Archive for August 2013

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

In each of the following, the validity of the rule is proved by its exceptions:

1) The group is always smarter than the lone leader or expert.

This rule applies to every church committee meeting. Pastors must learn to give laity more say in setting the mission and worship style of their congregation. Church vitality doesn’t spring magically from a book, nor can it be bought by attending the seminar offered by a visiting guru. It grows out of a healthy, spiritually connected, congregational discernment process.  This rule comes from James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.



  • When the decision making group doesn’t represent the cultural diversity of the church’s context. An aging group of church leaders will have a hard time discovering how to be in mission to a neighborhood of young adults. Churches in transitional communities always need trained transitional leadership.
  • When a dominant voice controls the group process.


2) Vital congregations spend more of their budget on mission and program. Administration, clergy compensation, and church maintenance are to be treated as necessary evils.

This rule encourages congregations to do their budgeting process in two columns. The left column should show all the money that the church spends on its own institutional needs. The right column shows what the church is spending for the first-time visitor and the people outside its doors. Most budget items, such as conference apportionments, will need to be split, based upon how much of the item is really missional.



  • When the pastor, or staff person, is the church’s primary form of mission to the community. Small rural churches and urban mission churches tend to do their ministry through the giving of their paid staff to the neighborhood.
  • Church renovation and additional maintenance dollars need to be spent to keep the church building accessible. Poor parking and dark hallways reinforce the church’s exclusive tendencies.


3) Over time, congregations either grow upward and outward or decline downward and inward.

This is what is known as the Spiral Rule, written about in Reality Check 101, chapter 6.

It has no real exceptions, but the words upward and downward need to be defined by the local church as they discern the particular calling God has for their congregation. Any congregation who refuses to look outward in mission, will in time become a selfish singularity.



  • Many churches become effective in caring for the needs of others and transforming their community, even though they may be statistically plateaued. Their upward growth may not be visible to those who only consider a church’s metrics.
  • Having a popular pastor may give a congregation a momentary upward bump. Unless a congregation develops a sense of its own vision, apart from its current clergy leadership, it will not continue to grow. 
Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire"

One of the most famous paintings in the London National Gallery is Turner’s 1838, “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.”  The bold, romantic, colors of this masterpiece makes it worth the long title. The back story, however, is relevant to the church today. The 98 gun, ship-of-the-line, Temeraire represented the height of war technology in 1805 when it played a significant role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Here, 32 years later, Turner shows it being towed to the scrapyard with the setting sun behind her. Turner wanted us to note the contrast between the majestic beauty of this sailing vessel and the ugly, water beetle-like, tugboat, belching smoke as it drags the Temeraire to her grave. It’s not just that the world had moved on and made sailing warships like the Temeraire obsolete, its that Britain had forgotten the debt it owed to the sailors and ships who defeated Napoleon. Turner’s masterpiece commented on, but didn’t change, that reality.


Enough for the history lesson. Traditional worship done well, especially when done in a sanctuary with a vaulted ceiling, a good organ, and magnificent stain glass windows, is breathtakingly beautiful. Like those eighteenth century sailing vessels that are maintained as museums, some churches need to hold fast to the way worship used to be done. Churches like St. Paul’s UMC in Houston, can take pride in only offering the kind of worship that John Wesley would recognize as proper. Most churches, however, are not cathedrals. As time goes on, it will be harder and harder to do traditional worship right, just as, it is harder to train a crew to sail a square rigged brig than it is to operate a motor boat. As the new millennium ages, most congregations will see their traditional services become more blended. To be successful, church leaders must intentionally adapt their congregation’s form of worship to meet both current cultural expectations and the spiritual needs of those yet to enter the church.


