Archive for 2013

Ephesians Chapter 1

“How many of you are planning to make a New Year’s resolution?” I asked a congregation last week. Very few hands went up. I assume that most of the others had already obtained perfection. For me, New Year’s Eve and Day are a time of transition. The stores are closed, meetings are canceled, and I’m afraid to go out on the roads. It is a good time to reflect on what has been and what will be. Again, I made the resolution I only partly kept last year, to be a more loving person. By loving, I mean ‘in the moment,’ and present for the people I meet. I shouldn’t spew the garbage of my lousy day on others. I should be prepared to listen and hear what the person I am facing is concerned about. To be Christ-like, moment by moment, is my on going New Year’s resolution. This is what John Wesley was talking about when he asked the early Methodists to become ‘perfect in love.’  


In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul speaks a blessing on his readers. In 2014 we, as the current readers of Ephesians, will receive divine forgiveness and the fullness of God’s grace. What does this mean to you? I am grateful that there is grace before I fail. I am not likely to be perfect in love. Having a mulligan, however, doesn’t make me a better golfer. It’s not just the fact that we are being told that our failure to meet expectations in the coming year is OK. Instead, we are being reminded of how God has promised to be loving us moment by moment in 2014. His grace becomes our hope, and that hope leads us to really work at becoming more loving.


At the chapter’s end, Paul prays that, “the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (v.17).  This is the difference between well-wishing and actually making a request of the Holy Spirit; Paul knows that we can’t just get a better year in 2014 out of thin air. We need two things. 1st Wisdom; the capacity to live life well, to adjust to our circumstances, to grow spiritually in our trials, and to capitalize on our assets and opportunities. There are many voices offering wisdom in today’s world. Hearing the right one for this moment will require a gift from the Holy Spirit. 2nd Revelation; is the awareness of God that comes only from God. You can’t discover God in a test tube or prove him with human philosophical arguments (I’m a Philosophy major, I know). You can only know God on God’s terms. This is why transitional times like New Years are so important. We reflect on the past year and say, ‘where did I see God?’ or ‘where should I have seen him if I had been less self absorbed and more open?’  We wait in quiet. We establish new habits for spiritual formation. We pray.


In 2014, all of the good things of the first chapter of Ephesians are already ours. That’s the point of the chapter. That’s the power of Paul’s prayer.

Ephesian 1 promises us spiritual formation in 2014
Christmas 2
New Years
This is my list - your own learning will differ

My Thursday blog on how to fix your church is now entering its second year. Time to reflect or even to do a top ten list:

#10 - Social media matters. I didn’t like Facebook when I first started using it, but now I am connecting with people for whom it is their preferred source of information.

#9 - Information is different from advice. Advice is when I tell you how I would fix your problems. Information is when I share relevant ideas in hopes that you’ll find something useful for walking your own path. Information is fun to share. It is given without any agenda or hope people will do things my way.

#8 - Fiction, art, and movies are all helpful in visualizing our hopes, problems, and solutions.

#7 - Inner city ministries and remote rural congregations have more in common than they think. Those who minister to people on the edges of society need to stick together.

#6 - Postmodern people don’t care what authorities say, they want to relate to you. If you are a pastor, don’t try to be an authority.

#5 - Postmodern people like things said short…. tweet

#4 - Most denominations are dying - the future of Christianity belongs to something different.

#3 - The Gospel of Jesus comes alive when it is spoken in context. Instead of saying, “God is love,” say, “I forgive…” or “This gay person and that gay person have a right to marry” or “This money needs to be given to this situation.”

#2 - Local congregations matter more than denominational aspirations, but caring for the people of a neighborhood trumps both. 

…and drum roll, please!

#1 - Follow your own unique vocation or calling. This is true for both local churches and the people who serve them. 

This dog is headed the wrong way

Recently, I have been serving on a small advisory committee relating to a remote branch of the United Methodist Church’s largest agency (The General Board of Global Missions). It’s like being on the tip of the tail of a very large dog. My experience had led me to believe that the dog is heading in the wrong way. When once our priority was to bring the love of God to the most marginalized people on the planet, our new direction is to preserve the institution of Methodism at all costs. Unfortunately the dog (GBGM) reflects the way our church is going in general.


Today, every hound in United Methodism is on the hunt for ways to make congregations grow and stop the shrinkage of budgets and denominational membership. I think that it is more important that congregations become healthy and engage in meaningful discipleship formation in their context. These are diametrically opposed concerns. We can either teach for the test, that is do the things that add paying United Methodist members to the books, or we can give ourselves fully to the task of loving people. If we say, with Wesley, “the world is our parish,” then we will form partnerships with non-Methodists for the purpose of making disciples for Christ. We will throw ourselves fully into meaningful mission work, such as, No More Malaria, Circles our of Poverty, and our local food bank. If we do this right, there will be less Methodists but more Christians in the years to come.


A key value of the postmodern culture is simplicity. If we simply help every day people to live as Jesus’ disciples, we will be doing the right thing. We should be asking, what will help every agency and local church in United Methodism form new relationships and transform their communities? How can we be more transparent? How can we get back to that singleness of focus  that birthed American Methodism, “nothing to do but to save souls?”


A particular bone in our denomination’s mouth today is the planting of new congregations. What the world needs, however, is not more large box churches in the suburbs. That should be someone else’s concern. We should do what we do best, utilize trained and supervised lay leadership (CLM, Community Workers, VIM) to form small fellowships in the poorest contexts, both urban and rural.


I own a dog. I know how stubborn she can be when she sees a squirrel she shouldn’t chase or wants food that’s not hers. Love and discipline can turn the most spoiled dog around. Today we are seeing in Pope Francis a turn around story happening in the Catholic church. Perhaps there is still hope for the UMC.

United Methodist Church
Fixing Church requires loving people who ain't holy

  You know how you pass those signs saying “Leaving City Limits of…”? Today I realized that I had left the holiness movement. My denomination (United Methodist) has a rich tradition of seeking personal holiness above all else. The Holiness Movement, which began in Wesley’s time among anabaptist groups, rose in prominence in the American religious scene throughout the 1800s, then lost favor to the prosperity gospel of the 1960s. Until the new millennium, I considered myself a holiness preacher. More than my colleagues, I emphasized the need for Christians to lead lives that grew more holy each passing day. Today, I saw the last hint of that attitude fade in my rear view mirror. In fact, I’m starting a new book on John the Baptist (see Weekly Word), and I don’t plan to use the word holiness once.

    Holiness theology is marked by two statements:

 + That the way Christians prove themselves to be Christian is by living a holier lifestyle than those around them. Pure living is for the Christian what circumcision and kosher diet is for the Jews. We, “don’t smoke, drink, or chew… or hang around with those that do.”

 + The goal of every holiness Christian is to become perfectly pure or sanctified. We hope to obtain this in our lives, but realize, “that it’s hard to fly like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys.”


    I know now that these statements are offensive to the postmodern people. But do they have any biblical basis?  In 2001, I went on a sabbatical. Freed from the weekly obligation to speak from the pulpit, I began to study what Jesus preached.

 + Jesus doesn’t advocate a holy lifestyle as a mark of distinction between saved and unsaved. Instead he speaks of a radical love. He calls his people to feed the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, and befriend the outcast. Further, his ministry represented a total commitment to obtaining basic civil rights for all people. 

 +  In those few places where Jesus speaks about the personal sins, such as, adultery, divorce, or the abuse of children, he does it in the context of his outrage at religious leaders of his day. He accused them of abandoning the wieghty matters of the law: justice, love, mercy.  The Pharisees and Saducees were only interested in biblical ethics if they could use it to humiliate the women, dependents, and the foreigners that they were oppressing.


      During my sabbatical in 2001, I also began to examine the linkage between perfectionist theology and clergy abuse, shame-based relationships, codependency, mental illness, etc. I purchased the web domain as a container for my discoveries. I told people it was a methodist joke. Perfectionism was, however, a serious problem in my life.

    Methodists tend to temper the holiness line by adding the wesleyan phrase “in love” to the question “do you hope to be made perfect in this life?” The problem is that the love Jesus demonstrated forsook any appearance of holiness. He, and the apostle Paul, advocated unconditional acceptance of God’s grace in our personal life. Putting aside our own attempts at holiness provides the energy we need to be effective  witnesses. Instead of spending endless hours defining sin, like the Pharsees did, we go out to minister to those who, like us, felt cut off from God.


To fix the church today, we must put all of our energies into sharing the grace of God with new people. These are the very people that because of their sexual orientation, immigration status, or lack of holiness, we may have rejected before.

United Methodist Church
Matthew 11:2-11
Luke 1:46b-55

In this season, as we remember Mandela, one of the great prophets of our time, we should be mindful of the parallels between his life and message and that of John the Baptist. Mandela, like John, was imprisoned for speaking truth to power. Be careful not to think that John lost his head, and Mandela spent decades breaking rocks in the sun, because they criticized the morals of those on the throne. The revolution that Mary, Mandela, and John were involved with went much deeper than a few sermons against marrying your brother’s wife. John was a thorn in the side of the Herodian dynasty. He preached dignity for the laborer, transparency in government, and the accessibility of God’s Kingdom for all.

    Mary sang of the hope that drives great prophets, both old and new; “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). These were political words. Then, as today, women were instrumental in manifesting the new vision. We think of Winnie Mandela, who articulated the vision while Nelson was in prison. We think of the persistent widow in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:1-8) about prayer. Jesus ends that story by saying that God hears our cries for social justice.

    John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela, always spoke in the future tense. They looked forward to a manifestation of God’s Kingdom when all would be free. Jesus was able to put that hope into present tense. He told John’s disciples, “[Here and now,] the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:15). John, Mandela, and Mary, realized that they were transitional instruments. They would birth a future that they would stand outside. “South Africa belongs to the children,” Mandela would say.

    Here is another similarity, when Mandela was made president, he only served one term. Like John the Baptist, he understood that the process was more important than his own persona. Few pastors understand the transitional mantra, “the process is more important than any one result.” For Nelson Mandela, this meant that the political process of having a people elect a new leader was more important than any leadership that he might bring. Sometime we need to take a lesson from John the Baptist and put our own ministry aside. Prophetic action is not about what we can do, it is about the process that continues after we are gone.

    The song I have been singing this Advent season is that sung by Mom’s Mabley after the death of Bobby Kennedy:

Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he's gone.


Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, and it’s a-gonna be one day … 

“Abraham, Martin, and John” - written by Dick Holler, made popular by Dion and Moms Mabley, 1968

The passing of Nelson Mandela causes me to think of all those on the long journey to freedom
Advent 3
JB teaches us to trust God

For the next month and a half we will see the bedraggled dipping man come in and out of our holiday readings. Oh, here’s that old voice in the wilderness fellow again. He eats locust and wild honey, even though these items haven’t been approved by the FDA. Even though John the Baptist is a key figure in premodern church art and drama, he doesn’t get much attention now. I think many local church problems, as well as our general failure to witness to contemporary culture, is rooted in our failure to appreciate JB’s message.

    John the Baptist stands firmly rooted in the old order. He is the last member of the way things were before Jesus. He proclaims the Kingdom of God, but doesn’t enter it. He acts as a bridge between the old and the new. He is a transitional guide. 

    Today an old way of being church is passing away. In every aspect of congregational life, we struggle to adapt to the coming postmodern world. As we make this shift we need bridge people. Transitional guides, like John the Baptist, do the following:

  • They do a realistic reality check. They explain to us why the old ways are failing. They firmly, but gently, call us to repentance.
  • They proclaim the new, but use traditional language and images. They honor history while teaching us that change is unavoidable.
  • They offer us baptism as a way to cross the river. They teach us the great religious truth; those who have died once (or been baptized) don’t need to fear death in the future.
  • They embrace the wilderness as a symbol of transition. Like the people of the Exodus, we move through wilderness to the promised land. What we leave behind is named. We empty our lives in order to be open to receive what God has for us in the future.
  • They teach us to trust God. John tells us that God will provide a way to get from where we are to where we need to be.
  • They assure us of forgiveness. As forgiven people we find the courage to be risk takers.


This is why John the Baptist matters. In our personal lives we need people to help us the way John the Baptist helped the people who went out to him. In the church, we need more pastors and church leaders to intentionally take on the job of being a transitional guide.

Matthew 3:1-12

One morning, John the Baptist and his disciples went out to the water. This day a variety of people had come out, many from the mixed race cities of the Decapolis. So the prophet said to his disciples, “Try to imagine the Day of Judgment. Will the God who fashions a unique face and home for each soul rebuke us for being different from each other? Will the king herd us like cattle, placing us either in the slaughter line or on the road for redemption according to our nationality? No! I think the king will ask each of us about our acts of compassion.”

“But that will take too long,” his disciples gasped.

“It will last, like, forever,” the youngest added.

“That’s the point.” The Baptizer laughed.

Later that day a giant stone mason named Thomas came to him to be baptized. The prophet asked, “Do you sin big or do you sin just a little?”

This giant said with tears, “My sins are worse than anyone I know. I may be the worst sinner in Galilee, with the possible exception of King Herod.”

“I doubt that,” the prophet roared with laughter. He liked this one. “In repentance there is forgiveness,” and he said and set Thomas gently into the stream.

Then turning to the crowd the prophet shouted, “On the Day of Judgment the Messiah will sort his flock as a shepherd segregates sheep from goats. Each will go as they are told to go, for no soul can refuse its true owner. Some will be ready, but many will not. Some of you believe that with many words you will be able to persuade the judge to let you off. Hah! You instead need to prepare for that Day by living each day with compassion. Nevertheless, may the Messiah come soon!”

[ This has been an excerpt from "Bethany's People" a biblical fiction book that I am working on. Feel free to use it -- Bill Kemp

The Prophet lowered Thomas gently into the water
Advent 2
World's greatest film...

Paul Simon and I are in mourning for Kodak Kodachrome. It used to be my favorite film. Until the mid-1990s, Kodak was a great stock to own. Jobs at the Kodak plant in Rochester seemed totally secure. The advanced emulsions and darkroom chemicals that Kodak produced were respected worldwide. I don’t shoot much film today. I have begun transferring my favorite Kodachrome slides to digital files. Kodak, itself, is in bankruptcy. Digital photography came along shortly before the new millennium and ate their lunch. This happened even though Kodak was one of the most innovative and best run companies in the marketplace. Good management isn’t enough to save a company that no longer produces what people need.


People no longer need film. Do people need what your church produces?


That depends. Not upon what your church says it produces, but upon what it actually provides.


Good sermons, well produced music, and diligent pastoral care, are like the good management that Kodak did before it went belly up. If we live now in an era when, like film, people no longer need to fill the Sunday morning segment of their week. When they needed a worship service (funny that word ‘service’ isn’t it?), then a well managed church was going to do ok. The arrival of postmodern culture has changed the religious landscape every bit as much as digital image capture changed photography.


People still stand in need of salvation. Jesus is still calling people to be disciples in today’s world. Young people still need Christian Education. All of us still need rituals for life’s passages, disciplines for spiritual formation, and weekly times of Sabbath and worship. Above all, our world still needs to be transformed by God’s love.


Now here is something you may not know, Kodak owned most of the major patents for digital photography. They entered the last decade of the 20th century posed to become leaders in this new field. The trouble was, they couldn’t stop doing what they had always done and transition to this new form of business. A lot like the Church, isn’t it?


Yet, when I read the Gospels, I hear Jesus saying things that most postmodern people want to hear. I look around me and see young adults who want to do mission work, who want to experience salvation, appreciate relevant biblical teaching, and who want genuine spiritual formation. The Church just has to offer what people need.


How successful any congregation is at negotiating this new reality depends upon three things:


    •    Do they really know what their neighbors want, or are they just repackaging what they already have on hand?

    •    Do they have sufficient spiritual passion to let faith in Christ guide all things, or are they driven by guilt, tradition, and the need to pay their bills?

    •    Have they discerned God’s will for their particular congregation, or are they expecting clergy and other outsiders to bring that vision to them?

Spalling is the flaking of a stone

A while back we had expensive stone work done on our church building. Water was getting into the decorative block and causing the face of each stone to flake off. The word for that is ‘spalling’ and I’ve applied it to the church ever since. Over the last century, the United Methodist Church institutional structure (conference boards, general agencies, and general conference actions) has aligned itself with other mainline churches, specifically the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. If we were to time traveled back to the 1900’s, we would note that those denominations tended to be have better educated clergy, be more socially progressive in politics, and more liberal theology, than the mainstream of the Methodist Church. In spite of the educational emphasis of the church, the Social Creed adopted at General Conference and progressive nature of our Book of Resolutions, and the recent shift of popular culture away from conservative theology, the majority of United Methodist pastors, congregations, and parishioners consider themselves more evangelical than our mainline colleagues. This has led to a continuous spalling off of clergy and lay people who claim that the UMC has become too liberal. 


This spalling is often sited as the reason for our membership loss since 1968. I don’t find any evidence that our denomination as a whole is more liberal now than the either of our predecessors were at merger. Further, our church is doing only slightly statistically better than other mainline churches, even though we remain significantly more theologically conservative. The real cause of our membership loss is the swing of popular culture in the postmodern era away from church attendance. Recent statistics show fewer than 18% of Americans in church on any given Sunday. It’s raining and everyone, liberal and conservative, is getting wet. 


The bigger concern for our church structure is the loss of whole congregations to splits over social issues, such as, gay marriage. Unlike the other mainline denominations, the UMC has a strict trustee clause and a connectional culture which prevents the congregations who spall off from taking their buildings. Pastors and people who feel that the UMC has become too liberal, leave in small chunks. So local churches, especially in rural areas, are left weakened. Conference trustees inherit a half dozen abandoned church buildings a year. Over the last decade, I watched the Episcopalian and Presbyterian denominational leaders in Western Pennsylvania sell off church buildings, often at a reasonable discount, to the congregations that no longer feel comfortable with their social stance. This has allowed many of their congregational splits to progress without unnecessary grief. I’ve come to the conclusion that our reluctance to allow congregations to vote to leave the UMC has become part of our current mess. What was a good policy 40 years ago, has become an albatross preventing our institution from progressing in the direction that it needs to go.


There is another lesson, however, that we need to learn from the other mainline denominations. The Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, have kept pace with popular culture in acceptance of gay marriage and the ordination of openly practicing homosexuals. The United Methodist Church remains stuck with its current retro-policy until at least 2016. This means that in the 15 states expected to permit gay marriage, pastors and congregations will be be forced to deny rituals to their own people. However one feels about this issue, one has to admit that the United Methodist Church has not developed clear and compelling theological reasons to exclude people from full participation in the church because of their sexual orientation. The capriciousness of our current stance has become a social embarrassment. Until recently, I thought it was a good thing that we were taking our time on this issue. I watched the other mainline denominations take their lumps as conservative members and congregations spalled off. As with most social change, however, this is an issue in which it would have been better to pay early rather than to muddle aimlessly.


The danger now, is that we will spall, not just little conservative chunks off the outside of our institution, but that that we will spall a whole generation, as well as substantial congregations, off of the inside of our foundation. The Wesleyan movement began as an inclusive reformation of the church to meet the challenges of the modern era. Our passion and process allowed us to expand with the American frontier and incorporate rural people into the church. No other denomination had our willingness to accept people where they were. Our love of mission and social action pushed us to form congregations in marginalized communities. Now at the beginning of the postmodern era, the young adults who remain in the church are calling upon us to rethink church in more inclusive ways. Popular culture is already shifting towards full acceptance of the LGBT community. This in itself would not concern me, if I thought there was a theological argument to be made for our current position. 


Unlike the fundamentalists who slowly left over the course of the last century, the pastors and congregations who wish to display full acceptance of LGBT community will spall off in increasingly dramatic ways. There isn’t a middle ground that will allow us to make everybody happy. We can, however, abandon our law for the sake of our spirit. If we permit reconciling congregations to follow their heart, and clergy who marry gay couples to be unpunished, then we have a chance to keep in our fold the younger clergy and early adopters of postmodern culture that the United Methodist Church needs to be vital in the future.


I find myself thinking of Jesus’ story of the man who finds a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:47).  The pearl that is in our grasp, is to develop a witness to the emerging culture of America. We can only do this by being willing to sell off the structures and organizational idols that keep us locked in last century’s way of thinking. We can’t help spalling and becoming a smaller church. We can, however, choose who we will invite inside.

Luke 23:33-43

Last weekend I was walking through the local mall when I get passed by Santa Claus. He’s being escorted by mall security and greeting people as he goes by. Looks a little thin this year, I think. Already my mind is turning to the task of buying Christmas presents. I notice that the mall is full, even though I’m there while the Steelers are playing (bless me, for I have sinned). Santa is headed towards his seat, beside which his elves are keeping in order a long line of expectant children. All of this, and we haven’t had Thanksgiving yet. My sense of calendar has become disoriented.


The calendar of our spiritual lives is oriented around a single point. Jesus is on the cross, dying. The thief beside him begs, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The thing we know now, and which needs to be preached, is that his kingdom is fully there at that moment. The kids on St Nick’s lap say, “Santa remember me when you come upon the 24th of December.” They look for a future event, when what they hope for becomes realized. Santa does not say, “Oh Tommy, you don’t have to wait. I’ve got your fire truck toy right here.” But Jesus says to the thief, “Amen. Today, you are with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Dodd calls this ‘realized eschatology.’


