Archive for July 2014

Every church has a lifecycle

Jesus tells a parable about your church in Matthew 13:31-32. He says that your congregation is like an acorn which is planted and becomes, in time, a mighty oak. OK. Jesus uses a mustard seed instead of an acorn. If he were preaching in your church, I’m sure he would choose a plant familiar to your people. His parables were meant to be simple. Too often we get hung up on the fact that there are other seeds smaller than the mustard and other plants more majestic than the mustard bush. This all misses Jesus’ point. The church (kingdom of heaven) is meant to grow until it becomes shelter for the birds of the air. Church is meant to serve the kingdom of God by meeting the needs of others.


Using the acorn illustration, we can think about the life of a congregation passing through three stages. First, there is the small beginning. At some point, group of Christians gathered together to form a fellowship. Your congregation was born. Over time the acorn grew. Your congregation entered a second phase. It became an oak tree. Your church provided a nurturing place for faith in the midst of the community. There is for every congregation, a third phase. Just as there is birth and maturity, there is also death. Eventually the congregation closes and, hopefully, its assets are prayerfully distributed to help God’s Kingdom to carry on in a different form. This is the lumber or legacy phase of a church.


Using this parable, consider the following:


1. How does it feel to be a church leader during each of these three phases? 

+ In the acorn phase, there is a lot of enthusiasm but not much structure. Newly birthed and growing churches are exciting places to be. While the congregation may be small (and fragile) the sense of progress encourages everyone to make sacrifices.


+ In the Oak Tree phase, the focus of the church shifts to programs. The job of the leadership is to keep the sap flowing and ensure that every bird that lands on the tree gets what it needs to make a nest. This phase can last for decades and cause people to forget that they ever were an acorn, or will one day be lumber.


+ When you see your beloved tree fall and become lumber, it is easy to feel depressed. Leadership gets burned out. This is a important time, however, for the kingdom of God. By leaving an appropriate legacy, a dying congregation can continue to serve God. The leadership can insure that every member finds a new church home and every asset a missional use.


2. Is it ever possible to go backwards?

+ Obviously, churches on the verge of becoming lumber would love to go back to being healthy oak trees. Church experts are in agreement that the only way to move to a previous phase is to be radically born again. Transformation stories alway involve dying to who we have become and choosing to accept a totally new and frightening future.


3. Who are the birds

+ When I look at Jesus’ original parable, I am fascinated with the birds. Your church is meant to provide spiritual shelter and hope for a wide range of people. Some birds flutter through and briefly perch to catch their breath. Your mission must extend far beyond your membership.

For more information on the congregational life cycle see Martin F. Saarinen's work at Alban Institute
additional author: 
Alban Institute - Martin F. Saarinen
Where you steer your church depends upon HHH

My friend, Ed Kail, developed a useful tool for discussing your church’s attitude towards the outside world. By attitude, we are talking about the mid-point of the congregation or its collective DNA. On the whole, congregations think of themselves as either; being in Hospice, being a spiritual Hospital for those who join them, or as providers of Hospitality towards strangers. The question is not whether your pastor or some key members are trying to reach new people, it is, “how does the congregation, as a whole, see their work?” An outsider coming into your church might say: “They act as if the church is getting ready to close,” (Hospice) or “They are good at caring for their own,” (Hospital) or “They really want to reach out to others” (Hospitality).


The three words provide a helpful discussion starter for church councils, planning retreats, or visioning sessions. They can be presented this way:


  1. Chapel Road Church is a wonderful and comfortable place. They maintain their building and show real Christian love for each other. But, old members die off or move away and the young don’t join or come very faithfully. Statistically, they are in decline, even though they are doing everything they can to grow.
  2. St Luke’s Church concentrates on helping its members become better people. They have programs for the whole family, as well as, a pastoral staff focused on caring for those who have made this church their home. 
  3. Church on the Road are mission oriented people. When new people move into the community, this is the church that welcomes them and asks, “Is there anything we can help you with?” They care more about loving the stranger than church growth. 


Chapel/Hospice, B) St. Luke’s/Hospital, or C) On the Road/Hospitality, which church is the most like yours? What makes you say that? Have you noticed a change, over the years? That is, were you at one time mostly C) and now are more B) or A)?


There is a real hierarchy to Ed’s three H’s. High Hospitality aligns the closest to how Jesus did ministry. These congregations tend to be proactive, seeking new opportunities for service. Churches that fall into the middle ground, and become Hospital-like, may be doing OK or slowly declining. The question they need to consider is, how to we shift our focus to become more outwardly oriented? As long as the congregation is focused inward, it will be reactive. That is, open to conflict and responding to change in a knee-jerk fashion.