We may complain that the world is abandoning something rich and beautiful as it forsakes traditional worship. Expressing our opinion on the issue doesn’t change the reality. Appreciating Turner won’t bring back the age of sail. Looking at paintings like Turner’s and visiting nautical museums has made me appreciate the debt we owe to those who came before us. I don’t, however, want to go back to those days when boys had to risk climbing the rigging to change the sails. The church is not being helped by arguments that pit contemporary worship against traditional worship. One is not good and the other bad. The people who enjoy one are not more Christian than the people who enjoy the other. We need put aside our feelings about beauty, and ask ourselves what forms of worship will be most effective in fulfilling for our congregation’s particular calling from God. Churches that are seeking to maximize their mission work, will need simpler worship services. Churches that are nearing the end of their lifespan, will need to focus on forms that are familiar and comforting. Churches that are adapting to the postmodern world will need to judge each aspect of their worship time by its authenticity and clarity about the Gospel.


In times of transition, such as ours, our main principles cannot be honor, tradition, and beauty. They instead must be functionality, mission, and love.

1 John 4:20

Martin Buber said, “The world is not an obstacle on the way to God, it is the way.” I think that one of the things that made Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath was the way he welcomed what others saw as obstacles. For him, sabbath occurred when a woman was released from the burden of her painful back ailment. For others, sabbath was a weekly ritual that had to be done right in order to please a perfection hungry god. Jesus taught us to experience the glory of God in the midst of daily life and its struggles. Others were teaching that only those who separated themselves from family obligations and mundane tasks could be holy. Jesus showed us the importance of knowing our neighbor (literally, do you know the person next door?). John remembered this aspect of Jesus and said, “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Others have said that you prove yourself a Christian by avoiding anyone you think might be sinning. It is amazing how often we listen to others rather than to Jesus.

Luke tells us that the religious leaders of his day were shamed when Jesus said, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" I can easily imagine circumstances where similar faults could be found with church life today, and no one would be ashamed. Consider:

1) Our tendency to separate worship from mission. I think one of the most important aspects of any weekly gathering of Christians should be thanksgiving for the good we have been able to do through the power of prayer and announcements of new opportunities for sacrificial giving that will meet human need. It should not be unusual for a church to spend a third of its worship hour talking about how we are being in mission in these specific ways every day and spreading the love of Jesus Christ.

2) The time we waste fine tuning just who belongs and who doesn’t. Jesus uses the term, ‘daughter of Abraham’ to shame the Scribes and Pharisees. She was invisible to them, until Jesus healed her. People not on the membership role are invisible in many churches. I have written elsewhere about how many of Jesus’ teachings and actions demand that we root out the residual racism and sexual orientation prejudice that plagues the modern church. What is harder for us to feel ashamed of, is the way we today, like the Pharisees of old, value young families and the affluent as potential members of our church over the socially challenged and those who come to us plainly suffering.

3) The current moment is what matters most. The Pharisees were only asking that Jesus delay his healing of this woman for one day. What is the value of one day of suffering? Why do we spend so much time rehearsing our denominational histories and planning for future events? Right now, people are with us who need a sabbath rest before they go back to a heartbreaking life. What can we do in this moment to ease their suffering? How can we make the gospel immediate? C.H. Dodd used the term “realized eschatology” to summarize the way Jesus did ministry. I don't know if this is always good theology, but it helps me understand Jesus right now.

Martin Buber - Quote
Chagall stain glass from Art Institute - Chicago

One key fundamental is ‘soul.’ Soul was there at the beginning of my journey with Jesus. Even now, forty years later, I know that the reason I became a Christian is because something deep, true, and beautiful, resonated with my soul. But, soul is difficult to define. I am attending the funeral today for an 84 year old man. The priest is sure to speak about John’s soul. I will nod as I am reminded how the soul provides a much needed continuity to life. Over his lifetime John’s body and mind underwent many changes. His soul, however, was the same; from childhood, through the adulthood when he was a loving father and husband, and even into the last year of his old age when infirmity took away his mind. Further, the family and I want to hear the priest tell us again how John’s soul continues. It is John’s soul that will enter into that other world, a promised land dominated by the presence of the Holy One; He alone is deep, true, and beautiful. Jesus has John’s soul. We can be thankful and comforted.