This may change the way I do Advent this year. Traditionally, I think of the weeks before Christmas as preparation time for Jesus to be born, or made visible, for a brief time. Like Santa, he has his day. The fact that the two of them compete for the same day underlines the craziness of making Advent all about waiting for some spiritual God-gift due to be given on a future date. The thieves on the cross were undergoing a transitional process; they were dying. Jesus was with both of them. When we go through transition in our lives, Jesus is with us. When we are ready to receive new spiritual truth, Jesus provides it. The point of the journey is not to look forward to a future kingdom. The point is to open our eyes and see God’s kingdom in our current situation.


The story of the men who were crucified with Jesus becomes more poignant when you realize that they weren’t thieves, as we think of robbers. They most likely were Zealots. They were people who had left their normal jobs in order to live as guerrillas, up in the hills. They stole from outlying villages because they needed food and supplies. They chose this dangerous and disgusting lifestyle because they believed the time was coming when God would use them to kick out the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God. Both of them dreamed of a day when the Messiah (Jesus) would sit upon the throne. One was not bad and the other a good thief. They were both on a spiritual transition through a difficult wilderness. One was a little further along than the other. One understood that Jesus was God with him, and so he asked for what lay at the heart of his life’s quest. Jesus said, “It’s not in the future. Today the Kingdom is with you.”


So it is a good thing that we begin the season with Jesus and the two thieves. Like the crucifixion scene, our Thanksgiving table may host some lively debate, or even family conflict. We should be non-anxious presences at that table, realizing that people aren’t good and bad, but rather at differing places in their journey. As we enter into December, the world will tend to make us want to rush. It will say, “there are only this many days until THE DATE!” This is also a time in which perfectionism will be justified by the saying “Christmas only comes once a year.” Martha Stewart, not Jesus, will be put before us as our guide. Just remember that Jesus waits beside you. When you are ready for new spiritual truth, he will provide it.


I hope to be more mindful this year of the way the journey to Bethlehem speaks to those undergoing transition in their personal lives. We might want to listen to the first chapter of Luke afresh, and sense the present tense joy in Elizabeth, Mary, and Zachariah, when they speak about the miracle they are living through. Today!

Focus of Jesus' Kingship is Today
Christ the King
Squirrel Superman

I watched a parade of squirrels passing through the the 30foot trees at the edge of my property today. Each squirrel scampered to the thin end of a branch, then launched themselves like Rocky across the eight feet of emptiness to the dainty branches of the next tree. I saw five of them do this in a row, gracefully, without hesitation, even though both their launching tree and their target branch were swaying in the wind. Then a squirrel came who hesitated. I found myself identifying with that fellow as he turned and backed down a yard or so of the tree. Was this leap really necessary?


I’m reading Brian McLaren’s book, “Everything Must Change” (Nelson, 2007). He speaks of how the church has lost its social relevance and missional message. We preach the same sermon every Sunday; “we are sinners, we should get saved, then we can live as nice people.” We don’t address the social needs of our community. For most of us, Jesus has not left the building or entered into the daily lives of the people near us. Most leaders have become tree huggers, unwilling to leap to into the future. “I’ll just stick with what I know,” has become our epitaph.


The squirrel I was watching, did in time, make the leap. He landed safely. He rejoined the others on their mission to scavenge the last of the acorns before winter. When critters, people, and churches make a big leap, there are usually the same factors in play:


The danger of doing nothing. Congregations who continue to care only for their buildings and current membership will decline and die. Squirrels who travel the safe pedestrian route of the lawn will get caught by roving cats and die. People who fail to change will die, though not soon enough for the rest of us.

Transition always involves letting go of the old, trusting a spiritual process, and leaping into new territory. Congregations who are unwilling to lose the support of their faithful pillars will not have the courage to leap into empty air. Squirrels, however, are designed to fly between trees. The church is designed by God to change.

Community matters. The last squirrel was probably motivated by the fear of being alone. Congregations can’t be legislated or preached into social action. They transition into being missional churches by a process that involves making person to person relationships with those in need. Jesus’ methodology was to teach people how to love. That love of neighbor gives Christians the courage to do new things.  Read Acts 6 and note that the new organizational structure was in response to the new relationships that the early church was having with the Hellenized Jews. They did new things because they had a new sense of community.

Luke 21:5-19
James 4:13-15

Jesus is blunt when talking about the temple, “not one stone will be left upon another” (Luke 21:6). One day last week, a church near me received word that its roof might fall in. An engineer was invited up to look at the rafters because the roofer the church had hired was concerned about the funny line of the roof. The engineer said, “Look, there’s only an inch of wood holding that truss in place. I don’t know why the whole thing hasn’t fallen in yet.” That was Wednesday, and within an hour the borough had condemned the building and kicked the community dinner scheduled for that evening to the curb. Like the apocalypse that Jesus warned his disciples about, this occurs as winter is coming and while the pastor was on vacation.


Jesus’ words are also timely, when one considers the devastation that has occurred in the Philippines this week. Should we be mindful, when we build our buildings, that a 200 mile per hour wind might come and the roof might fall? 


I find myself thinking of James’ words, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’ (James 4:13-15).  When we build a church building, shouldn’t we say, “If the Lord wills, we will worship here. If he calls us to do church in the street, we will do it there.”


I am also mindful of Jesus’ warning that we not think ourselves more protected or wiser than the people who have roofs falling in. Jesus mentions a tower that fell in Jerusalem and killed 18 people (Luke 13:3-5). Jesus’ message, don’t think for a moment that these people had it coming. If God punishes people by weakening their roofs, then we all better take to living in a tent.


It’s a wonderful thing when Christians simply have compassion on other people in need and respond with charity. We saw this in Haiti several years ago. For a brief instant, we said, ‘Hey, that could be us.” But our attitude, both before the earthquake and more recently about Haiti, has been that when people are poor, ill fed, or without shelter, it’s their own fault. So it will soon be the same in the Philippines. Before last week, I suspect that few people would be willing to see one additional dollar of their paycheck go for humanitarian aide in the Pacific rim. Heck, right now you would have a hard time getting a relief bill through Congress for doing long term rebuilding in the Philippines.


I think Jesus’ apocalyptic words were intended to keep the Church about the business of being the Church. In the previous chapters, Jesus has wept over the Holy City because it was paying more attention to its political and economic situation than to the word of God (Luke 19:41-44). He has brought his own whirlwind of destruction to the Temple saying, “[this church] is meant to be a house of prayer” (Luke 19:45-46). Against the backdrop of beautiful religious buildings soon to be demolished, Jesus spoke of his personal mission being similar to that of John the Baptist (Luke 20:1-8). Remember that John ministered to the crowds who were willing to go out into the wilderness to meet God.


The pastor of the church whose roof might fall, when she got back from vacation, said, “You know this might help us to focus on Church being the people and not the building.” I think that she is ready to preach the 21st chapter of Luke.

Where is this?
Week before Thanksgiving
Your next youth leader may be 45

I talked with a well-trained, dependable, and highly fruitful youth pastor yesterday. Such creatures do exist. He was even the product of my own denomination (United Methodist), though now, is serving on the staff of a non-denominational church. His story speaks volumes about what needs fixed in the church and provides insight about what needs to be done to reach the next generation with the gospel.

    One of the great sins of the church today is to maintain a class system in which children and youth ministry is relegated to the basement. The youth pastor I interviewed had graduated from a well respected four year college and received advanced training specifically to do youth ministry. His vocational calling seems very clear. Yet, he is frequently asked about when he plans to go to seminary and become a ‘real pastor.’ When I was in my teens, the life-changing youth pastor of my home church was in her sixties. I have another colleague who has proven gifts for children’s ministry and curriculum development, yet because he is middle aged and seminary trained, his denomination has forced him to return to parish ministry. Check Youtube, today’s popular youth evangelists are rarely young.

    Currently, church economics seems be driving most ministry professionals who specialize in teaching children and youth into serving large, non-denominational, box-churches.  The Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., have a habit of paying their ordained pastor first, and then scrambling to see if there is anything left over for other teaching professionals. I use the word ‘teaching’ intentionally, because no such class prejudice exists in the secular world of education. Those who graduate with teaching degrees do not have to worry about whether their specialization in elementary ed, or desire to work with the disabled, will relegate them to a dead-end career. What I observe in most main-line churches, is a downward spiral of expectations. We pay our youth workers to be young and inexperienced. Then lower our standards to keep the pace with the decline in what we offer to the next generation. Further, we have bought into a dangerous myth, that youth relate best with those who are immature. Actually, people of all ages desire authenticity, stability, and integrity in their program leaders, pastors, and teachers.  A great senior pastor can’t fix the damage done to a person who misses hearing the gospel in developmentally appropriate ways as a child or youth.

    It is clear to me that we have a systemic problem. The values that people express do not correlate with the church’s current institutional structure.  The missional outcomes that we propose, do not match the budgets and priorities that we live by. Further, we have a biblical mandate to share our faith with the next generation (Deuteronomy 6:7, Matthew 18:1-5, 10). Our repentance may have to begin by confessing the idolatry that we have surrounding the word ‘ordination.’ All trained workers in a field deserve respect. Those who share the gospel with youth and children need to be both compensated and held to higher standards.

    For congregations with less than 200 in average worship this will mean forming cooperative relationships with other congregations so that additional full-time staff persons can be supported. In today’s world, people move and young adults are unlikely to attend the denomination, let alone the church, of their childhood. It doesn’t hurt a local church to share the teaching of their children with other trusted congregations of the region. Rather than muddling along with ineffective children and youth leadership, churches should work together and fund a full-time missionary to the next generation. A professional person, who has had both psychological and theological training, can oversee many volunteers and develop programs in various locations. Here is a place where we urgently need to break down our old parish and denominational fences.

Haggai 1:15 to 2:9
Luke 20:27-38

The Sadducees were ‘sad-you-see’ because they didn’t believe in a better world to come. Haggai asks Zerubabbel to remember the former glory of the temple, and then compare it to how things stand today. I find it hard not to be ‘sad-you see,’ whenever I’m asked to make similar comparisons. It’s hard to be upbeat about the months to come when it’s November. Already, I awake hearing the furnace rumble and shiver as I walk the dog. It’s hard to believe that the best is yet to be when you get a senior discount with your coffee at McDonalds. It’s hard to believe in eternal life when everything you know rusts and falls apart. Yet Jesus came blessing people with hope. Haggai was sent to Zerubabbel to say that what lies ahead will be far more glorious than the gilded age of your fondest memories.

    There is an important word in Haggai 2:4; Courage. It is repeated three times as if there are a trinity of applications for God’s people. When we look at our personal lives, we need to take courage in the reality of Heaven. Our bodies are mortal, from the moment of our birth we begin to die. Our culture idealizes youth and denies the wisdom of believing in a pie in the sky. Our culture wants us to become sad-you-see. It asks silly questions like, “If there is a heaven, whose wife is Elizabeth Taylor now?” or “If the big bang and evolution explains everything, why do we need God?” Today, it takes courage to trust in the resurrection of the dead.

    The minor prophets, like Haggai, are often overlooked because they lived and spoke in an era when the glory of Israel was fading. They needed courage to maintain a faith in social justice.   Like Jesus’ beatitudes, Old Testament prophets blessed a people who were poor but would inherit all, were weeping but would be comforted, were oppressed but would receive the kingdom. In today’s Tea Party world, it takes courage to continue the cause against racism, classism, and the denial of healthcare to the working poor.

    Finally, it takes courage to gather in church when the pews seem emptier year after year. In the 1960s, going to church was popular. Sunday schools were bulging and grand building projects funded. Those were the glory days. Haggai’s question is on our people’s lips (2:3). They reflect on what used to be and need courage to see that the postmodern world has not beaten Christianity. Every congregation will need to adapt, but if they listen to the Holy Spirit and discern the difficult vision that God has for them, then they will be able to share faith with the next generation. The best days for the church are yet to be.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubabbel worshipped in a broken down church
Postmodern vending machine

Recently, I went to a burger joint that used the new Coke Freestyle vending machine to dispense my beverage. Instead of giving my drink order to the guys behind the counter or filling it up my cup at the fountain nozzles, the Freestyle vending machine presented me with a touch screen. After stabbing away few menus, and I had a drink made exactly to my individual tastes. It hit me that Freestyle had a few things to teach the church about our new postmodern world:


1) The machine offered many options – tailoring the experience to each person.  Not only could I choose to add cherry, orange, or lemon to my drink, the machine also gave me control over carbonation and sweetness. Each drink is customized.


Apply this to your church and outreach:

Congregations need to offer more options to their participants for hands-on mission work and individually designed spiritual formation experiences. Churches are no longer free to offer the same religious experience to every member. People are demanding more freedom in designating where the mission part of their offering goes. It may even be time to offer more than one form of membership, that is, providing a way to recognize and affirm the people who participate in more than one congregation (snow birds, college students, mixed marriages, etc) and people who are in different places on their spiritual journey. 


2) The machine calls home every night to tell Coke what people are buying.  Not only is Coke able to keep the machine well stocked, their marketing department is given real-time information on the tastes of their customers. With this information, Coke knows to bottle sweeter  products in one region for its stores or whether a new flavor will be popular. Note that knowledge has become a two way street in the postmodern world. Gone are the days when Coke had a secret recipe that it developed in its labs. Now, people tell Coke what to bottle. 


Apply this to your church and outreach:

Today, knowledge flows uphill. Don’t look to your denominational office to teach you how to be in mission. Use the web. Form personal networks with people who are making a difference in your community. Build your own, local, partnerships. Become agile, fluid, and ready to change to meet new opportunities.  


3) The machine uses its LCD panel to teach the local burger joint employees how to maintain and repair it. 


Apply this to your church and outreach:

The church needs to stop being in the institution building business and renew its commitment to making disciples. Instead putting all of our resources into equipping a few ordained leaders (who are like the specialized vending machine repairmen of old) we need to teach all Christians how to pray, witness, and do the mission work of the church. The postmodern world is decentralized. Knowledge is available to whoever wants it. 


4) The Freestyle Coke Machine comes global ready. Because all of the text on the machine is displayed on the LCD panel, the machine’s software can easily translate its information into any language and currency. 


Apply this to your church and outreach:

Don’t be afraid to be Global. Find ways to overcome boundaries. Don’t be constrained by the language and policy structure of your denomination. Music is a form of language. Instead of arguing about whether you like country western or contemporary or Bach, seek for new ways to translate the gospel into the musical language of those people you wish to reach.

Habakkuk 1 and 2

Habakkuk isn’t an easy person to like. His book is a series of complaints. He complains because the wicked are taking advantage of the good folk. He complains because no good deed goes unpunished. Mostly, he complains at God for not throwing around a few well placed lighting bolts. God replies that he’s going to get around to it. The guilty will, in time, be punished. Habakkul isn't too happy with God's plan to use Babylonian mobsters to bring about his street justice. God says, "I can hit straight licks with crooked sticks." Habakkuk, however, is not the kind of person to let his complaint go at that. He says that he will keep watch. He will be the one who remembers the poor and the oppressed. He will push until justice is done. His 'watchman on the wall' phrase, should be seen as a passionate and persistent commitment to social justice. This all doesn’t make him easy to like.


Prophets are a particular kind of saint. They are unpopular saints. They are complainers. They are the ones who keep pointing out how things are not really fair for everyone. The rest of us are satisfied when the majority are happy. When the economy is good and the stock market goes up, most of us will leave our watchman’s post on the wall. Saints like Habakkuk, however, keep rocking the boat until the minority and the weakest child gets their due. This is a special calling. We can be glad that the Habakkuk type people are rare. But people like Habakkuk have an indispensable role in the Kingdom of God.


We don’t often honor the people who champion unpopular causes. I think of those few in the 1980s who pushed for the rights of the disabled. In the church, we said, “Look we painted one parking space with a handicapped symbol and built a ramp to the first floor. Isn’t that enough?” It was rare to find a saint in the church who pushed for changes that opened our facilities to the full range of disabilities. 


It would be easy to exclude Habakkuk from our Bible and his kind of saints from our leadership. Yet it is in Habakkuk that we first hear the radical desire of God to open up sainthood for all people. Habakkuk 2:4 contains the phrase, “the righteous shall live by faith.” The Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, each found this verse to be pivotal to their understanding of God’s grace. They heard Habakkuk say that works, sacrificial offerings, and extensive education do not make one a saint. Everyone who comes to depend completely on faith becomes a saint. All Saints is made all possible by the way God’s grace makes even the most sinful of us righteous. It takes a real watchman like Habakkuk to stand by heaven’s door and leave it open long enough for even the most incorrigible of us to enter in.

Disability Awareness is an issue it is easy to stop short on
All Saints Sunday
You only smell it when you come in from outside

Sometimes when I’m away from the house all day, I’ll come through the door and think, “Boy, does that cat stink.” The problem isn’t with the cat. The problem is with me needing to change the litter box. Yet if I’m home all day, I don’t notice it. What is it about going away that makes the cat’s box stink more. No matter how bad something is, we get used to it if we live with it. Things can be pretty bad in a local church, and often are, and the regular attenders won’t notice. 


In the church, people who can look at a familiar situation with new eyes are a God-sent gift.  Any committee that is involved with bringing about change in the church, needs to have a few people put on it just because they are new to the congregation. This rule applies to the church council -- nothing new ever happens in churches that don’t have at least one person on the board who has recently become a member. This also applies to the committee that oversees pastor and staff relationships. Things can stink pretty badly in the church office, but nobody will change the proverbial cat’s litter unless they come in from the outside. This is especially true of the groups that are charged with setting vision or goal-setting for the church.


Twenty percent of any visioning group needs to be composed of people who have just started coming to the church in last eighteen months. If we don’t take intentional steps to listen to those with a different perspective, we will find ourselves reinforcing our misconceptions. 

Good church leadership involves stepping back from time to time and asking, “If I was an outsider here, what would I see?” We may assume that what we experienced week after week is normal, when in fact it is dangerously unhealthy. 

When we set goal or strategic plans, our first objective is not to fill a sheet of paper with good ideas. Instead, we should quietly discern God’s grace and purpose. God often uses those whom we have not listened to in the past to provide us with new understandings about our current reality and future objectives.

Joel 2:23-32

Joel chapter 2 means something different for rural folk. People who live out in the sticks are mindful of the weather. They bend their plans around the possibility that the creek might rise or snow might close a road or that the Fall Apple Butter Festival might happen this weekend. In Joel, God takes ownership for a series of disasters, drought, locust, caterpillar, and grub, that ruined crops and brought famine. God says, “I ruined your harvest in the past, now I’m going to make up for it” (Joel 2:23-25). The passage reminds us of our physical dependency upon God, in order to prepare us to be spiritually dependent upon God. For rural folk, this is the central theme of the fall season.


Urban folk need a different interpretation. For them, failing social services and crumbling infrastructure are the drought, locust, and grub, that God has to answer for. Today, Joel might hear God say, “In the past I gave you corrupt politicians, inadequate housing, and racial segregation, but now, I’m going to make up for it.” Like their country cousins, they need to know that their struggles against oppression and inequity, were part of God’s greater plan to bring them shalom and the witness of his Holy Spirit.


For both rural and urban people the experience of the Holy Spirit, is to be viewed within the context of a physical process. It was during a harvest festival that the first Pentecost came. That harvest was at the end of a farming process, in which:

  1st the unyielding ground was broken, think John the Baptist

  2nd the seed was planted, think Jesus teaching on the hillsides

  3rd the seed died to being a seed and was raised as a green plant, think Holy Week

  4th the seed was given time to grow and produce fruit, think the early church


Joel’s joyful words, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (v.28), falls within this fourth and current step. 


For both urban and rural folk, the prophet’s message should lead us to renewed social action. Unfortunately, rural people today suffer from many of the ills that were previously associated with the city, such as, pollution, drug addiction, inadequate housing and transportation, and nutrition and health issues, etc. God is already committed to resolving these issues. The church needs to dream the dreams and see the visions that come with a fresh spiritual outpouring.

Rural people fear the locust, urban the slum landlord
Which is the real Gulf Fritillary?

As I write this I am getting ready to change planes in the Atlanta Airport. I am prepared for certain changes; the next plane I get on should be larger, it will head north rather than southwest, and it will be in the air longer (I hope). As major as these changes are, they are not a transition. I think its important in our churches and in our individual lives to distinguish change from transition. Change is a constant part of life. We may initiate changes or they may happen to us, but they do not fundamentally alter our identity, or the way we go about our lives. Transition, however, radically shifts who we are and the procedures we use to accomplish our dreams.


In short:

  • Transition involves a major shift in expectations and values that leads to new operating procedures
  • Transition occurs over a period of time and has a middle ground place (the wilderness) which is not like what is before or what comes after. Having a process helps us travel through this middle ground. 
  • The journey of transition forces us to acknowledge what is lost and affirm our ownership over what will be gained
  • Transitions can be healthy or disastrous. The chances of success are greatly improved when trained experts (Intentional Interims for churches and therapists for individuals) are involved.


Being willing to label a season of transition in the church as a designated special time is the healthy way to respond to leadership failure or misconduct, major conflicts, or fundamental shifts in the congregation’s neighborhood or missional vision. When you are in transition, look for help, and remember the motto:

“The process is always more important than any one result or decision.”

