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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Unexpectedness of Christmas

One of the reasons Christmas has had such a powerful hold on the human imagination is that it is just so incongruous. “Lo, within a manger lies, God who built the starry skies,” as the 19th century Christmas hymn puts it. Over the centuries, the surprising and unexpected story of Jesus' birth has been met with equal parts wonder and ridicule. The idea of God coming in the form of a poor Jewish peasant baby is either the most magnificent story ever told, or the silliest thing in the world.

A Northern Nativity, William Kurelek, 1976
This surprise and wonder can get domesticated by overuse. Perhaps that’s the hidden blessing in the withdrawal of the “real” Christmas story from the public imagination. We might get to the point where we can once again appreciate just how crazy the whole thing must have seemed when people first heard it. We might recover the capacity to see God in expected places, and to offer that ability to the world around us in a whole new way. 

Christmas reminds us that God simply defies our expectations. We think our “theologies” have God pretty well pegged and then something happens that we just never saw coming. 

This truth was expressed profoundly by the largely self-taught Canadian artist William Kurelek, who suffered from schizophrenia and produced some of his best work while being treated in a psychiatric hospital, and who, 40 years ago, published A Northern Nativity, his iconic depictions of the Holy Family appearing in various Canadian locations -- a fisherman's hut, a barn, a garage, an igloo. 

"If it could happen there, why not here?" Kurelek asked. "If it could happen then, why not now?" 

This element of unexpectedness touched me recently when I across maybe the best description of the essence of the Gospel message, and therefore of Christmas, in, of all places a mystery novel – The Private Patient by P. D. James.

And so I leave you with these words to ponder in this season of perplexing wonder:

The world is a terrible and beautiful place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all the earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.”  (The Private Patient, p. 395)

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Upside and the Downside of the Church "Family"

When asked to describe themselves, the most common image congregations turn to is “family.”

It’s easy to see why. Family suggests security, intimacy, belonging. Family is where our identity and sense of self is formed. Family calls to mind commitment and unconditional love – all the things we hope our churches would exemplify.

But there is a shadow side to family. The adjective “dysfunctional” is most often used in conjunction with the noun “family.” Families can be our greatest joy but also the source of our greatest pain and anguish.

We expect that people will be drawn to a community that regards itself as one happy family. The truth is, though, that many people are repelled by it. “I have more than enough issues with my own family,” they say, “why in the world would I want to join another one?”

Families can also suggest “closed circle.” Families have their inherited stories, their inside jokes, their private lore, their unspoken signals, their closely guarded secrets. If you’ve ever attended someone else’s family reunion, you know how much of an outsider it can make you feel.

My wife and I have long-time, dear friends we would describe as “part of the family.” But only to a point. We love to spend time with them. We’ve even taken vacations together.  But we do not include each other in our family decisions, and while it’s nice to go for a visit, the time comes when we need to go home.

If you’ve ever had someone move into your house for an extended time, you know how stressful it can for someone to “invade” your family space. Many people are familiar with that experience first-hand, and so to be told that they are coming into a church “family” will not necessarily be good news.
Imagine you decide to attend church for the first time, or to return to church after a long absence, and the unmistakable message, conveyed  both verbally and non-verbally that, “here at First Church-on-the-Corner, we are one happy family.” What you may well conclude is, “I don’t really belong here.” 

Some churches unwittingly communicate the message that, not only are they a church family, they are a church of families. Most people are related to each other, or are part of families, making someone who is single, or someone who is from the outside feel like there
is not a place for them.

The New Testament does not really compare the church to a family in our modern sense of the nuclear family. It’s instructive to note that Jesus and the early Christians were perceived to be anti-family. “Whoever does the will of God is my mother and my sister and my brother,” Jesus said.

The Romans revered the family as one of the cornerstones of society, and vilified Christians because they placed faithfulness to Christ ahead of loyalty to gods of hearth and home.

The New Testament uses the term oikos, or household, what we would think of as an “extended family.” This family, though, is based on the bonds of shared faith rather than a sense of simply belonging to a tightly knit clan.

The New Testament also calls the church an ekklesia, a term that originally described a gathering of citizens, called together to do the work of the city.

These words communicate dimensions of what the church is intended to be that are not captured with the single term "family."  

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we stop talking about our churches as families. The image of family powerfully evokes the ties that we hope will bind our churches together.

But family is an emotionally complex experience. If we are interested in connecting with new people, we should not automatically assume that they will share our enthusiasm for a church that is like a family.  In dealing with people outside our current congregations, we need to be sensitive to its ambiguity. It is only one a rich repository of images that we could use to convey to people what we are all about. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Further Thoughts on "Attracting" versus "Blessing"

In my last blog, I quoted Tom Bandy's statement that our pressing question is not "What must we do in order to attract people?" but "What must we change in order to bless people?" 

Are those two impulses -- attracting and blessing -- mutually exclusive? Does it have to be one or the other? 

Over the last 25 or years, it's been fashionable to talk about the "missional church" as
opposed to the "attractional church." The Missional Church is outward turning. The Attractional Church is inward turning. Missional means getting out into the world and joining God in what God is already doing. Attractional means sitting in the pews and waiting for people to come to you. Or that's how it's often framed. 