I also know that when I go to sleep, my soul provides continuity between my waking awareness and my dreams. My soul doesn’t go away just because I stop thinking about it. Would it be fair to say that my soul constantly transits between three states; waking, dreaming, and the spiritual state of being aware of God’s will or vocation for my life?


Now, let me take this speculation one more step. I believe congregations have souls. We might look at the arc of a church’s life that extends from its founding in the 1890’s up through today and perhaps towards a not too distant end. Is there a congregational soul that is continuous through out this multi-generational existence? Is a local church something more than what its pastor or church council says that it is? When it closes, will something about this people and their fellowship together remain in the heart of God?


Further, there are two very distinct states of being for the church; there is the worship and small group prayer time which I refer to as reality, and then there is the weekday, in between time in which we conduct our business meetings. Too often, committee work feels like a weird dream. Let me propose that congregational life actually has three states; worship, committee work, and the spiritual formation time that reconnects it with the will of God. If a congregation is mindful of its soul, then it can avoid internal conflicts and sustain an integrity between worship, administration, and holy calling. The one thing that is fundamental about church life is the congregation’s soul.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

I intentionally shy away from sports metaphors when preaching. Too often they only serve to reinforce the winnings-the-only-thing and the ends-justify-the-means obsession of American unspirituality. Hebrews, like Paul (I Corinthians 9:2, Galatians 2:2), uses the image of a foot race to speak about the spiritual commitment needed in our personal lives.  She writes, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) and remember that we are being cheered on by an invisible crowd of witnesses (the saints of old). The flow of the unknown author of Hebrews’ thinking, reminds me how Jesus called us to pick up our own cross daily (Luke 9:23). We each can have a race, or a cross, of our own.


In high school I ran track and cross-country. Often the stadium would fill at the beginning of the meet with those cheering for the pole vaulters and sprinters. But, my race was the two-mile. It was always held last, in hopes that it might get rained out.  Unlike the hurdles, that had to be done in heats to accommodate all the participants, the two mile event rarely drew more than 6 entrants and we quickly spaced ourselves out on the track. It was easy to imagine yourself running alone. I would do math homework in my head as I ran. This was good preparation for my vocation as a Christian writer. Throughout life, I sense that God has called me to run the less popular races. This is why Hebrews first gives us a chapter full of saints before telling us to run our own race with joy. Some of us need to see dead people to believe we have any fans.


Of the saints in the bleachers, Rahab the Harlot needs special mention (Hebrews 11:31). When she invited the spies to use the fire-stairs at the back of her apartment, she was committing an act of treason (Joshua 2). Her king and her neighbors assumed that she would run the same patriotic race they were running. Human history is filled with people who broke ranks because they felt an inner calling to pursue a different course. Half of them made what the winning side considered to be the wrong choice. Still, there is no real spirituality without going into the wilderness and rejecting all temptations to run someone else’s race. Jesus knew the cross was before him, because he saw everyone else running the other way. He calls us to each pick up our own cross.

Homer in Hebrews 11?
A global thinking pope

The Pope has been saying some un-Catholic sounding things lately. Relating to gay priests, he has voiced a reluctance to continue any policy that ostracizes a whole class of people. He’s promoting practical and individualized, case by case, judgements about policy issues. Similarly, he’s opening the door to women in a ‘deacon order’ that may have priest-like functions. I’m translating that to the American church where the shortage of priests is leaving rural and small membership parishes critically underserved. The day will soon come when these folk rejoice, “Hey, we got our own priest again. She’s saying mass this week.”


This has me reflecting upon the nature of a global church. It is when the Pope goes out to speak to remote locations, like Brazil, and addresses the critical issues of their churches, that we see him behaving as a true world leader. He says things in these contexts that are sure to rattle the boys in red back home. No matter what denomination we are called to, we can appreciate this. In the postmodern world, hierarchy is dead. The way to think globally is to act locally. Being members of a global church should free us for mission and service anywhere on the planet. But, that doesn’t mean that the policies established in one place should govern the church’s behavior elsewhere.