Luke 18:1-8

Prayer can be as serious as a hand grenade. Jesus tells us about a widow who went to town to do a little shopping, renew her driver’s license, and while she was at the courthouse, ask the judge if he had time to think about her case. No. Jesus illustrates the power of prayer by talking about someone who had no other options. She was being denied the pension she needed to live on and without serious, prayer-like, intrusive, buttonholing of the judge, she would starve. So she went to town with one thing on her mind; to plead her case. She was willing to go at sunrise. She was willing to stay all day. She had made plans to keep coming back as often as she had bus fare, and then to camp at the courthouse until either the jailed or given justice.


Now there might be someone in your church this week, who is coming with a need of similar urgency. What will we say about the power of prayer? What will the whole church experience say about how seriously we take the needs of each person present? How will we honor the attitude Jesus expressed when he echoed wise Solomon and said the place we worship has no other options than to be a house of prayer for all in need?

Jesus in Temple
Answering these three questions may be the key to changing your church

Reality Check begins with these three questions, each with an application intended to encourage abstract thought and open conversations among church leaders. The three questions are:

1) What is the real nature of the Church?

2) Where is society taking us?

3) How can we do God’s will?

There are many other questions that could be asked, but I am convinced that these are the right three. They point us towards the fundamentals. They avoid the contextual dead ends which sidetrack so much of our creativity. Questions like; ‘how long should the sermon be,’ and, ‘why don’t we do more contemporary music?’ imply that sermons and music are givens in God’s design for the Church. We need to ask first what the nature of Church is. 


    You may want to ask, ‘how do we bring more people into our church?’ But that question assumes that your form of Church is still appropriate for your neighbors to attend. Understanding your neighbor and how society is shaping both their needs and your own, seems to be a more basic place to begin. Church can only meet our need for community and a right relationship with God if it is remains relevant. Often the comments and questions that church leaders raise reveal a deep distrust of the world outside. Many local churches are like swimmers caught in a tide they haven’t the strength to overcome. But if the Church moves with the currents, it can be a rescue vessel for those who would otherwise perish.

    Many people want to jump right to questions like, ‘how can we increase our giving,’ or ‘what do we have to pay our preacher?’ Yet these questions assume that the money we receive and the clergy that we support are essential for us to do God’s will as a congregation. When was the last time you sensed a deep partnership with God as you went about your church work? Today, as so many congregations struggle to set priorities and divide fairly diminishing resources, there is a need to ask, ‘if we are to do one thing in the coming years, what would it be?’ For some the answer is to leave a legacy, for others the answer involves adaptation to the postmodern religious environment, for still others it is found in sacrificially giving to some mission, and for a few, it involves continuing to develop the bright, shining qualities of this church.

    These three question are based upon the business book, Confronting Reality by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. They say that long range planning and having effective change in any organization depends upon asking three questions:

  1. What is the nature of the business we are in?
  2. Where are the external factors and market changes that are influencing our business?
  3. How can we continue to make money?


    As you can see, it was easy for me to substitute Church for business, society for external factors, and doing God’s will for making money. Bossidy and Charan’s book, however, is worth reading by church leaders for the startling tales they tell of talented and highly paid executives who drove their companies into ruin because they were afraid to ask these fundamental questions. On the other hand, these business writers provide also provide detailed accounts of how these questions brought understanding and preceded successful change in the midst of an adverse economic environment for companies like Home Depot and 3M

Jeremiah 4:1-7
Psalm 137

Here’s a bottom row Jeopardy clue for you; “EXILED FOR 70 YEARS.”  The answer is “What is Babylonian Captivity?”  Most church goers would miss this basic question. Yet this was one of the pivotal events of the Old Testament. In 586 BC, Jerusalem was sacked, the temple of Solomon destroyed, and the people of God carted off to Babylon. It’s what makes Jeremiah weep the book of Lamentations. At this critical time our faith was nearly defeated. Not destroyed by a military loss to Nebuchadnezzar, but drained by a loss of heart. The people went into Babylon and hung up their harps on the willows, saying we can’t worship or sing the songs of God in foreign land (Psalm 137). If God’s people stop worshiping, the faith dies.


All transitions are painful. In the great changes of life, it is common for us to say, “I’ve lost my faith.” Yet transitions are essential. In Babylon, much of the Old Testament is transferred from oral tradition into written word. New concepts about the universality of God were developed. The Advent passages of Isaiah, that Handel set to music in his Messiah, were written for later generations to sing. 


Transition also presents a choice; one can become inward and bitter, or one can embrace the change and deepen your faith. This is true of life changes, such as, divorce, loss of loved ones, empty nest, retirement, etc. It is also true of changes in the church; leadership transitions, loss of building, worship changes, death of key members, etc. It is also true of national transitions; exile, wars, major shifts in government policy, such as, healthcare, immigration reform, etc. 


Jeremiah hears the Lord command the people to embrace the change. Look outward. Stop hanging up your harp and mopping around. God says, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce... seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:5-7).


There was a time when the last phrase was a rallying cry for the church in America. From 1930 to 1950, faith was understood as an outward command to seek the welfare of the city.  Today, God may be once again bringing his people into transition so that we renew our commitment to social change. We are called by Jesus to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We cannot do that without allowing change to strengthen our own faith.

Babylonian Captivity
Proper 23
diagram of how the world, church, and God's kingdom intersect

In Reality Check 101, I make a point of stating that churches have souls. By this I mean that each congregation has an intrinsic worth. There is a value to the local church that far exceeds its statistical strength or the value it may have for the denomination that holds the title to its building. Pastors come and go, but a church’s soul remains constant. Like the soul of a human being, the congregation’s soul represents more than the current state of the body.


Where is this soul located? Philosophers speak about the human soul being located at the intersection of the will of the mind and the reality of the flesh. The Bible says that when God breathed the inspiring breath of life into Adam, he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7 KJV). This implies that the soul is a crossroad, where physical context (the mud of the ground) limited by time and mortality intersects spiritual vocation and God’s promise of a continuing existence.


Your church’s soul is located at a similar intersection. It lies where the world of human affairs and aspirations (red circle) intersects with your congregation’s daily life (blue circle). These both intersect with the kingdom of God (green circle). A small triangle represents the common ground of God, Church, and Human Society. No congregation is entirely at one with God’s Kingdom -- I think we do well to overlap the will of God by 30%. The world is never so secular to be without an overlap with God and the church. Where we take the Kingdom of God into the world, there is our soul. Three often used words overlap into this one concept; witness, mission, and vocation.


If a church moves down and away from God, its spiritual passion becomes weakened and its soul impoverished. It is impossible to increase our overlap with God’s kingdom without pushing further out into the world’s territory. Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of it (John 17). Soul is not in the safe part of the circle with the majority of the church’s programs and concerns. It is out in the dangerous intersection of our holy God and the chaotic world.

Luke 17:5-10

Every week, people gather and say to their pastor, “Increase our faith.” Jesus’ disciples came to him with the same request (Luke 17:5-10). Jesus looked at them kindly and said, “Hear now this inspirational story that I clipped out of the sermon helper magazine this week.” They listened to this sentimental dribble and smiled. Ka-Ching! Their faith tanks were refilled. They heard the benediction and went forth a little more positive about their dysfunctional families and lousy mac-jobs. One teen said to another, “This church thing, you know I could take it or leave it.”


No, Jesus didn’t do what most pastors will do this Sunday. He replied to the increase our faith request with two of his most difficult parables. These are not inspirational stories, but visual images that refuse to be compressed into words. The second of these parables requires us to imagine ourselves as household servants. Many of Jesus’ audience had no trouble picturing a day in the life of a peasant. Imagine going through those menial tasks, without hope of reward. Imagine doing your job well, all through the ten hour day, not looking for to be thanked. You do your job to the best of your ability, because it is your vocation. It is in living out our calling that we find ourselves intimate with this thing called faith. Faith causes us to be patient, loving, and diligent, in our crappy workplaces and dysfunctional families.


I believe that every person has a vocation or missional calling from God. My calling is to write. I write with the same diligence and dependency upon the Holy Spirit if there will be a thousand people reading my words, or if I alone will read them. I don’t write to be thanked or liked on Facebook. I write to bring into reality the thing which God had in mind when he created me.


I believe that every congregation has a unique vocation or missional calling from God. Some are called to the menial role of shepherding a small flock for a few more years until the church dies. Others are doing the gut wrenching work of reforming everything about their church so that they might witness to the next generation. Still others are fully committed to a particular mission and way that they will transform the world. And finally, some have a calling to become a high visibility church in the region. No church should ever choose its path with the hope of becoming popular or appreciated by the world. We each must do our vocation because it is where our faith is made real.


When we understand this difficult second parable (Luke 17:7-10), then the first image, that of faith being able to put a mulberry bush into the sea, become more sensible. Those who work hard out of no other motive than to do what God has called them to do, live within a miracle. They are constantly moving mountains. They are bringing hope to the hopeless. They are growing their congregation from a single mustard seed to a great tree, which shelters and nourishes a flock of people who want Jesus to increase their faith.


This weekend is world communion. As we break the bread, let us be mindful of those who are not content to go to the store and buy Wonder Bread, but do the soul-filled work of baking loafs that nourish their families. As we pour the wine, let us be mindful of the fact that small vineyard owners spend their entire lives learning their craft. Something that has been done by common folk since Noah, can easily be viewed with contempt. “It’s not rocket science,” one might say. But, when done by a person gifted and called by God to do it, wine can be a miracle. Symbolically, each of us bring whole wheat bread and finest wine to those around us by our loving acts. Lord increase our faith, so that we might live out of our holy calling.

The making of nutritious bread can be a spiritual act
John 3:16

The theological concepts expressed in previous blog lead to three substantial changes in how churches will be organized in the future.

1) There will ceased to be a distinct separation between laity and clergy.  There’s nothing in the postmodern definition of ‘Church’ which requires a designated priesthood. It may be  helpful to continue to ordain some church leaders as ‘clergy’ and entrust them with supervision of  “word, sacrament, and order” – which in postmodern language is: the faithful application of biblical text to current context, the holy practice of the sacraments, and the fair and democratic ordering of congregational life. The terms clergy and lay will become more and more a matter of how a person functions within the local church, and not a status that travels with a person in other contexts.


2) In the Internet age, seminary training will not be a prerequisite for ‘religious authority.’ Today all people have equal access to information. Religious leaders fulfill their calling, however, by helping people of a particular time and place interpret Christian Word or Text for their situation. Trained leaders also perform teaching roles and act as guides for organizing healthy, compassionate, and spiritually aware congregations.


3) Congregations can be of any size. The goal of the institutional Church is not to accumulate more members nor is it to make individual congregations grow. Denominations, if they continue at all in the postmodern world, will need to serve the kingdom of God. This means helping each community develop the form of religion that  enables its people to live better and more meaningful lives. We are driven by compassion to make the world our parish, not to grow our institution so that it encompasses our world. We must learn to offer Christ and his simplicity, instead of the burdensome rules of our order.

Luke 16:19-31
Amos 6

For fun do this: take an empty chair and put it out in front of the congregation. Say, “Here sits the invisible man. Jesus tells us that his name is Lazarus, but none of his neighbors know that. He sits here hungry, but no one notices his situation. Lazarus is homeless, living in the street near the rich man. Since he lacks an address, the census doesn’t count him, he can’t vote, and his congressman doesn’t see him as a constituent. He is covered with sores, but only the dogs, with their superior senses, come to lick his wounds. Do you see him? He’s sitting right here. See, I told you he was invisible.”


This week is an interesting week for Luke 16:19-31. I think it will be hard to say anything valid about Jesus’ story without stepping on people’s toes. Congress is trying to strip the Federal Budget of funding for the affordable care act. If they were dogs, they could see the underinsured people of our country. They lack the sense of the dogs who befriended Lazarus. 


Worse yet, a North Carolina county voted this week to ban Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man from school libraries. The 1952 novel, which won the National Book Award, deals with the invisibility of minorities in America. I, personally, didn’t read it until the late 1970s’ when I was at seminary. It helped form my social conscience and my preaching style, which may be why the Randolph County Board of Education took it off the shelf. It’s better to have no conscience at all than a bad one. This seems to be point of the conversation Abraham has with the rich man in Jesus’ story. It seems that ignorance is no excuse, even if you are on the county board of education and hope to be white and rich in the world to come.



Maybe it would be safer to preach from Amos. Surely you can hear the Lord say, “Alas for those at ease in Zion...” and not make any dangerous connections with today’s world (Amos 6:1). Does Paul’s letter to Timothy still have any relevance (I Timothy 6:6-19)? Is the love of money still the root of all evil? Money, social class, and majority status, are three sides of the same coin. They work in unison to help one group of people look past the needs and humanity of another group of people. As soon as we deal with relevant specifics relating to wealth, race, or social status, we find ourselves with Jesus; telling stories about invisible people that no one wants to see.

Eye Test: Tell me when you can see the homeless
Pentecost 21
A word cloud of significant postmodern ideas

The church exists to help people in every place live better and more meaningful lives. God has given us a rich and transcendently ‘true’ text (scripture + church practice) or ‘Word,’ whose focal narrative is the acts and teachings of Jesus. The church invites all people to experience the Word as preaching, music, art, and ritual (including the sacraments). We value this Word because within it we have found personal healing, salvation, and eternal life. We also believe that Christian revelation joins with the texts of other great faiths to offer healing for social ills and to speak truth against the sinful powers that exert themselves in oppression, materialism, and the neglect of those who are weakest in our world. Like the other great world religions, Christianity allows each individual to participate in a larger human memory, thereby overcoming the limitations of our brief earthly life. 

    The church acts in the world by forming worshiping congregations. These communal gatherings reflect on the Word and join in the praise of God. Repeated in our Word is the understanding that God deserves to be praised both by individuals and in public gatherings. Also, fellowship seems to be central to an authentic Christian life. Each communal gathering or congregation develops its own culture to mediate interpersonal relationships and share the Christian Word. Congregations without physical space, such those that meet in cyberspace or in transient locations like coffee shops, must develop new cultural forms for insuring the continuity of fellowship. 

    When we speak of Christian Word, we are aware that it is at its core a revelation from God that we dialogue with and mold to fit our current context. When we lift up any part of the Word and claim it to be essential or fundamental, we diminish our relationship with the ongoing work of God’s spirit. The Word can be expressed in scripture, art, music, and ritual (including the sacraments). We can think of our revelation this way: The Word of God became flesh and lived among us as Jesus. The early church preserved this experience for us by translating it into scripture, ritual, and creed. Primarily in the context of a congregation, but also occasionally as individuals, we translate the Word back into an experience of God in Jesus Christ. In every place and time the church must add to the text (and so inadvertently edit it) that which makes it more appropriate to its context. The church does this with fear and trembling knowing that what it neglects may be more holy than what it adds.

    The church also exists to ease suffering and to be the ‘Word of God made visible’ in loving ways in the midst of their secular community. To be compassionate is to offer help to others without strings or expectations of gain for the church institution.  To be evangelical is to believe that the Christian Word is ‘good news’ and of benefit to all. To be ecumenical is to recognize that the outward form of our texts may vary but the experience of God in Jesus Christ unites us. In order to participate in the world’s religious dialogue we must be respectful of other texts even though the integrity of our personal relationship with God depends upon being exclusive and faithful to our Christian text. 

    Religious institutions become evil when they neglect their call to help people live better and more meaningful lives. Christian individuals must grow in compassion and service to others in order to grow in faith. Congregational leaders must devote equal attention to the problem of helping the church do good and the challenge of making their worship relevant and true.

Luke 16:1-13

This year I have no zucchini. Last year we had so much that my wife delivered it door to door to the neighbors as she walked the dog. Many more things are like zucchini than we believe. This year I didn’t find any gold in my garden. Years ago, a man named Sutter found enough gold in his creek that people from miles a round came to have a share of it. Eventually it was gone and the people of California had to go back to growing things, like oranges, artichokes, and zucchini. I don’t think it pays to pay too close of attention to how much of one particular thing we have, like gold or zucchini or money. Things come and go so quickly around here. Life is short. We are better off sharing what we have and concentrating on love.


There once was a man who had a lot of something, Jesus didn’t say exactly what. He hired an accountant to keep track of it. The accountant wasn’t very good and soon the man had a lot less than what he started with. Oh, well. Things come and go so quickly around here. Life is short. The man with loads of stuff, didn’t see it that way. He was angry and the accountant heard about it. The accountant could have gone and hid or tried to crook the books so it didn’t look like he had messed up so bad. That’s what we expect him to do. Its what anyone who values gold, or money, or zucchini would do.


The accountant instead said that his boss had the wrong attitude about his stuff and he would teach him how people who know life is short should behave. He went out with his dog and gave his boss’ stuff away to his neighbors. His boss was amazed at how little stuff remained. “This year you have no zucchini,” the accountant explained. “But, if you go out into your neighborhood, you’ll find that everyone loves you. You can go house to house and get a home cooked meal and friendly welcome. What’s worth more, your stuff or the love of your neighbors?”


Luke 16:1-13 is the most hated of Jesus’ stories. Most preachers avoid it. We hate it because it demeans material things. It says that those who carefully account for every cent are not being mindful of their spiritual condition. No one can serve two masters. We can either be generous or we can be frugal, we can’t be both. Jesus is saying something radically life changing. He is saying that if life is short, then we must use our material things to serve God’s purposes. God is love. One can serve God, or one can serve the common belief that money must be honored. We cannot know the balance of our 401k and the intentions of our heart at the same time.


I believe that few things have damaged the church’s witness more than its failure to preach against greed. Passage after passage in the Bible judges those who charge high interest rates (when was the last time you preached against usury?), who oppress the poor, who go to war for material gain. Yet the church tends to concentrate on institutional gain and preach against sexual sins. Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned for their lack of hospitality, violence, and idolatry, but how rarely do we hear the story told that way. We also rarely tell Jesus’ stories in a way that fully expresses his contempt for materialism. Read Luke 16:12. Is Jesus really telling us that our money is not our own? What is our true wealth, that God wants to entrust us with? Life is short. Share.

How is zucchini different from your 401k?
Pentecost 20
Engineers often fail to grasp evangelism

People who design things or engineer processes often have a hard time grasping the importance of spiritual passion for their local church. Recently, a pastor complained to me that his church leaders loved to do projects and fix things, but lacked the heart for mission or any enthusiasm for faith sharing. Evangelism is often a foreign concept for engineers. 

    There are key engineering concepts, however, that relate to spiritual passion. Framing our theology around these concepts will light a fire under our more process oriented members. Appropriately, there are three steps to this. First, is to speak about passionate spirituality as a measurable quantity in the life of the church. Just like the gasoline in your car or the altitude beneath an airliner, spiritual passion can be talked about as a needed component, which when lacking, can be disastrous. 

    Consider what happens in Mark 9:14-29. A man brings his demon possessed son to Jesus’ disciples, and even though they have watched Jesus for several years and participated in many healing demonstrations, they are unable to help the boy. Jesus takes over and does the same things that the disciples had been doing, but he has no problem driving the demon out. Was it a matter of his technique? No. We read:


 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

    Here, and many other places, Jesus seems to be saying that there is some quality or quantity built up in us by prayer. Jesus had sufficient spiritual passion, his disciples did not. Prayer is one of four processes (note, engineers like to talk about process) that raise spiritual passion in both individuals and in the church. Jesus also teaches us that prayer shouldn’t be just repetitive words or the rote performance of ritual (Matthew 6:5-13). That form of prayer is like eating celery, it burns more calories than it provides. 

    The prayer process that Jesus is talking about involves expectation. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Jesus formed the habit of praying with complete confidence that God both heard and would answer his prayers. Each time a prayer was successful, it reinforced this confidence. This is what engineers like to call, a feedback loop.

    In the local church we build feedback loops around prayer by asking people to report the answers they have received to their prayers. “Has God answered the prayer request you made two weeks ago?” Teachers, small group leaders, and committee chairs, should be taught to use high a expectation process with their group. They must both pray for individual concerns and allow time for reporting back on how God has acted in each of their meetings. Imagine your trustee or church council spending the first ten minutes of their meetings this way.

    There are three other processes that lift spiritual passion in individuals and in the church. They each have a critical quality, similar to expectation in prayer. Local church leaders, and particularly engineers, will appreciate the need to build appropriate feed back loops to support each spiritual passion lift point.

In summary, they are:


Lift Point


Feedback Loops



Reporting on results



Story telling, drama, covenant pairings and small group study



Focus on individual transformation (what difference has Jesus made?)



Each component has the appropriate emotional quality for its content (Invocation=expectation, confession=sorrow, salvation scriptures=joy, things about God=awe, etc.)


The first step in reaching engineers is to speak about Spiritual Passion as a quantifiable substance (see Hebrews 11:1 KJV, note the rest of the chapter supports the use of the word ‘substance’).  The second is to enlist engineers in the discovery of feedback loops within the local church. The third step involves appealing to the engineers basic understanding of beauty and duty. Engineers feel that a design is beautiful when it perfectly fulfills the specifications of the customer. God is the church’s only customer and your leadership are commissioned to design a church that optimizes the making of disciples in your neighborhood (see Matthew 28:19). If we can get our engineers to embrace God’s written specifications, then we may not have to explain a fuzzy idea like love to them.

