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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doing Church Differently 3: A Few More Types of Clusters

Everybody’s way too busy to read long blog posts at Christmas time, so I’ll briefly describe a couple of more variations on the cluster theme.

One Church, Multiple Locations

A few years ago I ran across something called Cariboo Presbyterian House Church Ministries.  This is a “church” in the interior of British Columbia that consists of between 16 and 20 house churches. Located in remote communities, the network is served by three ordained clergy whose main job is to equip local lay people to lead home based gatherings.

I’ve always thought this could be a brilliant model for the United Church to explore as churches become more isolated even within high population urban areas. It would require a big shift in the understanding of ministry. Lay people become the providers of hands-on ministry, and trained clergy become trainers and equippers rather than those who “run the church.” But in the long term, wouldn’t that be a healthier mode of being church?

 Here’s their website:


Multiple Churches, One Location

This is apparently a common model in Australia where congregations tend to be a lot smaller than they are in Canada (although we may be fast closing the gap!)

The advantages of this arrangement are obvious. Instead of each church struggling to maintain a building, several congregations move into one facility. It represents better stewardship and would create immediate financial viability for many struggling churches.

But it would demand an equally big attitude adjustment. Congregations would have to get over their proprietorial attitude to “our church building” and really learn how to share and cooperate (not a bad idea.)

But each congregation would have to have a sufficiently clear understanding of their own unique identity that they wouldn’t be tempted to “all just get together and make one church.” The value of this model is that it would make the coexistence of distinctive communities financially possible.

Why We Do This

With those thoughts, I’ll close the 2014 version of Mission, Health and Vitality. I pray that, at this season of the year, we’ll remember why we keep doing this in the face of dwindling numbers and public indifference.

It’s because we worship a God who does not exist as a remote “First Cause” or a vague spiritual idea, but who actually entered into the world in weakness and humility to reveal the power of self-giving Love.  As Eugene Peterson puts it in his Message version of the Gospel of John, God “moved into our neighborhood.”

If we could proclaim that good news effectively, we would not be wondering how we can keep our churches vibrant and alive.

I want to wish you, the congregations of which you are a part, and those you love a Blessed and Holy Christmas and Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Nobody needs to be convinced that the world has changed. Or that the church of our childhood no longer exists. Every congregation has been profoundly affected by the deep changes in our society over the last fifty years.
But what to do?
In a series of blog posts, I am exploring some different models of church that I believe are absolutely workable in a United Church context -- if there is a commitment to change for the sake of church's mission.
Last week, I looked a Missional Communities. This week I’ll look at Clusters.

What is a Cluster?
Part of the problem is with the terminology itself. The same word can mean different things to different people. For example, some people call the Missional Communities I described in my last post Clusters.

And Waterloo Presbytery has had experience with geographical groupings of congregations that were called Clusters.
I am using the word Cluster to mean “a network of congregations sharing a team of ministry leaders.”
This is nothing new. It’s the main organizational model of the Methodist Church in many places even today, such as Great Britain, where it’s called a “Circuit.”
Basically, a Cluster, or a Circuit is a grouping of congregations, usually between three and twelve in number, that are served by a team of ministry leaders who provide worship, pastoral care and programming.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical example. Six congregations decide to form a Cluster or Circuit. Most of them are served by part time ministers. All of them are struggling to maintain their buildings and pay their bills.
A ministry staff team is assembled that could include two full time Order of Ministry persons, two Licensed Lay Worship Leaders, two Congregational Designated Ministers specializing in Pastoral Care and Children and Youth, and a couple of retired ministers who are available for occasional preaching and visiting.
Between the Ordered Ministers and the LLWLs, each church would have someone to lead their worship service each week, although not the same person every week. All of the other aspects of ministry would be divided up among the team. Coverage for holidays and sabbaticals would be arranged from within the team.
Initially, the congregations might feel that they had lost something by not having their “own minister.” In order to accommodate the preaching schedule, some might need to change the time of their worship service.
But all of the churches would have the benefits of a full-time, called minister, each of whom would be able to concentrate on their own particular areas of strength, plus the services of the other members of the team. The entire circuit of 6 churches would be served by the equivalent of 4 or 4 1/2  full time staff, which would reduce the cost to each individual congregation.  They would also have access to the gifts and expertise of the several leaders with different training and gifts, not just one part-time minister.
This model would also lend itself to sharing of administrative and custodial services, office equipment and purchasing.
There are several possible variations to this model.

Variation #1:  Hub and Satellite
In this model, one larger church joins with one or more smaller churches. Staffing and administration are done through the large church, which agrees to provide worship leadership, pastoral care and support to the satellite congregations in return for paying a share of the total budget to the central treasury. The smaller churches would be guaranteed stable ministry without having to operate their own offices or do their own administration.
A further variation of this model would be live streamed worship from the hub congregation at one or more of the satellites.
While this sounds like an organizational change, it really depends on a change of attitude. People in all of the churches would need to move from thinking only about their own needs to the welfare and mission of the whole cluster. The smaller churches would have to get over their fears of being dominated or swallowed up by the larger church, while the larger church would have to agree not to regard the smaller churches as a burden. Everyone would need to be motivated by a commitment to the wellbeing of all, and the mission of the whole church.