So, we might think that, if we're supposed to be missional, it shouldn't matter whether we attract people to our church. And you hear this. "Why don't we just tear all the church buildings down and get out there and help people!" Or, "Who cares if we're down to 15 on a Sunday? We're not supposed to be into attracting people." 

It's not that simple, however, In order to engage in mission, you need people. Those people need to gather. They need to come together. That's the difference, I think, between the church and much of contemporary spirituality. You can be spiritual all on your own, in your own way, your own time, without the aggravation of other people. But in the church, we are bound (Latin religare -- think "ligament" -- or, "religious!") to one another. Mission requires other people. 

But more than that, if you are really engaged in serious mission, blessing others with the hope and healing, the challenge and change of the Gospel, you will attract people. You won't be able to help it. Truly missional churches are attractive church. People want to join them. Not everybody. Those who want a church without a mission, a sort of private chaplaincy service, or a religious club, will look elsewhere.  

But a vibrantly missional church which actively blesses people will not be able to help attracting people. 

So it's not a simple either/or -- either attracting or blessing. They go together. As we bless people who have not been touched before by the Gospel, we will attract them. As we attract them, they will be equipped to bless others. 

The real dividing line between different kinds of churches begins with the little word "Why?" Why do we do what we do? I believe there is no more important task for the church today than to subject all of its work, activities, programs, and behaviors to the searching light of this three letter word "Why?" 

Start with the basic question, "Why would we want to attract people to our church?" If the answer turns out to be, "Because we;re tired and we need some new people who can keep our present worship service and the church activities we have enjoyed doing for the last 50 years going," then you have a problem. 

If the only answer to the question "Why do we continue to run our roast beef dinner every year?" is "It brings in $2000 for the budget," then you've got a credibility issue. Because if that's all you've got to say for yourselves, people not already connected to the church will have exactly 0% interest in helping you meet your budget. 

If the only answer you can come up with to the question "Why do we continue to have a church choir with an average attendance of 8, most of whom can no longer sing?" is "Because the choir members enjoy it," then you've got a problem. 

All of the above responses really amount to saying, "The church is here to serve and bless those of us who are already here." If that is the case, it will be next to impossible to attract and hold anybody in today's wide-open religious marketplace. 

On the other hand, if the answer to the question "Why do we do what we are doing?" -- whether we're talking about worship, programs, activities, projects -- is "Because our purpose is to bless others with the Good News that God has come in Jesus Christ to heal them and give them hope and fill them with abundant life," then you've got something to work with. If you are really committed to that purpose, then everything you do will directed towards the people God is calling you to bless in your community. Even the blessing your own regular church members receivet will be for the sake of inspiring and equipping them to bless others. 

If that's what you're about, word will get around, and you will attract people. 

So, it's not a case of "Will we attract people?" or "Will we bless people?" But you start by focusing on blessing, because that's the main answer to the question "Why are we here?" If you try to start with attracting, you'll find that only those people who are looking for a church like the one you currently have will respond, and their numbers are getting fewer and fewer every year. 

If your main goal is to bless others outside your current congregation for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel, you won't be able to help attracting people. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

"It's NOT About You!"

On November 7, about 40 people gathered at Trillium United Church in Cambridge for a day with Tom Bandy. Tom is prolific author and church consultant who has written over 20 books on the changing shape of ministry in today’s world. Last week, Tom focused on his
new book See, Know, Serve: The People Within Your Reach which looks at how churches can use advanced demographic information to better understand who lives in their communities and how to reach them.

I liken a workshop with Tom Bandy to trying to drink from the firehose. Tom fills you to overflowing with provocative insights and ideas. Sometimes it’s more than you can take in at one sitting.

Underneath what he says, though, are a few very simple principles.

Two that he spoke about last week are:
“All that matters is the Gospel. Everything else is just tactics.”

Or, we might put it this way: “The end is to bring people to an experience of God’s transforming power. Everything we do – including the church and all its programs and activities – is just a means to that end.” The end doesn’t change. But the means are always changing in response to new realities.
And ….

“Our key question is NOT ‘What must we do to attract those people?’ BUT ‘What must we change to bless these people?’”

Attracting is about what we need. We need people to join our present church so they can support its programs and its need for money and volunteers.

Blessing is about what people outside the church need. Of course, we also bless those inside the church. But the point of being blessed is so that we can share with others what we have received.
This is a very difficult mental shift to make. Most of us have grown up with the idea that we need to attract people to come to our church. Few of us have learned what it means give up what we have in order to bless people.

There is a high cost to choosing to be primarily about blessing. Jesus' life of blessing led
him to a cross. A life of blessing demands great courage. It requires commitment of time and resources, and a willingness to sacrifice so that others may be touched by the Good News. Blessing is full of risks – the risk of failure, the risk of rejection, the risk of having to give up things that are very precious to us -- of losing a way of life.

But we are coming to a point where the cost of staying in the “attractional” mode is even higher. The cost could be the end of our churches as we know them.