Luke 15
I Timothy 1

    Good story tellers aren’t afraid to be honest about how bad people can be. See Nabokov’s  Humbert Humbert or the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Great movies also have really bad villains, see Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Darth Vader in the first Star Wars. Then look at these words in the Bible, “[I, Paul, was] a man of violence.... I am the chief among sinners” (I Timothy 1:13 & 15). Then there’s this line that belongs on everyone’s resume, [I have become] skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good (Jeremiah 4:22). What’s with Jesus dining with prostitutes, corrupt officials, and outcasts (Luke 15:1-2). Does he really mean to imply that they too have a hope of being saved? These words come from the book that also gives us Herod the Great, who in a jealous rage, kills all of the infants of the region. Who can forget Jezebel, the Assyrian princess who seduced her way into Ahab’s palace, corrupted a whole generation with her Baal worship, and then hunted down God’s prophets until only Elijah was left alive? It’s in this context, that we have to consider Paul’s claim that he was a violent man, totally undeserving of the grace of God.

    Daily life and current events gives us real bad people, too. This past week, Castro, the man who kidnapped, held hostage, and repeatedly raped, three teens was found hung in his jail cell. My local newspaper ran the headline, “No tears for Castro.” I found myself wanting to say, the Apostle Paul, Jeremiah, and Jesus would mourn him. They would desire to sit in his cell and tell him that God still loves him. It is when we truly face the mark of sin in our own lives and with Paul say, I too am chief among sinners, that we become good story tellers for Jesus. Most preachers this week, will water down the Gospel by telling stories about unpaid parking tickets and stolen cookies.

    In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories that only those on the ragged edge of irreligious society would understand. He talks about the minimum wage worker whose continued employment and ability to feed his family depends upon keeping 100% of the stock accounted for, even though sheep have a way of disappearing spontaneously. The Pharisees, and most of our church people, have never had to worry about made homeless by a bit of bad luck. He also tells of a woman whose husband trusts her so little that she will be brought to the town square and stoned for adultery if she doesn’t find the lost wedding coin. Then he tells of a young man who drank and whored his way down to the gutter, after telling the only person who could save him to drop dead. In each of Jesus’ stories there is grace and redemption. The tiger of sin is never declawed by the one who went to the cross to save us.

Nurse Rached from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
What we see when we look into the eyes of others, matters

Rule # 4  The process is always more important than any one result.

Church issues rarely have the urgency we assign to them. We may feel that it is vitally important that the church does such and such, but is it really worth destroying the trust that the people have in the congregation’s decision making process? Each decision we make, should be done in a way that is consistent with the patience and love that Jesus showed when he shepherded his Church into existence.


The exceptions involve violations of the three previously stated rules (see Church Rules and Exceptions):

  • When a congregation has gotten into a rut of inward thinking, radical action (or trauma) may be required to force it into seeing the unchurched outside its walls.
  • When the financial process of a congregation makes money into an idol, spiritual concerns need to be emphasized over exactitude in financial matters.
  • When there is an emergency threatening the safety of the church’s programs, the integrity of the church building, or the future of the congregation, then immediate action by authorized individuals is required.


    If one needs an example to make the above rule clear, consider this week’s developments in the Syrian crisis. We tend to talk as if making a decision, to go engage in a military action or not, is the primary issue. I have seen a multitude of Facebook posts and news articles stating pros and cons of intervention, but very few deal with the process of making that decision. Has the president done the right thing in sharing this decision with congress? What will be the long term effect on the reputation of the United States as a world power? What actions have the greatest chance of helping the other nations of the Middle East develop healthy democracies? 


    In other words, politicians and church leaders need to be aware that the process is always more important than any one result.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The idea that my life is like clay in the potter’s hands is both wonderful and scary. The scary part has to do with predestination. Jeremiah hears the Lord say that his country is destined for either good things or destruction. What they get depends entirely on God’s plan (Jeremiah 18:1-11). We have no more power over our own fate than a lump of clay does when a great hand chooses to squish it. Is our nation predestined to get involved in another Middle East conflict? Is Ben Bernanke powerless to set our economic sails and bring us prosperity? In my own life, am I predestined to get cancer or Alzheimer's or end up with Tupperware bottoms that don’t fit my Tupperware lids? If life is predestined, why does my dryer keep producing an odd number of socks?


There are worse things than predestination. Our greatest fear as human beings is that our life won’t have meaning. What if the hokey pokey is what its all about? What if we get to our final day and realize that nothing we did, or fought for, or believed, really mattered? We want our life to have a purpose. We want our nation to be a significant force for good on the world stage of current events. The image of God molding us according to a great design is a real comfort. I want to be clay in the master artist’s hands. I need to be called into a meaningful vocation. I pray that the leaders of our country might use their authority wisely so that what we do helps promote freedom, human dignity, and world peace.


Jeremiah also talks about the importance of our choices. The integrity of our hearts and our willingness of repent of wrong doing matters. The Lord says, “but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it” (18:8). The need for us to pray for our nation and political leaders has never been greater.

Bernanke listens to Obama (who's listening to God?)
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.

Hosea 11:4

I could not choose! In Hosea, God speaks of his constant love for his people with the tender image, “ those who lift infants to their cheeks” (11:4). In Luke, Jesus speaks right to our Kardashian-crazed country by talking about a rich landowner who builds bigger barns in the hope that he can make his ‘soul’ happy (12:13-21). In both the Old and New Testament, you hear God pleading with those whom he has blessed with luxury to not forget their maker. Jesus speaks of wealth as an extreme impediment. Those with money have as much chance of praying sincerely as I have of winning the lottery. Hosea hears God complaining that He has done everything He could to bring his people into a healthy spiritual relationship, but they have chosen instead to run after Baal (see The Sound of Silence).  For us in 2013, middle-class wealth is the new Baal. We worry more about our 401k than about our spiritual condition. We tear down our old pension barns and build new ones saying, “Soul, now you will be happy in retirement” (Luke 12:19).


A recent survey found that only 28% of Americans with between $1 million and $5 million in investable assets consider themselves wealthy. I was incredulous, until I put this in the context of the people that I know and have ministered to over the years. It is a common thing in middle class America for a 65 year old who has worked in midlevel management, been a teacher, nurse, or shop owner, to have accumulated over a million dollars in pension, property, and real assets. As I name individuals in my mind, it does not seem far fetched for three quarters of them not to think of themselves as wealthy. We have become blind to the abundance of our lives.


If we cannot see our own state of wealth, we also cannot see our own state of spiritual poverty. I  can’t remember the sermon that I heard two weeks ago, even though I remember telling the preacher at the time how excellent it was. Last night I saw in my basement a device that five years ago I paid $200 for and it failed the week after its warranty expired. I remember verbatim the hours of customer service calls that I made. The object has not been pitched, but remains in my basement as a memorial of my hatred for that brand. Yet, I can’t remember a spiritual issue that I have confronted with equal zeal over the last five years. Baal has a way of asserting its priority, while the Lord God wonders why we drift away.


Einstein taught us that massive objects, like our sun, have the ability to bend light. Spiritually massive objects, like money, bend the light of God’s love away from our eyes. In a similar way, poverty, loneliness, sickness, and the naked love of the soul, bend our hearts into alignment with the Holy One. What is radical and needs to be remembered in the church, is the way Jesus always spoke about wealth as a mortal danger. Camels can’t make it through needles to save their souls.

Jesus' statistics on rich people in heaven
Which is first pre-evangelism or low spiritual passion?

Last week’s post on Pre-Evangelism has generated a “which came first...” type of question. Does a congregation spiral down and become incapable of gathering in new people because it lacks Spiritual Passion?  -- or -- Does the poorly led, non-evangelistic, and/or unattractive church naturally become less passionate about spiritual things?


Jesus says something interesting about this. Just after his famous lesson on prayer, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).  Logically, every time we encounter a church with low spiritual passion we are dealing with a failure to ask for Spiritual Passion. Note the contrast: We are never promised that if we pray, God will answer by making our congregation richer, more attractive to young families, and more likely to maintain good pastoral leadership. The Bible doesn’t tell pastors that if they pray hard enough, their church will grow. Instead, we are promised that prayer will always lead to a more fulfilling spiritual life. As individuals, this means that God’s grace and Holy Spirit will become personally real and guide us through all things. As congregations this means that God’s spirit will enter into every aspect of our church life; adding efficacy to our prayers, relevance to our study of the scriptures, joy to our witness, and inspiration to our worship. Who wouldn’t want that?


Obviously, some churches and many individuals don’t want the Holy Spirit. I think Jesus spoke the promise of Luke 11:13 with an ironic smile. The Father is willing to give, but we aren’t as willing to receive. This is the human reality that painfully unfolds in the story of Jesus’ passion on the cross.


There are hundreds of books published each year on how to become a more win-some and evangelistic church. It is obviously a skill that can be mastered. Given the right leadership and sufficient funds, any church can: improve its facilities, change its location, increase its visibility, raise the quality of its worship, manifest high-hospitality, and become more attractive to generation x or y, etc. The Holy Spirit, however, is a gift. The good news is that this gift is freely given to all who ask. The bad news is that the Holy Spirit always takes us in new and unpredictable directions. The Holy Spirit has a reputation for creating more problems than it solves, consider the story of the Stoning of Stephen (Acts 6 & 7). High Spiritual Passion led directly to the blacklisting of the institutional church in Jerusalem and the scattering of its leaders (Acts 8:1).


It is not God’s desire or plan to make every congregation grow like Willowcreek, but it is in the nature of the Holy Spirit to make our hearts more sensitive to our own need to witness and the unchurched seeker’s need to know about Jesus. Congregations who cease to care about meeting the spiritual needs of the lost are rightfully termed, “pre-evangelical.” They will exhibit all the characteristics of low Spiritual Passion (see Ezekiel’s Bones), even though they may put on a good outward appearance. Some of the nicest churches of our denomination are stuck in this sorry state. The are not in danger of dying, just in danger of becoming un-Christian.


By way of contrast, our desire is to have a safe and surefire plan to make our church attractive to the right people. We want our facilities improved, our budget met, and the quality of our church leadership guaranteed. If there is a prerequisite to the promise of the Holy Spirit that Jesus makes in Luke 11:13, it is that we be willing to have our priorities reordered. Thy will be done. To answer the old Chicken and Egg question; the failure to be passionate about our need for the Holy Spirit does precede a congregation’s decline into pre-evangelism. It is the root that needs to be addressed at every turn.

additional author: 
Joe Fort, Texas Conference UMC
Genesis 18:20-32
John 15:15

The story of Abraham praying for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared deserves to be preached, if for no other reason that it demonstrates how to argue with God. When I counsel couples before marrying them, I tell them that our second session will be devoted to the subject of how to have a good argument. “But, we don’t argue,” they say. “Then you can’t be married.” In a similar vein, arguing with God is an important skill to be developed for a long term relationship.


The story of Abraham praying for Sodom and Gomorrah begins with God saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? If Abraham’s people are to bless all of humanity on God’s behalf, then God will need to be transparent with him. One is reminded of how Jesus during the last supper told his disciples that he wasn’t going to treat them as servants who didn’t know what God was up to, instead he would call them ‘friends’ (John 15:15). This is why I think of the conversation between Abraham and God over the fate of the two cities as prayer taken to the next level. It allows us to say that prayer is not about getting God to do things for us. Instead, it is about relationship. We seek to become the kind of friends with God who can speak honestly and listen deeply.


Abraham’s boldness is born out of his deep understanding of God. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he respond by giving them a formula. Everything else that Jesus says and does, however, points to prayer as honest discussion. Jesus makes it simple because the disciples weren’t ready for much more. What he really wished for them, and for us, was the ability to pray like Abraham. Are we willing to take prayer to the next level?


The surprising thing, that also needs mentioned, is that the subject of Abraham’s prayer was two cities deeply caught in sin. Abraham mistakenly believed that there were some good people in those places. Abraham’s heart, like Gods, is for people to be redeemed not punished. Notice, however, that Abraham could have simply prayed for his nephew’s family to get out safely. Abraham’s love, however, is for the stranger. He cares for those who, without his intervention, wouldn’t be saved. Abraham was a true evangelist. The wretchedness of his neighbors’ lifestyle didn’t diminish the value of their souls. 


This might also be a good time to do your due diligence in biblical research. Genesis 18 is pivotal in the church’s ongoing debate regarding homosexuality. Note that the chapter begins by showing the hospitality of Abraham towards strangers. In contrast, the chief sin of Sodom was the way they abused everyone they could. The preference that men of Sodom had for other men is a minor issue, compared to their violence and lack of hospitality. Similarly careful examination of other Bible passages reveals God’s overarching concern that we treat all people justly and prevent the weak from being preyed upon by the strong. Like Abraham, we have to seek God’s blessings upon all people, even those whose customs seem peculiar to us.

Abraham in the movies
Eminent Domain & Shame-based Churches

There once was a town that was scheduled to be flooded when the new dam was built. Suits from the government came and explained why and how these people’s homes were to be bought (or taken by eminent domain) and there was nothing they could, or should, do about it. Watch now. Within days, there was a change. Some people stopped mowing their grass. Contractor's signs ceased to dot the yards and nobody was buying wallpaper. Within weeks, a rattier appearance had settled in. It rippled out, even influencing homes distant from the flood zone.


Two years passed before the dam was completed and the first government reimbursed moving van arrived. In that time, the town became almost unlivable. Worse than any ghetto, for here the bustle of the street was muted and natives ceased to talk to strangers. Coffee shop chatter stopped being witty. Home made pies were replaced by Sara Lee. Even the tap water looked cloudy and tasted flat.


Many morals could be drawn from this parable about hope and the power it has to lift us above circumstance and sustain the virtues of a community. In the real world, the care we have for our property manifests our vision for the future. Notice also, that shame or the fear that we are not worthy, can destroy our capacity to maintain current relationships and squelch our desire to form new ones. Obviously, they are building the dam here because our town doesn’t matter. Our church is going to close because we aren’t big enough. The visitors that came this morning won’t be staying because we don’t have much to offer.


A colleague of mine has a word for congregations operating this way; he says that they are in a state of ‘pre-evangelism.’ Before a church can witness and attract new families, they have to reach a certain level of hopefulness and system-wide health. Just having a new preacher in the pulpit won’t do if the nursery is dingy and the parking lot shows potholes of neglect. If the greeters by the door don’t greet and the trustees bicker instead of fixing, it may be that shame has sucked away the spark needed to evangelize your context.


Congregations in pre-evangelism feel overwhelmed. They are stuck in a series of negative feedback loops; the lack of new people means a lack of money to fix things, the lack hope leads to loss of capable leaders, the lack of faith leads to ineffectual praying, a culture of shame diminishes witness, the boredom of facing repetitive problems leads to apathy, but most importantly, a loss of vision (optimism for the future) leads to low Spiritual Passion. This leads me to suggest system wide tools to jump-start congregational health. Such as:


1) Low hanging fruit or “Just fix one thing” -- having the whole congregation focus on one improvement and then celebrate when it happens.


2) Walk the neighborhood -- use some tool that gets people out and asking their neighbors what they need the church to do for them.


3) Radical Rebirth -- close the church doors, spend 50 days in serious prayer, rebirth focusing on what the congregation discerns that the Holy Spirit is saying.  (see Reality Check 101  pp. 187 - 194)


There are many more system-wide tools, but what marks each of them is that they don’t center on a single panacea, such as winning the lottery or receiving a gifted, but cheap, clergy leader. Labeling this state ‘Pre-evangelism’ should help us to see it for what it is, a spiritual issue.

additional author: 
credit Joe Fort, Texas for Pre-evangelism concept
Luke 10:38-42
Amos 8:1-12

Amos gets a vision of Summer fruit (makes you wonder how ‘seasonal’ the Lectionary is in the southern hemisphere) and concludes that religious people can either be very good or utterly rotten. I’ve been picking blue berries as fast as I can this week. Why? Because I failed to keep up with picking the strawberries this year and most of them went rotten. There is nothing more delightful than a strawberry gently culled at its prime.  A day or two later and the strawberry gets soft, then turns black and inedible, unfit even for slugs (fortunately, they prefer beer). So, Amos would say, is the social conscious of our fine church members. Sometimes they can be good and generous and sweet. At other times, they fully blend in with the materialist herd of American culture, “Buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6).


Meanwhile, Jesus is sitting in the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Dinner is being served, and served, and served. After fifteen courses, Jesus perceives that food is message. I was struck by how short this story is. I remembered it being longer. Perhaps it seems longer because we each embroider it with all the times we have either served or received an elaborate meal and known that any negative word spoken in that setting would be multiplied a hundred time. Meals are where we communicate our deepest truths; consider communion, or the significance of a wedding or anniversary meal. The story is short because the message is simple, in life we either live in the moment of grace, or we fret in the kitchen of many worries.


Some Bible scholars are puzzled by the fact that Luke puts the story of Martha’s meal immediately after the Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. After all doesn’t the one teach us to spend our lives stopping to help strangers and being busy doing good, and the other teach us to be lazy like Mary and let someone else do the dishes? Last week I blogged that the point of the Good Samaritan wasn’t that we should be boy-scout-esque do-gooders (Say Something Different About the Good Samaritan).  It was instead that anyone who joins the High-hurry Professional Culture ceases to be much good for the kingdom of God. In other words, if we like Martha get worried and frustrated over many things, we will cease to be compassionate people. We, especially those of us who are ordained or other professional types, are constantly threatened by self imposed expectations that spiral us out of the moment of grace where both authentic spirituality and genuine compassion reside.


Mary was seeking one thing, the language of food so often serves many things. Who sits where at the banquet table? How gluttonous can we be while still being mindful of the poor? What food and drink are permissible (kosher)? If so and so invites me to their house, do I have to reciprocate? If seven groups in the church have fund raisers and I am asked to bake cookies, can I be forgiven for saying No? The reason that Amos was so negative about where his culture had come, which is not far from where we have arrived, is because they were so far from holiness that they couldn’t understand why Mary was right and Martha wrong.


Have you had this experience? Every time I preach the story of Mary and Martha I have some church leader pull me aside and say, “Without us Martha’s nothing would get done around here.” That’s how I know that I am preaching it right. It should make those of us who have stepped over into the high-hurry professional culture very angry. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Like Lazarus, a man fishes for food at the church doorstep
Reality Check 101 - church visioning process

For the last two weeks I have been writing on the impact that the repeal of DOMA will have on denominations that fail to recognize gay marriage, such as the United Methodist (see What Voice Will I Listen To? and DOMA and the UMC). Both of these articles stem from my concern that the Church (capital ‘C’ because I mean the whole Church of Jesus Christ) stand in the proper position regarding popular culture. In this week’s sermon helps ( word), The Good Samaritan, I made the point that Jesus never allowed his ministry to reinforce or provide mythology in support of racism or classism. From Neanderthal times there has been political pressure and social expectations placed upon religious institutions to provide mumbo jumbo (what Marx would call, ‘opiate for the people’) to grease the rails of oppression. One of the major criticisms postmoderns have with organized religion is the way it has historically reinforced and modeled hierarchy, providing a broad spiritual comfort zone for those at the top of society and abandoning the marginalized folk that Jesus commanded us to love.


An additional concern has been racing around in my head: I wonder if church law relating to gay marriage could be disentangled from the issue of gay ordination. I began to ponder this two years ago when an Episcopal colleague of mine astutely said, “We’re ahead of you on this, because no Episcopalian congregation will ever be forced to accept an openly gay pastor even though we now have a gay bishop.” Since then, I have been formulating a yes and no answer that is sure to offend everyone. 


I believe that congregations need to take more ownership and control of their own future. Every congregation should engage in a visioning process and discern the specific vocation that God is calling them to perform in their context. This is why I wrote the Reality Check 101 workbook. With this in mind, I can imagine that a congregation could conceive its ministry to be as a Hospice Church (Spades), caring for an elderly population, and as such be unsuitable setting for an openly gay pastor. Other congregations might discern that their ministry to postmoderns (clubs) or their missional work (hearts) makes them an appropriate setting for a gay pastor. There may also be a large, regional congregation (Diamonds) doing the math and deciding against having an openly gay pastor at this time because of their target demographic.


In each of the above cases, the local church must really do the work of prayerful discernment and prove to its denominational officials that it does have visioning process in place. Sin and prejudice too easily dominates both our ordination and employment process. In the United Methodist Church we have the tradition of holding the individual’s own discernment of their vocation as the primary consideration in the ordination process. We have historically prevented congregations from rejecting pastoral leaders who have a legitimate call to the ministry. I am now going to be radical and say, in today’s postmodern era, the vocation of the congregation trumps the vocation of the clergy person. We can no longer afford to place in pastoral leadership everyone who says, “God called me.” We are entering a time of functional leaders, where local churches will be led by teams who may have only been called to this work for a season in their life and then move on to other occupations. How about that? The end of DOMA is tied to the end of lifelong ordination.

Luke 10:25-37

With cell phones, 911, and AAA Roadside Assistance, the traditional way to preach the Good Samaritan has become a bit threadbare. I believe that Jesus is doing more than simply encouraging us to stop and help those who are in trouble. The story is designed to shine a klieg light (Or should I say halogen light?) on some serious contemporary issues. Have you noticed that both the people who walked by the broken man and the lawyer who invited Jesus to tell the tale were members of the high-hurry professional culture? Jesus, like many postmodern Christians today, is not a big supporter of positional authority. In other words, a person who has a professional title (doctor, professor, boss, reverend, esquire) can’t be assumed to do the right thing just because they have the degree, have passed their exams, or have been ordained.


