Age Appropriate?

The life cycle of a congregation is often described a bell curve, mapping out membership growth over time. Martin F. Saarinen (The Life Cycle of a Congregation -Alban.org), and others, chart how a congregation is born with enthusiasm, has significant yearly growth for a decade or so, enters into a long period of stability, then falls into decline, leading in time to death. My first response to seeing this curve was to ask, what about Canterbury Cathedral? Obviously there are outliers, that is churches whose lifespan is so unexpected that it skews the chart.

The Value of Suffering

We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. +

This passage gives us the great equation of life; suffering leads to perseverance, this persistent patience then leads to our having an improved character, this, in the end, leads to hope. The three terms of the equation can be variously translated and this is one of the passages of the Bible that becomes more transparent when you look at a variety of translations. There is a form of group wisdom (mass Holy Spirit group-think) when you lay the various words side by side. Paul is reaching to describe something that is so universal that a single English or Greek word cannot contain it. Yet each committee when they translate brings some aspect of the jewel to light.

 

Suffering is probably the best word for the first term. Though some Bibles use tribulation, troubles, or trials, suffering is universal. As the Buddha would say, the human condition is defined by suffering and we only become enlightened when we face it head on. I like Scott Peck’s bluntness, “...you must be willing to meet existential suffering and work it through. In order to do this, the attitude toward pain has to change. This happens when we accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.” I think we need to be honest and open about the indispensable role that suffering has had in our personal lives.

Sunday, May 26, 2013
Pentecost 2

Consider the Lilies

Jesus said, “Consider the lilies...” (Matthew 6:28) Why?  Please note that these flowers have three strikes against them:

A Community of Individuals

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place... tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each of them +

I went to a large used book sale this past Saturday. Reading is such an individual thing. I usually get in trouble when I read over someone’s shoulder or read my book out loud when others are trying to sleep. So, when I shop for books, I shop for my personal enjoyment. Yet, as is often the case, my book shopping this weekend was very communal. I had four other family members with me. As we rambled through the aisles we kept separating and coming back together in little clumps of twos and threes to compare finds. Together, apart. Apart, together. The mix and match of the Kemp family’s communal love of books.

The day of Pentecost was a group experience with an individual dimension. As you read Acts 2, you bounce back and forth between the communal and the personal. The first Christians are all together, yet the spirit falls upon each individual as a personalized tongue of flame. The disciples go out on the balcony to speak to the crowds on the street. Yet each hearer experiences the Holy Spirit’s communication in their own language. This really should be known as the gift of individual ears rather than as the gift of a common tongue.

Sunday, May 19, 2013
Pentecost 1

Understanding precedes action

Most things that fail in the church, do not fail for lack of trying. They fail because the groundwork was not done to prove the project worthy of the required effort.  Here is how it goes; one or two leaders become excited about a new program for their church. They work hard to get the votes needed to initiate it. There are stories told about how well this program worked elsewhere. It sounds like fun, and perhaps a little mysterious. The vote passes through council and money is set aside for it. The innovators wipe their brows, thinking the hard part is over. The new program now requires broader support. The various church leaders who ‘liked the idea’ before, back away. They didn’t think this thing would require anything from them. Who understands the next step?

When is a sequel, not a sequel?

In my former book...

What if Luke had really wanted to only write one long book, instead of the Part 1&2 of Luke-Acts? There were serious publishing restrictions on written works in the first century. A single book the length of Luke-Acts would be too long for standard scrolls and  create problems for copyists. If it were really intended to be one book, then is it possible that it really has one plot, one theme, and a single central element. I want to propose that the focus is Church, with a capital ‘C.’ 

 

The center passage in a combined Luke-Acts is Acts 2:42-47, where we see the ideal first fellowship of Christians. They are gathered into ‘Church,’ in Jerusalem in the days that follow the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Like Adam and Eve in Paradise they live a short paragraph without sin. They do all the things that Church will do everywhere; they study, they pray, they live in community meeting the needs of the weakest among them, they witness by their simplicity and charity towards those outside the faith. Never again will a church be so purely Church.

 

Sunday, May 12, 2013
Easter 6
Ascension

The Desires of a Congregation's Heart

An important promise in the Bible reads, "Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart." - Psalm 37:4  But, where do the desires of my heart come from? I suspect the significant ones come from God. When He promises to give me my desires, He is not agreeing to buy me a Porsche. He is instead agreeing to fulfill the very impulses that He has already wired into my being. Something has to change in me so that I delight in God, however, before I discover the deeper desires of my heart. I have found in my own life that there is a circularity to what is being promised here. God is glad to give me the things he already wants me to want. If my deepest desire is to communicate, God helps me to learn how to write.

How are churches made?

