.
First Christian Church of St. Paul.

This morning at church, things are what they are on most Sundays. We had about 15 people who sang, prayed and listened to the sermon.  We talked about making sandwiches for the homeless in a few weeks time.

But something unusual did happen today.  For whatever reason, an elderly woman was dropped off at 9AM for the service held by a church that rents our space.  Their worship service was at 11.  The woman used a wheelchair.  And because our heater is on the blink, the church was cold, causing her to shiver.  The congregants fretted about leaving this woman in the narthex for two hours, so it was decided that we bring her into the sanctuary where we had some space heaters going.  The woman had to go to two services, but I think she enjoyed herself.  I know it warmed my heart when she was served communion along with everyone else.

This is a wonderful example of church in action.  But I think that if it were known to some denominational people, First Christian-St. Paul would be closed.

Why?  Well, we have a tiny membership that barely keeps things afloat.  They can’t afford a full time pastor.  The money is always tight.  If we were to judge this congregation according to the standards of say 1955, we would not be considered sustainable.  And in the eyes of some who still unknowingly follow those standards, we should have closed a long time ago.

One of the things that saddens me is when a church closes.  Now I  know all things must die, and no church lasts forever.  But sometimes I think in mainline Protestantism, we have lost the meaning of what is true church and because of this, we tend to pull the cord on congregations too early.  There might be other ideas available if people could get out of making churches what they were when Eisenhower was president.

In the 1950s, mainline Protestant denominations were a potent spiritual, civic and cultural force in America.  People filled the pews of churches, because of culture as much as because of faith in Jesus.  Pastors and churches were part of the community, acting as civic boosters as well as religious leaders.  National leaders listened to what we had to say.

Lots of churches were planted in that era.  They were planted in areas where there wasn’t a denominational presence and set up shop.  Usually these churches were planted in growing suburbs where people moved into new homes.  For the most part suburban churches were built and the people came in droves to be a part of them. An article from 2010 explains the important role Mainline Protestant churches had in our culture:

Historically, members of mainline Protestant churches were the leaders of American civic culture and institutions. Whether it was as bank president, town manager, local newspaper editor, or as the state senator and governor, mainline Protestant Christian commitments and values were both represented and reflected in the world view of public leaders – with the result that the United States was distinctly mainline Protestant Christian in outlook….Back when mainline Protestantism provided the worldview and values of the nation, mainline churches did not have to spend much organizational effort on teaching their values to their children; the culture reinforced their views. By contrast, African American churches, Catholics, non-mainline versions of Christianity, and non-Christian faith communities (notably Jewish groups) had to be intentional about teaching their views and values to their offspring. Non-mainline faith communities paid particular attention to three areas of church life: worship that clearly reflected and inculcated a particular view of God and humankind, religious education that intentionally articulated those worship values, and fellowship that provided social and cultural reinforcement for the community’s values, especially where they diverged from those of the dominant culture.

But fast forward 60 years and we find that mainline Protestantism is no longer the force in society it once was.  The ultimate insiders were now on the outside.  Churches lost members.  Some Denominational executives seem stymied as to what can be done. Others think it is time to face reality and begin closing churches can cutting staff to make ends meet. Our leaders in many ways are still in a mindset from the 1950s, which means that churches are viewed in that same light.  If a church has lost members or maybe has lost vision of focus and it’s budget has taken a hit, that church is a prime candidate for closure.  No one necessarily make a congregation close its ministry, but in my observation it is strongly suggested.

In some ways, when churches were planted in the 50s and 60s, they were planted in areas where say, there wasn’t a Presbyterian church in the area.  What this means is that congregations were viewed as franchises of a certain brand.  This is a different way of seeing congregations from evangelicals.  The language I hear about evangelical church planting is that they move into an area that might not have many people who identify as Christians and they want to share Christ with people.  The language used when some of the suburban mainline churches were planted were about serving a potential population of church goers.  It seems that in one example, the church exists to serve the people.  In the other, the church exists to extend the brand.

Companies like Target or Kroger close stores that are underperforming.  It doesn’t really matter if that area then has no location of their store, that location is closed.  I think inadvertently, this how we view congregations.  We keep the performing ones open and close the underpreforming ones.

