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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lonely and Confused, Open and Welcoming

One of the people I follow on Twitter is Pope Francis. His Holiness doesn’t tweet very often – not nearly as much as (ahem) certain other world leaders -- but when he does, it’s almost always worth reading.

Recently, the Pope tweeted this:

“How much openness is needed to welcome those who feel alone and confused as they search for a meaning in life!”

I found this such a succinct, powerful description of what the church should aspire to do and to be, it bears repeating.

“How much openness is needed to welcome those who feel alone and confused as they search for a meaning in life!”

Let’s start with the second half of the sentence which describes our culture.

People are lonely. In an age when everybody is more connected than ever before, how
strange is it that we suffer from an epidemic of loneliness. The British journalist George Monbiot recently wrote that “The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us.”

In Japan, elderly people are lying dead in their apartments for weeks or months because no one notices they are missing. Young people have hundreds of Facebook “friends,” but no real friends.

It’s hard for those who have rich, busy lives with lots of social connections to remember just how desperately lonely many people in our society are.

People are confused. In an age of unlimited choice, people don’t know which way to turn. In an age of conspiracy theories and “fake news,” they don’t know what to believe or whom to trust. They are bombarded by so many competing and colliding voices telling them what to do about their jobs, their relationships, their health, their education, their money, their sex lives, they are bewildered and overwhelmed.

People are searching for meaning. Old certainties and securities are crumbling.
Everything is up for grabs. Traditional sources of meaning and stability like career, family and church have been called into question. Who am I? Where am I going? What am I here for? What’s the point? Many people are haunted by these questions every day.

The second half of the Pope’s sentence I hear as a challenge to the Church. We, whose lives are a witness to the Good News of the Gospel, are called to reach out to those who are lonely, confused and searching for meaning.

What Pope Francis says is needed is two things. Openness. And welcome. 

The Church is called to be open. Rightly or wrongly, many people see churches as cozy clubs or closed cliques. Most people think of a church as a building (“That’s First Church on the corner.”) There was a time when those buildings created visibility. People looked at them and knew what they were, and what they could expect if they opened the door and went on inside of them.

Today, those same buildings have become fortresses of invisibility. People have no idea who is behind those walls, or what they stand for, or what strange things go on inside of them.

But they also have a sense, rightly or wrongly, that churches are filled with people who think they’re better than others. Tony Campolo describes a conversation with a sex worker who said she wanted to change her life but didn’t know where to turn for help. “Why don’t you try going to church?” Campolo asked. “Church?” she said. “That’s the last place I would go. I already feel bad enough about myself, I don’t need to feel worse.”

It’s not our intention, but we church people often give the message that we’re mainly focused ourselves, that not really interested in people as they are, we’re only interested in them as potential volunteers or donors. Or we’re only interested in them if they get their act together enough to “fit in.”

We need to understand why people think that, and what we can do to change it. We need to find ways to communicate genuine openness to people’s struggles, learning to listen, to really listen, to their stories without presuming to judge them or fix them. And we need our churches to be safe places where people can be open about what they are going through. Sadly, many people do not feel they can be honest about themselves in church.

The Church is called to be a place of welcome. Church consultant Kennon Callahan says, “All churches are friendly churches – to those who attend them.” But if we were to put ourselves in the place of someone who visits our church– someone who had perhaps not been to church for a long, long time – we would find that we’re not as welcoming as we thought. I’ve had the experience of visiting a church full of lovely, friendly people – who acted like I was invisible. If I, who am totally comfortable in church, find that experience unnerving, imagine what it’s like for someone who has mustered up the courage to come to church and has the feeling they’ve wandered into somebody’s private family gathering.

Hospitality is more than a handshake, a bulletin and an announcement to stay for coffee. 

Hospitality is about creating a culture of welcoming that touches everything from the way our building looks to our announcements to our worship services to the way we greet people and let them know we really are glad to see them.

One of the things I hear in churches most often is, “How can we connect with new people? How can we reach out to our community?”

I can’t think of a better way than to take this one sentence from Pope Francis, to memorize it, to adopt it as your mission, and to figure out what you need to do to put it into action.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Lessons from the Hair Salon

Lately I’ve been thinking about similarities between churches and hair salons.