“Come over to Macedonia and help us...” +

Before thinking too hard about Acts 16, it might be good to look up your current congregation’s history and reflect on it. Every church has its own founding story, but most are similar to the story of Paul and the people of Macedonia. PS: Since this was the first congregation birthed in Europe, most American congregations should see themselves as distant descendants of the Macedonians.

Packing for a New Reality

This week my new Reality Check 101 book became available. The back cover reads:

As a tightrope walker alone on her path, so each church must discern a way forward. Reality Check 101 provides a process for congregational dialogue and a dozen exercises for implementing change. Five years in the making, this workbook follows Bill Kemp’s Ezekiel’s Bones and The Church Transition Workbook as a practical guide for lay and clergy leaders.

 

Tightrope walker by Segal

What Church Means

+ Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another... +

Did you know that the dictionary definition for church doesn’t contain the word love. It goes as follows: “Church is a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” (Apple dictionary)

 

I don’t like this definition. Not only does it exclude the love that Jesus says will define us, it includes three institutional words: clergy, buildings, and doctrines. The trouble is that this is exactly how most people in the world around us see the church. In fact, it may be the way most church people view the Church. It may also be the reason most people today say they can be religious perfectly fine without the Church, thank you. This past week, less than 18% of Americans went to church. 

 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Easter 5

Tightrope Walking

You may have noticed that problems in the church have a tendency to cascade. An idea that someone has seen working elsewhere is tried here. It falls flat. The initiator(s) is then criticized for wasting church resources. The initiator(s) comes away from this experience wounded and more hesitant about sticking their neck out in the future. The council and/or clergy leadership also wants to prevent future failures and protect church resources. So, they renew their commitment to micromanaging and the rigid enforcement of standing policies. Without realizing it, they stifle creativity. This leads to less enthusiasm in the church. Young people depart. Stewardship falls and budgets go unmet.

How do I get to Heaven?

The Lord is my shepherd..

I did it again this past week. I quizzed a class of lifelong Methodists (average age 67) on how to get into heaven. One said she didn’t know, but hoped she that was doing OK. Two or three others nodded, as if to speak of our blessed assurance would be a sin of pride. One woman ventured to give the answer that she had been taught, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” “Yes,” I said, “But does that mean believing anything in particular, like the color of his eyes?” 

 

We had been studying Psalm 23, how the Lord is our Shepherd. I wanted them to see how deeply relational this favorite scripture is. It begins by saying that our relationship with God is not based upon believing certain things. We don’t have to say the Apostles’ Creed to get into heaven. Instead the relationship is what it is. No sheep ever thinks too deeply about how he ended up in this particular flock. Each believer speaks of a grace that they did not earn. The Lord is my shepherd, don’t ask me how I lucked into it. I wanted my class of good Methodists to answer that getting into heaven was a matter of having a relationship with Jesus.

 

Sunday, April 21, 2013
Easter 4

Money and Church Planning

Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money: 

“If we have food and clothing we should be content with that” 

                            - I Timothy 6:8 

What's in it for God?

What gain is it if I go down to the pit. Can the dust praise God?

Psalm 30 asks The Question, bluntly. If God has made us in his image (Genesis 1:27) and we experience our relationship with God as an interaction of respected individuals, then how would it benefit God to simply let us die? The whole of the Bible, and particularly Psalm 30, describes the human condition as a series of strange, beautiful, and often painful events, which only receive meaning when we gain spiritual eyes. When we are able to see, we look back on each moment of trouble and see how it connected us on a personal level with God. Life is a tale told by an idiot, unless God whispers into our ear the translation of each word. 

 

So in verse 1, David is suffering exile, defeat, and humiliation. The only thing that allows this wilderness to have meaning is the fact that God hears and lifts this measly struggling individual out of the muck. In verse 2, David is sick and God doesn’t just mumble a prayer for all who are on beds of affliction. God, in a specific action, heals David. In verse 5, David has done something that offends this friend. Like any tiff between two closely related persons, there is a period of disfavor. David is sleeping in the spiritual dog house. But in the next morning, all is forgiven. David sings, “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” Not every depressing event is solved by a miracle, but every downturn of life is given its meaning by the way it builds David’s on going relationship with God.

Sunday, April 14, 2013
Easter 3

Tall or Flat?

The one fact that no one can dispute is that fewer people today are interested in organized religion. Most Americans don't want to pay for some religious monstrosity or attend a Crystal Cathedral. To put it in biblical terms, they have forsaken the Temple that Herod is building in the city, and gone looking for  the burning bush. They are a generation like the one that met John the Baptist on the border of the wilderness and accepted his casual dress. They long to gather on the hillside and hear Jesus tell them about the Kingdom of God and how it is relevant to daily life. 

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