Variation 2:  Congregational Specialization.
Think of how many of our towns and cities have two or more United Churches that all offer basically the same thing at the same hour every week. Four, five, six churches more or less the same worship service at 10:30 on Sunday morning.

Supposing a community with that number of United Churches agreed that they would each offer something different based on their particular character, strengths and resources.

Church A would offer high quality traditional worship led by the organ and chancel choir and outstanding biblical preaching at 10 a.m.
Church B would offer high energy contemporary worship led by a praise band, together with programming for children and youth at 11 a.m.
Church C has a long history of contemplative prayer and spiritual practices. They decide to forego Sunday morning altogether and offer meditative, experiential worship on Wednesday evening, plus weekday morning prayer.
Church D offers family inclusive worship on the Messy Church model at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Church E attracts a community from a specific population and ministers to their particular needs – persons with disabilities, for example, or persons in recovery.

Together, these five churches support and encourage each other’s unique ministry in the name of the mission of the United Church of Canada. Only two or perhaps three of them occupy the traditional Sunday morning time slot, but together they offer multiple points of connection to the community.

Get Over Yourself
Significant changes are not just organizational, they are cultural. They depend on an attitude adjustment, from thinking that the church’s job is to cater to the needs, wants, desires and tastes of its membership, to thinking in terms of the church’s mission. Which is really Jesus’ mission to the world through gathered communities called churches.
Congregations need to be prepared to set aside what is most convenient and satisfying for their current members for the sake of a larger vision.
Because, ironically, the more churches focus only on their inward needs, the less likely they are to survive in a rapidly changing society. The shift from the inward needs of church members to mission and discipleship for the sake of God’s reign is the key to any renewal of the church.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


“We need to do things differently.” “The church has to change.” “Business as usual is not an option.”

We all know these statements are true. But the big question is: How? How does a long-established church begin to do things in a radically different way? Can an old dog really learn new tricks?
The answer to that question is an emphatic “Yes.” The Christian church could not have survived for 2000 years if it wasn’t able to adjust, evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. Historically, it’s change and not refusal to change that has characterized the Christian church.
But we need guidance. We need vision. We need models and patterns and templates we can follow.
In the next few blog posts, I’m going to describe models of doing church differently that I believe are accessible and doable for a United Church congregation that is motivated and willing to take some risks.
Today, I’m going to look at Missional Communities.

A Missional Community is a mid-sized grouping, normally between 30 and 60 people, who are committed to growing in three areas:  their relationship with God (faith), their relationships with one another (community) and their relationship with their neighbors outside the church (mission.)

Missional communities were pioneered at  St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England
( ). But really, they are as old as the New Testament.
MCs seek a “Balanced Life”
The “core business” of a Missional Community (MC) can be pictured as a triangle:


“Up” is our relationship with God. “In” is our relationship with one another in Christian community. “Out” is our relationship with those outside the church. NOTE: The triangle is equilateral. All the sides are equal. None dominates the others, but supports and is supported by the others. Missional Communities intentionally work at achieving balance between these three dimensions of life, being careful not to over-emphasize one and neglect another.

MCs are about Discipleship
The purpose of a MC is to make disciples – to form people who will follow the healing, reconciling and redeeming way of Jesus in their daily life.
MCs are “lightweight and low maintenance”
MCs are not burdened with top-heavy decision-making structures or bureaucratic inertia. They are free to fail and can change directions easily if they find a better way of doing things.
MCs are lay led
MCs do not depend on already overworked professional clergy. Because they are lay-led, MCs are a highly effective way of developing the gifts and unlocking the potential of lay people.
MCs are “mid-sized”
An MC is bigger than a small group, but smaller than (most) congregations. They are analogous to an “extended family.” They are small enough that people can know and care for one another, but there are enough of them that they can get things done.
MCs operate on the principle of “Low Control/ High Accountability”
MCs are free to experiment and release people’s gifts without the multiple layers of control and micromanaging that characterize many congregations.
BUT – MCs are highly accountable to their mission and to one another. No one can lead an MC unless she or he is a covenant of accountability to an experienced mentor, to other leaders and to the group.
MCs are Reproducible
Unlike some small groups where the intensity of relationships makes it hard for new people to “break in,” MCs are intentionally hospitable to newcomers. When they reach an optimum size, it is expected that some will leave to begin a new MC. The goal of making more disciples trumps the desire to people to stay in the comfort zone of their familiar group.
MCs are Missional
MCs do not exist to support the current institutional structure of the church, but to participate in Christ’s mission of reconciliation, healing, and shalom. MCs normally organize around a specific passion or concern. Some examples: isolated seniors, at risk youth, a particular language or cultural community, people in recovery, persons with intellectual or physical disabilities, those who have experienced abuse in the church, single parent families, people in a particular neighborhood or housing development, etc., etc., etc. Their goal is to incarnate the presence of Christ among that chosen group, not simply to serve the spiritual or emotional needs of their own members.

MCs do whatever is needed to achieve that balance of relationships with God, each other, and the outside community. Each MC will develop its own rhythm, but typically it would involve meeting at least once a month to share a meal, once a month to engage in study and learning, and once a month to participate in hands on mission. These practices could be combined, but MCs should expect to gather at least three times a month, in addition to regular worship and prayer, and the mentoring of leaders.