These words of Jesus have been on my heart this week:

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35

It’s a paradox. We can try so hard to hold on to what we have that we end up losing it. On the other hand, when we are willing to let go of what we have for Jesus’ sake, we find true and abundant life.

As the stress level rises in a declining church, our instinct is to try to hold on ever more tightly to what we have. We fiercely resist changing our worship, welcoming the stranger, seeking the lost, letting long-cherished programs and activities go. These give us a sense of comfort and security is perplexing world of change.

But the price we pay for that is the loss of the church altogether. This past week, I have heard about three churches in our Presbytery who say they can no longer afford a full-time minister. In 2014-2015, we closed five churches. It is an undeniable fact that fewer and fewer people are interested in being part of our churches. Those who are interested are getting older and dying.

So, if holding on isn’t working for us, what would it look like to let go? What would it look like if we said, “What’s important is not what we want, what we like, what is comforting to us. What’s important is that we find a way to bless those who have not yet been touched by the Good News.”

What would it look like to say, “The church is just a means, a tactic. How can we put what we have to work in order to bless those outside the church?”

It would certainly mean taking the risk of getting to know our communities. Really getting to know them. Talking to people. Listening to people. Without a hidden agenda, but because we believe God cares for them. Maybe hearing some painful truths about how people see us.

It could mean radically reshaping how we conduct ourselves. What we do with our time. What we do with our buildings. What we do with our money.

It could mean recognizing that some of our present congregations can't change. They are too small and too old. Still faithful and precious in God’s sight. But they are what they are. But if they can’t change, what can they do to support and encourage those who can? Instead of devoting all their resources to just hanging on as long as they can, what if our churches found partners gifted and called to reach people in a new way, and said, “Here, take what we have. It’s at your disposal. We believe in you. And we will let go of what we have so you can be blessing to others.”

Jesus has a word for each generation. And I think his word to our churches today is: “It’s not about you. It’s about blessing those around you for my sake. Do that, and you’ll find true life.” 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Could the Word "Religious" Make a Come-back?

Everyone knows that people prefer the word "spiritual" to the word "religious." Spirituality means the freedom to follow your own path and to search for the divine without the straitjacket of institutionalized dogma and rules. 

Religion means get caught in the forms of churchy observance. Religion puts people in boxes and tries to sort them into "good" and "bad," "worthy" and "unworthy." 

Religion belongs to the past. Spirituality is the way of the future. 

That's the common line, at least, which is accepted in many circles as -- well, as dogma. 

But words are slippery things. I did my doctoral studies on theological trends in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back then, "religion" was a good word. Religion meant a personal experience of the divine, as opposed to dry academic theories or ecclesiastical nostrums. It was "theology" that was the bad word. And nobody had ever even heard of something called "spirituality." 

John Pentland
Two years ago, I heard John Pentland speak at a conference I attended. John is minister at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary which has undergone a celebrated rebirth. When John went there, there were about 40 elderly attenders. Now, over 400 find their way to Hillhurst on a Sunday. It is just about as cutting edge as the United Church gets. 

John said something that really struck me. He said, "We're spiritual. Spirituality is central to who we are. But we are also religious. The word religion means 'that which binds us together.' We're not just independent seekers, but those who are bound by a community, a story, a tradition." (OK, I'm not quoting him directly, but I think that was basically what I hear him saying.) 

It was the first time in a long time I had heard someone use the word "religion" in a positive sense, without a tone of disgust in their voice. 

Recently, I've been reading Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia is the pastor of
Nadia Bolz-Weber
The House of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, Colorado. She is also a former drug addict whose life was turned around when she experienced the radical grace of Jesus Christ. Covered in tattoos, with a bit of a potty mouth, she is not your typical Lutheran pastor. 

But she has gathered an amazingly diverse group of people around the story of the Gospel of grace, and the Eucharist -- the Lord's Supper. People of all different kinds of brokenness find that the Good News of Jesus has healing power. 

Again, Nadia Bolz-Weber is about as counter-cultural as you can get. But rather than describing herself as "spiritual but not religious," she unapologetically says she is "religious, but not spiritual." 

Listen, you'd have to read the whole book, plus Pastrix which tells her personal story and her unlikely journey to ministry. But here is what I think she means when she says she is actually religious not spiritual (cleaned up a little for those who might find her own language a little off putting): 

"I honestly can't think of what practices I do that help me become more spiritual. I can, however, talk endlessly about the way I've been thrown on my [rear end] over and over by the Bible, the practices of the church, the people of God. That is to say, by religion. 

"I recently was asked by an earnest young seminarian ... 'Pastor Nadia, what do you do to personally get closer to God?' 

"Before I even realized I was saying it, I replied, 'What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.' Half the time, I wish God would leave me alone. Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don't even like, or to give away even more of my money. It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away.

"My spirituality is most active, not in meditation, but in moments when: 

"I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an [expletive meaning 'not very nice person.'] 
               and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies,
               .... and when I have to bear witness to another human being's suffering despite my desire to be left alone, 
              and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don't deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel, 
              and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting....