Elsewhere, Jesus says, “By their fruits you shall know them,” (Matthew 7:15-20). We live in time of medical miracles. Yet, medical professionals are often too busy and too specialized to exhibit basic human concern for the individuals that they treat. They prescribe pills without knowing the life situation of their patient. They dispense advice without spending the time listening and the necessary minutes by the bedside to earn the right to speak. In describing the actions of the good Samaritan, Jesus is also presenting a summary of way he himself acted as a healer in this world. He touched the sick. He asked questions. He cared about the whole person and their spiritual condition. He earned the right to be our healer. Such things are not taught in school nor are they evidenced by diplomas on the wall.


My brother was a member of that dying breed of small town lawyers who often listened to people tell him their problems without billing them. Elsewhere in America we have the best legal system that money can buy. Race, class, and cash have become the primary determinants for who gets justice and who does not. The high-hurry culture of professionalism runs counter to the Bible’s basic demand that we provide dignity and legal protection for the weakest members of our society (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-3, Amos 5:23-24, etc). In nearly every community, there are opportunities for the church to advocate for those whom our current legal system has neither the time or the financial incentive to provide for.


Having pointed the finger elsewhere, I need now to say that the failure of the high-hurry professionals in Jesus’ story was primarily an indictment of organized religion. The reason the Samaritan stopped to help the broken man was because he was still a spiritually functioning human being capable of compassion. In contrast, the reverend and the head deacon were too religiously burned out and time crunched by church administration tasks to stop. We have a rule that is often spoken by nomination committees, ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person.’ This myth is killing our religion. If we want to be holy, we need to restore our personal sense of Sabbath. Then we will know how to listen and care as real human beings for the people in need around us.


I would further be remiss, if I didn’t mention that the context of the Good Samaritan is the racism and class divisions that mar every human culture. In Jesus’ day it served the political and economic interests of the religious elite and the Herodian Kings to have a distinct second-class group of hated people within the country.  Samaritans could be blamed for the country’s ills and enslaved when cheap labor was needed. Then, as today, religious institutions were expected to provide cultural myths that reinforce the superiority of the ‘in‘ crowd. Jesus was dangerous because he told one parable after another that involved a reversal of stereotypes. This may be why we so often choose to go the traditional way from Jericho to Jerusalem, ignoring the U-turn Jesus puts in our path.

Amos 5
Pentecost 9
Type of Event : 
Date of Event: 
Sunday, April 22, 2018 - 5:00pm to Monday, April 23, 2018 - 2:00pm

A fellowship for those working with congregations in transition

Spring 2018 Retreat:   April 22-23rd

Eccumenical Fellowship and Learning time for Interim Ministers in the Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, Western New York region (Around Lake Erie).

Meets twice a year at Olmsted Retreat Center in Ludlow, PA 

Sunday evening meal, worship, fellowship time.

Monday workshop, lunch, worship.  This spring's topic, "The current state of marriage and the roles of the church and the state regarding it." 

Who is Invited : 
Interim ministers and transition consultants
Event Sponsor : 
Contact for info:
Context for Gay Marriage?

In last week’s blog I stated that the repeal of DOMA (DOMA and the UMC) is a game changer for clergy who are being asked to officiate at gay ceremonies. While individual clergy may still wish to set higher standards and restrict who they will unite in marriage, the denomination can’t exclude a whole class of people without good reason. It would be like the United Methodist Church saying to me that I couldn’t perform marriages for people over 70 years old because they were unlikely to procreate. Unless the denomination can prove to me that there are biblical principles that I am violating, I don’t see why I couldn’t perform any marriage that is legal in my state. This would certainly be less theoretical if I were actively serving in California.


As I write this, I am aware that my authority to perform “pastoral acts,” such as funerals and weddings, is tied to my ordination and appointment to a local church. This undercarriage remains, even when I am performing my duties outside the local church and for non-Christians. There are several caveats; because congregations are notorious for being narrow-minded and prejudiced, the local church is not allowed to restrict my ministry or curtail my works of compassion towards any person or group. They certainly are not allowed to vote on who I marry or burry. The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, is equally famous for bending to political pressure and failing to do serious theological work in matters relating to social justice. To counterbalance this known fault, however, United Methodists have historically given the benefit of the doubt to individual clergy who acted according to their conscience. 


We are still three years away from the next General Conference and any opportunity to adjust our church law. As gay marriage becomes common in perhaps a half dozen states over the next year, the UM Annual Conferences of those states are unlikely to continue to defrock the clergy who perform these unions. The question that occurs to me is, what right would either the local church or the General church have to interfere if a clergy person has the support of his or her colleagues? I have always said that my calling is to advance the Gospel in my region. The local church is often to self absorbed to support the ministry that I do for the world outside their walls. The denomination as a whole is such a nebulous political beast that it is hard to believe that it always knows what is right for my region. So, I think the United Methodist clergy of each state need to decide together what is best for the advancement of the Gospel in their context.

La Somme le Roy - illustrated manuscript

The Supreme Court’s action yesterday to rule Federal definitions of marriage unconstitutional has profound implications for every American congregation, and especially those who are small fellowships and/or members of the United Methodist Denomination. The United Methodist Church has a General Conference rule -- in a sense a “Federal act” -- threatening those clergy who officiate in gay marriages and civil unions with the defrocking. The word “officiate” is not too well defined and in local circumstances can be extended to mean participation or recognition. I found the wording that Justice Kennedy used to explain the court’s action profound:


“DOMA humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples" and "makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives."

Any denominational action that restricts the blessing and recognition by clergy and church leaders of the family units formed by gay people is equally malicious. Here we have a secular body speaking prophetically against the church. We have a choice. We can accept the rebuke and seek to quickly move to full recognition of gay marriage or we can say that the culture in America is wrong, unbiblical, and that the ends of preserving our tradition is worth the humiliation we are currently subjecting committed gay couples and their families to.

I am putting a face to this in my mind. I think of a beloved member and active worker in a small congregation who smiled while we all talked about our families. It was only in chance meeting at a public event that I was introduced to his partner of many years.

Ministering to a family unit that is considered second class or unmentionable by our church law puts clergy at an extreme disadvantage. It further, hamstrings their efforts to lead their congregations to be more accepting. In small membership churches, this is critical because the ministry is so often one on one. The small church pastor finds herself encouraging committed couples to take the next step and marry. Clergy in rural and inner-city contexts are on the front-line of advocating marriage as an aid in creating a more stable environment for child rearing. 

Religious celebrations, such as Christian marriage, speak in covenantal language and force the fellowship to recognize relationships they may otherwise be inclined to dismiss. I would say that the church’s interpretation of marriage formed the philosophical foundation that the majority opinion was built on. The Christian church gave Justice Kennedy the moral imperative, now we must play catch-up to bring our practice into his interpretation.

United Methodist Church
Psalm 16:9-10
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
+ Swing Low, Sweet Chariot... + + Therefore my heart is glad... because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead +

The good news is, death has been conquered! We shall not sleep away into dust and forgotten-ness. We shall share the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament provides some good places to reinforce the Easter message that people forget long before the dog days of summer. My favorite is Job 19:23-27:


“Oh, that my words were recorded,
    that they were written on a scroll,

that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
    or engraved in rock forever!

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.

And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;

I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me!”


Then, there is the story of Elijah being carried off to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:1-14). Because Elijah does not die, he is allowed to make a cameo appearance in the New Testament. I feel it is my duty in preaching to stitch the New and Old components of the Bible back together. Many in our churches have fallen into the Marcion heresy of dismissing the Old Testament and its, supposedly, wrathful Hebrew god. Such Gnostic gibber-jabber is running amok in today’s church and preventing people from grasping the full joy and mystery of the Gospel we proclaim.


Or the beautiful Psalm 16, “Therefore my heart is glad... because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead.” What is significant about this and many Psalms, is its conviction that we escape a meaningless end by virtue of God’s commitment to His relationship with us. Relationship is everything. The Gospel in both the Old and New Testaments is one continuous story of God expressing His eternal love for frail, struggling, individual human beings. 

The chariot that avoids the meaningless pit of Sheol, swings down for us one at a time and we experience the good news, each in our own resurrection. 


In the words of Emily Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for Death—
     He kindly stopped for me—
     The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
     And Immortality.

Old Testament contains many passages that point to resurrection
Pentecost 7
It's not easy and it takes some people years to find the right church

One of my favorite questions to ask lay people attending my workshops is, “What made you choose this church?” If the person has made a church change in the last few years, I will ask followup questions. I want to get into the mind of church shoppers. I also want the other people at the workshop to hear the factors that real people are weighing as they choose a place to worship. We live in a religious free market. People are no longer required to remain in their parent’s parish and most Christians have one or more occasions to truly church shop.


After winnowing out the family and friends factors in church choice, I’ve come down to three questions that I think church shoppers are serious about:

  • Can this fellowship and its clergy be trusted to accept me and/or care for my family? Life is messy. I don’t want to attend a church that will forget about me if I am incapacitated by illness. Will this congregation respond in the right way towards my autistic child or be supportive of my need to travel frequently?  One person said that they are politically active and visited several churches before they found one that they could trust to understand the passion they felt about their cause. Tolerance for the unusual is getting to be a real factor in church choice.
  • Is worship above average? We often think people are looking for the best preacher or the most rocking praise band. Actually, they just want their weekly experience to be better than most. Will the pastor have something relevant to say week after week? Will the prayer, music, and liturgy be done in a way that is authentic and uplifting?
  • Will worship and church events take place at times that are convenient for me? People are no longer willing to plan their lives around church. They look for a church that will fit into their lives. Communicating upcoming events is important. Some people get the impression that a church doesn’t do much because when they look at the bulletin every item is abbreviated, written  in Greek, or missing information that a stranger needs to know. Few churches make efficient use of the internet as a way to keep people informed. 


Not surprising to me, all of these questions relate to my simple definition of church:

Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship, who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.

(See Reality Check 101 - chapter 1)

People want to know if this particular congregation can be Church for them. Will is relate with them and their family in a loving Christ-like way?  Will the worship, prayer, and study meet thier needs? Will the worship, events, and opportunities to serve, be at times that they can really be a part of?


1 Kings 19:9-18

Elijah on Sinai gets earthquake, wind, and fire. Sounds like the Weather Channel this spring. The prophet doesn’t find God on the Weather Channel, but in the soft, "sound of silence" that follows. It's like looking for the holy in the static that used to exist between the channels of our pre-HD TVs. We all tend to look for God is the traumatic. We expect God to do a miracle and prevent the Tsunami from hitting Japan. We expect the tornado to blow around the good churches of Oklahoma. We expect the fires to skip over the worshiping families of California and Colorado. God is not in the earthquake, wind, or fire.


Natural events, like terrifying illnesses, are not where God is as a direct cause (James 1:13-17). They are the random occurrences that mark our world’s fallen nature. They happen to good people, as well as, to the bad. They remind us of the heavenly debate that begins the book of Job. If God puts a hedge around his people and lets no fire or flood hurt them, then people will have faith for the wrong reason. 


Where is God? In the silent places. He is there along side the victims in their suffering and death. He is in the hearts of the rescue workers and the selfless actions of neighbors who forsake their own concerns to minister to those in need. God is in the outreach and generosity of people giving sacrificially. He is silence of the counselors and the soft words of those who preach the funeral services. 


God is the God of the still small voice. One has to remember how Jesus surrendered himself to die on the cross. He could have called down earthquake, wind, and fire upon those where condemning him. He could have overpowered the rulers of city and made all bow to him. God was in the garden when Jesus prayed, “Not my will but thine”  God was also at the resurrection. That wasn’t a noisy affair.  The guards went back and told their commander that they slept through it. God was in the quiet coming of the women, Peter, and John, to the tomb and the revelation that they experienced there while the city slept.


One of the things that we must do to align ourselves with the still small voice is allow time in our lives for prayer and solitude with God. The hebrew word that NIV translates as “gentle whisper”  is actually, in the words of that great Bible scholar Paul Simon,  “The sound of silence.” After the earthquake, wind, and fire, Elijah heard the sound of silence.  How does one hear the sound of silence? Its like that Zen Koan - “What is the sound of one hand clapping” It can also be translated as the sound of emptiness or nothingness... I believe that God is to be found in the rest-notes of our life’s music. 


Perhaps that is the best way to describe the process of discernment and spiritual formation. We need to learn Elijah’s wisdom and look for God in the silence of our existence.


To quote Emerson:

It is easy in the world to live after the worlds opinion; 

It is easy in solitude to live after your own opinion;

but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd, 

keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.


Simon and Garfunkel understand Elijah's experience with God
Pentecost 6
A State of Grief

Is your church grieving? Recently, I heard a clergy person describe the depressed and change resistant state of her church as a form of grief. It made sense to me. From time to time, congregations become overwhelmed by the loss of  a specific individual or family. I also know of churches that for years have mourned their loss of status in the community. Loss happens. Both individuals and congregations go through periods of grief.


Further, communities also experience times of grief. Demographics shift. A major employer leaves town. Those who remember better days, gather each week at church to grieve together. Church, with its predictable rituals, becomes the place to reiterate our shared sense of hopelessness. We choose the solemn Psalms and dull hymns to express our “woe is me” sentiment.


A while back, everyone was reading “Who moved my cheese?”  The book dealt with our need, both as individuals and as businesses, to adapt to new circumstances. Grief can short-circuit our capacity to look for what we need in alternate places. We are too busy mourning what is gone to contemplate creative new ideas. We feel that we can’t afford any further losses. We become risk adverse. 


When grief seems to be a good word to describe a congregation’s lowered state of emotions, there a few things to keep in mind:

  • Grief is a transitional process. It is designed to take us from initial shock, through a number of adaptive steps, forward to a state of acceptance and renewed activity. 
  • Grief shouldn’t be rushed, neither should it be prolonged. People need to discuss how their process is going. Do they recognize that they are grieving? Do they feel they are making progress?
  • Healing begins when a community or congregation names what it has lost. We need to be clear about what we are grieving. There is something therapeutic about these honest discussions. 
  • People need to see how similar their congregation’s grieving is to their grief experiences as individuals. The tools they used to overcome personal grief may also be useful on the congregational level. 
  • What does faith have to say? Paul talks about not grieving like those who have no hope ( I Thessalonians 4:13). How do we apply faith to our situation?
  • What Bible stories help? Can we trust God to heal our church?


Grief is a natural process. It obeys its own logic and order. Recognizing this is the first step towards turning around the mournful congregation.

1 Kings 21:1-19

There is an interesting debate going on these days about whether American public schools can teach values without accidentally or illegally teaching religion. I no longer have a personal stake in that fight, but I do have an opinion about its opposite. I believe that you can’t teach my religion without speaking about values. The story about Naboth’s Vineyard (I Kings 21:1-19) is a good place to climb out on a limb and question the ethical values church goers are cultivating and displaying in today’s world.


The story begins with the wicked King Ahab wanting to buy the land that Naboth’s family had passed down from father to son, since the time of Joshua. In biblical times, holding onto inherited land was a sacred trust and a subset of family values. Even though you may be poor, living on and cultivating the same parcel of ground for generations fostered a sense of rootedness and simplicity of life. One thinks of the small family farms that are disappearing from our landscape. What values do we possess in today’s world that are similar? 


I suspect that one of the reasons this story made it into the canon was because first Babylonian, then Persian, Greek, and finally Roman ideals, were loosening family values for the Jewish people after 586 BCE. The first people to hear this text read as scripture were Jewish exiles in Babylon. Imagine the sympathy they felt for Naboth. Here they long to return to the simple life where families inherited their fields from their kindred. Like them, most of us won’t be returning Monday morning to a world that has the sacredness of the land as a component of family values. In our world, imminent domain takes homes away from families to build interstates and casinos. In Pittsburgh, my home town, the Hill District was once a vital neighborhood. Then urban planners, the King Ahabs of the 1960‘s, pillaged the land to build a Civic Arena. We have little reason to trust that our current city leaders, with their high stakes sports and gambling values, are any more principled. 


Speaking of principles, another value in the story is demonstrated by Queen Jezebel. Her actions seem to say, “My highest value is my marriage. I will do whatever it takes to make my husband happy.” Just as we need to recognize that the way we define ‘family values’ has shifted over time, so also, there are limits to what we should do for love. Enabling Ahab’s greed is not an ethical action on her part. It is common for kings and queens to abuse their power and this story provides plenty of handles to discuss how far Christians should go in support of the state.


Something not mentioned in the text, is that Naboth’s home town of Jezreel is a fortified place commanding a strategic valley. Perhaps, the reason the vineyard is valued by Ahab is because of usefulness in housing the chariots he is gathering to play with in the spring, when kings go out to war. Naboth may be another of the multitude of martyrs who have inadvertently stepped out in the path of the military industrial complex. What values do we need to cultivate in today’s materialist and security oriented world?

former Mellon Arena - home of Pittsburgh Hockey 1961-2011
Pentecost 5
Eli Whitney's Interchangeable Parts

It is the season of the year when one quarter of all United Methodist clergy will be packing their books, pianos, exercise equipment, etc., and moving to greener pastorates.  A similar percentage of Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., move each summer, and anxiously enroll their children in a new school district. We all wish that pastorates were longer. There is a high cost to moving; not just to those who pay the bills and those who mourn the loss of a favorite pastor, friend, or healthcare provider, but also, in the lost momentum of congregations that are feeling their way in a changing religious marketplace.


Denominations are often divided into two camps; there are those who have some kind of dating process, where congregations send a delegation out to dance with prospective clergy before calling them to move in and be their pastor. Then there are appointive denominations, like the United Methodist. They have a Bishop (or a dartboard) that picks the best pastor for each church. The Bishop sends District Superintendents out like used car salesmen to negotiate the deal.  I have not seen any statistics that one system is any better than the other in lengthening the term or making the pastor/congregation marriage happier.


I do know that most call system denominations provide a process where congregations and pastors are encourage to do extensive self-evaluation to determine their unique needs, gifts, geographic context, cultural insights, etc. Some denominations use trained transitional consultants or intentional interims to guide this process. I think this is a healthy, even if it doesn’t result in a better clergy/church matchup. I think the primary focus should be on maintaining congregational momentum and clergy family health. 


These two factors are related. Unless a congregation has a sense of its own value, its own unique vocation, and its God-given vision for its context, then it cannot survive the repeated changing of pastoral leadership that we are experiencing today. This is the momentum that whatever clergy placement systems must seek to  preserve. Unless a clergy person is emotionally mature, aware of their own weaknesses, and willing to break with the expectations of others in order to use their spiritual gifts and further the health of their family, they can not provide good pastoral leadership. 


When I entered ministry some thirty odd years ago, I thought success depended upon keeping myself and my churches in the middle of a broad path. I hid the ways in which I was different and how my family had specific needs, because I wanted to be seen as a standardized United Methodist clergy, able to be appointed anywhere. I kept saying to the lay leadership of my churches, these are the things you must do in order to be a ‘real’ United Methodist church, abiding within the appointive system. Then I was shocked, when these well taught laity demanded that the next pastor be average; that is not too old or too young or of the ‘wrong’ ethnicity.


We live in a time of diversity. Clergy persons and congregations are no longer interchangeable items, like Eli Whitney's musket parts. Because our Wesleyan tradition was born during the industrial revolution and continues to incorporate the business practices of the modern era (1780 to 1980), have a propensity to resent diversity. Meanwhile, the postmoderns who participate in our churches expect it. They want their local church to become the congregation that its particular context needs. They want their clergy-persons to be honest, transparent, and willing to establish team ministries that will last beyond their tenure in this location.

I Kings 17:9-16
Luke 4:24-27

Elijah providing pancakes for the Darfur Duo is undoubtably one of the great under-told stories of the Bible. No, Elijah doesn’t flip the flap jacks, but he does give daily bread to a hungry widow and her son. And no, the story doesn’t take place in Darfur, but in Syria (currently Lebanon). Still, note the coincidence, Darfur and Syria, two misery riddled war zones led by (unrelated) dictators named Bashir. In both places, hunger walks among the innocents stealing children from their mother’s arms.

But, I Kings 17:9-16 has enough handles to be relevant without my fictionalizing it further. Jesus, himself, makes use of the story in his inaugural sermon in the Capernaum Synagogue (Luke 4:24-27) to battle his peoples’ prejudice against foreigners. Jesus has just announced that God is bringing peace, justice, healing, and salvation to all peoples. The crowd responds by saying, “Yes, yes. Now stop sending all of that to far away places and give us some magical pancakes, too.” The good people of our churches and synagogues often act as if the suffering that occurs in other countries is not their concern. They ignore Darfur, Syria, Bangladesh, and East LA. They somehow think that they don’t need to feel pity for those who starve there. It is convenient to think of these people as being somehow different from ourselves.

So the story of Elijah providing pancakes every day begins in the chapter 16th of I Kings with a famine coming upon our country, the hometown people, Israel. The empty tables are turned. We are the hungry. Worse yet, the famine has been caused by bad government. Hunger has never been very good at reading a map, so the devastation spreads and extends beyond our borders to our neighbors. Its as if Mexico and Canada suddenly had plagues and starvation because of our use of genetically modified corn. So what does God do? God sends Elijah to a widow and her son who live on the other side of the border. Elijah gives this woman and her child a promise; God provide flour and oil for every day until the famine is over. Pancakes every day! Similar to the Centurion in Luke 7:1-23, this foreign woman shows more faith in God than the hometown people. She has to give Elijah her last piece of bread and trust him for the next day.