Some MCs are formed within existing congregations as a more effective way to grow spiritually, build community and engage in mission. People join MCs because they want to do more than show up for church on Sunday morning.
But when a congregation decides to encourage MCs it is ESSENTIAL that it not attempt to control or micromanage them but leave the MCs free to develop their own organic life and mission.

MCs could be part of a congregation’s outreach. An MC could be formed to reach out intentionally to a neighborhood or population that the church is not currently reaching.
MCs can also be a tool for church planting. Some new “churches” consist of a network of Missional Communities.

WHAT ABOUT SUNDAY WORSHIP?MCs usually incorporate some kind of worship into their life together. However, preparing and leading a Sunday worship service demands a lot of resources. Think about how much time and effort goes into that one hour on Sunday morning in a typical church.
MCs need to remain focused on the triangle of relationships, and therefore need to be careful they don’t divert effort into a worship service that people simply “attend.”

Where MCs are part of an existing congregation, members will continue to attend their own Sunday worship service.
However, they might also decide to attend other churches either individually or as a group.

First, what not to do. Don’t start by asking your Board or Council to approve the formation of a missional community. That immediately creates the expectation that the Board will exercise control over the MC. MCs have to grow from the bottom up, from the passion and vocation of people, not as the result of a top-down decision.
But, if your congregation really does want to “do things differently,” and really believes that “business as usual” no longer cuts it, start by redefining “success.” Decide that the measure of success will no longer be simply the number of people who show up on Sunday morning, or the number of busy activities the church puts on, but the number of people who are growing as disciples.

Incidentally, churches with active MCs also tend to have vibrant, inspiring and well attended Sunday worship. Becoming less anxious about Sunday worship can actually end up strengthening Sunday worship!)  
Identify 2, 4, 6 people of passionate faith who are hungering for a fuller expression of Christian life. Invite them to begin learning how to be missional leaders. There is a wealth of resources available to accomplish that goal.
Ask these people to prayerfully discern a vision, and then invite others to join them. Learn as you go along, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but don’t waver from that goal of creating a community that balances the Up, In and Out dimensions of their Christian life.

If you want to know more about Missional Communities, contact me at and I will be able to help you get started.  


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Picture This

I share with many the tragic fate of being a Toronto sports fan.

A couple of weeks ago, when it looked like the Maple Leafs were about to crash and burn (again), their coach said what they really need to do was to simplify their game.

During a recent basketball game, when the Raptors were leading but being hard-pressed by their opponent, the commentator said they needed to slow the game down.

Simplify. Slow down. Good advice for a sports team under pressure. And good advice for anxious churches as well.

Anxiety makes things seem more complicated than they need to be. Where do we even start? One problem spawns a dozen more problems and we become paralyzed into inaction.

And anxiety makes us rush. This sounds ironic, since the church seems to move at a glacier's pace. But when we are stressed and afraid, the temptation is to run around trying to deal with everything until our heads are spinning. As one of my university professors used to say: "When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." Slowing down, taking stock, praying, reflecting, are key disciplines in anxious times. Remember the old Mennonite proverb: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get."

One way to help your church simplify and slow down is to invite people to paint a picture. Not literally, but figuratively. Invite them to come up with one central word picture or metaphor that expresses who they are and where they are. Post modern people respond to images more readily than abstract concepts, we're told. Yet what tool do we most often use to try to describe ourselves? The  mission statement  wordy, heady, abstractMission statements act like definitions, which invites endless arguing over word choice -- "I think it should say 'A caring community of faith,'  not 'A community of caring faith.'"

A well chosen picture is an invitation. An invitation to enter into reality more deeply. An invitation to engage our imaginations. to be open to unsuspected dimensions of meaning. A good picture is "multi-valent" -- it works at different levels, allowing it to speak to multiple situations and experiences.

One of the earliest pictures for the Christian church was the sailing ship. This metaphor captured the early Christians' sense of being pilgrims on a journey. But it also immediately suggested risk -- sea travel was extremely dangerous -- and therefore the need for faith. The ship created immediate connections to biblical stories -- the ark, for example. But the ark, in turn, symbolized the saving presence of among the people of God, God's willingness to journey with us. It reminded them of Jesus calming the storms of chaos and commanding his fishermen disciples to push out into deeper water if in order to catch fish.

To those steeped in these stories, the ship invited them to go deeper in applying them to their own lives. To those new to faith, they were powerful teaching aids. "Why do you have a picture of a ship on the wall?" "Well, let me tell you."

Finding a good picture for your church and its mission is more the product of intuition than rationality. It's where the creative, right-brain folks in your church can really be helpful.

Here's a simple process that any church, no matter how small, can use to find its central picture.

1.   Gather together. Don't ask a committee to do it. People need to participate in the process so they own it. It can be a specially called meeting, or something that's already happening, like your AGM. Always best to have food. Invite people to talk about some simple questions:

"Who are we? (Identity) Who ought we to be? (Purpose) Think of some words that describe us."
"What biblical story pops into your mind as we discuss this?"
"Think of a picture image that captures the essence of our discussion so far."