A woman in one of my former congregations was a hairdresser. She had co-op students from the local high school help her by washing customers’ hair. “It’s amazing,” she said. “If the girl is friendly and talks to the customers, they are always happier with their hair style. If the girl is unfriendly, they’re less satisfied”

I had a student minister at one of my churches. She said that when her internship was done, she was going to take a nail course. She had noticed that many older women lived alone, and often went days or weeks without anyone touching them. She thought it would enhance her ministry if she could do their nails.

Recently I went to get my hair cut. When I arrived, the young woman who cuts my hair said, “Sorry, I’m running a little behind.” As I waited, I listened to her talk patiently and kindly to the previous customer.

When I got in the chair, Phyllis said, “That is one really unhappy woman. She tries to find some meaning in her life by constantly changing her hair style. Because she’s so unhappy, she can be quite demanding. I see my role as more than coloring and styling her hair. I try to listen to her, to pay attention to her, and to gently talk her out of things that really aren’t going to look good.”

“Gee, Phyllis,” I said, “your job is like mine!”

Most churches say they need to reach out to new people. But they are genuinely puzzled by how to do that. “How do we find out what people out there in the community are thinking? What their needs are? What their lives are like?”

Which is ironic, because it involves doing things that most of us do every day. Talking. Asking questions. Listening. Making time for people. Find ways to touch them, either literally or metaphorically.

So why is it that something that happens so naturally at the hair salon – or the coffee shop, or across the back fence -- is so difficult for churches? 

Why is it that churches say they no idea who even lives in the neighborhood around our church, much less knowing what are their needs and wants, their hopes and fears?

I think it has something to do with the underlying motive we start with. When a church says, “We need to get to know people in the community,” the unspoken conclusion to that sentence is, “so we can get them to come to church.”

Let’s be clear. Getting people to come to our churches is not a bad thing. Church is where we find belonging and friendship, joy and fulfillment. We want others to share that experience.

But nine out of ten people say that what brought them to a new church was that a) somebody asked them, and b) when they arrived they felt welcomed and cared for.
Conversely, people say they stopped going to church because they felt like nobody was really interested in them – or only interested in them for their time or their money.
It’s all about relationships. Before we can think about enticing people to come to church, we have to let them know that our first concern is them, not ourselves. We have to find ways to starting and sustaining relationships that aren’t simply a gimmick to get people to join in our activities and programs.

So, what if, instead of first thinking, “We have to get more people to come to our church,” we simply visualized Jesus sending us out to talk, to listen, to pay attention, to love?

What if we got to know our community by simply doing the kinds of things that our
hairdresser does? What if we learned to value people for who they are, not for what they can give us? What if we paid attention to how we welcome people when they do come, so they don’t feel like they’ve wandered into someone’s closed family reunion?

If we are good at doing that, word will get around that our church is a place where people really care about you. We will create the conditions under which people might actually want to come and join us.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Beautiful Questions

If your church compiled a list of FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions – what would be on it?

I don’t mean the official list posted on your website, with information about how to become a member or your wedding policy.

I mean the questions that are really on people’s minds.Like…

Why don’t we sing more old hymns?

When did we start dunking the bread in the juice at communion?

How come the choir doesn’t wear gowns anymore?

Why don’t we learn more new hymns?

Here’s one question that would be on every church’s FAQs list: “Why don’t more young people come to church?” I have heard this question in one form or another in virtually every church I have worked with.

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t pretend to have an answer. But lately I’ve been wondering if the problem is not the lack of answers, but the question itself.

In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger argues that questions, not answers, are the key to change. We don’t need more experts with answers, we need more “expert questioners.” In our rapidly changing world, finding the right question can be more critical than finding the right answer.

Berger says we should search for “beautiful questions.” A “beautiful question,” he writes, “is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

“Beautiful questions” are ambitious. They push the limits. But they are actionable. You can do something about them.

“Beautiful questions” change the way we perceive. They help us to see things differently. But they can also change the way we act.

Let’s go back to our frequently asked question, “Why aren’t there more young people in church?’ It is not a beautiful question – at least, not the way it’s normally asked. Usually it doesn’t go anywhere. It seems like a dead-end – a problem without a solution, a question without an answer. Rarely is it asked in such a way that it leads to a change in perception or action.  