"But none of these things are the result of spiritual practices or disciplines, as admirable as those things can be. They are born in a religious life, in a life bound by ritual and community, by repetition, by work, by giving and receiving, by mandated grace."
                                             Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, pp 8-9

There is lots about "religion" that is bankrupt and oppressive and trivial and soul-destroying. But to be religious means to be bound to something -- or, for Christians, to Someone -- that gives meaning and purpose to life. I wonder sometimes if our haste to jump on the "spiritual-but-not-religious" bandwagon isn't throwing out the time-tested baby with the cultural bathwater; if it isn't just our latest attempt to pander to current trends in the hopes that today's consumers will find something to like about us. 

I predict that the SBNR (spiritual-but-not-religious) movement will fail to provide many people with what they need to equip them to live in today's world, and that we will see "religion" once again find a positive place in our vocabulary.  

Maybe I'm totally off base about that, but it wouldn't surprise me. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015


In my last blog post, I looked at Jesus’ main metaphor for Christian life: fruitfulness. “By their fruits you shall know them,” Jesus said. Faith is not just an interior feeling, it’s meant to be outwardly effective, productive and fruitful.
But as with many biblical words, including “love,” “grace,” “righteousness,” it’s not immediately obvious what fruitfulness means. It’s a full, rich image with many different facets and layers. I’d like to explore some of those briefly.

“Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John the Baptist preached (Matthew 3:8.) Repentance means a change of mind and direction. We can’t be fruitful if we’re simply content to simply stay as we are now. We can’t rely on a sense of entitlement (“Do not say, ‘We have Abraham as our father’”) No matter how long we've been in the church, we will be judged by the righteousness and mercy of our lives – and John goes on to give some very concrete, practical examples of what he means (Luke 3: 10-14.) If our attitude is “I’m fine just the way I am,” we won’t be fruitful.

Inner and Outer in Synch
Jesus never opposed inward faith and outward action.  “Every good tree bears good fruit, every bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) It’s not a question of either prayer or action, but of how our inner and outer lives are connected. St. Paul wrote about “lead[ing] lives worthy of the Lord … as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:10) Cultivating an inner life of prayer, worship, reflection and knowledge of God is what will increase fruitful, faithful action in the world.

Every gardener knows that plants won’t be fruitful if they’re not cut back. If you don’t prune a vine or tree, all the nutrients will go into the leaves and branches rather than the pumpkins or apples. Not all growth is good. It needs to be fruitful growth. So it’s just as important to decide what we will not do as what we will do.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a single seed, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) We gain life by willing to lose life. That’s the paradox of the Gospel. When we close our hands and hearts to protect what we have, 
we end up losing it; but when we open our hands and hearts in faith, abundance is the result. In these anxious times, our instinct is to protect what we have so we don’t lose it. But Jesus calls us to let go of what we have for the sake of something more fruitful.

Openness to Mystery
Fruitfulness is a gift, not an achievement. We can cultivate the conditions that make fruitfulness possible. But in the end, the fruit we bear is a result of grace. We are the soil in which the seeds of the Word can be planted and grow (Mark 4: 3-9). We need to pay attention to the kind of soil we are, and trust that God will bring about God’s kind of growth through us. So our job is to prepare the ground, and to remove the barriers so we can be good, receptive soil, and then watch in anticipation for the fruit that God will bring through us.

A Continual Process not a Quick Fix
We’re conditioned to look for immediate results. What book can we read, what workshop can we attend, what program can we adopt to increase givings, boost attendance, get the young people back? But fruitfulness comes from long, patient, faithful cultivation over time. When we’re desperate, we want a quick fix.  “Let’s do something, and do it fast!” But in these anxious times, we need to do the opposite. Our focus should be on cultivating hearts and communities that will be able to bear fruit in the future.

If this triggers something in you – an insight, thought or memory – please share it. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Well, THAT wasn't very clear, was it?

My blog post from yesterday contained this paragraph:

I know of a church in another denomination that has made a conscious decision to grow. One of their rules is that any event where at least 50% of those attending are from outside the church is cancelled or not repeated. This church has decided to be fruitful.

Let's try that again, shall we?

There is a large church in St. Catharines where I live (not a United Church) that has made a conscious, deliberate commitment to grow by reaching out to the community.

One of the ways they do this is by regularly holding events to which the community is invited -- Bible studies, BBQ's, community clean-up days, special worship services.

If it turns out that more than half of the people who attended were from the church (i.e., less than half were from outside the church), they don't repeat the event. Even if lots of people come, they have decided that the purpose is not to get a good turn-out of already-committed church people, but to connect with new people.

I'm not suggesting any other church should do this. I was simply offering an example of a congregation that has wrestled with the meaning of fruitfulness in their context and committed themselves to following through.

In my desire to be concise, I didn't explain it very well the first time.

But at least it shows that people are reading this blog!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bearing Fruit

Welcome back after what I pray was a blessed and happy summer!