2.  Don't rush! It might not happen in one sitting. Maybe you'll need to plan other opportunities to continue talking. Keep at it until something emerges that engages the hearts and imaginations of the people. You'll know when it does.

And don't move too quickly to the obvious, the over-used, the visual equivalent of the tired cliche. Rainbows, circles, trees can be powerful images, but not if they simply sit on the surface and don't take us deeper.

Don't be afraid to be playful or quirky. I heard about a church whose chosen picture was a flying chicken. They'd been reflecting on God's word in Isaiah 40 about "rising up on wings like eagles." They trusted that God could help them fly; but they knew they were clumsy and accident-prone, and not nearly as majestic as an eagle. So a flying chicken seemed to say it best!

3.  Keep it simple. Resist the urge to say everything up front. The beauty of a truly profound image is that its meaning will expand over time. It has the potential to tell us things about ourselves we never suspected. There's a version of the "boat in the storm" story in Matthew 14, where the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. (Matthew 14: 22-33) I once heard someone ask, "So, if the boat is the ancient symbol of the church, where is Jesus?" I remember it hitting me. Jesus is not in the boat, he's outside the boat, calling to Peter to take one enormous leap of faith by getting out of the boat himself. What a transformative insight from a well-worn story.

4.  Keep it biblical. For some reason, churches think they've outgrown Scripture, like they've heard it all before. Scripture is a bottomless well that will keep on nourishing us and refreshing us if we allow it to. Your picture should have the capacity to draw you into Scripture in fresh and surprising ways.

5.  Keep at it. The problem with fine sounding mission statements is that we write them and then forget about them. Even if they're posted on the wall, they have no power to shape our life.

You can find a great image, but unless you let it work its way into your life, it will also be abstract and remote. You need to put that image at the centre of everything you do, not in a limiting and controlling way, but in an inviting and imaginative way. To paraphrase God's command in Deuteronomy: "Keep it in your heart. Recite it to your children and talk about it when you are home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind it as a sign on your forehead, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

In other words, take every opportunity -- in worship, in meetings, in small groups, at events -- to draw your congregation's attention to your defining picture, and encourage them to discover new levels of meaning in it that will shape your church's life.

This is a process that costs no money, that requires no complicated program, that can work in any church of any size -- in fact, it's probably easier to do in a smaller church.

Find your picture and let it guide you in your journey.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ten Things Churches Should Stop Saying

A couple of years ago, my wife decided what she would give up for Lent was complaining about being tired and overworked. Amazingly, she discovered that once she stopped telling herself how tired and overworked she was, she felt a lot less tired and overworked! Changing how she talked actually changed her reality.

We can say things often enough that they start to actually determine reality rather than just describe it. They might be factually true, but they are unhelpful because of what they reinforce.

Here are ten statements often heard in churches that can negatively shape the culture of a congregation. Even if they accurately describe your church, you should consider inviting people to stop repeating them.   

1.      “We are an aging congregation.”
Well, of course. Most mainline churches are aging. The problem with this statement is it is often used to justify inaction. It means, “Don’t ask us to do anything different, we’re too old and tired.” Repeated often enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Contrary to the popular adage, old dogs can learn lots of new tricks, but not if they keep telling themselves it’s impossible.

Positive response:  Begin to focus on the assets that wisdom and experience bring, not on the limitations of tired backs and short term memory loss.

2.      “Children are the future of our church.”
This statement is not necessarily unhelpful. It can remind churches that they need to pay attention to more than the older, long-term members. It can be unhelpful, though, if it makes people think that Christian education is only for kids. The odds that the children in your current Sunday School will grow up to be the core of your congregation are so long, they are barely measurable. Your children are not just the potential givers and volunteers of tomorrow, they are a vital part of your  church today.

Positive response:  Begin to develop a process for helping people of all ages become more faithful disciples of Jesus.

3.      “People come to our church because of the outstanding music.”
Music has power to touch our souls and inspire us to great things. But if a significant number of people say they attend your church mainly because of the music, prepare yourself for a major exodus if that ever changes. High quality  music programs usually depend on a handful of skilled individuals – an outstanding director, or a few strong singers. That can change in a heartbeat. If the only thing that is keeping many folks in your church is the current state of your music program, the departure of a couple of people could have a devastating effect on the congregation. This leads to a second and related problem statement ….

4.      “The best thing about our church is the choir. “
Choirs can be a centre of health and vitality in a church. But if people’s first allegiance is to the choir, rather than the larger mission of the church, they can become a quasi-independent power group with their own executives and money disconnected from the decision-making structure of the church. Also, choirs are often the only remaining group that meets weekly, making them fertile ground for gossip and dissent. Choirs can become the tail that wags the dog.

Positive response: Work with your choir to help them locate themselves within the overall ministry and mission of the church.

5.      “People are on fixed incomes.  They can’t give any more.”
Those who say this usually have little solid empirical evidence to back up their statement. Every church has some members who really can’t give anymore, and they should never feel put down because of it. But most United Churches are nowhere near to maximizing their stewardship potential. People don’t stop going to Tim Horton’s when the price of a large double-double goes up. Even those of limited means will increase their support
if they believe in what the church is doing.