Berger says that beautiful questions start with “Why?” But it’s not enough to ask “Why?”
once. He says that, with any problem, we need “Why?” at least five times before we can get far enough below the surface that we get to the root of the issue.

So, let’s try it.

“Why aren’t young people in church?”
            “Why does it matter if young people are in church?”

“Because we’re all getting old and tired.”
            “Why does it matter if you’re getting old and tired?”

“Because soon there won’t be enough of us to do the work.”
            “Why does the work need to be done?”

“Because the church we know and love will have to close down.”
Why does that matter? What would happen if it didn’t survive? Who would miss it?

“We would miss it. It’s been an important part of our lives.”

Ah. It turns out that the question is not so much about the needs and concerns of the young people who aren’t in church, but the needs and concerns of us older folks who are in church. In other words, we want young people to help sustain something that is important to us, not so much to them.

Which raises another question: “Why should they?”

So often when we ask, “Why aren’t young people in church?” we imply that the problem is with them. “We raised our children to go to church. What happened?” We come up with answers like, they’re not committed, they don’t care, young people are self-centred, they’re too busy with sports or work or their cell phones. There is a note of judgment in the very asking of the question.
If we’re really serious about wanting to know why young people don’t come to church, we will turn our attention away from what we want and need and focus on what they want and need. We’ll ask, “What actually matters to young people? How can we find out what matters to them? How can we learn to listen to them, understand, respect their lives, their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries?”
We will stop trying to make them responsible for the decline of our churches and use that question to search our own hearts. When that happens, our dead-end question can be turned into a beautiful question because it will open our hearts to the lives and longings of those people who are not in church. It will be about them and about what God is asking of us.
The next stage in creating a beautiful question is to ask, “What if?”

“What if” creates the freedom to imagine alternatives without having to prove upfront that they will work. What if we did this, rather than doing that? That’s how innovations are born.

But we need to break some old habits. Churches are experts at shutting down “What if?” questions before they even have a chance to take root. We immediately list all the reasons why that will never work. We need to create spaces of openness and curiosity where we can ask “What if?” and not know the answer.

The final stage of a beautiful question is to ask “How?”
“How?” grounds possibilities in the reality of available resources and practical results. But we need to ask “How?” in such a way that we are not defeated before we begin. “How?” is an invitation to experiment, to try things out, to approach things from a different angle, to tinker, and above all, to fail. Failure is an indispensable element on the road to success. Berger’s book is packed with examples of people who tried and failed repeatedly and persistently before they finally got it. So many potentially good ideas die on the vine in churches because we don’t stick with them. 

Asking these questions won’t magically fill your church with young people. But it will lead you on a journey of discovery that may take you to some surprising places with unexpected results. You won’t know until you try. 

We’ve used “Why don’t more young people come to church?” as a test case, but we could apply the same steps to other frequently asked questions. Some examples might be, “What should be do with our aging building?” or “Can we afford a full-time minister?” These questions often feel like dead-ends. But they can be turned into beautiful questions if we approach them in a curious, imaginative, adventurous and faithful spirit. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Purpose and Problem-Solving

All the churches I know have to wrestle with practical problems, like: How can we balance the budget? How can we maintain our aging building? How can we reach out to new people, especially younger people? What programs and services should we offer?

“How can we keep going?” would be a good summary of these questions.

But churches are also recognizing the need to talk about their identity and mission. “Who are we? Why are we here? What is God calling us to do and to be?”

We might call these “What is our purpose?” conversations.

Both conversations – “What is our purpose?” and “How can we keep going?” -- are important. And many congregations are talking about them. The problem is that these two conversations are taking place in isolation from one another. “How do we keep going?” and “What is our mission and purpose?” are often parallel, non-intersecting topics. They are discussed at different times, in different settings, and often by different people.

Mission and purpose do not drive practical decision-making -- buildings, budgets and staff. And practical decision-making is not always an expression of mission and purpose.
The result is that we go around in circles, and nothing changes.

I am starting to believe that integrating these two conversations is essential if we are to move forward.

In another part of my life, I am the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity Niagara. Habitat is an organization that is crystal clear about its purpose, and that purpose drives its day-to-day decisions.

Contrary to popular belief, Habitat does not exist to build houses. Houses are just a means to an end. The purpose of Habitat is to transform families. Home ownership is the tool we use to effect that transformation.