The Hospice church or chapel is in the most difficult place. Congregations that focus on caring for their current members and buildings, are digging their own graves. They will in time die. I feel that these congregations need to engage in a discernment process to see if it is God’s will that they remain as they are or if they should attempt to be reborn. These congregations tend to be passive. The value of declaring them to be ‘in hospice,’ is that they can shift towards leaving a legacy and dying with dignity.

additional author: 
Ed Kail
Romans 8:26-39
I Kings 3:5-12

We don’t know how to pray as we ought is a striking and often overlooked line. Yet, it may be the truest thing the Apostle Paul ever wrote. It is not in human nature to distinguish between true and false communion with God. We think praying is simply a matter of closing our eyes and folding our hands. Or mentally doing something like that. Some describe prayer as simply talking to God like you would a friend. God is wholly other. The pre-socratic philosopher, Meno, asks, “How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Having glimpsed God down a long corridor, dimmed by your own inadequacies, how do you pray?


Look at the Old Testament lesson where Solomon achieves success in prayer by putting aside his own ambitions and praying to be wise (I Kings 3:5-12). From this, we would think that praying is simply a matter of guessing what God wants us to have, and then asking for it. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, do we? God must not like our prayers because he keeps giving us the opposite of what we ask for. We ask for patience and we receive more frustrations. We ask for peace in our household and we receive more conflict. We ask for enough wealth to be secure and we find ourselves jobless and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I get the feeling that God’s intention is to throw us fully into life, like a baby being thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim, and then demand that we find the Holy Spirit in the few spare moments we have between crises. We learn to pray while half drowned and treading water. Like Eli Wiesel, we acquire wisdom in the midst of holocaust.


But how can we find the other whose nature is totally and mysteriously unknown to us? This is the question that Paul spends the passage from Romans 7:21-8:39 answering. In 8:1, we are given an abrupt answer. If we invite God into our hearts, he hardwires a connection. We go from being unable to pray to being unable to stop praying. We go from seeing God as a rich but distant uncle, to being a parasite under our skin. I imagine it’s a bit like becoming pregnant, children go from being an nice abstraction to being a resident heartburn. God is a mixed blessing.


This is white-knuckle spirituality. The best way to handle it, is to spend the sermon knocking out the familiar props that people seek for when they pray. Tell them that you don’t really know how to pray. Tell them what it means to be saved and discover the compulsion of real spirituality. Give them an insight into your inner wrestlings. Good luck!

Do we understand art? Do we understand prayer?
Pentecost 12
My Front Door

Whether you are moving, staging a revolution, having kids, or, as I am, remodeling the house, you will pass through a state of maximum mess. All transition times have stages. Home remodeling has six:

  1. putting things off
  2. finding the money
  3. disrupting your life
  4. maximum mess
  5. seeking lost things
  6. getting it done


Having studied Kubla-Ross’s 5 stages of death, I was prepared for the anger, bargaining, and depression of this thing. I wasn’t expecting my loss of temper. Midway through the week of maximum mess, I got into an argument with colleagues that I serve with on a church committee. It was a discussion that didn’t need to happen then, nor did it need the negative energy I poured into it. I wrote scathing emails. I crafted a long position paper. I wasted time that I should have spent doing the remodeling and ending the mess.


Depression and anger are a part of every transition. Those of us who like to write, leave our paint rollers and pour our spleen onto the pages. Those who talk, rant. Those who break things, break things. Those who are less committed, leave. All of these are unhealthy.


It is helpful to recognize where we are. Transition has definite stages. Certain behavior is inappropriate at certain stages. When in maximum mess, don’t attempt to change others. Breathe. Get away for a day if you can. And get back to leading your family through the wilderness.

Matthew 13:24-30

It seems strange dealing with the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) in the middle of the summer. The hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” puts this parable to music. It is rarely sung except at Thanksgiving. Then, the actions of the farmer make sense. By telling Jesus’ parable in the summer, we preserve its shock value. The farmer lets the weeds grow among his corn. He’s my kind of gardener. We aren’t meant to imitate the farmer of this story. We are meant to think about what it means to be wheat or corn. We are meant to think about what happens to the weeds in the end.


This parable is one of Jesus’ many end of time stories. Why do the the good die young and the bad continue to do bad things with impunity? Well, Jesus tells us, this is temporary. In the final judgment, the weeds will be gathered and roasted. Bad people are weeds. Good people are corn. Get the picture?