Positive response: Intentionally build a culture of vision, enthusiasm and generosity. Create opportunities for people to celebrate what their church is doing, and invite them to be a part of it through the gifts with which God has blessed them. Don’t continually harp on financial deficits but accentuate the positives.

6.      “We need a minister who will attract younger families.”
Your minister may help to create a good first impression that will attract people initially. But it’s the culture of the congregation – hospitality, energy, involvement -- that determines whether they will become part of the family. A church that places the burden of growth solely on the minister’s shoulders is setting that minister up for painful failure.

Positive response:  Constantly remind people that ministry belongs to the whole church, not just to the person who gets the pay check. Encourage people to find ministries that match their gifts and give them joy.

7.      Why don’t our children/ grandchildren go to church?
I respond to that question with another question: Have you ever asked them? No one should be allowed to ask this question until they have had at least five extended conversations about faith and church with people their children’s or grandchildren’s age – conversations in which they do more listening than talking. (See my blog post “Why Don’t Our Kids Come to Church?”)

Positive response:  Create opportunities for significant conversations with youth and younger adults about why the church may not be significant for them. Such conversations require a level of trust in which people can feel safe to express themselves honestly. That trust might need to be built over a long time.

8.      I don’t like ……..
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. And not everyone’s the same. But if your church’s mission is driven by the tastes and preferences of your current members, it will decline and eventually die. Doing what is effective in reaching people for the Gospel is what matters, not the likes and dislikes of certain vocal, long-term members.

Positive response:  Constantly call the congregation to reflect on their mission, vision and values. Why are we here? Whom do we hope to reach? What do we need to do? Shift the focus from people’s likes and dislikes to what will help the church be true to its own calling. 

9.      We can’t do that. People might leave.  
Most of us don’t like change. Some people will try to influence decisions by  threatening to withdraw their money or their attendance. If your congregation is serious about renewal, inevitably some people will be unhappy and might well decide to go elsewhere. But this threat should not be allowed to control the agenda of the church. Related to this is the statement that “’Many people’ are not happy.” Boards, ministers and congregations should have an unwavering policy that no complaint will be heard that does not have a name attached to it.

Positive response:  Communicate, communicate, communicate. When something new is tried, make sure it is clear why it is being done. Provide opportunities for people’s concerns to be heard. Make adjustments when they are warranted. But stay the course. Don’t allow a few disgruntled voices to shut down new ideas before they take root.   

10.  “Numbers don’t matter.”
Two things. We aren’t likely to return to the 1950s when 6 out of every 10 Canadians were in church on Sunday morning. And numbers aren’t the only thing that matters. But when a church loses 5 to 7 per cent of its members every year and does not replace them; and when there is no one in the congregation under the age of 70, it’s time to pay attention to numbers! Christianity has always thrived where new people are being brought into the community of faith. We need to recover that sense of missional urgency – and fast!

Positive response:  Set realistic targets and develop a concrete plan for connecting with new people.
11.Can you think of anymore?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Let’s Face It – We’re a Minority

In her book A Church with the Soul of a Nation, Professor Phyllis Airhart suggests that the
Phyllis D. Airhart
United Church of Canada was founded on two principles. One was a vision of the Christian life which combines personal faith with social action.

“The United Church sought to balance care of souls with care of society. Its approach to lived religion tapped the root meaning of ‘pietas’: personal duty to God and to others that included right relationships.” (p. 104)

The other principle was the Christianizing of the Canadian social order. The architects of Church union were motivated by a vision of Canadian society permeated by the values of (Protestant) Christianity, where being a good Christian and being a good citizen were pretty much the same thing.

Both of these principles are at odds with the mainstream of Canadian culture. Both contribute to the minority status of the church. But while one of the second has long since lost its relevance, the first is still a vision worth preserving and strengthening.  

Phyllis Airhart suggests that the goal of Christianizing Canadian society was already obsolete in the 1920s when an increasingly secular and individualistic culture began to diverge sharply from the idea that a common religious faith can contribute to social cohesion.

But that foundational impulse is still deeply embedded in the consciousness of many congregations. Many churches still want the boundary between church and community to be as permeable as possible and the commitment bar to be set as low as possible. This is a vestige of that original desire to be a church that includes everyone. A lot of really nice, committed United Church folk are deeply perplexed that it doesn’t seem to be working. They can’t understand how they came to be so marginalized. Still in their DNA is the expectation that their brand of Christian faith will be widely acceptable to society at large. They simply can’t comprehend why their neighbors, friends and family members aren’t attracted to their church, when what they say and do is so innocuous and non-threatening.

The decline in the United Church is partly rooted in an outdated vision of the connection between church and society, and a failure to understand cultural change. Phyllis Airhart: “Though often described as a modern church, [the United Church] was not well suited to cope with some key cultural dynamics that ran counter to its founding vision.” (p. 259)   

On the other hand, a model of Christian life that joins personal faith and social witness is a valuable inheritance that needs to be embraced wholeheartedly. It is the special gift of mainline Christianity, and our culture will be greatly impoverished if it fails to survive. However, commitment to such a life also sets us at odds with the pervasive individualism and consumerism of our culture.