The story stands beside the other Old Testament great narratives, like Ruth and Jonah, in speaking about the value of foreign people in God’s heart. We do well to ask if we would have faith like this widow, or the centurion, or Jonah’s Ninevite King, or the Samaritan of Jesus‘ story. Have we become to complex, affluent, and jaded as people to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” or even imagine ourselves in a place where that would be the most wondrous of miracles?

Oxfam’s food distribution, in Chad
Pentecost 4
Nike Spam

Good blogs generate fun and helpful comments. Your comments are appreciated, but you need to register first. Recently was hit with a rash of robots trying to sell shoes in the comment box. To remedy this, I added a captcha and some additional requirements to insure that users are human. From now on User Names must be your real name. Church affiliation and general location are now also required.  Please allow a day or so for me to validate your registration. - Bill

Clery Performance v Years of Service

In last week’s blog I speculated on how productivity varies over the thirty odd year career of the average clergy person. Let us be blunt; the United Methodist church, and other mainline denominations, are moving towards a system that reduces professional productivity down to one factor, the capacity to add members or grow a church (sometimes called ‘metrics’). Elsewhere I have cautioned that we need to read this as an institutional concern, which may have little correlation to God’s calling on a particular pastor’s life or the God-given vocation of the church that they are serving.


Like the Church Lifecycle that I drew last week, the Pastoral Lifecycle that I have drawn here is without statistical support. Considering the fact that the average United Methodist clergy person has been providing a negative membership gain for the denomination for the last thirty years, what curve would you draw? Take an incoming class of probationary members, say the class of 1979 (mine). Which part of their careers are they most likely to have been in negative territory?

I only draw this out to say that any policy which seeks to replace aging workers with young ones will have these difficulties:

  1. Most clergy become workaholics and our attitude about the above curve may be accentuating this psychological problem. The seminary graduate enters the field expecting to rack up double digit membership gains. Each time they have to submit a negative statistical report or confess that their church is falling behind on apportionments, they feel the denomination’s lash upon their back. Soon they realize that certain intractable problems and location issues prevent this particular church from growing. The only way to get a better appointment is to work harder. What they rarely do is settle in and accept the bottom half of their learning curve. They don’t seek for the core understandings and deeper insights which will help their current congregation become healthier and their total career be more fruitful.
  2. As workaholics, many clergy become depressed in midlife when their statistical values drop again. What made them productive in their thirties, no longer works. Depressed people tend to be risk adverse. They reject social media as a ‘time waster,’ failing to realize that we are in the community building business. More significantly, the denominational system with its mythical career ladder doesn’t encourage older clergy to do the work where they may be most fruitful. Mature, wise, leaders are needed to help legacy (or hospice) congregations transition into an appropriate state of closure. Other transitional leaders are needed to provide healing for congregations in conflict or some other form of collective trauma. 
  3. Given the current climate, healthy clergy with thirty years of experience, will exit gracefully and transition into productive midlife in another field. Unhealthy ones will stay and demand continued increases in salary. The denomination may lack the resources to transition through the period when the newly recruited young pastors are in training and the unhealthy clergy are failing to exit. We may be digging both negative valleys of the productivity curve deeper.

The unintended consequence of policies that focus on clergy age is that adaptive and well rounded pastors will consider their church work to be a short term career. Sports teams that focus on having young players lose their talented ones when they become free agents. There is a reason why the fifth command is the only one with a blessing (Deuteronomy 5:16). Those who intend to live long in the field of church service, choose a denomination that isn’t abandoning their elders on an ice floe.

Luke 7:1-23
+ I have not found such great faith even in Israel +

“The Great Gadsby” is really about faith and character. Nick seems to be searching for something to believe in, a guiding-principle for his life. He has left the stable confines of his mid-western upbringing. New York is chaotic in its rebellion against prohibition. New York is problematic in its failure to deal with social issues or provide an examples of great persons living noble, charitable, lives. Nick begins the book (or the movie) in need of a Christ-figure. This is what makes it a good launching off point for discussing people like the centurion, and ourselves, that put their faith in Jesus. 


Nick’s first New York friends are Tom, Daisy, and the golfing pro, Miss Baker. He observes with horror their lack of faith and their failure to develop anything that approaches an ethical system for life. In a great quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes:


“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made"


One can ask, is it possible to live a good life and not have something to believe in? There is a God-shaped vacuum driving the party scene on Gatsby’s Long Island. The point is not that they are great sinners. The point is, as Fitzgerald writes, they are careless people. We can identify the careless and faithless people of our lives by observing the trail of broken relationships that they leave behind them.


Of course, what makes the book great and worthy of so many movie attempts is Gatsby’s perfect following of his faith. His entire life and character is molded to serve a single ideal, a faith that the perfection of a past moment can be returned to. In the last line of the book, Nick confers sainthood upon Gatsby. The man is a martyr to his faith, because “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter— tomorrow we will run faster...”


We are left with the realization that having faith isn’t enough. One has to have faith in the right object. People today often speak about faith as if it is a quantity, like gasoline, that one puts into one’s gas tank. A person who is low on faith, might go to a spiritual place to get topped off (it doesn’t matter which religion).  A person with too much faith might go out and buy a lottery ticket. Gatsby had faith in his own ability to build a perfect life. Such faith is tragic and unsustainable. Preach it!


Now we come to the story of faith in Luke 7:1-10. A Roman centurion comes from the midwest (of the Mediterranean world) and settles in Palestine. Like Nick, he needs a Christ figure. His situation, though, is the reverse. He comes from a culture that has few human heroes and no ethical guidelines. The gods of the centurion’s home world are flawed human beings on steroids. He finds the Jewish faith in a holy, transcendent, God appealing. He begins to reshape his life around the ethics and values of his Jewish neighbors. When Jesus passes through, this centurion is ready to receive him as the needed Christ figure. Jesus compliments not just this man’s faith, but his capacity to direct it towards the right object. This faith towards the right object theme, is continued in the next two stories and concludes with Jesus saying "Blessed are those who don't stumble (or misplace their trust) in me."  

The Great Gatsby
Pentecost 3
Life Cycle of a Congregation

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, 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. Best, perhaps, to disregard both those new congregations that die in less than 5 years and those historic churches that grace the centuries. The lifecycle itself is a hypothetical construct, blessed by the fact that most aggregated statistics form bell curves. At any rate, you can’t look at a chart of average church lifespans and predict where your church will be ten years from now. Every regional cluster of congregations, like a synod or district, forms a messy scatter plot, with older congregations unexpectedly growing and solidly stable mid-life churches crashing. The more individual narratives you know, the less you believe in statistics.


What if we draw a similar life cycle curve for the productivity of a clergy person as they age? This curve might be more sinusoidal; a drop at the beginning, a rise in the middle passing through neutral (doing more good than harm), then a drop off to grey near age 65. A young pastor enters his or her first church full of enthusiasm and the capacity to fail large. Because they both lack wisdom and are likely to be serving in a situation with limited resources, most clergy will find their first decade to be unproductive. Eventually, they move on to serve a church with more resources that matches their now tested leadership skills. Suddenly, they are highly productive. When rewarded with a more substantial church or an administrative post, an average pastor becomes less productive but more dependable. In time, physical aging and the accumulated reluctance we all develop towards risk and needed change, causes a decline in productivity. The life cycle curve plunges downward as the clergy person dreams of retirement.


Of course, this pastoral productivity curve is also a hypothetical construct. Real pastors are so diverse that even a sinusoidal curve constructed from a large sampling would have limited value.   We can’t put our finger on a chart and predict how many members a clergy person will join this year. Nor does knowing a person’s age qualify us to guess whether they are productive or ready to be put out to pasture. Life cycle curves, however, may be helpful starting points for individual congregations and mature pastors as they begin a prayerful self-discernment process. 


Churches and pastors need to begin by charting their own statistics and reflecting upon the context of their good and bad times. Every congregation and every individual is on their own path. At times they will follow the general life cycle curve. Where they, as an individual or as a distinct congregation, leave the pack is important. All and all, the life cycle curve is deflating to our ego. Some situations require working to beat the odds and choosing to be an exception. Others require faithfully accepting God’s grace for this present time and making the appropriate adaptations. 


Churches will note that a period of enthusiasm and a period of stability is something that they share with all other congregations. Their experience of these times may have been enhanced by the leadership of a former pastor, but he or she did not cause the good times. In a sail boat, the captain sets the sails and marks the course, but the wind and the currents are beyond ones control and tied to that particular time and place. Further, churches that recover from decline, do so by discovering a specific calling or vocation from God. This requires spiritual discernment and is the subject of my new Reality Check 101 book.


Pastors also need to think of productivity as more than just metrics. Who they are will always be more than what they do. Integrity is everything. Leadership cannot be exercised without transparency. If they are in the front end of the learning curve, they need to admit that to the lay leadership of the congregation. Throughout their stable years, the process that pastors use to discern the specifics of their calling will parallel the process their congregation needs to follow to discover their vocation and prevent decline. Mature pastors need to search for ways to overcome the natural effects of aging, particularly; risk aversion, work addiction, and the reluctance to embrace new technology. When a pastor discerns the approach of retirement, they owe it to the church to announce it two years in advance and intentionally prepare their congregation for the transition.


Finally, denominational leadership should consider the implications of the congregational and pastoral productivity curves, but only after running the numbers for the last thirty years of their own judicatory. Do the math carefully, recognizing that denominational entities are dynamic systems with many interrelated parts. False assumptions and their resulting prescriptions can do more harm than good. Be aware that the clergy and congregational life cycle curves will interact:

  • Many church leaders are advocating the rapid retirement of aging clergy and the active recruitment and placement of young pastors. If we don’t know the shape of the pastoral productivity curve, we may be causing a double whammy. Wise leaders may be exiting too soon and not providing needed transitional support for declining congregations. Young pastors may be working through their decade of inexperience and low productivity at the very time the denomination doesn’t have the resources or flexibility to support the low end of their learning curve.
  • On the whole, congregations of a certain age are likely to be in decline. You need to do the math to see what contextual factors support the outliers of your district. Do rural churches live longer than suburban ones? How does the size of congregation relate to its overall percentage of gain or loss for the last twenty years? Other than a change of pastors, what factors support congregational rebirth in your area?
  • Perhaps it is time to burry the myth that a clergy person’s career should move up a ladder, serving bigger churches and deserving a higher salaries as they approach retirement. The post modern age and the rise of mega-churches has broken that system. Denominations invested in it will die. How can we encourage people to not be risk adverse and to keep current on the use of technology in the church, no matter what their age or leadership post?
  • How can we discover and support those clergy and congregations that do better than average? Does our current use of metrics get in the way? How can we relate pastoral productivity to real disciple making skills and leading congregations towards greater health? How can we prevent the negative predictions inherent in these curves from becoming self-fulfilling prophesies?
  • Other ideas?
Romans 5:1-5
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, “ 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.


Suffering, but not all suffering. Suffering so bad that shakes our faith like an alder in a tornado leads to embedded, steadfast faith, also called perseverance. Suffering that we wrestle with all night like Jacob, and then emerge doing the sciatic shuffle; that kind of pain. Here is first truth; only people who embrace pain become models of patience or capable of making great ethical choices under duress.


People who live out of this perseverant love of God even in the dark times, become changed. They become trusted elders in their context. They become characters in the good sense of the word. There is an integrity about them. Their inner being and their outer actions are one. The impossible prayer of John Hunter’s hymn is answered for them:


Though what I dream and what I do 

    in my weak days are always two, 

    help me, oppressed by things undone, 

    O thou whose deeds and dreams were one!


The equation of Romans 5:3 ends with the word ‘hope,’ though I think the merged word hope-faith would be better, provided you are talking about faith in the sense of sanctifying grace. I mean real hope-faith is something that comes through the living of the Christian life, not the thing that saves us when we first believe. We keep working and reaching for hope-faith. Unfortunately, both hope and faith are watered down in today’s world to mean wishful thinking. Wishful thinking isn’t worth the time it takes to do. “Just have faith,” is Hollywood’s most disastrously turned phrase. The golden prize that Paul puts at the end of the equation is the thing that Abraham sought when he left Ur, that Moses glimpsed in the burning bush, Elijah heard in the silence, and Jesus lived out of everyday. It is the real, holy grail.



Interestingly, the equation works in reverse.  Those who mistake wishful thinking for hope or faith often accentuate the flaws of their character. They think they can be good people just by thinking good thoughts. It ain’t so. Character flaws lead to flighty-ness, undependability, and emotional impatience. These things will always cause a person to suffer. Without real faith or hope, all suffering leads to bitterness. The end of the human condition is the pits. Unless we are saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. This is the heart of what Paul is writing. The equation only works in the right direction if you view it in the context of the Gospel that Paul is presenting in Romans. Follow the Roman Road, as a friend of mine used to say. Good time for an altar call!

Daniel and the Lions
Pentecost 2
Flowers in Kemp Yard

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

  • They are cheap; especially if you translate lilly as wildflower
  • They are apolitical; they seek to influence the world or force others to march to their drum.
  • They are independent and self directed, that is, they don’t wait for someone to tell them when to bloom.


Small congregations are a lot like lilies. They have limited assets. They rarely have aspirations beyond caring for the people of their immediate community and the one or two missionaries they may support. They are often resistant to being told what to do. This is both the beauty and the frustration of the small membership church. I think Jesus invites us to appreciate the beauty and reconsider the source of our complaints. 


Like wildflowers, small congregations are plentiful. Two-thirds of the churches in the US average less than 100 in worship. Denominational leaders and seminaries should take note that most clergy will spend their entire careers serving small and mid-sized churches. Worse still the average congregation today can no longer afford an ordained, full-time pastor to serve them alone. Perhaps, we should consider better ways to train and supervise laity to provide pastoral  leadership for the average congregation. Perhaps we should also appreciate the role God has intended the small church to play in the economy of His kingdom.  


Healthy small churches provide social capital and a real witness to Christ in rural, inner city, and marginalized contexts. Like wild flowers, they are also resilient. They survive economic crisis and leadership failures that bankrupt larger congregations. Further, they have a tendency to develop and train disciples of faith that go on to serve larger congregations. A disproportionate number of ordained clergy and effective lay leaders in my own denomination (United Methodist) grew up in small churches. 


Consider then, the small church. In our materially focused world, their efforts are often under valued. In our bottom-line, business obsessed culture, fails to comprehend what Jesus is pointing to. There is beauty in places we often fail to look for it.

Acts 2:1-21
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.

This is perhaps a good time to think about your congregation and ask if it has a balanced understanding of the Holy Spirit. Many churches treat the gift of Pentecost as an individual right, and fail to grasp the communal nature of Christianity. Other churches celebrate what this day means for organized religion and fail to offer the gift of spiritual formation to those who are thirsty to drink from the one to one relationship that God offers through the spirit.

Both aspects are important, but this week we should focus on the one the people of our congregation need most to hear.

Pentecost day
Pentecost 1
plowing & preparation

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 it gets put in the bulletin or an announcement is made, how many church leaders will connect this item with what was talked about last month at council? Who in the pew will think the item is directed at them? The pastor and other spiritual teachers might suddenly realize that they haven’t checked off on the program’s underlying theology. It may also be that not enough people have given the idea the room it needs in their calendars. Like the seed that was planted on a busy footpath; the program will die for lack of depth (Matthew 13:5).

When this happens, those who initiated the effort will become discouraged. They will say, “This was such a great idea. It’s too bad that our folk lacked the commitment to get it done!” This is unfair. The people of your church know enough not to eat a cake that is half baked. Why should anyone sacrifice for a mission that is poorly interpreted?

Months before entering Jerusalem and offering his sacrifice, Jesus tested his disciples to see if they had sufficient understanding to fulfill their mission.  Inventing church would require a great deal of focus and sacrificial effort from each of them. He took them aside and asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13-24) Jesus knew that understanding his divine nature and the importance of the cross, were key to starting his church. Peter got the quiz right. Jesus responded, “…Upon this rock I will build my church.” It was only after affirming the bedrock of key understandings, that Jesus went on to talk about commitment to this new thing we called ‘church.’ 

The rule is clear:  Understanding precedes action

Building sufficient digestion time into church planning is important. Wise leaders know how to nurture their ideas until the appropriate groundwork has been done.

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-55
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.


Luke gives us previews of this coming moment in his Gospel. You have the women joining the disciples in ministry in Luke 8:1-3, and a church on the road being Church with a capital ‘C.’  You have Jesus’ parables, particularly in Luke 15, where Church is defined by its efforts to reconnect with the lost. You can probably find hundreds more, but these pop into my mind.


In Acts, all the adventures of Peter and Paul flow out of a desire to form fellowships for faith in every place that look like the Acts 2:42-47 Church. Perhaps we should note the things that don’t show up in this model of Church, yet seem to have become our idols today. Nowhere in Acts is a church reduced to its membership role, nor is there much hand wringing over statistical reports. Finances, budgets, and trustee meetings seem to have fallen off the Acts radar. Church buildings are also absent, and there doesn’t seem to be much hurry to get under roof. In fact, flexibility and being the Church among the people of the community seems to be the watch word.


What then is Church? Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship, who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.

Easter 6
Reality Check uses card suits to explain church vocation

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. Other people have discovered a desire to see beauty and become artists, or to care for the sick and entered into medicine, or to teach, etc. Very tricky, isn’t it? 

In the same way, if your congregation delights in the Lord, the deepest desires of the collective body which is your church will be fulfilled. Is it the desire of your congregation’s heart to have a beautiful building and happy members? Or is your congregation more interested in insuring that the next generation finds a church where they can experience authentic worship and Christian fellowship? Or does your congregation’s heart lean towards mission, that is, working with the poor, befriending the oppressed, and being a transformative force in the community? Or, finally, is your church wired by God to be a key player in the region, capturing religious market share while it provides quality programs and worship?

Careful, before you answer: Each of us as church leaders has a personal preference for one the four suits or pathways to success. Chances are good that your personal desire is not the same as your congregation’s group desire. This doesn’t mean that you should part company. Every person’s individual passion is needed by a congregation as it moves down its path. One of the things that has to happen before we can help lead the church on its path is we have to set aside our own desires, and prayerfully ask to hear the Holy Spirit speak through the small groups of our church.

Reality Check 101 book provides two tools (Suits of Cards, Roundabout) to discern the desires of a congregation's heart.

Acts 16:9-15
“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.

Note the following: The Macedonian church was not founded by a denomination. Instead, God gave a dream to an individual, and that person answered the calling to be in mission. Paul was already gifted by the Holy Spirit to be an apostle. Like many similarly gifted Christians today, he felt that the “world was his parish.” He only needed to be told where to go, and he went. Denominations are important for many reasons, but they don’t have much of a role in new church formation. Churches happen wherever people are sent. This can be a workplace lunchroom, a suburban house, a school building rented for the weekend, or a prison courtyard. In your own church’s story, there was probably some individual who felt a calling to come and share Jesus and gather a congregation in your location. Congregations are rarely birthed by high ranking officials or denominational committees looking at a map and saying, “We’ll put one there.” Churches don’t fall down from above. Instead, one congregation may reproduce other congregations. They do this by supporting gifted leaders who go out and work in the new field. It is always a grass roots process. We do well to remember that local churches are supposed to reproduce. They are supposed to send their best out into the field to help other people have a congregation of their own. Does your church have sufficient charity and spiritual passion to give away its best leaders and start new congregation elsewhere? Why do we look to our denominational office to do the task we ourselves are supposed to do?

When the Apostle Paul has this a dream, he sees a Macedonian man. When he gets there, the man turns out to be a woman named Lydia. There are always two halves to the birth of a congregation. The people who are there in the community are every bit as important as the apostle who comes. Together, they build the church. I am often disappointed when I read the foundation stories of modern day congregations because they rarely speak much about the first lay leaders. When you boil a church’s birth story down to a list of its founding pastors, you throw the good part away. Together, Paul and Lydia build a church. What is church? It’s not a building or a denominational franchise location.

Simply put: Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship, who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.

This is what matters. Wherever we can get people together to pray, study the Bible, and worship, we can do Church. Sometimes we will create a separate entity and name it a new church. What is important, however, is putting ourselves in a place where we will respond to the dreams the Holy Spirit might give us.

Suburban home houses a new congregation
Easter 6
Tightrope walker by Segal

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.


For your church to survive in today's postmodern world, you must leave the beaten path. This will mean breaking from the herd. It will mean doing things differently from the other churches in your denomination or town.


To be practical, new programs have to connect congregation’s current resources with their unique vocation from God. We can’t write checks on money that is not in the bank. Church can’t do programs that aren’t supported by their current reality.


check it out at

John 13:31-35
Acts 2:42-47
+ 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. 


Worse yet, I didn’t go to church this week (confession... my bad... very bad). There was a family gathering in Cleveland and the only time to see my daughter was Sunday. My reason for not going to church strikes at the heart of why the standard, default, definition of church is such a problem for the Church (with a capital ‘C’) that Jesus invented. People today want the Church to be a real blessing for their relationships. I want a church that encourages me to go to visit my daughter on Sabbath. I want to learn, not only in the sermon, but in the total experience of Church, how to love in practical ways.