But an underperforming church isn’t the same as a Target store with poor sales.  I’ve seen churches close that still had some potential for new ministry.  Of course the church would have to change, but the tools for a new or revived church were available.

Also, when a church closes, there very well might be ministries that can be harmed.  There are churches that are stuggling and yet are performing ministries to people around them, doing such things as helping single mothers in their communities or feeding the homeless.  If the church goes away, it might very well mean that the people served by the ministry are threatened.

When a church is struggling maybe what needs to be done is to assess what can be done in ministry.  Maybe they can’t afford a full time pastor.  Could they afford a part time one?  Could a leader of the church become a commissioned or licensed minister?  What ministries can be done by the church?  Are they able to do ministry with a small membership?

Again, I am not saying you should never close a church.  But I am saying that this should be the last resort, not the first.  A church with a small membership and small budget is not a failure.  But all of this means having a very different mindset when it come to churches.  It means grading churches with a different criteria than one from the midpoint of the last century.  It means understanding what the church means in the first place and how that is expressed in a local setting.  We have to understand what a church is for in a local community.  As the quote above notes, conservative and African American churches have a better understanding of the role of the church, especially when society runs counter to their values.  The problem with mainline churches is because we were at the center of American society, culture instilled and reineforced the values that were expressed in church.  Because culture did all the heavy lifting, we viewed churches like a local franchise.  Our culture no longer reineforces Christian values.  Church can’t be viewed anymore extending the denominational brand or judged on “performance.”  There needs to be more focus in seeing congregations as places where Christians are formed, where church values are taught.

The other thing that has to change is the concept of the pastor.  The standard in the past was that a mainline pastor had a full-time salary.  But many churches are not able to fork over the 40 to 50 thousand dollars to pay for a pastor’s salary, let alone pay for their health care and retirement.  This means that churches have to start looking at part-time pastoral help.  Pastors will have to consider becoming bivocational pastors instead of seeing the church as their sole place of employment.  African American churches have long been places where the pastor worked on Sundays at church and somewhere else during the week.  I think this change is going to be hard for mainliners because we have envisioned the pastorate as a professional akin to a lawyer or doctor.  But doctors and lawyers are paid by entities that can afford to pay high salaries for their expertise.  This means that we have to look at pastors more in terms of artists instead of lawyers.  An artist doesn’t expect to make a lot of money from their work. They do what they do for the love of it.  Sometimes I think a lot of mainline pastors are in churches for reasons other than the love of sharing the good news and caring for others.  Yes, pastors should make a just salary.  But if a church can’t afford to pay a pastor $40 or 50K, but could pay maybe $15 or 20K, they should not be viewed as a failure.  A part time pastor is not inferior to a full time one.

It’s time for mainline churches to be judge according to 21st century standards and not 20th century ones.  Churches of 2015 look different than churches of 1955.  Mainline church leaders need to start living in the present and not in the past.  Congregations are more viable than we think…but we have to use a different measuring stick.

Praying for Revival (I Think)…

IMG_0021A few years ago, I was at a local  gathering of Disciples (my denomination) in Minnesota.  It was a good event overall, a time when our small tribe could gather to worship and fellowship.  Somewhere early in the event, there was a slide that showed all of the Disciple congregations in Minnesota that no longer exist.  The speaker wanted us to honor the work that these former faith communities did and I was in agreement.  They had for a season, been a small example of God’s kingdom.

As much as I wanted to honor these congregations, I also felt a sense of annoyance. Not with these congregations, but the fact that we Disciples in Minnesota are a smaller groups of people.  In the last 15 years or so, a number of congregations in the state have closed.  Churches in Rochester, Mankato and Fridley (a suburb north of Minneapolis).  Some of these congregations had simply reached the end of their lives and that is understandable. No, the frustrating thing is that we aren’t replacing those churches and it seems at times like most people don’t care.

A century ago, it was not uncommon for local churches to plant new churches.  First Christian in Minneapolis (where I used to serve) planted a number of churches over the years.  They looked to see an area where there was no Disciple church and a number of people would go to start a Sunday School class that would be come a church.