I live in the Niagara Peninsula, and one of the best things about
Niagara in the summer is the fruit. Large-scale fruit growing has practically disappeared in Niagara, but at markets and roadside stalls you can still get locally grown peaches, strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn, beans and potatoes.
And then there are the wineries. Nature has made the Niagara
Peninsula an especially good place to grown grapes and the region boasts over a hundred wineries and the lush vineyards that feed them.
Jesus’ main image for his followers was fruitfulness. Eighteen times in all four Gospels, Jesus compared being his disciple to bearing good fruit. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says in John, “but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)
The image was picked up by St. Paul who said that we should bear the “fruit of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22)
What does it mean to bear fruit? It means multiplication. One planted seed produces a whole harvest of fruit. And it means replication. Seeds produce fruit which carry more seed for the benefit of future generaions. Fruitfulness is how species survive.
I wonder if churches remember to ask, “What fruit are we bearing?” Churches have many ways of deciding what they will do. How much money will it raise? How many people will it attract? How happy will it make us feel?
But how often do we ask intentionally  “What fruit are our efforts producing?” We assume that what we spend our time doing is bearing fruit. But if the question is asked “What good is it doing? What is growing as a result? How are we spreading the seed of the Gospel so it can grow in new places? How is the impact of the Good News growing through us?” – often we don’t know what to say.
Most churches keep themselves busy with activities and programs. But how often do we honestly ask, “What fruit is this bearing?” – remembering that Jesus talked about good fruit, lasting fruit, the fruit of the Spirit.
What fruit is the annual roast beef supper or talent auction or choir concert bearing? If the only answer is $1000 towards the budget, I’m not really sure that’s what Jesus meant by bearing fruit. Same for the other activities that occupy the time and energy of most churches. There is nothing wrong with them – except if they fail to bear the kind of fruit that Jesus said was essential. And if they aren’t bearing that fruit, Jesus didn’t mince words. They are good for nothing but to be uprooted and thrown in the fire.
We could learn a lesson from the grape grower who simply can’t afford to keep a non-bearing vine around. It has to be removed so that a fruitful vine can take its place. Fruit bearing is the point of viticulture, and it is the point of the church as well.
Note:  fruitfulness is not the same as busyness. Church people (maybe clergy most of all) love to talk about how busy they are. But how much fruit does all that busyness produce? Are we busy multiplying and replicating the healing and reconciling power of Christ in people’s lives in measurable ways? That’s what Jesus cares about. After all, the busiest plants in my garden are the weeds – but they’re not the most fruitful.
I know of a church in another denomination that has made a conscious decision to grow. One of their rules is that any event where at least 50% of those attending are from outside the church is cancelled or not repeated. They simply will not invest in activities that are mainly for the enjoyment of their own members. This church has decided to be fruitful.
Again, though, we must not mistake quantity for quality. A mega-church with a full range of programs is not necessarily producing the fruit of Gospel. On the other hand, a small congregation of 20 people can be fruitful if their focus is on bearing the right kind of fruit. If that little community is devoted to learning how to follow Jesus in their daily lives, and embodying healing, reconciliation, freedom, joy and the peace that the world cannot give, they are bearing fruit. If “all” that happens in the church is that, through prayer, Scripture and the practice of humility, mercy and justice, that handful of people are being formed in the image of Jesus, they could turn a community on its head.
Good fruit is cultivated. It is grown intentionally. Driving through the country, you’ll often see stray corn stalks growing in a field of soybeans. Farmers call it “volunteer” corn. It’s happened to fall in a field and grows, but it isn’t good for much. Any church can bear fruit by accident like volunteer corn. But to bear the lasting fruit Jesus talked about demands discipline, dedication and devotion.
If I had my ministry to do over again, I would bring it all down to fruitfulness – to asking relentlessly, “What fruit am I bearing? What fruit is this church bearing? What kind of fruit does God want to bear through us? What changes does God want to bring about in and through us?” I would invest a lot more in the things that bear fruit, and prune back those things that don’t.
We have all we need to bear good fruit. We have the seed of the word. We have the soil of our lives. We have the warm and water of the Holy Spirit.

It's really just a matter of focusing our attention on the question of fruitfulness above all else.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Possibilities before Problems

Most of the work I do with churches centres around perceived problems -- numbers declining, finances uncertain,  Boards not working, staff and leaders stressed out.

We can become so focused on our problems and deficits, though, that we don't see the good things that are happening.

So I want to feature good news stories from Waterloo Presbytery to remind us that it's not all doom and gloom.

On June 11, I was honoured to be one of the "dignitaries" at the Grand Re-Opening of the newly renovated facilities at Trillium United Church in Cambridge. It has been ten years since the tthree United Churches in Preston -- Zion, St. Andrew's and St. Paul's -- amalgamated, and there is a sense of excitement about the future.

The renovations were designed to make an old building accessible to those with mobility issues. But what really struck me about yesterday was the sense that building renovations were part of a much larger vision of ministry.

Mark Rutledge, the minister at Trillium, talked about the moment when the penny dropped, and they were able to see accessibility as an aspect of the radical hospitality of the Gospel. Making it possible for anyone to use the facilities is one expression of the larger desire to create a culture of inclusion.

So, part of Trillium's commitment to accessibility has led to changes in worship and language. They have worked to remove the "churchy jargon" from the way they present themselves. They have tried to become more aware of the unseen barriers that keep people separated, not just from the building, but from the Gospel.

I know from talking to Mark and other leaders that Trillium struggles with many of the challenges shared by most, if not all, United Church congregations. Their vision of ministry is still very much a work in progress.