The motto of Habitat for Humanity Canada is “Always thinking families first.” The affiliate I am involved with takes that motto very seriously. Every decision is subjected to the same test: Will it help us to serve more families?

“Should we increase our debt to buy that piece of land?” Will it help us serve more families?
Should we hire new staff?” Will it help us serve more families?

“Should we open another ReStore?” Will it help us serve more families?

If the answer is “Yes,” we do it. If the answer is “No,” we don’t do it.  

At the same time, every great idea is subjected to the same test: “Do we have the resources to do this? And if not, how can we get them?”

Mission and day-to-day decision-making aren’t separate conversations. They’re the same conversation.

I covet this clarity for the church. I wish our churches could be as focused on their purpose and mission as Habitat. Maybe that’s not possible because churches don’t have a single focus. But if our congregations could be clearer about why they exist, they would be more effective.

But, in order to achieve that clarity, mission and action need to be brought together. We can’t have the “hard,” practical problem-solving conversation about resources taking place in one room, and the “soft” conversation about mission and purpose taking place in another room. They have to be brought together.

Every time you meet to solve a practical problem – how to increase givings, how to increase attendance, whether to change the worship service, whether to renovate the church hall, or to amalgamate with a neighboring church – every time you meet to discuss these matters, you should also spend at least 15 or 20 minutes talking about who you are and why you’re here.

It’s not sufficient to confine the mission and purpose conversation to an annual retreat – or to hand it off to the minister or a separate committee. That is a good way to ensure that mission and purpose will only be the concern of a few people, rather than the whole congregation.

At the same time, it’s not sufficient to talk about mission and purpose as if practical issues don’t matter. That’s a good way to ensure that mission and purpose will seem like wishful thinking.

Conversation about mission needs to happen regularly, frequently, consistently enough to have an impact. It’s important that the mission conversation occur alongside your conversations about money and buildings, that it be a component of all your gatherings and deliberations.

How do you do that?

You do it by creating a safe space in which everyone is able to participate without fear of being judged, ridiculed or dismissed.

You do it by formulating simple questions, using easily-understood, non-specialist language, that invite people to share what’s on their hearts.

You do it by giving people clear instructions.

You do it by keeping notes of your conversations, so you can check back, follow up and, 
over time, deepen your level of understanding.

Safe space. Simple questions. Clear instructions. Keep notes.

In my next post, I will expand on each of these points and offer practical steps you can take to incorporate them into your gatherings and discussions.

For now, though, you can start making “How do we keep going?” and “What is God’s purpose for us?” one conversation, not two. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

When New Birth Feels Like Death

My friend, Rev. Christine Jerrett says, “When you’re giving birth, there comes a moment when you think you’re going to die.”

I must confess, I have no personal experience of this, but it rings true. The birth pains of something new can feel like death.

This has been born out many times in the history of God’s people. When God begins to do something new, at first it feels like the end. And it is – the end of the old, the arrival of the new. A few examples:

587 B.C.
The Crisis: The Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem, carries the leaders into exile, and reduces the temple on Mount Zion to rubble.  
Destruction of Temple 587 BC
The Reaction: People asked: “Where is God? Why did God not protect us? How can we possibly survive without the temple where we can make our sacrifices? We’re finished.”
The New Birth: The exiles turn to the sacred story and begin to create what we know as Scripture which, unlike a temple, is portable. Jewish communities centred on Scripture and religious practices spring up and flourish from Persia to Spain.  

A.D. 40 
The Crisis: Some Jews believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Gentiles – non-Jews – are beginning to come to faith in Jesus and experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  
The Reaction: People asked, “How can Gentiles be included in the church if they do not keep the laws of given by God to Moses? Without traditions like circumcision and abstaining from unclean food, we can’t survive.”
The New Birth: Inspired leaders like Peter and Paul realize that salvation is a free gift. Grace and faith, not adherence to religious regulations, bring us into a relationship with God. As a result, Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the Roman Empire.

The Crisis: An Augustinian monk and professor named Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther challenges the authority of the papacy and attacks the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Martin Luther
The Reaction: People ask, “How can the church survive if we don’t have a central teaching authority to tell us what’s right? If ordinary people start to read the Bible for themselves, it will be chaos!
The New Birth: With newly printed Bibles in their hands and passionate preachers in their pulpits, people discover that each individual can have a saving relationship with God by faith alone. Protestant churches flourish – and, the Roman Catholic Church also experiences reformation and a spiritual renaissance.

