RSSinclude - Feed

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.