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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.