The Crisis:  Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, outlining the theory of evolution. Darwin’s work directly challenges the biblical account of creation.
The Reaction: People are horrified. They ask, “How can Christianity survive if the truth of the Bible is questioned? If the Bible is ‘wrong’ about the age of the earth, how can we trust it on other matters? The whole edifice of Christian belief will collapse.”
The New Birth: Christians begin to re-examine their faith in the light of new scientific knowledge. They discover fresh ways of reading the Bible and understanding the Gospel. They realize that Scripture and science are not necessarily in conflict.

The Crisis: The law banning businesses from opening on Sundays in Ontario is struck down. Sunday morning is transformed from a quiet day of rest and worship to prime time for shopping and sports. Almost overnight, young families start to disappear from churches.
Reaction:  People are perplexed. They ask, “How can our churches survive if we have to compete with the shopping mall and the arena? How can we possibly attract enough people to pay for our big buildings and full-time ministers and programs and activities?”
The New Birth: Churches experience a wake-up call. They begin to realize they need to do more than open the doors on Sunday morning if they want to attract people. They start to ask what their mission is in a culture where church is no longer at the centre.

The Crisis:  Sunday participation has continued to decline. Most churches are older and smaller.
Reaction:  Some churches are wondering if the end is near. They are asking if they can survive without their buildings, paid ministers and a new generation of younger people.
The New Birth:  To be determined….

We are in a place that God’s people have been many times before. Feeling like the end is near. Wondering how we can hold on to what we once had. Fearful of the future.

The lesson of the past, though, is that new birth feels like death. Where is that new birth in the midst of upheaval and decline today? Whether we can discern the new thing God is doing and reimagine what it means to be the church will be critical in shaping out future.  

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Bottom Half of the Hourglass

I first became aware that time is a finite resource when I was 11. My father had open heart surgery. It was 1965. Heart bypass surgery was in its infancy, still little more than a medical experiment. My dad had this risky surgery because his doctor said that without it, he would die. He spent the whole summer in the Toronto General Hospital, and, although he lived a good life, he was never really well.

For the first time that summer, it dawned on me that my dad would not be here forever. I remember thinking, “Maybe if everything goes well, he’ll live for another 20 years” – which, when you’re 11 seems like forever. But time continued to flow on inexorably, and that anticipated time became shorter.

In fact, my father lived for over 30 years, which makes his surgery an unqualified success. 

But for us mortal creatures, time marches on. Time moves in one direction. Every day behind us is a day less in front of us.

The hourglass is a visual image of this reality. The sands of time run continuously until the top half of the hourglass is empty.

But what if we looked at things differently? A while ago I decided to start focusing on the top half less and the bottom half more. The top of the hourglass the remaining time available to me. The bottom half is time that is past, yes. But it’s also the accumulated experiences and events that time past represents.

When I was 18, most of my life lay ahead of me. There was way more sand in the top half of my hourglass than the bottom. But I had not yet finished university, met my wife, started ministry. My four children were not even a gleam in my eye. I had not yet met most of the people or read most of the books or listened to most of the music that have shaped my life. I knew almost nothing compared to what I know now. Today I realize that most of my years are behind me, But because of all that has happened in those years, my life is immeasurably richer than it was when I was young.

I know it is a very great blessing to be able to say that, a blessing that not everyone can share. But even if the bottom half of your hourglass contains pain and sorrow and disappointment, it is still your life, a life which is valued and cherished by God.

What’s true of us as individuals is true of our churches. The sands of time are running out on many of our churches – or at least it seems that way. We have long been hoping that, somehow, we could find a way to turn the hourglass over and start afresh. But sadly, it hasn’t happened for many of our congregations, or for the United Church as a whole.

Recently, I was gently taken to task for saying that a church was “failing.” What I meant was that it would likely have to close. It was pointed out to me that “failing” is not the right word. Even if a church is reaching the end of its life cycle, it doesn’t mean it has “failed.” All the impact, influence and blessing that have flowed out of that community over the years is still very real. Countless people are who they are today because of that church. The top half might be diminishing, but the bottom half is full to overflowing.