This leads me back to issues relating to sexual orientation. In my own denomination, the United Methodist, delegates from Africa have joined with American conservatives to block at General Conference any movement towards permitting clergy to be gay or to participate in same-gender unions. In some parts of Africa, a difficult history involving war-crimes, male dominance, and rape, has made the sexual orientation dialogue difficult. In parts of the sub-Sahara and rural Utah, the presence of polygamy complicates any discussion of liberalizing the definition of marriage. Further, most of the congregations that I have dealt with are totally unprepared to accept either a gay pastor or the performance of a same-sex ritual on their property.  This doesn’t mean that congregations in certain contexts shouldn’t do what is right in their context. Many churches would benefit from the flexibility to allow people of any sexual orientation to serve them. We don’t need to wait for the majority of churches to get to that place before we permit gay persons to enter the ministry. Further, as Justice Kennedy reminded us while striking down DOMA, the American people would be better served if families headed by people of all sexual orientations could be granted the benefits of marriage. Change needs to happen where it is beneficial to the people receiving it.


Now that I have myself in hot water, let me speak again the radical truth that drives me to be so bold; congregations that survive and thrive today are always highly contextualized. They know their neighbors and they do what is best for their block. They live the Gospel, even when how they live it offends other churches of their same denomination. Today’s postmodern America is exactly reversed from the late 1960s. In the LBJ to Nixon era, denominations had to use all of their authority to lead reluctant local churches into accepting people of color. Post-watergate, public institutions like denominational churches, lost their credibility. Small groups and local churches, many of them marginalized already (inner city or remotely rural) began to experiment with radical hospitality. They found that the simple words of Jesus could be lived out by loving their neighbor, even if they were gay. They formed networks that didn’t depend upon denominational offices. They learned that to be global, they had to think local. 

Hebrews 11

The definition of faith as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1 KJV), has always felt to me like an algebraic equation. You just plug in faith as the unknown ‘x’ and the math leads to saintly people doing dangerous things. So you read on in the chapter and you find that by faith: Noah builds a really big boat, Abraham leaves Ur and sacrifices his son, Moses leaves the palace and splits the Red Sea, and Rahab the prostitute commits high treason. All this seems a bit mysterious until you circle back to the word hope.  Hope, not faith, defines the passage.


I write fiction, from time to time. Call me Ishmael, but the greatest challenge to writing a best-selling novel is not making up the words. It’s developing realistic characters. And, what makes characters believable and interesting is their hopes and dreams. The author of Hebrews understands this. He or she, begins with the most basic hope we all have. In verse 3, we read that by faith we know that the world is not a meaningless collection of random events. Our lives have purpose. The creator of all that is, did it with a plan. God set us into this particular time and place, did so knowing that by faith we would come to glimpse his plan and find hope for our lives. 


Hebrews goes on to tell us of Cain who hopes that his worship will be pleasing to God and Enoch who hoped to guide each day’s activities by his moral compass, so that, his life was pleasing to God. Noah hoped for a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by the beautiful creatures that God had made. Abraham, it turns out, was not a very good Zionist. He didn’t hope for an earthly land called Israel for his people. Instead he hoped for an eternal homeland and a spiritual relationship with his God that was manifested by justice in this world.


In Hebrews 11’s great catalogue of the faithful, the author is trying to teach us that the power and quality of ones faith is directly proportional to the value of the thing one hopes for. If Abraham had hoped for an earthly home, his faith would have been greatly diminished. He might have achieved his goal, but at what cost? We are often invited to write for ourselves “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely) goals. Faith, it seems, flows in the opposite direction. If what we hope for is obtainable, then its not a matter of faith.


How can we hope for more noble things? When you read the examples given in Hebrews 11 carefully, you find many surprises. What people discern for their lives after heartfelt prayer is often counterintuitive. The chapter also displays a rich diversity. Each faithful person hopes for something different. That is why so many great novels have been written. Because there is a seemingly endless variety of things for people to live their lives hoping for, the human story is always interesting. Life imitates art. Beauty comes from hoping for the right thing.