So, one way or another, the United Church will never achieve that original goal of representing the mainstream of Canadian society.  

We need to make sure, however, that anxiety about loss of status doesn’t divert attention and energy from cultivating robust expressions of that public-private faith that is the genius of mainline Protestant Christianity.

Ironically, our desire to be mainstream and inoffensive has obscured the very thing that could make our churches more compelling  – transforming faith that touches the heart, combined with a credible commitment to meaningful action in the world.

On the other hand, the church would have a far greater impact on society through a critical mass of people discipled in the way of Jesus and deeply committed to living a vision of the Kingdom of justice and peace than through a mass of people for whom church attendance is simply one more expression of cultural conformity.  
If we’re going to be a minority, we need to make sure it’s for the right reasons.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Identity, Purpose, Context

Each congregation has its own DNA -- its unique history, habits, hopes. But in the short time I have been Presbytery Support Minister, something I've always suspected has been confirmed -- that our churches are all pretty much alike. They are all struggling with the same challenges.

We know the United Church has been in pretty steady decline for 40 year now. But there are a couple of new realities.

One is that the anxiety level is sky high. Clergy and lay leaders are overwhelmed with the demands of ministering to aging, shrinking congregations whose future is extremely tenuous.

The other is the sense that they are running out of time to turn things around. The window of opportunity is closing. Decisive action is required at the very time when the energy required for such action is severely depleted.

There's a widespread sense that there's no time to talk. We need to do something, and do something fast or it will be too late. Extended conversation was possible in more stable times, but today it's luxury we can no longer afford. For too long, the church has been all talk and no action.

I want to suggest, though, that exactly the opposite is true. We need to talk more, not less. This seems counterintuitive, but one of the problems our churches have is that they have not developed good habits of discerning reflection and conversation. They have gone about their busy round of activity, but have not invested the time talking about the things that matter.

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, in their book Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, identify three questions that undergird any attempt to plan for the future.

Who are we?  This is the question of identity.

What is God calling us to do? This is the question of purpose.

Who is our neighbour?  This is the question of context.

Without engaging in deep reflection on these questions, congregations will not be able to effectively undertake planning -- determining how tomorrow will be different from today.

I had an experience of this meeting with a congregation recently that is eager to find some way to renew their flagging energy. I raised these questions, but they found them extraordinarily difficult not only to answer but to understand. They wondered out loud if they even have an identity. They were able to name things that are important to them like belonging, faith and tradition, but they struggled to articulate why they are important. What is it about belonging to this community or maintaining certain traditions that is worth getting out of bed for? What could the things that are important to this
collection of God's people possibly mean to a changed community?

You can't answer those questions in five minutes. It takes time -- the very thing that our churches don't think they have much of. But, I believe, there's no alternative.

This isn't to be critical. I think there has been a failure of leadership in not creating time and space for these questions to settle into our churches' souls. They can come up with a list of things they like to do -- worship services and church suppers and rummage sales -- but they have no framework for assessing why these things matter. No wonder they feel lost in a rapidly changing wilderness.

For churches that can do nothing but frantically bale a sinking ship, it might well be too late. But churches that can find enough space to think at a deep level about who they are, what God is calling them to do, and what context they find themselves in, might discover surprising new forms of vitality.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Happiness Trap

I found this article by former Alban Institute consultant Gil Rendle about the dangers of trying to "fix" the church by keeping everybody happy. It's a must-read for ministers and key lay-leaders that helps us understand why always responding to complaints is counter-productive.

Here's the link:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Struggling with Differences in the Name of a Shared Purpose

Dan Hotchkiss, a long-time church consultant, tells of gathering with a group of rabbis to for a workshop. This group was "the most diverse and ecumenical" group he had ever worked with -- everything from ultra-orthodox to ultra-liberal. He prepared three days worth of material on growth and decline, strategic planning and accountability.

Suddenly, all his plans went out the window. One rabbi requested that a minyan (a quorum of 10) be formed to say kaddish (prayers for the dead) on the anniversary of his brother's death. A simple request, but in that group, one that put the cats among the pigeons. The orthodox rabbis wouldn't pray with the female members of the group, who in turn angrily refused to be excluded.

Dan tells how his role changed from facilitator to spectator as he watched in wonder as this impossibly diverse group worked through their differences.

(Here's the link to his blog if you want to read it for yourself.  )

We pay a lot of lip service to diversity and inclusivity. But the truth is, our tolerance for difference -- real difference -- is declining. The United Church is a much less diverse denomination than it was when I was ordained 33 years ago. Then, you could find everything from charismatic to post-Christian congregations. Not so much anymore.  

Someone I know who holds opinions outside the mainstream of the United Church was browsing on the Wondercafe, the United Church's chat room. She was surprised to find a discussion thread about her, where people said things like, "I can't believe there are people like this in the United Church!" or, "Don't you think everyone in the United Church should have the same theology?"

It's a lot easier these days to simply bail than to stay and put up with people with whom we disagree
profoundly. What Dan Hotchkiss observed among that group of rabbis -- a common purpose that in the end was able to transcend difference -- seems to be in short supply. And maybe that's why so we seem so lost at times, so unable to deal with the realities that face us. We're not sure what that common purpose is that lies beneath our differences. So, all we can see are the differences.