Jesus defines his Church by how we love. Did I mention, that the one thing that separates the previous modern epoch from our current postmodern culture is this emphasis on relationships? For the last thousand years, we have been selling church as the place to go to hear a qualified (but often celibate) clergy-person preach, to be in a beautiful building (with an organ), and learn to the right doctrines (orthodox). What if we changed (The Church change?) And began speaking about entering into a discipleship formation process, which we call Church (with a capital ‘C’) and practice there in, love for each other and love for those who are hurting around us?


After taking seriously Jesus’ new command that we love, and reading the first manifestation of Church in Acts 2:42-47, I offer this alternative definition:


Church is a gathering of people for prayer, study, and worship,

 who relate to each other and to the world as Christ desires.


The only way to be Church is to live it and to be known for our love.

Surprise - Church doesn't mean what you think it does
Easter 5
George Segal, "Girl on a Tightrope" - Carnegie Museum, Pgh

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. Single point answers, such as, doing a program to bring in more youth, only create fresh places for the cascade to erupt.


For your church to survive in today's postmodern world, you must leave the beaten path. This will mean breaking from the herd. It will mean doing things differently from the other churches in your denomination or town. It will also involve traveling slower and becoming more observant of your context. You need to learn which plants have blackberries on them and which ones are poison ivy. It will mean setting aside time for discerning this congregation’s unique calling from God.     


To change images, learning to do visionary leadership in today’s church is like walking a tightrope. You step out alone on your path. You put one foot in front of another. You concentrate on what lies at your feet. What can this church do, given its particular location, people, and resources, that other churches cannot do? How can we faithfully walk the line that lies before us?


Reality Check 101 -- a new resource for doing congregational discernment -- is off to the printer. Look for it to be out May 2013!

Psalm 23
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.


Never straying far from relational images, Psalm 23 unpacks the post-Easter message (and postmodern Gospel) in three equal paragraphs. Verses 1-3 say that our life with Jesus as our shepherd is full of God’s grace. Like the disciples in ancient Galilee, we walk with Jesus and find  him to be the great provider. He is there in the breaking of the bread and in the way each Sabbath refreshes our souls. He even guides us onto right paths when the world around us becomes morally dysfunctional.


The last verses, 5 and 6, reminds me that I live today with enemies. These same people, will in heaven eat at table with me. I live today with shame and failure, but it has already been promised that I shall drink the overflowing victors cup. The blessed assurance of knowing where I will hang my my hat in the next world changes how I see this one. That’s why Psalm 23 is great to read in the weeks after Easter.


I told my “getting ready to graduate to heaven Sunday School class” that the middle of Psalm 23 is an Easter Egg. Then I had to explain to them that for computer buffs, Easter Eggs are hidden messages or inside jokes programed into software. When you type a certain keystroke pattern, a secret message pops up or a funny animation runs. Within the book of Psalms, somebody programed a similar Easter Egg. It goes like this: If you look a Psalm 24:7-10, you see Palm Sunday. Those were the ancient verses used at the Eastern gate of Jerusalem to greet the anointed king.  If you look at Psalm 22, you find Good Friday. Psalm 22:1 was spoken by Jesus on the cross. Half way between Psalm 24 and 22 is the middle of Psalm 23, where we find Easter.


Even if we, or Jesus, walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil. We have a relationship that promises us a resurrection. How cool is that!

Its not what you know, but who...
Easter 4
Budget Roadkill

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 

The ‘should’ can be read as an imperative, “Be happy with the bare necessities!” Or, Paul could be making a more syndical comment, “We should be happy but were not.” Either way, the point is that some financial resources are necessary, but our quest for more easily leads us away from our spiritual path. Jesus stated a similar thing about bread and the word of God (Matthew 4:4). This is a great spiritual truth that needs to be considered as we plan our individual lives and as we do church planning.

How hard is it to draw a line between the essentials and luxury items? Food belongs on one side, sports cars on the other. But where does a food item like steak belong or a fuel efficient car that happens also to be eye candy? Things quickly get muddled and we must conclude that Paul was wrong. Having more money is always a good thing. Going with the higher priced item can always be justified, and usually without too much thinking on our part. The thing is, luxury is not the desire of our spiritual heart. Thinking about how to get more money often leads us away from our Christian vocation. Optimizing our budget so that we can buy what we want is not the same thing as following Jesus as the Lord of all things.

Jesus says that people are incapable of serving both their financial interests and God at the same time (Matthew 6:24). Indeed, we have all found that dealing with money and remaining spiritual is difficult to do. Money can  mean so many things in our personal lives. For one person, saving money makes them feel secure. For another, spending it expresses the fact that they are successful. Still others, use money or the withholding of it as a way to exert power in their relationships. Not only do people bring differing attitudes about money into church meetings, the congregation as a whole develops a cultural habit regarding its finances. There are policies and unwritten agreements that lock churches into  a narrow way of thinking about their material assets. Thinking outside the box is hard when it comes to money.


Any plan for congregational change will encounter its greatest resistance at the point where it involves rethinking our relationship with money.

Psalm 30
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.


If it wasn’t for the fact that Psalm 30 resonates with the way many Jews and Christians experience their own lives, then David’s assertions would seem grandiose in the extreme. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can return to this psalm over and over, saying, “Yes, I’ve been there,” then it wouldn’t be worth reading. 


This simple fact, that God has initiated a personal relationship with each of us, enables David to talk about the resurrection. He says it directly in verse three; “You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead...” (The use of ‘Sheol’ in the parallel next line makes it obvious that he wasn’t speaking figuratively.) I am intrigued, though, by the gutsy-ness of the question in verse. If God has worked so hard to relate to us one on one, what’s in it for him if we die after 70 or 80 years? (verse 9).


This, to me, has always been the most powerful argument for the resurrection. During his life, Jesus, not only convinced Peter, John, Martha, Mary, and others, of his divinity; he also convinced them of his friendship and loyalty. It may have been one thing for him to die at thirty-three, but what’s in it for him if all of his friends die too?

Sistine Chapel - God using his personal touch
Easter 3
The Flat church puts you (and others) in the driver's seat

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. 

    Adults today, even those approaching retirement age, have become disillusioned with the religious answers that lie along the beaten path. They have noticed that their problems at work, in their family life, and in the political realm, are exacerbated by hierarchal structures and adversarial (I win, you lose) relationships. They have found that fruitful actions in each of these areas of life arise from:

  • Utilizing small groups or teams
  • Having horizontal relationships in a permission giving environment 
  • Consulting networks and seeking ideas from people outside their assigned group 

My question this week, is your church tall or flat? Does it seek to be postmodern friendly by utilizing small groups, horizontal structures, and creative networks. When today’s adults are invited to work in the church, they want their experience to incorporate these things. This is why it is often hard to get people to fill the higher offices or to chair a committee. Traditionally defined church work doesn’t feel horizontal or egalitarian. It feels compartmentalized. It’s like being indoors on a warm spring day. Go for a hike. Leave the hierarchy behind. 

John 20:18-29
The disciples said to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” John 20:25

The day after Easter and everyone is talking about somebody who broke their leg and baseball’s opening day. What have you been talking about this week? I have to confess that I have been meandering through the mundane, mostly. Mary Magdalene has been on my mind, however. She doesn’t ‘bury the lead,’ like one Easter sermon that I heard. She doesn’t talk about the little resurrections that we experience every day or how spring feels Easter-like. She says, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18)


So let’s talk about the dead that we have seen. We should start with Jesus. How have you seen him alive in our life? Name the time that you knew that you knew. Name also the people, officially dead, but you know to be alive and plan to see again when you get to have your own resurrection. 


Easter afternoon, just an hour after the basketball player broke his leg on the fifty inch HD TV, I moved across the room at the crowded family gathering and was captured by the oldest relative there. She told me of her arthritis. I squirmed to get away. She held onto me and spoke of things past. Somehow, the resurrection message of church this day had reinforced a strange hope. She thought of her two miscarriages. “I think they are keeping my husband company in heaven.”


Reluctantly, Thomas joins the disciples behind the locked doors a week after Easter. He has had a week of people saying things that aren’t mundane. Peter and John haven’t said a word about how the Pirates lost their opener, again. The women haven’t spoken about the weather. Mary has been dramatic, he wonders if she is off her meds. The worse conversation Thomas has had this week must be the one with Lazarus. When Thomas says, “Come on, dead people don’t rise...” Lazarus smiles.


We live in a day in which it is not proper to speak about the deep mystery of Easter the day after it has whirled past us. Ok. We can take a mulligan for burying the lead on Easter. We were dead tired and perhaps left it to the octogenarians to speak the truth. But, to talk about the miracle of eternal life on the next Sunday may convince some that we are serious.


The disciples said to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.”  John 20:25

Francesca Resurrection
Easter 2
Luke 24:1-12
[The women] came back from the tomb and told all these things to [the men]

I remember my first funeral, it was Flo Chisholm. I was a halfway through Dr. Zeigler’s dreaded Systematic Theology student pastor who had just been hired to drive the hundred miles from Bangor to Danville and bring the word. Flo was beloved by the whole congregation and they spoke her name in a worried tone during the morning prayers. I visited her as she lay upon her rented hospital bed, parked in the living room. For a month of Sundays, I chitchatted and she gave me wise insights into life as it is lived in a quiet Maine village. The last of those Sundays I arrived in a new three-piece navy blue suit with a reversible vest. She appreciated it and I said, “Yep. It’s my marrying and burying suit.” She raised an eyebrow and asked, “So, who’s getting married?” Then, when I stumbled for words, she laughed. 


From Flo I learned what I was there for. I needed both in her presence and at her funeral, to speak transparently about death and our shared hope for what follows. This is one of the few remaining gifts that our secular society still gives to clergy; the opportunity to speak frankly about death. If we can face it in all of its forms, and not stumble; then we are given permission to say what we believe about eternal life. 


In each of the seven hundred odd funerals since, I have, in the words of Johnny Cash, walked the line. On the death side of the line I say; the person’s name and what made them unique, the person’s faults and what needs now to be forgotten, and the person’s relationship with Jesus, even if it was most tenuous. On the eternal life side of the line, I speak the person’s name again and share how God’s love overcomes any doubts previously expressed. I speak my faith and what I believe about eternal life. I remind those gathered to be thankful for the gift of this life, and not to be resentful of the fact that it has been returned to its giver. Then I remind myself and everyone present, that we too shall soon cross the line.


From Good Friday through Easter, we all know what we are in worship for. We are there to hear and to speak the line; how the faultless lover of our souls died in our place, how death winnows out the chaff of our lives for the burning, but the precious metal of faith proves true. We cross the line into eternity. Those who have been given permission to speak on Easter Sunday, must like the women who came from the tomb, speak as clearly and transparently as possible, about what they know. We need to tell people what we believe about eternal life and why. It is what we are there for.

Caravaggio "The Entombment"
Motivational speaker, salesman, Zig Ziglar

Zig Ziglar says that every sale [of a product] overcomes five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust. This list deserves our attention; witnessing involves selling the church and our Lord. The five barriers translate easily into five problems that every congregation has to solve. For the average congregation trying to sell the Gospel of Jesus Christ to their unchurched neighbors, Ziglar’s list is in a rising order of importance. 


#5 Need: Even Plato was clear that an unexamined life [without philosophy] wasn’t worth living, and Buddhism, which opposes proselytizing, still holds that every sentient being needs enlightenment, but most Christians no longer believe that people need the Lord. Church leaders also have to consider what people need, as opposed to what we have always given them, in designing church programs.


#4 Money: To outsiders, churches look expensive and demanding. They fear that becoming involved will suck their time and money away. What has your church done to counter this misconception? What would Jesus did do to overcome this barrier?


#3 Urgency: Church people have forgotten how painful and confusing a secular lifestyle is. We lack a sense of urgency as we invite people to today trade in their slavery to sin for something far better. 


#2 Desire: A close second, is our failure to make our faith look desirable.  Jesus and the early church did not have this problem. They were infectious with their joy, loving in their actions, and confident with their hope of heaven.


#1 Trust: The number one reason most people do not buy the Gospel today is because they no longer trust religious institutions. Trust is earned through sincere contact, persistent communication, and being there when needed. It is lost when Christian fellowships look too much like businesses or institutions.

Philippians 2:5
John 12:1
Let the same mind be in you...

The night before Palm Sunday, Jesus was in Bethany and Mary came to anoint him (John 12:1). In the novel that I am writing about Holy Week, I have Mary proclaiming that Jesus is King. Her perfumed oil wasn’t just given in thanksgiving for her brother’s life, but was a well timed political statement. She does this public act, just a short walk away from Jerusalem’s Eastern Gate, where the Messiah (anointed one) is expected to enter. She does it knowing that the thousands of pilgrims camping nearby, know of Jesus’ miraculous power and will rally to bring him to his throne.


Those who anoint kings, as Samuel did for Saul and David, know that they are doing prophesy. They are doing a dramatic act and speaking sacred words with the intention of revealing to all a previously hidden spiritual reality. Mary isn’t just voting Jesus king or liking him on Facebook, she putting before the court of human reason, the evidence, the smoking gun, of the fact that Jesus is, and always has been, the Lord of all. One word, “Messiah.”


In the same way, when we break bread and share the cup this Thursday, we will be doing prophesy. With a dramatic act and sacred words, we will be proclaiming that Jesus is, and always has been, present with us in our worship. All of the political realities of our church and its declining reputation in the community can’t erase the essential truth, Jesus the Lord of all is here. One word, “Communion.”


Jesus knows what is going on as Mary pours the perfumed oil. He then takes her sacred word and dramatic act and twists it to a new meaning. He says, “She has done this to prepare me for my burial.”   


In spite of this wet blanket, Palm Sunday’s “Jesus is King” Parade still happens. I can’t help but think that Jesus’ response made Mary angry. I picture her pulling her hair out. She goes to the middle of the parade route, with lumps of hair in her hands, ready to throw it in his face. The crowd parts and he looks at her. Seeing the great sadness in his face, she suddenly knows. She shifts gears. Yes, Jesus will die this week. 


Shifting gears doesn’t change spiritual realities. What the prophets know, see, and touch, is still true. We have to let the cogs of our mind grind on that for a while. Don’t make Palm Sunday or Mary’s vision an anomaly. As people who live between two worlds, we have to constantly shift gears. Every day, Jesus is for us both a beaten man and king. Taking on the mind of Christ, we are constantly for the world both humiliated servants and children of the Almighty (Philippians 2:1-11). One word, “Paradox.”

Dagan-bouvert Painting at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum
Lent 6
Palm Sunday
Your church's next small group could be in a prison or nursing home

In his book “Leading Change,” John Kotter makes the point that nothing changes in an organization until a sufficient sense of urgency has been established. You can have the right people in leadership and a clearly communicated vision, but if a “plenty of time for us to consider this later” attitude prevails, needed change will never occur. This is the missing step in most church goal setting processes.

I believe that a healthy sense of urgency can arise from church leaders doing the math and looking at their church statistics, but it rarely does. When church statistics are favorable, they are usually lies and half truths, tailored to suit the pastor's ego. The right numbers are rarely tracked. The numbers I want to see relate to the church's witness in the community. We need to keep on top of social trends. Leaders need take a step back and get a broader perspective on the church's current situation. Each new era brings new opportunities. Social change also brings real penalties for those who fail to adapt. The trick is to name these change points without becoming defensive or falling into the blame game. We also need to spend time in prayer, discerning how the numbers relate to our congregation's God given vocation.

Consider the following example:

Ten years ago, 10th Street Church received most of its new members from its confirmation class and transfers from other churches in its denomination. This year its three new members came from a nearby group home. Even though the Nurture Committee had to consolidate three Sunday School classes into one, they were excited by reports from the their newest small group located at the Federal Prison. The average age of a Tenth Street member continues to rise, as deaths out number baptisms. The church council has learned not to be discouraged by these statistics. They instead have a healthy sense of  urgency as they contemplate new ways to minister to the marginalized of their community. The church’s declining finances may mean that they’ll soon have to move to part-time pastoral support. They have made a commitment, however, to insist that their next minister continue to help them expand their outreach.  

When a local church experiences flat or declining income over a several year period, it is reason for concern. This doesn’t mean that the church is headed in the wrong direction, though. Holy urgency comes from vision and Spiritual Passion, not the fear generated by bad statistics.

You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.

Garrison Keillor
Lobsterman in a Storm

There’s an old story about a Maine Lobsterman who was caught in a bad storm at sea when the engine on his boat suddenly quit. Anxiously he fiddled trying to restart it. All the while, he heard the waves crash upon the rocky shore. Soon, he’d be dashed to bits. He prayed, “Lord, I have never asked you for anything in the past. If you rescue me this one time, I promise not to be bothering you again in the future.” 

    The passionate thing about Spiritual Passion is that we expect a lot of things out of our relationship with God. People with low Spiritual Passion expect God to bail them out of some of their jams. People with high Spiritual Passion expect every crisis to intensify their relationship with God. They pray in good times and bad, as if they expect God to hear and do the thing that raises the spiritual stakes. It is an easy and safe thing to pray for good luck. It is a passionately risky thing to pray for God to manifest himself in real world events.

    When a young person enlists to be a soldier, he or she expects the army to provide room, board, transportation, and the appropriate weaponry for their combat duties. Expectations flow in both directions between soldiers and their commanders. The closer a unit is to the front, the more intense the level of expectation. The general expects the troops to be courageous, utilize their training, respond intelligently to a changing battlefield, and if need be, sacrifice their lives. The soldiers ask that their lives not be wasted, that their training be sufficient for their duties, and that rations will arrive when needed. Soldiers with passion, do not pray to be neglected or left aside while others fight.

    Being a disciple of Christ involves a similar exchange of expectations. Passionate disciples pray that their lives will have meaning. Whether they are laity or clergy, they pray to understand God’s calling on their lives and to be spiritually equipped for that vocation. They do not pray to be spared trouble, but for the courage to live for God in all circumstances. The spiritual formation of disciples is the primary task of every congregation. This cannot be done without teaching people to pray with expectation.

    Praying with expectation is not about expecting God to magically give us what we ask for; its about believing that God wants to build a more intense relationship with us through prayer and His response. Congregations with high Spiritual Passion see a relationship between their prayers and real world outcomes. 

Joshua 5:9-12
‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’

Today I picked up a book about how blogs are changing the world. The book began with the story of 9-11-2001, as it unfolded in the blog-o-sphere. It was a day that changed many things in America. The day before 911, web pages that provided news content were valued less than the paper they weren’t printed on. In January of 2000, Time Warner had spent half a gazillion dollars to purchase AOL.  In March of 2000, the stock market bubble burst, making AOL practically worthless. Everyone associated with posting news on the web slinked off the stage in disgrace. On 911, all that changed. The real-time posting of events and commentary throughout the tragedy rolled away any shame the new fangled media might have felt. Before that day, no one would have expected the internet to become the dominant provider of news content that it is today.


Joshua 5:9 tells us how on a particular ‘Today,’ God rolled away the disgrace of the children of Israel. They had been slaves in Egypt. Then they became pilgrims wondering across the Sinai desert and depending upon quails, manna, and magical water bearing rocks to stay alive. But this day, this today, they became inheritors of a promised land. On that day, they celebrated the passover with joy and ate the first fruits of Palestine. What is more important, that day they stopped thinking like slaves. They stopped being homeless people. They start being ‘Israel,’ the people who God fights along side.


The fourth week of Lent is perhaps a good time to point at where the wilderness journey of our spirit will lead us. There is coming a day in which we will smell the sweet lilies of Easter. The shame of being people who grow old and die will disappear. The disgrace of being sinful and rebellious murmurers will be rolled away from us. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that on Easter, we will for a limited time not feel embarrassed for being church going Christians in a post-organized religion world.

Lent 4
Neil Clark Warren, founder of E-Harmony

About fifteen years ago, at a church I was serving, a group of forward thinking people came to the church council seeking to start a contemporary worship service on Saturday night. They needed funding for equipment and music. They knew that there was money in the Ford Endowment fund, which was designated for music and worship related expenses. Several in the church council objected, saying, “We knew the Fords. They would be dead set against this kind of thing.” I spoke up and said, “If we are going to resurrect the Fords for the sake of this meeting, couldn’t we at least resurrect them as young people?” The point was taken and the vote went in favor using the funds to support the new worship service.

I have been thinking a lot about age lately. For the last ten years I’ve had an outline for a book about mid-life that I have been meaning to write. This week it occurred to me that I might be getting too old to write about mid-life. Talk about a scary thought! Especially since when I began to think about the project, I put it off because I feared I was too young to be an authority on it. Now it hits me now that the best gauge of old age is how risk adverse we are. The Fords died old, or so I was told, and were known to be sufficiently cautious to be dead.

It doesn’t seem to make much sense that when we are young we try many foolish and risky things. Yet when we get down to the point were we have only a few years to put at risk, we become overly cautious. Churches are the same way. When they are new church starts, they experiment a lot. They shift worship times around and hold study groups to discuss relevant (controversial) social issues. As congregations age, they get cautious. Suddenly, they have long time members that they don’t want to offend. Some are down to a hand full of people in worship. They could easily meet each week in a home or in the local restaurant. Yet, the thought of having something happen to their ark of a church building fills them with dread. What if they were to risk it all in one new mission or program? What if they were to offer the rooms that they don’t need to another nonprofit? 