Hope for meaning and a loving creator
Flow Chart for Transition

Church transitions are like airplane crashes. When things go wrong, it’s good to look back and see what decisions were made when. A congregation is unhappy with their new pastor. It is tempting to say, “Oh, they just chose not to accept her.” But, if you pull out the little black box you can often find places where the group could have been taught to make better decisions. Good group decision making is a learned behavior. Congregations need to be better informed about the available options and how to make those decisions with transparency and an openness to the new future that the Holy Spirit is providing for them.


Take another example; Old Memorial Church is in changing neighborhood. The white working class that used to live within a mile of the church, doesn’t. The diminishing faithful few, no longer know their neighbors. Most on Memorial’s role book drive across town to continue to support the cause. A transitional expert or intentional interim minister would view their task of adverting this train wreck as a series of group decisions. These decisions need to be made prayerfully and with a consensus process involving as many of the congregants as possible. Following the right process will be more important than any one decision.


What does the decision making process for church transition look like? While every situation is unique, I think there is a general pattern:


Transition is initiated or discovered when a crisis, trauma, or leadership change brings business as usual to a halt. This forces the whole congregation into its first decision. Note that what follows involves the whole church and produces a collective attitude that is either open or closed to change.


Decision 1: React or Reflect  Here the congregation decides whether they will knee jerk and do some kind of quick fix or will they establish study committees and prayerfully take their time to respond to the crisis, trauma, or leadership change in a non-anxious fashion. Having a transitional leader who is a non-anxious presence is big help in getting people headed in the right way at the this decision point.


- Reaction can take the form of denial, destructive anger, bargaining (yes, Kubler-Ross rules), debilitating nostalgia, adversarial thinking (black-white, no gray), and the unproductive desire to blame others. Unless reaction is reversed, the crash will happen and someone will need to pick up the pieces.


- Reflection leads to Decision 2, involving the implementation of a discernment process.


Decision 2: Honor or Betray  Reflection always needs a process to exist within. This process can be provided by a book such as my own Reality Check 101 or the Church Transition Workbook. It can also be a packaged resource, such as, Natural Church Development or the L3 Leadership Incubator. It can even be a more tailored transitional process led by a trained consultant or interim minister. Whatever discernment process is chosen, it will lead to a decision. The congregation will choose to honor what their small groups have discovered or to betray it.


Betrayal leads the congregation back to the maladjustments of reaction described in Decision 1. Congregation who refuse to accept what their discernment process recommends, often end up in the “Blame Box.” This is an attitude where we see others as the problem. When a church betrays the pastoral selection/appointment process of their denomination, they often blame the denominational leaders or the people of the local committee who entered into the search process. This puts them in a blame box from which they can’t respond in a healthy way to the new pastor no matter how hard that person works to win them over.


Honoring involves mapping out a plan for change. Usually other people need to be invited into the process to enable implementation. 


Decision 3: Implementation  The congregation is not out of the woods yet. There are three directions that churches go at this point, two of which can be seen as bad decisions.


- Spiritualize This is a decision to think good thoughts but not act in any tangible way. The implementation plan may require funding and the church will fail to enter into a stewardship campaign to raise the funds. There may be actions, such as starting a new worship service, that break with the congregation’s sense of tradition. It is easy to study and not act.


- Legalism The quickest way to derail an action plan is to question whether church policy permits it. Funding needed for implementation may be tied up in an endowment fund whose rules are being narrowly interpreted. People often the elevate the local customs of their congregation to the status of great ethical principles.


- Discover  a New Mission in Context  This is the final destination of all healthy transition. A congregation discovers anew its particular mission in its context. Their new pastoral leadership won’t help them do what they’ve always done. They will come to respect that new pastor if they can start doing together the new mission that God has revealed to the small groups that led through the discernment process. Changes in the neighborhood will no longer be a problem if the church can discover its new mission. The trauma that destroyed their building or scattered their financial base will seem a blessing, once they begin to implement their new plan for being in mission.