Former pastor and motivational speaker John C. Maxwell says that the test of an authentic relationship is not so much compatibility as the "ability to deal with incompatibility."  Long-term marriages aren't usually based so much on the similarity of the partners as on their willingess to deal with their differences. We grow, not from being with people who are like us, but from learning to live with people are different from us.

The Christian church was founded on that principle of discovering the shared purpose that is able to overcome differences. People who would never have dreamt of sitting down at the same table -- Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, clean and unclean, slave and free, male and female -- found a meeting place at the table of the Lord, the One who gave his life for them. The power of the early church's witness was the power of Christ to break down the "dividing wall of hostility," to forge communion in spite of human all-too-human differences. Am I being pessimistic in thinking that we have lost sight of that power?

And yet that impetus is still in our DNA and we need to rediscover it. After a church meeting where it seems impossible to reach agreement on the simplest of problems, I marvel at the working of the Spirit that forged unity between three denominations.

Today, there seems to be a new kind of puritanism in the air, in which people are unwilling to confront those who are profoundly different from them lest they be contaminated. And then we wonder why we are so powerless to speak to the pain and brokenness of our world.

In these challenging and stressful times, we need more than ever to recover that ability to deal with our differences -- our real, profound, deep differences of opinion, conviction, culture, and lifestyle -- in the interests of a shared purpose that is bigger than any of us.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why Don't Our Kids Come to Church?

Sorry, I don't have the answer to that. At least not the answer, because there isn't one single, neat-and-tidy explanation.

I do know that it's a question usually asked by folks who are my age (60) and older. And I started to reply, "Why don't you ask them?"

Douglas Coupland
I'm not one who believes that there is a high and unbridgeable divide between generations. In fact, I don't think we human beings have changed all that much from biblical times. We still face the same delights and dilemmas as we always have. That's why Shakespeare still speaks to us.

But one of the reasons why our churches are so unappealing to young people is that the people who run those churches are so disinterested in what young people care about.

On The Current on CBC radio the other day, I listened to an interview with the novelist and artist
Douglas Coupland. (Here's the link: )

Coupland was talking about "the internet brain" -- how the internet has started to rewire the way we think. If you're over 40, you can remember what it was like before the internet. If you're under 30, you've never known anything different. And the internet, according to Coupland, is profoundly reshaping the way we think and relate to one another.

He described being in a hotel lobby where all these 20-somethings were sitting with their laptops on their laps and their earbuds in their ears, doing their own thing -- but with a sense of doing it together. "Maybe this is a new kind of socialization," Coupland said, "where you're in your own bubble, but it's
important to be with other people who are in their own bubbles."

The internet is "fantastically solitary," but it has an amazing capacity to create groups. We're in a time when it's unclear whether which of these will win out -- the individualism or the group-creating capacity of the internet -- but it is certainly changing us.

One of the most fascinating parts of the interview was when Anna Maria Tremonti asked Coupland what worried him most. He talked about how the future of the internet will be "machines talking to machines." The history of telecommunications so far has been people talking to machines, but more and more it will be machines talking to machines -- about us -- what we buy, where we go, what we do.

And this "calls into question the nature of why we are even here in the first place. Why do we even exist?"

We can't ask "Why don't our kids and grandkids come to church?" without understanding that this is the world they live in. It may be a world that is so foreign that we can't even imagine ourselves into it, but we have to try. Because the main reason, as far as I can tell, that younger people are indifferent to the church -- and I think that's key, they're not hostile, they just don't care -- is that their parents and grandparents churches just have nothing to say to them.

Note -- the solution to this is not to simply update the content -- to tell them the Bible is a myth you don't really need to believe -- or the style -- bring guitars and drums into worship. The task we're faced with is deeper than that. It's finding a way to listen, really listen, to what life is like for teens and young adults with tut-tutting, what makes them tick; to appreciate the different ways they form communities and how they process the Big Questions. I happen to think their Big Questions aren't really that different from their elders'. It's all about how to find beauty and meaning in a world that might seem cruel and indifferent, where they have come from and where they're going. They just deal with these in a different way than Grandma and Grandpa.  

If we would realize it, the church just might have more to offer than it realizes. Douglas Coupland said that by far the most prevalent question younger people ask him is, "How do I inoculate myself against change? How do I protect myself from the internet?" He didn't use the words, but I think he was saying, "In a world where machines talk to machines, how do I maintain my soul?"

His reply is, "What do you love to do?" Do you love to cook, or make something? Find what that is, and do it. That is what will connect you with your basic humanity that will endure regardless of what technology may bring.

This may seem trivial or unsatisfying to those of us who believe that there is a God unimaginably more complex and mysterious than any of us will ever understand, who is the beginning and end of all things. But a basic theological truth is that we can only connect with that God as human beings. We do not have direct knowledge of the divine, but only knowledge mediated by the limits and possibilities of what is human. Doing things that keep us grounded in our essential humanity, and connect us to others, is a prerequisite for the knowledge of God. And it's something that our churches, for all their faults, do intuitively. We need to be more reflective, more intentional about that.