What is it about old age and creeping cautiousness that seem so inevitable?  Yet, everyday we encounter counter examples. From the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible to Neil Clark Warren who founded the internet dating service, E-harmony, when he was 66 years old. Occasionally, I even see something in the church that makes me think that risk aversion isn’t inevitable. Usually it’s something small. But, when it happens, we should note it. Accentuate the positive, and remain vigilant against the faint of heart.

Exodus 3:1-15
Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. He thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight..."

“Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every bush is aflame with God
But only those who see, take off their shoes
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.” 

– Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Two minutes before the burning bush caught his attention, Moses would have called his corner of the Sinai ‘God Forsaken.’ He is in the heart of the world’s third worse wilderness. He’s been there for weeks, following his father-in-law’s flea-bitten goats from scrub weed to broom brush. At night he dreams of Egyptian beer and gentle rock of the royal barge as it glides down the Nile. He can’t doze more than 18 minutes at a stretch, though, because the nights are cold, lonely, and filled with constant worries that his gnats-for-minds animals will wander themselves into a bear infested cave. Each dawn he awakes, sans coffee, to a bleating chorus of the goats and scorpions in his duffle.  No, Moses would not say that,‘earth is crammed with heaven.’


Betsy got that one wrong, as most writers do. Human beings are terrible judges of the places where God is and isn’t. Moses, even after seeing the bush, has to be told to take off his shoes. He’s used to talking with goats and rocks, he has a hard time changing his attitude to interact with the Holy. This is not the thing you notice when you just casually read bits and pieces of Exodus. We wrongly assume that Moses, who goes on to be a renown theologian, was looking for God when he turned aside. I believe the opposite is true.


Moses is a lost soul as he enters the third chapter of Exodus. He is like so many people today, intimate with spiritual wilderness. Each wayward being experiences this forsaken-ness of God differently. For Moses, the wilderness is composed of one part drudgery and two parts humiliation. As a young man, Moses had wealth, status, the desire to do something good with his position and education. Then suddenly, he lashes out and commits murder. It is shame, as much as fear of punishment, that dives him out from his green home and into the brown of Midian. A stranger in a strange land, he becomes trapped in a meaningless job. Not the place you would look for a future bestselling author.


What makes all this fun is the fact that Moses’ post God-in-the-bush life isn’t any better. His stress level goes up, his popularity becomes even more fickle, and he continues to spend his nights in the desert. Further, every question he had for God gets answered in a way that only brings on more questions. Job had much the same experience. The only thing that makes experiencing God worth it for these folk, is the fact that afterwards life has meaning. God is speaks clearly about one thing in Exodus chapter three, the Almighty has a plan and it involves us. This is what remakes Moses. 


Life is not about comforts, or wealth, or fame. It’s about partnership with God. This is the one thing that crams this earth with heaven, and makes every bush aflame with the Holy.

Moses killing an Egyptian
Lent 3

The early church saw the pelican as a symbol of Christ. I see these birds as symbols of beauty. They gracefully skim a dozen feet above the water, curl their wings, and suddenly drop to catch a fish. When at rest, they sit peacefully on their selected post. They are not like the cormorants, who constantly clown around and jostle each other to get the 'best' seat.

The early church picked up on an ancient legend concerning the pelican. It was believed that in times of famine, a mother pelican would feed her chicks by stabbing her chest with her beak until it bled. The hungry chicks would lap up the blood mixed with tears and be nourished. If the famine went on long enough, this act of self-sacrifice would take the life of the mother. So, the early church instructed their leaders. The institutional, mother church, in every community had to be prepared to give up their leaders to martyrdom, if persecution threatened the faith of new believers. With grace and beauty, the early church leaders offered communion (blood) and baptism (tears) to whoever would ask.

Today, the church is having a hard time adapting to the religious famine of our postmodern society. Mainline churches are bleeding members, but not feeding their young. They have lost hold on the power of the sacraments. They pray to be successful, when they need to pray to be relevant and life saving.

The parable of the Egg (Reality Check chapt 2), relates to this subject. The pelican photos on this site were taken in St. Petersburg, Sanibel Island, Clearwater, and a bird rescue center in Florida.

A mother pelican on her nest

Reality Check 101 is workbook designed to help your congregation understand its unique mission, community context, and divine calling. It can be used as a guidebook for a goal setting (though Bill avoids that word) retreat, or as a group study to discern what the church should focus on in the coming year. Each chapter has study questions and suggestions for implementing what you have learned. The chapters are self contained and can be used in any sequence. Reality Check 101 is designed to be a flexible resource, a tool box for church change. 
Reality Check 1010 topics include:
    •    The basic questions every church planning meeting must explore. 
    •    How to get your church to try new things.
    •    How to plan for success. 
    •    Rediscovering your congregation's identity and purpose.
    •    How to engage in group discernment. 
    •    Using the "Four Suits" tool to discern your congregation's God given calling.

    •    Using the  "Roundabout" tool for getting your congregation unstuck and back on its journey.

    •    Understanding the Spiral Rule and why so many congregations are in decline.

    •    Using the "Three Phases" tool for understanding your congregation's history and what needs to be done right now.

    •    Checking your congregation's  "Spiritual Fuel Gauge."

Print workbook - 267 pages - is available from Amazon for $15.85  
E-Book is $7.85 from Amazon (kindle) and Smashwords (epub).  
Multiple copies, print or e-book, are available at an discount directly from the author.  Email

Print ISBN: 978-1484152966         epub ISBN 9781301924554

Reality Check workbook  - ebook
Back cover, print version of Reality Check 101
Psalm 27
John 3:5-9
He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...

Psalm 27 does an odd thing, it has a number of high security phrases like, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life,” and “set me high upon a rock.” It appeals to the fortress mentality of our faith, as if to say that is the reason for religion. It being Lent, I was struck by the wilderness and the 'seeking God for God’s sake' quality of the Psalm. David is saying, I only want to seek the Lord’s face, nothing else matters. What David really found in the wilderness wasn’t security from madman Saul, but the mystery of God in the night. Jesus also retreated into the wilderness and into his all night prayer sessions, not because he found people threatening, but because the mystery of seeking to know God is fundamental to the human experience.


The common book of prayer does an apt thing in the responsive reading of Psalm 27:5, instead of  speaking about God’s tabernacle, it says, “He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...” How important are the secrets of God to us? It is easy to get the wrong idea about our reason for practicing religion. It’s not like we go to church to buy an insurance policy. I know this doesn’t preach as easily as the fortress aspects of Psalm 27. Jesus wasn’t going for the easy message when he told Nicodemus that the spirit of God that allows us to be reborn is like the wind, blowing where you do not expect it (John 3:5-9).


It is not possible to do Lent without pausing for ecstasy. Young John and Jesus’ mother Mary were not just filled with grief as they watched Jesus die; they were transformed by the mystery of it all. This informs every word John uses to tell the story, from “we have beheld his glory” (John 1:14) to Revelation’s final amen. It is the reason for religion that Job found after all his troubles and seeking to see God. That old seer, melted away repenting in dust and ashes (Job 42:1-6). There are worse ways to do Lent.

The ecstasy of St. Francis by Caravaggio
Lent 2
Monopoly Iron

Old technology doesn’t die, it just becomes irrelevant. Think about it, everything from the telegraph to the trebuchet still exists. When humankind moves on and leaves an old way of doing something in the dust, it doesn’t get rid of the old. Things that are irrelevant, are simply parked in a back ally. This is my chief concern as I write a weekly blog for leaders serving mainline denominational congregations.

My wife was upset when she read this week that her beloved iron token was being retired from the Monopoly game. In a move to update its image, Parker Brothers had run a poll and found the newly minted cat to be more popular than the seldom used iron. Cats have been with us since the Egyptians, but missed the cut for the game’s original token grouping because the culture of the 1930s considered bits of technology and gender specific icons to be more relevant. Now, the world is different. It is postmodern. It despises gender specific icons and embraces relational entities like Scottie dogs and cats. The tokens we chose tell a lot about us.

My wife comforted her self by saying, “I’m glad we still have one of the old Monopoly sets.” I have visions of her tucking the iron into her pocket as we go out to play games with friends. Most church leaders respond to postmodernity in the same way. Our church buildings are not disappearing, even though the main commerce of society no longer sweeps people through our doors. We can still tuck into our pockets quaint tokens, like the Latin jargon we use to describe our parts of worship. Nobody will deny us our right to gather on Sunday morning at 11 am, and my wife will still be able to push her iron past go and collect $200.

The crime is that we live in a world that is hungry for face to face relationships. The time has come to be innovative. We should develop new small groups, house and coffee shop based worship services, and team oriented local mission projects. Unfortunately, mainline churches of all sizes tend to be reactionary rather than relevant. In the game of today’s church, the new icons are; scripture shared for its relevance, prayer done with confidence in its effectiveness, small groups gathered in relaxed settings, peer to peer witness, and worship led from the heart.

+ Weekly Word -   Bill's thoughts on an upcoming scripture(s) for this Sunday are published every Tuesday morning. Bill always finds a slightly off-center take on things. He likes to connect today's news with biblical truth. The scripture passages come from the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of texts for each Sunday of the year, compiled in the mid-1960s by an ecumenical committee. 

+ Fixing Church - is a short leadership oriented articles, for both laity and clergy, relating current trends to best practices in the church. More on these topics can be found in Bill's Reality Check 101 book and the soon to be released, Fixing Church 7 Week Study.

+ Just Shalom - are short blog posts dealing with issues of personal piety and social justice. Many items in this blog will also appear in Bill's Finding Shalom book series, volume one will be coming out early in 2019.

+ Poems - Is a random collection of poetry written by Bill Kemp and others. These poems are just Bill being creative. They aren't meant to be taken seriously,

Topics found in the above postings are indexed at the left of each blog page. Or you can just search for what interests you.



Bill Kemp

Never attribute to malevolence that which is merely due to incompetence.

Arthur C. Clarke
3001:The Final Odyssey p 187
Arthur C. Clarke
Bill's comment: 
I always try to remember this when things go wrong in the church. People don't try to sabotage us nearly as much as we think. Conflict is often generated around a misstep by someone who doesn't know better. Often the incompetent is I.

I, Bill Kemp, belong to several support and training groups for intentional interim ministry. As a United Methodist Clergy, I recieved my training through TIIMSA (Transitional Intentional Interim Ministry Specialists).  I also participate in the bi-annual gatherings (spring and fall) of the Lake Erie Regional Interim Ministry Support Group.  This fun ecumenical gathering meets in beautiful Olmsted Manor in the heart of North Western Pennsylvania's Alegehney National Forrest.  See the Upcoming Events Link (above) for the next meeting of these groups.

The Intentional Growth Center located at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina is the primary training center for United Methodist Interim ministers. - The Alban institute provides resources for transitional leaders. They have become the leading source for books that explain the church and how to change it.

Interim Ministry Network is the historic (over 30 years) multidenominational training and resourcing network for transitional experts. 

CoachNet - an organization that trains church consultants and organizational change leaders

Drupal CMS Website screenshot

Churches are in the communication business. We tell people about Jesus, explain the relevancy of the Bible, communicate prayer needs and joys, publish the where and why of our fellowship gathering, and beg people to give. Few things have changed so dramatically in the last thirty years as the ways people communicate and how they prefer to receive information. From the time of Martin Luther down to the time of Martin Luther King, people went to the church and looked at the church door or church bulletin to see if there was anything happening this week. Today, those that faithfully read the bulletin or the church newsletter are few and gray. Even the idea of regularly going to the church building or calling the secretary for information seems quaint. 

How do we buy tickets for an event? Most of us go online, unless it is something happening at the church. There we have to track someone down and fill in a printed form. Even the IRS gave that up years ago. What if a father goes home from church and gets into a discussion with his son  about some point that was made in the sermon (I know, this never happens). Neither one was paying attention enough to remember the scripture and both have lost their bulletin. No problem. The father whips out his smart phone and goes to the church website. Why does he do this? Because every other argument he won this week, he settled by going to Wikipedia.
Churches have found a number of stupid ways to adjust to this new reality: 1) Ten years ago we hired a web guru company to make us a website and today it is still there. Someone, sometimes, gets around to updating it. You can even read the church newsletter on it if you don’t mind turning your head sideways. 2) After much debate and delay, we asked one of the teens to do it. He’s having some problems with it that we don’t understand. 3) The price of print and postage is going up, so we voted at the last meeting to email the newsletter this month. The pastor and secretary have spent the last three weeks trying to figure out how to make it work.

We need to remember that the church is in the communication business. If we fail here, we fail everywhere. Rather than thinking website, you need to think communication system. Today, the internet is the key platform for the non-face to face church communication.Every church, no matter how small, needs to design a communication system that provides the information people want in a convenient and familiar package. This means that if a stranger is looking for a church home, they should have multiple ways to discover, not only your worship times, but also the things that make your congregation unique. It means that if a church attender hears of something interesting that is scheduled, they can find the relevant who-what-when-where, as well as, a convenient way to register or ask questions. It means that each person on the worship team has a place to go to discover this week’s theme and who they’ll be working with. It means that everyone doing an outreach project or serving on a committee has a source for both the upcoming planning meeting’s agenda, as well as notes on what has been already been decided. It means that how they do this, whether by Facebook, Texting, Twitter, or the church website, won’t matter. What matters is that you first design a means for church leaders to post current information onto the internet and then develop multiple ways for people to access that content.   

Deuteronomy 26:5
Micah 6:8
A wandering Aramean was my father...

The Old Testament scripture that calls us to confess, “A wandering Aramean was my father...” seems a strange place to begin Lent. I always associate Deuteronomy 26 with Thanksgiving and turkey, but it makes a cool contrast to Luke 4 where Jesus is starving in the wilderness. Lent is a good time to wrestle with the big questions of life and to fast for long enough to get a more spiritual perspective on it all.

 This Lent, lets begin by traveling outside the walls that usually separate church and state and pray a hungry prayer for our political circumstances. There are three questions that we need to ask about our community and nation.  Deuteronomy 26 provides an unexpected answer to each:

Q1) What is the nature of our nation and our civic life together?
A1) We are wanderers. We are a people formed from former slaves, immigrants, and dispossessed native Americans. We started as a weak few, storm tossed and fragile. Now in our state of luxury, we dare not become isolationists or build electrified border fences. Lent should whack us out of social self pity and “let them eat cake” attitudes. 

Q2) What external circumstances should we be aware of?  
A2) The world is a place where oppression is common. In the midst of history, God has acted to take us as a people out of slavery and made us to be a nation. In this land that we did not build or win for our selves, God has made us secure. We have found milk and honey. 

Q3) How then should we live? or What is our vocation as a nation? 
A3) We should enjoy our abundance and be thankful.  We should offer up our due tithes and join in worship. We should invest in the world; do justice, love steadfastly, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Lent 1

Bill is an ordained clergy person in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, an author, and an unofficial instigator for change. After serving a variety of local churches for 31 years, he switched into full time writing in 2010. He divides his time between nonfiction (books for churches and individuals going through transition) and fiction. He also serves on the board of TIIMSA (Transitional Intentional Interim Ministry Specialists Association) a support and resource group for UMC clergy working in transitional situations. 

His latest book, “Help My Church is Leaving Me” is a resource for United Methodist’s seeking to understand LGBTQ  issues and how recent denominational actions will affect local congregations (May, 2019). 

Bill’s novel, Mary Sees All - the Race to Save Jesus from the Cross, was released in 2018 as the first of a four part series of Historical Fiction set during the first century. 

He is the author of nine other books, mostly dealing with improving church life. Bill also does workshops and consulting. His favorite speaking topics, and other books, can be found at

contact us 

Current Book Listing:

Fixing Church 7.0: A Seven Week Study

Reality Check 101: New Paths for a Changing Church

The Church Transition Workbook: Getting Your Church in Gear

Holy Places, Small Spaces: A Hopeful Future for the Small Membership Church

Ezekiel’s Bones: Rekindling Your Congregation’s Spiritual Passion

David’s Harp: Returning Harmony to Conflicted Congregations 

Saul’s Armor: Reforming Your Building and Organization for Ministry

Jesus’ New Command: Rediscovering the Joy of Fellowship 

Jonah’s Whale: Reconnecting the Congregation with Mission

Peter’s Boat: Renewing the Vitality of Burned-out Church Workers 

The Exodus of Henry Defazio: A Pittsburgh Story

Going Home: Facing Life’s Final Moments Without Fear - cowritten with Diane Kerner Arnett 

Books can be found at 

Bill Kemp, Author, Playwright, Blogger

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Leonardo da Vinci
Presentation Zen - book by Garr Reynolds
book clubs & churches - same witness problem

If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.
- Bob Dylan 

Any local church whose leaders and congregational culture is seeking first, to cater to its current members, and second, to preserve its assets, is already digging its own grave. These two priorities are the hall marks of organizations that are preparing to die. It doesn’t matter if the organization is a political party, a social club like the Elks, a trade union, or a local church. Once the governing board reduces their principle interests to membership happy, maintaining physical assets like buildings, and protecting the organization’s savings account, the handwriting is on the wall. From time to time, pastors need to find gentle ways to remind their church council that the same rules that govern other organizations also apply to the church. 

    Consider two book clubs:
In the first, the people who attend the book club, at the end of each meeting, vote as to which book they shall read and discuss at their next gathering. In this club, new members tend to be people who have been personally invited by a friend who is a member. From time to time there may be a straggler who drops in because they have an interest in this month’s book, but when the topic for the next month is discussed they are not likely to feel included and will soon drop out if the next book doesn’t interest them. To make matters worse, no one takes responsibility for contacting infrequent attenders to inform them of the next month’s selection. Many churches are like this. They have exhausted their new member pool, no one is having children and the members canvased all of their unchurched friends. They wait to die by attrition.

In the same town there may be another book club. This club selects its books from the New York Times best seller list and frequently advertises its program choice at the local library. They also choose discussion leaders who are skillful at including the timid newcomers. They email everyone the list of future selections and provide links and reviews for those who miss the program but still want to do the reading. Unlike the dying club above, this book club welcomes those who use e-format book readers. From time to time, this club explores the option of birthing another club, perhaps in a different location or with a different target audience. This club is busy being born, whereas the other one is busy dying.

Which book club is more like your church?

Luke 4:14-21

In his sermon recorded in Luke 4:14-21, Jesus says that his mission involves certain people. He is not targeting, Wall Street lawyers, feral cats, or Baltimore Ravens fans, unless they happen to be one of the following groups:
    •    the poor
    •    the captive
    •    the blind (could be physically, spiritually, or both)
    •    the oppressed (and by implication, those drowning in debt)
Have you made the list? One of the things I struggle with is clarity of mission. By saying these named groups outright, Jesus is drawing a line in the sand. It will eventually get him crucified. His mission did not involve ousting the Romans. His list did not include the religious elite. He didn’t put on his agenda support for the Temple or the existing forms of worship, even though he personally participated in both Temple and Synagogue rituals.

His listing of missional priorities made this part of the sermon sound a bit like Obama’s second inaugural address, and was every bit as political. Jesus backed up his words by going out and living with the poor. He accepted those who were held captive to prostitution by the gender inequality of his world. He healed the blind, those who were mentally ill, and those held captive to physical illnesses. He labored to teach those who had been blinded by the false dichotomies of the Pharisees. He challenged the separation of economics, politics, and religion, that continues to keep many people around our world oppressed. Most importantly, he formed a fellowship called Church, that would continue his ministry to the list.

I find the January statement of a list of targeted people groups, to be as brisk and awakening as the weather. On a personal level, who are the people I am called by God to spend my life serving? On a corporate level, how can I help my local church define its targeted mission group of people? 

Luke 4:14-21
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor...

In his sermon recorded in Luke 4:14-21, Jesus says that his mission involves certain people. He is not targeting, Wall Street lawyers, feral cats, or Baltimore Ravens fans, unless they happen to be one of the following groups:
    •    the poor
    •    the captive
    •    the blind (could be physically, spiritually, or both)
    •    the oppressed (and by implication, those drowning in debt)
Have you made the list? One of the things I struggle with is clarity of mission. By saying these named groups outright, Jesus is drawing a line in the sand. It will eventually get him crucified. His mission did not involve ousting the Romans. His list did not include the religious elite. He didn’t put on his agenda support for the Temple or the existing forms of worship, even though he personally participated in both Temple and Synagogue rituals.

His listing of missional priorities made this part of the sermon sound a bit like Obama’s second inaugural address, and was every bit as political. Jesus backed up his words by going out and living with the poor. He accepted those who were held captive to prostitution by the gender inequality of his world. He healed the blind, those who were mentally ill, and those held captive to physical illnesses. He labored to teach those who had been blinded by the false dichotomies of the Pharisees. He challenged the separation of economics, politics, and religion, that continues to keep many people around our world oppressed. Most importantly, he formed a fellowship called Church, that would continue his ministry to the list.

I find the January statement of a list of targeted people groups, to be as brisk and awakening as the weather. On a personal level, who are the people I am called by God to spend my life serving? On a corporate level, how can I help my local church define its targeted mission group of people? 

Isaiah 61 Text for Jesus' Sermon
Epiphany 3