Over time, our churches have lost that evangelical drive.  We have become risk-averse. People have become skeptical that investing money in church plants actually makes a difference.  Better to spend it on a needy social service agency.  Some pastors from outside the area have said they were interested in church planting, but only if they were given money to support them.

I don’t say this to trash talk or to speak ill of folk.  But I do think there is a problem here when it comes to planting new churches.

I have had an interest myself in planting a church, but I already have a church that is in a transformation process, so I don’t know if I have the time to do this.

What is needed is for their to be a revival of sorts, people who feel called to help plant new communities.  I pray for the Pentecost winds to blow among our small Disciple tribe in Minnesota to have a passion to tell the good news of Jesus that translates into new churches.

I think we can say “well done” to those churches that are no longer with us.  But we should also be busy planting new communities, places that can reach the Minnesota of 2015.

I pray that this might come true.

Volunteers Needed: Church Launch/Re-Launch Team

First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this Mainline Protestant congregation as well as launching a preaching point somewhere in the St.Paul area.

The Re-Launch/Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you know of someone who feels called to redevelop or develop a congregation, please pass this along.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact the pastor. We will contact you shortly!

The Landscape for Mission (and Theology)

One of the things that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is trying to do better is helping people understand the context in which they are to be church.  An initiative, the  Landscape for Mission has come out that helps people explain the changing society that we find ourselves in and insight on what we can do.  I like the production value and I like that the four videos tell some hard truths about the denomination, something that a number of Disciples refuse to admit.

Where I think it falls short is in the area of theology.  I think we need to do more than address the situation of a declining denomination and offer reassuring words.  I think that among Disciples there is a massive deficit when it comes to theology.  Theology isn’t something professors do in seminary, it is about trying to understand our faith especially in the light of changed circumstances.  We need to do more than say the church is declining; we have to ask, what is church? Who is Jesus?  What does it mean that Jesus died on a cross?  What does it mean that Jesus was raised?  What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is mission? What is the mission of the church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Disciple in this day and age?  Even more basic: What is a Disciple?

Fellow Disciples pastor Robert Cornwall has noticed the lack of theological thinking within Liberal Christianity with some concern.  In a posting written last month, he shares a quote from Canadian Theologian Douglas John Hall:

In short, Gospel needs theology; and where it is truly gospel and not just spiritual sound-and-fury gospel will evoke theology. It was fashionable during the Liberal period to minimize the importance of the epistles of St. Paul, or even to dismiss them. But without Paul’s theological acumen, which is reflected as well in the gospels, the early Christian movement would have split into millions of mutually exclusive and quarreling cults, and we should never have heard of the Christian religion. The fundamental claims of the Christian message by their very nature, including their boldness and universality, require the most intensive, committed and sustained thinking that human beings can manage. This thinking is not something added to the hearing of gospel; it is inherent in that hearing—to the extent that where such thinking is not evoked by what is named gospel, it must be questioned whether the thing so named is what it claims to be.

To which Cornwall adds:

If we are to call ourselves Christians and consider God to be a part of our lives, then this will require clear and thoughtful thinking about God and the things of God.  Hall notes that prior to the 4th century, when theology became more clearly the domain of the elite, Christians engaged in a lot of God-talk.   After Constantine, we left it to the experts.  While at one level theology requires significant training and expertise, at another level it can be and should be something engaged in by all of God’s people, otherwise we simply become another group therapy session.
Though we needn’t be dogmatic, and doubt is part of the theological process, we needn’t be afraid to embrace the gospel with its theological dimensions.  The key is holding our beliefs with a dose of an “absolute perhaps.”  That is a phrase I learned from another colleague, who with me recognized the importance of theology.  Can we not engage in conversation with the “absolute perhaps” standing at the center of the conversation?
Cornwall and Hall didn’t write this with the Disciples in mind, but it rings true.  As a denomination we don’t even look to the thoughts and musings of one of it’s well-known founders Alexander Campbell to even have some understanding of the Disciples views on mission and ministry.
I know that I will get painted as a naysayer, but I think one of the reasons the Disciples are in the situation they are currently is because we haven’t really taken the time to think theologically.
Maybe, the Landscape for Mission will foster more ongoing discussion and theological conversation.  I want to believe that.