But I'd like to hold up Trillium as one example of how a technical problem (getting people in and out of the building) has been viewed as part of a larger commitment to ministry.

That's good news!

If you have something happening at your church that you're excited about, and that you'd like others to know about, send it to me at

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Welcoming Young People to Mainline Churches

A really short post -- from me.

But a link to a really helpful post on Rachel Held Evan's Blog entitled "7 Ways to Welcome Young People to the Mainline."

Check it out -- and follow the links to places where mainline churches are renewing.

And here is the link to the Washington Post article she references, "Want Millennials Back in the Pews? Stop Trying to Make the Church Cool."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Asset Based Ministry

So, is the glass half full or half empty?

The answer, of course, is that it's both -- depending on how you choose to look at it.

We are conditioned to look at the empty half of the glass. We are drawn to see deficiencies, deficits, shortages, needs. Partly, it's human nature. But it's also being thoroughly immersed in a consumer culture which depends on all of us seeing what we need rather than what we have. After all, if we were content with what we have, we would stop buying more stuff and our economy would crash. So we're programmed to be more aware of what we don't have than what we do have.

But what if focusing on deficits prevents us from seeing the unrecognized, therefore untapped and unused, assets, gifts and abilities that are already in our midst?

John McKnight

John McKnight teaches at Northwestern University in Chicago. McKnight has pioneered something called "Asset Based Community Development." It's based on the simple belief that every community, no matter how disadvantaged and deficient it may appear, has a wealth of assets. Community development is a matter of identifying and harnessing those latent assets to build community.

What happens instead is that the people in these communities are turned into needy "clients" who require institutional and professional services to survive. This leads to a cycle of dependency and disempowerment, and the inability of people to take charge of their own lives and solve their own problems.

(You can learn more about Asset Based Community Development by going to )

There are so many parallels to the church today. We, too, tell a constant story of deficiency, deficit, decline and impending death. Largely this is because we operate out of a remembered model of church that thrived in the middle of the 20th century when it was created, but that no longer works in today's world. Our vision of what a church is and what a church ought to be able to do is powerfully controlled by this memory, and it always makes us think we are failing in comparison to the church we once knew.

Churches almost always start by talking about their needs -- more people, more young people, more money, more staff. What do we make churches do before they search for a new minister? Complete a "Joint NEEDS Assessment." Our default question is, "What do you need?"

McKnight's argues that the first question in any community should always be "What are your assets?" Assets can address deficits, but deficits cannot create assets. The key question is not "What do you need?" but "What do you have?"

Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana is a former tall steeple, big pulpit church that, like many of our congregations, began to decline in the 1960s. Ten years ago, they had a Sunday attendance of 75 in a sanctuary seating 1250. Sound familiar?

Broadway, led by its Pastor Mike Mather, made a radical decision. They decided to scrap all their traditional community outreach ministries like their soup kitchen, their youth program. They realized that they for all their effort, conditions in their community were getting worse, not better. Their programs made them feel good, but did little to improve people's lives.

Instead, they went out into the community and asked questions about people gifts, abilities and assets -- not what they lacked, but what they had. One question they used was, "Tell us about three things you can do that you could teach somebody else."

The results were startling. They discovered that in this lower income, "disadvantaged" community was a wealth of gifts they did not know was there. The church had brought in an "expert" in community development from a nearby university to tell them how to start a community garden. Their survey showed that there were 35 accomplished gardeners living near the church. So they began to tap into their abilities and knowledge.

Moving from needs assessment to asset assessment has completely changed Broadway's understanding of what it means to be a church in their neighbourhood.

So what if we were to make the same commitment -- to divert the time and energy we spend listing our deficits, and began to build on our assets -- and not just those of the congregation, but the community around us?

True, most of our churches are struggling to sustain an aging building, full time paid ministry and the traditional round of church programs. And we see decline, disbandment and death as the only alternative.

I am convinced that, even though our culture is not drawn to many traditional forms of congregational life, there is a spiritual yearning and a movement of the Spirit that the is open to the Christian story in new and undiscovered ways. Our calling is to become communities that are able to share that story in ways that touch people's lives.

I am also convinced that in our congregations, stressed and struggling as they are, we have a wealth of assets we are not seeing and not releasing.

And that's the place to start -- with what we do have, not what we don't have.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"YOU give them something to eat."

Over 10 years ago, Methodist minister Barbara Glasson was sent to inner city Birmingham to restart the church's presence there. She spent several months walking and listening. And then she started to bake bread.

So began "Somewhere Else" -- or "Bread Church" as it's affectionately known. Twice a week, a community of all different kinds of people gather to bake bread, to share Scripture and prayer, and to be a church. Two-thirds of those involved are under 25. (See a recent update about Somewhere Else here:

St. Benedict's Table is an Anglican church in Winnipeg. On Sunday evenings, they gather around the eucharistic table to pray, worship and build community. A large percentage of those in attendance are university students.