In all of Jesus’ end of time stories, it’s easy to tell the bad from the good. The bad are the goats who miss the opportunity to do good things to the unfortunate people who are thirsty, strangers, naked, or in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). Goats don’t look at all like sheep. The bad weeds are the foolish maidens who forget to pack extra oil and so are in the dark when the master comes (Matthew 25:1-13). There isn’t any grey. You either got oil and a light or you are out in the dark. The bad weeds are the Levite and the Priest who walk right by the beat up fellow that the Good Samaritan stops to help (Luke 10:25-37). I’m a lousy gardener, but I know the difference between weeds and corn.


This then, becomes a central teaching that we dare not avoid or down play. There will come a judgement day for every person. From our human point of view, everything looks complicated and muddy. We aren’t designed to segregate the spiritual plants from the weeds. That is clearly God’s job. The fact that He doesn’t find it hard to do this should give us comfort, as well as, fear.


Comfort, because we, the wheat and corn people, can sing ‘Blessed Assurance’ and know that we have been totally saved. God holds on to his people. In the daily struggle, we get some things right and some things wrong. Some moments we look like sinners, some moments like saints. But, our salvation is made of sturdier stuff. God has called us to be corn. We have been born again.


Fear, because spiritual things have real consequence. The weeds will one day be plucked and burned. One day, this world will be judged. God’s infinite patience is not cause to discount the certainty of the day of judgement.


Lord, give us courage to speak about the end of time the way Jesus did.

Jesus tells many stories about the end of time
Pentecost 11
A good Visioning Process sees the whole church

Give a people ownership over their own land, some basic tools, and the fruits of their labor, and most communities will build homes, educate their children, and peacefully meet their basic needs. I guess that I am optimistic about human nature. Give a congregation some sense of control over their own destiny, a few basic tools, and a process for guiding group decision making, and even the most pathetic local church leadership will chart a path towards parish fruitfulness. I guess I am optimistic about the power of God’s Spirit to speak to people gathered in biblically centered discernment, prayerful fellowship, and weekly worship.


To that end, I have been doing retreats based upon my Reality Check 101 book (available from Amazon). This is a discernment oriented visioning process. When I present these workshops, I give people basic tools and then set them free to work at their own pace. I don’t ask congregations to conform to any set process. They just need to learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit and each other.


When I do a weekend retreat, this is the usual process:

    Workshop 1: The Three Questions - Taken from from Chapter 1 of the Reality Check 101 book. The questions are: “What is the nature of church?” “Where is society taking our church?” & “How can this church do God's will?”

        Break and Q&A

        Workshop 2: Getting off the Roundabout - concerns why so many churches find themselves stuck today (Reality Check 101 Chapter 5). We keep doing the same things, going around and around, and not getting off  the roundabout or rotary (think English roads). The four exits are four general visions for the congregation's future.

        Break and Q&A

        Workshop 3: Using Discernment to make Decisions - Teaches the three methods for making decisions in the church, as well as in our personal lives. Spiritual discernment is presented as the appropriate way to do goal setting. 

        Worship Service Sermon: Thriving through Transition


I can be contacted at:

Bill Kemp

412-956-2565 (cell)  412-798-2808 (office)

5613 Bower Ave

Verona, PA 15147


Matthew 13:1-9
Genesis 25:19-34

Anne Dillard whacks us on the side of the head when she says, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is…  Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” Jesus likens God’s evangelism to a farmer who throws most of his seed away (Matthew 13:1-9). The profligate sower throws his precious seed out on the path, where the Devil and the birds whisk it away. Then there is the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19-34). We would like to blame Esau for wasting his birthright, but it’s God who puts the red-headed man on the stupid path where the Devil steals his soul.


Genesis 25, Matthew 13, and Romans 8, all seem to be driving home the point that the people who enter into God’s kingdom, do so by grace. Most people in this world are not spiritual. I’m not talking about religious affiliation or church attendance. I’m saying that the seed of having a real love for God is wasted on most people. Jesus says that God is willing to play the odds and let most people live their lives with nominal affection for him. But the few seeds that fall on fertile souls, burst forth into miraculous fruitfulness. They respond and yield a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirty times more seed than what was sown.


I like what Elizabeth Barrett Browning says,


Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware…


I think these things are meant to be disturbing. They contradict the musical dictum that every good boy does fine. We could go on to talk about Saul verses David, or the two thieves who hung with Jesus, or even if we were brave, talk about Mary verses Martha.