Maybe the hourglass is not the only, or even the best, image for the lives of us as individuals, or our churches. The past does not sit trapped and inert, but continues to live and move like the radiating ripples of a pond. The flow of our lives is so much not like the sand running out of the hourglass, but like a stream, originating in its source and flowing to its end point.

The great devotional writer Oswald Chambers wrote “A river reaches places that its source never knows.” What Chambers meant is that we never get to see most of the impact of what we have say and do. Most of it is hidden from us, known only to God.

We continue to hope and pray that the faith that has sustained us will be passed on to a next generation. And we need to do what we can to make that happen.

But we also need to pray and believe that God is continues to use what we have said and done to bless the world in ways that we can neither see nor even imagine.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Walking on Water

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy tells the story of three monks who lived on a remote
Leo Tolstoy
island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he was shocked to discover that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. So he spent all his time on the island teaching them the “Our Father” and then departed, satisfied that he had done a good piece of pastoral work.

But when his ship was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop, overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”

(I got this story from an article by Trevor Miller entitled “Pray as You Can, Not As You Can’t” on the website of the Northumbria Community. )

Throughout my ministry, I’ve met a lot of people who are like those monks. They don’t know many of the prayers, Scripture passages or hymns that at one time people were expected to know.

And it makes them feel really inadequate. “Don’t ask me to pray, I don’t know how.” “I’m so biblically illiterate, I don’t know anything.” “You’re the expert, not me.”

On the other hand, I’ve often been astonished that some of these people can “walk on water” – not literally, but in the sense of demonstrating unexpected wisdom, maturity, imagination, character and understanding. People whose relationship with God is vibrant and alive, and who live out their faith in remarkable ways.

Trevor Miller writes that what matters in prayer is “the state of the heart before God rather than the techniques used.”
If my work over the last three years has shown me anything, it is that the church is not dead, but that the church is alive in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways. Our congregations and the people in them often have a lot more going for them than even they realize.

But sometimes they’re like those monks on that island. Their spirituality is heart-felt. It’s intuitive. It’s instinctive. But it’s unformed and unfocused. It would benefit from being shaped by practices and habits and traditions that have been passed down to us. So the bishop was right in going to extraordinary lengths to teach these three monks the “Our Father.”

We’re prone to think that form kills feeling, that everyone should make up their spirituality as they go along. But spiritual depth only comes when we allow ourselves to be fed by the deep wells of wisdom and experience of those who have gone before.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t dismiss the feeling because it’s lacking the form, or because it’s expressed in a form we don’t think is correct. In the end, it is the state of our hearts before God, and not being able to put it into sufficiently “churchy” language that counts. And make no mistake, every generation has its own “churchy” language. Just because we’re inclusive in our language and don’t use “thee” and “thou” doesn’t mean that our language automatically connects the heart to God.

We’re always wondering what people outside the church, especially young people, are “looking for.” “What do they want?” we ask. Studies show that what young people respond to most is authenticity. It doesn’t even matter so much if the language is hip as if they can tell that it’s authentic. If they perceive it as empty show, or as somebody’s attempt to dictate what is “correct,” they’ll smell it a mile away. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that we know what authenticity means to them unless we’ve taken the time to listen to them.

That’s why the people who can “walk on water” are so important. They are the ones who can often communicate authenticity to the seeker, the visitor, the stranger. They’re easy to miss. Sometimes they are the quietest, most unassuming people around. Because they don’t know the inside language and habits, they might be on the margins of the church.

But they are a tremendous gift. And almost every church I know of has at least one or two of them, who like those unindoctrinated monks can “walk on water.” If we notice them, and learn to value their presence among us, we too will be “awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity.”  

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Four Spaces of Belonging

We all have a need to belong. But we don’t all experience belonging in the same way.

I knew a woman who couldn’t understand why people didn’t stay for coffee hour after church. She felt that church wasn’t complete without the coffee and conversation that occurred after the service. “Don’t they know they would feel more a part of the church if they came for coffee?” she would ask.

I knew a man who couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in belonging to a small group. “Church,” he said, “should be a place where people can share their deepest selves with one another. Don’t they know what they are missing?”

Both Mrs. Coffee Hour and Mr. Small Group didn’t understand that people experience belonging in different ways.

Joseph Myers, in his book The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups, says that there are four different “spaces of belonging” – Public, Social,
Personal and Intimate.