In New York City, "Dinner Church" meets every Sunday evening. It's a new community started by St. Lydia's Episcopal Church that is built around a shared meal. Dinner isn't just something church people "put on" for others. It's what the church does. It's what this church is. Anyone who shows up is given a job to do -- setting up tables, peeling potatoes -- and the meal is an integral part of the worship as it was in New Testament times.

Everyone is welcome. And, writes Rev. Emily Scott, "who shows up is a source of surprise and delight. Often we’ll be joined by folks who make their home in the park across the street, or kids who were riding by on bikes, or 15 college students staying in the church on a mission trip. All are welcome at the table."  ;

People are hungry. Sometimes they're hungry because they can't afford to feed themselves. Sometimes they're hungry because deep down they know that they can't live by bread alone, but don't know where to find nourishment for their souls.

And people are lonely. Many people can go an entire week without having a significant interaction with another person.

At the same time, if there's one thing that churches, whether big or small, rich or poor, are good at, it's food. Preparing food. Serving food. Eating food.

Often, though, we miss the full potential of the act of sharing food together. Writers like Margaret Visser have reminded us that sharing food is at the heart of human community. And at the centre of both Jewish and Christian faith is a shared meal. Jesus lived in a culture where every meal was a sacred occasion because it called forth gratitude to God, and openness to one's neighbours.

Everywhere you turn in Scripture, you find people eating. Much of Jesus' ministry took place at the table. That most basic physical action is often the gateway to the presence of God.

So, as we obsess with how to "renew the church," one answer might be right under our nose. The secret may not be in yet one more "revisioning process" or "revitalization strategy," but in recovering what the church does best -- inviting hungry people to come and be fed, and then sending them out to share what they have received with others. It might be that simple.  

We have a rich, deep heritage of holy practices that Jesus has given to us. In these frantic and exhausting times, perhaps we need to find ways of rediscovering those practices and allowing them to nourish us for mission.

If have a story about the place of food in your church's life, or would like to explore how eating together could strengthen your ministry, please invite me to sit down for a conversation -- maybe over some good food.

Rev. Paul Miller
Waterloo Presbytery Support Minister

Friday, May 1, 2015

Jesus at the Laundromat

Once, at a Joint Needs Assessment meeting, people from the church were excited about the new housing developments that were going up in their community. Surely all that
building would be good for their church.

"Who is moving into all those new houses?" I asked.

"Uh...."  Long silence.

"No, I mean, who is living in those new houses? Are they young couples, families, empty-nesters, retirees? Do they commute to work, register their kids in minor ball or hockey? Are some of them new Canadians?"

"Gee. We're not sure."

One of the church's main challenges in obeying Jesus' command to love our neighbour is that we often have no idea who our neighbour is.

Last week I heard a friend describe a church he knows about in Kansas that was wondering how to connect with their neighbours.

"Where do people gather?" someone asked. Well, Starbucks. The local bar. The gym. Where else?

One place they discovered that people gathered was the laundromat across from the
church. Many of them were single Moms. So folks from the church started to show up at the laundromat. They took a box of doughnuts (donuts in Kansas) and a pocketful of change. They paid for their laundry. And, since people have a lot of time to kill while they're waiting for the dryer to finish, they talked. But more importantly, they listened. Listened as these women at the laundromat gradually opened up and told their stories and relationships were built.

Churches are often frustrated that they feel so disconnected from their communities and don't know what to do about it. This is a story about a church that found a simple solution to that problem. They simply found out where people were, and went there to meet them, talk to them, get to know them, love them.

Not so they could entice them to come join their church, but simply because Jesus commanded them to love their neighbour.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Small is Beautiful

Often, the answers you get are determined by the questions you ask.
On March 19, I gathered with 21 wonderful people from seven small congregations with part time ministers at Bridgeport United in Kitchener. We spent a couple of hours sharing experiences and encouragement.

We started off with each person answering this question: "What's the best thing about belonging to a small church?"

I thought there might be some Umming and Ah-ing -- some awkward silences as people pondered "Gee, what is good about my little church?" I guess I'm just so used to folks from small churches feeling badly about who they are, their lack of resources, their problems challenges, I expected them to struggle with the question.

Boy, was I wrong. The responses came pouring out -- 

“Humour,”  “family,” “acceptance,”  “friendship,” “Everyone is needed,” “love,” "fellowship,” “Knowing people’s stories,”  “intimacy,“ "community,” “history,” “familiarity,” “Everyone can fit into Bruce's rec room when the heat isn’t working at the church,” “uniqueness,” “close knit,” “You know everybody,” “You can gain confidence in a small group,” “heritage."

If we just give people the opportunity to say what makes them feel good about being part of a small church, they are all over it. People love their small churches.

I then asked folks to "Talk about a time when your church was at its very best." They shared experiences of everyone working together to achieve a common purpose, when they rallied together to help someone in need, when they responded to a crisis.

Frequently, sharing food was at the centre.
They're well aware of their challenges -- shaky finances, too few people doing too much work, trouble holding onto young people, creaky old buildings -- but that's only to say that there's no such thing as a church that doesn't have to face issues and problems.