This story can only be understood from Jacob's viewpoint
Pentecost 10
Redesign your church so it becomes what Christ has in mind

In my workshops, I often show a slide of Steve Jobs introducing us to the first iPad. Then I ask the question, “How should we design our life together, as a congregation, so that we become what Christ has in mind?” The analogy is simple. The success of Apple Computer stems from the vision that Steve Jobs had for insanely great products. He was a tyrant, constantly berating people who were content to make “pretty good” computers and cell phones. The corporate culture that grew at One Infinity Drive, Cupertino California, is exactly the same culture as we desire for the church, only with Jesus at the helm.


Now there is another reason to pay attention to Apple. It has been nearly three years since Jobs passed away and Apple is still going. More than just surviving, it posted an insanely great profit in the first quarter of 2014. Two years after Steve’s death, Apple broke into the Fortune 500s top ten list. While the succession plan for Apple wasn’t smooth (the leadership faced a lawsuit for lying about Job’s illness to investors), it worked.


Steve Jobs was intentional about choosing Tim Cook to follow him as Apple’s CEO. It is hard to imagine a more opposite personality. Cook’s leadership style is calm and detail oriented. The only thing they shared, was a vision for making insanely great products. As pastors come and go in the church, we need to stop focusing on how different their personalities and leadership gifts are. We need to ask simpler questions like, “Do they love Jesus with all their heart?” and “Are they committed to helping others become disciples?”


In his final days, Jobs told people, “When I’m gone, I don’t want you to ask what would Steve do? Be creative.” We are often tradition bound in the church. There is a fundamentalist philosophy in even the most liberal congregation that says, let’s return to the first century.


Disciples of Jesus are not bound to past interpretations of Christian practice. We instead commit ourselves to make today's church insanely great. I am convinced this involves bringing to our neighborhoods the promises that Jesus made in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-16). As insanely loving followers of Jesus: We bless the poor. We comfort the mournful. We partner with the meek. We fill those who are hungry. We show the full depth of God’s mercy. We honor our souls and seek for spiritual purity in our motivations. We act as peacemakers. We accept persecution without desiring revenge. We are humbled and honored when people treat us as they did Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. We live as salt. We shine as light. We don’t hide. We abide.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Someone has observed that Americans play at their work (hence our declining productivity) and work at their play (hence the billion dollar recreation industry). To those who trick out their computers to play video games, spend hours perfecting their golf swing, and exhaust their weekends in constant motion, the Lord says, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Many of us don’t know how to rest. When Jesus calls us to come to him and find rest for our souls, something in our hearts says, yes! But then we ignore Jesus and listen to our busy calendar.  Others, though, have a problem being fruitfully employed. The Lord’s word to them is “Six days you shall labor…” Americans have become so enamored with time and labor saving devices, that they have forgotten the value of spending a day at one’s craft. 


Perhaps half the people in church on a Sunday have a serious issue with play and resting. They can’t receive Jesus’ promise of an easy yoke and a light burden, because they have lost the ability to receive the gift of rest. Those who are out of touch with their inner need for recreation, will also be out of touch with their soul. Perfectionism, work addiction, and the mistaken belief that everything depends upon our efforts, are spirit robbing plagues, both inside and outside the church. We need to rotate our church leadership. We need to regularly ask workers to step away from their positions when they loose perspective, becoming enmeshed and controlling. We need to learn to have a sense of humor. We need to take up dancing. Without joy, there is no communication of the Gospel.


The other half lives very differently. They pass by opportunities to grow in their discipleship and service to Christ. Ancient farmers used to pair up new calves with seasoned bulls, giving the youngsters an ‘easy yoke.’ In this way, the calve would learned by example the work ethic of the mature bull. Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, provides us with many lessons on how and when to intentionally rest one’s soul. But he also, was always about his Heavenly Father’s work. He lived with a purpose. We, like him, can leave this world a better place.


Jesus in Matthew 11:16 is watching children play. The game they are doing is similar to musical chairs. The players must dance vigorously when the music is joyful and then slump gloomily when the tempo slows. Like most children’s games, it teaches a lesson. We need to be flexible in life. Sometimes the voice of the Holy Spirit sweetly calls us to rest. Other portions of our lives are to be set aside for our vocation. Many of our psychological and spiritual ills are rooted in our choice to muddle through life at one hazardous setting. Worse still, we criticize those who change with their context. Jesus was all about change.

Jesus spent a lot of time playing tunes that people weren't ready to hear
Pentecost 9