Public Space is “where we connect through outside an influence,” for example, at a concert, sporting event or political rally. My wife and I went to see “The Blue Man Show” in Chicago a few years ago. Even though we didn’t know a single other person by name, we had an intense feeling of belonging to the group participating in that delightful event.

Social Space is where we share “snap-shots” of ourselves and form “first impressions” of one another. Social space is where “neighbour” relationships are formed.

Personal Space is where we experience belonging among “close friends” – people with whom we feel comfortable sharing personal things about ourselves – but not everything.

That level of belonging is reserved for Intimate Space. This space is best described by the expression “naked but unashamed.” It is the space where can share our deepest selves. Most people only ever have handful of truly intimate relationships.

Myers argues that we can experience genuine belonging in all four of these spaces. It’s a mistake to think that the goal of belonging is always intimacy, and that to social or public belonging is invalid. They are four different experiences.

The challenge for churches is not to limit genuine belonging to social events or small groups, but to provide opportunities to belong in all four spaces.

Public Belonging
The main public event in most churches is Sunday worship. People should feel connected –
both to God and to those around them – whether they know anyone else in the congregation or not. This means that worship should be planned and led with care and commitment. People aren’t looking for polished perfection, but they are looking for a message that speaks to them.

It’s essential that churches do the very best with what they have. This means not trying to be something other than what they are, by, for example, building worship around classical choral music when they no longer have the musicians to do it well.

It also means removing barriers to participation, including cryptic “insider” language, messages that reflect the minister’s latest hobby horse, confusing orders of service, or making people guess where the washrooms are.

Think: If I was visiting this church for the first time, what would it feel like?

Social Belonging
Social belonging is often dismissed as superficial. It may carry the negative connotation of “mere socializing.” But social space is perhaps the most critical space because it is there that people will decide whether they want to get to know you better.

Social space is where first impressions are formed. Visitors will often decide within minutes whether this is the church for them.

The message to be communicated in social space is “We really are glad you’re here.” It should come with no strings attached, so that people do not feel like you are only interested in what they might do for you.

Personal Belonging
The church should be a safe place where people can form close relationships. This requires both openness and receptivity, but also respect for healthy boundaries.

To experience personal belonging, people need to trust that they can ask questions without being dismissed, express opinions without being judged, contribute without being shut down, and risk opening themselves without being the subjects of gossip or backbiting.

Intimate Belonging 
I think intimacy in churches is somewhat overrated. It’s not reasonable to expect that most people will look for true intimacy in the church.

Intimacy comes with risks, and so it needs to be handled with care. People who seek intimacy in the church may be broken or vulnerable, or they may crave intimacy in unhealthy ways.

The church’s best role may be to support and care for people so they can sustain healthy intimacy in other areas of their lives -- their marriages, families and friendships.

All four kinds of belonging are authentic and valid. Churches should strive to provide opportunities to experience belonging in all four spaces. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nine Ways to Reimagine Your Church's Ministry

Many churches are finding it harder and harder to sustain full time paid ministry. The most common response is to reduce ministry hours, or look for a cheaper alternative – student supply, for example, or only calling ministers in salary Category A or B.

These responses often end up being short term gain for long term pain. They take the pressure off the budget now, but usually contribute to the long-term process of decline. Fewer hours means less ministry. And it becomes harder to attract ministers who need to make a living.

When we’re faced with an urgent situation, we look for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix. The warning signs of decline have been with us for thirty years. It didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be fixed overnight.

Preparing for the future is more about transforming deeply entrenched attitudes and habits than it is about finding some magic button we can press. That change in attitude can only happen with patience and persistence over time – which is hard to do when anxiety about the future is high. But it’s what is called for.

Here are nine ways that even the smallest congregation can reimagine and refocus its ministry.

Start with Why
“Why are we here? What is our purpose?” These are the basic questions every church should ask.
These are deep questions of identity and mission. They can’t be answered with nice-sounding generalities (“We seek to be an inclusive community, welcoming to all”) but with clear specifics. What exactly are we here for? What difference does it make that we are here?
Management guru Peter Drucker says that the purpose of a church is to produce “transformed individuals.” Whose lives will be changed and in what way because of the church? That’s what churches need to wrestle with honestly, imaginatively, courageously and prayerfully.