We also talked about assets. It's so easy to focus on deficits -- what's missing, what's lacking, what's in short supply, what we used to have that we no longer have -- that we fail to see the significant assets that even the smallest church possesses --

"God, faith, caring, determination, music, expectancy, our building, organ, labyrinth, people, our baconburger stove, knowledge, wisdom, humour, resourcefulness,  heritage, the Bible, space, leaders, location, seasons"

I really don't think that our problem is that we have so many small churches. All churches in the New Testament were what we would call "small." All New Testament churches were house churches, so they could only be as big as could fit into the house of the most well-to-do member -- in other words, around 40-50.

Most churches in the world are small churches, and the world-wide growth of Christianity is being driven by small, often home-based churches.

We are struggling with the fact that many small churches used to be much larger. They have declined. And, we're dealing with the expectation that a healthy church has to be a certain size, with a certain kind of building, full-time minister(s) and a busy round of programs for all ages. Our small churches are working against their own memories of what the church once was, and it's what is preventing them from re-imagining themselves and moving forward.
In any case, it seems to me that we have two choices. One, to simply watch small churches continue to grow smaller and more discouraged -- or, two, leverage the assets that small churches possess to develop a reimagined and reinvigorated ministry.

I know which choice I'm in favour of.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945)

April 9 is the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the giants of Christian faith in our time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer was born into a privileged Berlin family on February 4, 1906. He was a brilliant student, completing his Doctor of Theology at the age of 25, and seemingly destined for a distinguished career in the church and the university. Bonhoeffer’s true greatness, however, was in the way he combined rigorous thought with passionate commitment. He did not regard theology as an intellectual exercise, but a way of life that led, ultimately, to his death.
Rather than opting for a life of academic comfort and security, Bonhoeffer chose to oppose publicly the rise of Adolf Hitler. His Christian convictions alerted him to the dangers of Nazi ideology. Even in 1933, this was a dangerous course. For a time he left Germany, pastoring a German speaking congregation  in London, England, but felt called in 1935 to return to home to lead an underground seminary which trained pastors for the Confessing Church, set up in resistance to the Nazis.  The seminary was closed by the Gestapo in 1937.
Bonhoeffer went to America at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Again, he felt the pull of home and returned to Germany in June, 1938, just before the outbreak of war. 
Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in public or to publish, but continued his opposition behind the scenes. On April 5, 1943, he was arrested and spent a year and a half in prison awaiting trial. The letters and other writings that he penned during this time were later gathered together by his friend Eberhard Bethge and published as Letters and Papers from Prison.
On July 20, 1944, an attempt to assassinate Hitler, led by senior military officers, failed. Bonhoeffer was implicated in this plot. He was moved to Flossenburg concentration camp and on April 9, 1945, he was hanged on orders from Hitler himself.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has often been described as a martyr. We need to remember, though, that the real meaning of the word martyr is “witness.” Bonhoeffer’s importance is not only in the fact that he died for his beliefs, but that his whole life was a witness to Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer continues to speak to us today in many ways.
First, he reminds us of the “cost of discipleship.” He warns us the dangers of “cheap grace,” in which God is seen as the means to satisfy our desires without requiring anything in return. This warning is especially relevant in today’s world of religious and spiritual consumerism. Christian faith, for Bonhoeffer, is a call to surrender one’s entire life in service to God and the world.
Secondly, Bonhoeffer wrestled deeply with the question “What does it mean to follow Christ?” Every age must ask this question, but in a world in which “the great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts,” its challenge is uniquely urgent. Bonhoeffer’s reframing of the questions of faith and discipleship remain powerfully relevant today.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Bonhoeffer was one of the first to recognize that Christian discipleship and the habits and practices of Christian religion are not necessarily the same thing. In prison, Bonhoeffer pondered what it meant to be a Christian in a “world come of age,” where most people no longer need God to fill in the gaps in human knowledge, and where the traditional consolations of religion matter less and less. “What does it mean to follow Christ in a non-religious world?” he asked.
In prison, Bonhoeffer experimented with the concept of a “religionless Christianity,” distinguishing the claim of Jesus on our lives from the received habits and worldview of a religious system. The Nazis demonstrated how easily religion can be co-opted for ideological purposes. What does it mean today to confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ who judges all ideologies, including religious ideologies?
Bonhoeffer did not live long enough to work these ideas out fully, but he anticipated what I think is the critical question for Christians in our time: What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ when the religious structures that have supported Christianity for 1500 years are crumbling?
Bonhoeffer was leading a group of fellow prisoners in worship and prayer when they came for him. As the guards led him away, he said to his friends, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” Bonhoeffer reminded us of the central importance of Christ’s resurrection to Christian faith and life. Eugene Peterson has written that Christians are called “to live a life of resurrection in a world where death gets the biggest headlines.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, in my view, is a witness to that call.
Karl Barth wrote that Jesus Christ “forbids us to despair of ourselves.” The great danger to Christian faith today is not atheism but despair. We can be so overwhelmed by our circumstances that we are tempted to give up on God. I wonder if Barth was thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he wrote those words.
Bonhoeffer was fearlessly realistic and, at the same time, unshakeably hopeful. At the end of 1944, just a few months before he died, he wrote a hymn that is an encouragement to all who seek to follow Christ.
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning,
And never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.
And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through,
And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.