Long ago, St. Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is man [sic] fully alive." If we want our young people to care about the church, the church needs to stop caring so much about things young people couldn't care less about; to make the effort to understand what being fully alive means for them, and find non-manipulative, non-self-serving ways to help them understand it too.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Too Afraid to Fail?

I'm on the Board of Directors of the Niagara branch of Habitat for Humanity. Last week we had Col. Chris Hadfield as the keynote speaker at a gala fundraiser.

Col. Chris Hadfield
Something Col. Hadfield said really struck me. He said, "Visualizing failure is a way of life for astronauts." At every step of the way, they have to anticipate failure and how they will respond.

Most churches are risk averse. They are afraid to try new things in case they fail. Or, past failures are used to stop change. "Oh, we tried that 10 years ago, and it didn't work!"

But failure is crucial to growth and change. I have a brand new granddaughter. If she developed the same attitude to failure that characterizes many churches, she would never learn to walk or talk. Trying and failing, over and over again, is the only way we acquire the skills we need to make it through life.

So why are our churches so risk averse? What is this fear of trying new things in case they fail?

The stakes are high. Or at least they seem high in our imaginations. What if people get mad and leave? We can't afford to lose anybody. What if we spend the money and it doesn't work? We're running a deficit as it is. The possibility of failure makes us anxious, and most congregations are already pretty high anxiety places.

But I have a different theory. I think our willingness to take risks is directly proportional to our commitment to a compelling vision. Chris Hadfield believes passionately in the space program and the International Space Station. He believes it is a force for world-building and peace. And so he's willing to take big risks in the interests of that vision.

I wonder if our problem is that we have lost the sense that there is anything worth taking risks for? Earlier generations of Christians believed that there was something life and death about sharing the gospel and doing Christ's work in the world. I wonder if we haven't lost that sense. The most compelling reason a lot of congregations have for their own existence is that they like being together and their parents went to that church. That's not much of a motivation to put it all on the line.

When I was a kid I could never understand why Jesus was so hard on the poor guy who took his one talent and hid it in the ground. Wasn't he being prudent? I wondered. After all, at least he didn't lose it.

But his timidity and risk aversion pointed to his lack of passion in the mission he was given by his master. He wasn't being prudent. He was being non-committal. And he was severely judged for it.

We are in a time when only those churches that are willing to move outside their traditional comfort zones and reinvent themselves will have a long-term future. And yet congregations can't muster enough will to move their worship time by half an hour, let alone commit to new forms of ministry.

We could learn something from Chris Hadfield. Without taking risks, nothing happens. But unless you have a compelling vision, there is no motivation to risk anything.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mission, Health and Vitality

I was at a congregational board meeting last week and when I mentioned the Mission, Health and Vitality Committee, several people burst out laughing. "That's exactly what the United Church doesn't have!" they said.


And I had to agree that they had a point. We spend a lot of time keeping the wheels turning, and fretting about the future, but we don't invest a lot of our effort into grappling with these really serious and essential words.

What is Mission? We hear about it all the time. Most churches I know have a mission statement, but that's not the same as a mission. The word mission comes from the Latin mission -- to send. A key biblical text is John 20:21, "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you." God sent Jesus to do a piece of work, and Jesus is sending us to continue that work.

Dan Hotchkiss, senior Alban Institute consultant puts it this way:

"A congregation's mission is its unique answer to the question, 'Whose lives do we intend to change in what way?'" Sounds simple. But how many congregations invest time in exploring this question in more than the most superficial way? Or extend the discussion beyond the bounds of the wants and desires of their members?

Jesus didn't deal in platitudes. He changed people. He healed them. He transformed them. Congregations will have difficulty surviving and thriving without knowing what they are being sent to do in the place where they exist.

"Health" is an Old English word meaning "wholeness." So many congregations have a sense of being fragmented. What would it look like if we were able to describe our congregations as whole, as healthy?

Health is not a static state, it's a process. Even people with significant health problems can become healthier. Their health problems can be managed and their effects mitigated by engaging in healthy practices -- exercise, nutrition, spirituality.

And the first step in a return to health is recognizing that you're not healthy. Jesus said that. "It's not those who think they're 'healthy' who need a doctor but those who are sick." Doctors can't help people who are in denial or who refuse to do what is needed.

What are the health-enhancing practices that congregations need to engage in to create greater wholeness in their relationships, their ministry, their witness to the community?

"Vitality" means aliveness. It comes from the Latin word vita, life. What does it mean for a church to be vital.

Our life is the resurrection life of Christ, and the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says we're like branches on a vine, drawing life from the Source. When churches become fretful and anxious, what gets squeezed out first are the practices that keep us connected to that Source -- prayer, discernment, careful listening.

Vitality and activity are not the same. Ironically, vitality may mean doing less so that we have time and space to draw nourishment from our Source of life.

And Jesus reminds us that the point is not to grow more branches -- it's to bear fruit. That's the reason we want vital congregations, so that we will bear more of the fruit Jesus wants us to bear.

At Presbytery last week, we came up with lists of words that would describe a missional, healthy and vital church. That's the easy part. The challenging part is to intentionally develop the practices that will make our churches missional, healthy and vital.

Part of my job is to help you do that. So if your church is ready for the conversation, contact me:

Rev. Paul Miller
Presbytery Support Minister