God gives the church its purpose -- to carry on Christ’s work through the power of the Spirit. But each community needs to work out for itself what it means in practical terms to be faithful to that purpose. We need to create as many opportunities as we can think of to talk about this question. It’s number one because it’s the most important.  

Look at Assets First

Assets are all the things we have that make ministry possible. They include buildings and money, but they also include less tangible things like the abilities of our members, accumulated wisdom and experience, connections to the community, the faith we have inherited and the presence of the Spirit.

Even the smallest community has a wealth of assets, many of which they may not recognize. When we are struggling, it’s easy to see only deficits – what we don’t have rather than what we do have. The church begins to regard itself a problem to be solved. And because it sees only what is lacking, it looks outside for an “expert” solution, which makes it feel even more inadequate.

Focusing on assets can open our eyes to the potential of the community to creatively address its challenges.  While outside knowledge and experience is valuable, the answer is found first of all “in here” – in the assets and capacities already present in the community.

Be realistic about your deficits. But start with your assets.

Gather in order to Scatter

We’re conditioned to think that “church” happens when people come into the building, for worship, meetings or activities. Therefore, we see our main job as bringing more people in. It’s important to bring people in, but in our time, the impact of the church will felt be less through the programs and activities within the church, and more when people are equipped to live out their faith in their daily lives – in their families, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. We need to see the church as the place where we gather in order to be equipped to scatter into God’s world.

Distinguish Means from Ends

A church’s “end” is its mission or purpose (not to be confused with a “mission statement.”) One way to discern our ends is to answer three questions suggested by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann:

Who are we?
What is God calling us to do?
Who is our neighbor?

The church’s means are all the ways it puts the answers to these questions into practice, which includes money, buildings and staff.

It’s common in churches to talk about a means – a balanced budget, a beloved building, a longstanding program – as if it were an end in itself. We need to be sure we are putting our means at the service of our ends – and be willing to find other means if the ones we have aren’t doing the job.  

Rethink Why you need a Minister
Churches often think of ministry as a list of tasks -- preaching, visiting, going to meetings.
Many churches with part time ministers expect the minister to show up for worship every Sunday. Since most people’s primary experience of church is Sunday morning, this shields the congregation from the full consequences of part time ministry because there is no time left for mission or outreach.  

Maybe having your part time minister spend most of his or her time preparing for a one hour Sunday service is not the best use of their time. Maybe there are other, more important things your minister should be doing. Start with your “Why?” and ask how the paid staff you have can best serve that end.

(An interesting example is Cariboo Presbyterian Church in British Columbia. This church is a network of house churches in small, scattered communities. The paid ministry staff train and equip local people to lead worship, prayer and pastoral care in each house church. See )

Commit to Collaborate Upfront

Cooperating with other churches sounds like a good idea. But if you wait till you’re looking for a new minister, it’s too late. Your immediate needs of the moment may not line up with those of neighboring churches.  

The commitment to a cooperative vision should be made now so that you can respond to future ministry needs out of that commitment rather than trying to patch together an arrangement on short notice.

And – your potential cooperative partners may not be United Churches!

Think Bi-Vocational

Part-time ministry may save the congregation money, but it doesn’t provide the minister with a living income. Congregations need to be proactive and innovative in thinking about what other sources of income could be available to potential candidates. This might mean seeking a minister who has marketable skills in an area where there is need within the community and making that part of the search process. We can no longer assume that full time ministry is the norm, but it should not be entirely up to ministers to bear the burden of that reality.

Your Church is not Your Building

The largest churches in the New Testament had around fifty people. That’s how many would fit in someone’s house. And the vast majority of churches in the world today have fewer than fifty members. The problem is not that our congregations are too small to be effective. It’s that many of them are struggling to maintain aging and costly buildings.

Ask what the life and ministry of your church could look like apart from the building in which it is currently housed. This is hard, because we’re so used to thinking of the church as a building. Closing the building usually means closing the church.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine how your church could still be a vibrant Christian community if you didn’t have your building.

Adapting to change is a spiritual, not just an organizational challenge. Change is a journey of the heart. Find ways to invite as many people in your church as possible into that journey. Discover ways for them to participate in the long-term spiritual discerning of your congregation. And trust that God is not finished with the church.

Rev. Paul Miller