Archive for October 2014

Are you marketing to college-age adults?

About once a year, I attend the contemporary worship service at a church adjacent to the University of New Mexico. I like this church and enjoy the informal, but well organized, youth-oriented service. The praise band is lively, but punctual. The pastor knows how to give an appropriate message for that setting. The church has invested heavily in lighting and sound, so that the fellowship hall is ideal for contemporary worship. But, where are the college kids? I didn’t see any.


I contrast this to the service that I once attended in College Station, Texas. Here, everything was less than optimal. The gymnasium-like space, in particular sticks in my mind as being uncomfortable to worship in. This may have been due to the fact that the space and the stage were packed with college students.


You may be thinking that I am going to show an inverse relationship between perfectionism and the appeal of a worship service to college students. Perfectionism is bad for the health of any congregation. I haven’t seen any studies relating it to the worship preferences of college students, though.


What’s at play here, is the core vision of each congregation. The church near the University of New Mexico, is what I call a Diamond Church. They take pride in being the best church in the region. Every decision they make, hones in on the question, “What is it that will cause people to drive by other churches and come to ours.” They demand quality from their paid staff and program leaders. They don’t do anything, unless they can do it well.


In College Station, at least a portion of the parish has been set aside to pursue a different core vision. This sub-congregation is oriented entirely towards reaching the next generation. They have abandoned all expectations, except those related to evangelizing 18 to 30 year olds. Perfectionism doesn’t stick to this mindset. They are a church that is clubbing away at post-modern culture (what I call a Club Church).


In  Reality Check 101, I talk about the four exits off the round-about. Every congregation must discern its core vision. They must choose their path. Diamond Churches may have a well attended contemporary worship service, but the demographics of that service is likely to be older. Club Churches may have to become a sub-congregation within a more traditional and wealthier parish. It takes courage to walk the path that aligns with your core vision. 

College Ministry
Matthew 5:1-12

In the past, I have emphasized the all in All Saints Day. Not this year. There isn’t an ‘all’ in Jesus’ definition of saint. In this Saturday’s holiday lection, Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a series of blessings (Matthew 5:1-12). Each of these Beatitudes are a reversal in our definition of saint. Those with impoverished faith are sanctified. The theologically trained go unnoticed.  The meek are praised and the ambitious considered un-saintly. Mourning counts for something. The bad theology that considers our misfortunes to be punishments for being less than perfect, is thrown in the trash bin. The messy and politically unappreciated work of peacemaking is prized. In short, Jesus redefines the celebration we plan for this weekend.


This is the great surprise. Take a closer look at the narratives of people who you admire. It’s not the ones who wisely avoided trouble and paid their bills always on time, that are the saints. It is the family who has suffered the heartbreak of an early death, a childhood illness, or the loss of their home through foreclosure. They may not be articulate about their religion, but they are the real saints.


What if we were to intentionally bless the people that Jesus blesses? Our default setting (or culture) is to bless the ambitious, the financially savvy, the lucky, the young, and the beautiful. What if we call ‘saint,’ those in whom we see a purity of heart? What if we turn to those who mourn and ask them for their wisdom? What if we honor peace makers as the real heroes of our society? What if we bless and pray with those who are honest about their spiritual poverty? Then, we might begin to get what Jesus preaches about on the mountain.

Look for saints on the street
All Saints Sunday
Church Transition takes us thru wilderness

From time to time, churches go through transition. It may be a change of pastors, made more traumatic by the length of the exiting pastor’s term (more than 8 years), an over or under-functioning leadership style, or the presence of parish conflict. It may be that the church is changing locations or involved in a merger or parish realignment. It may be a transition to a different form or category of clergy leadership. These major changes require theological understanding and prayer. They are best undergirded by congregational study and a renewed emphasis upon the importance of worship and the sacraments.


I have found the book of Exodus to be a helpful study, for both the transitional leadership and the congregation. First because the name says it all. In transition, we exit one place and journey to another — we participate in a spiritual exodus. See Returning to Exodus.


Note the importance of the Sacrament of Baptism for the Exodus narrative. The little baby Moses is baptized in the Nile, passing through certain death within a protective basket that represents the church. Later, the whole congregation is baptized within the waters of the Red Sea. Even if the church doesn’t have a baptism scheduled during its transitional period, at least one worship service should be spent helping people to remember their baptism and be thankful.


The book of Exodus begins with an unfortunate change in political leadership. It is helpful, when churches undergo transition to remind people that the initiating trauma was not their fault. In transition, people tend to play the blame game. The feel ashamed for being plagued with difficulties. Change happens. Transition happens because the Holy Spirit knows we need to grow through the pain. See State of Maximum Mess.


The journey requires forty years in the wilderness. Every transition has its own time table. It can not be rushed. You will leave the wilderness when the Holy Spirit says that it is time. 


Congregational life’s most important lessons are taught during transition. The people had to be out in the wilderness before Moses was given the Ten Commandments. See Hanging Ten.


God will provide. Daily bread was given to the people as they journeyed across the wilderness. This gift ended when the people crossed over into the promised land. No one wants the trauma that causes transition. We all, however, are thankful for the daily grace that we see in the desert and nowhere else.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

The story of Moses and the great wilderness transition comes to an end on Mount Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34:1-12). Like all great stories, it is bitter-sweet. The future lays before Moses. He can look into the Promised Land, but not enter. His role has been to guide the people out of slavery and through a transitional period. I’ve always felt that those who look for some sin to be the cause of Moses not crossing the Jordan, miss the point. Most of the world’s greatest leaders were given boundaries. Winston Churchill led Britain through World War II, and then was promptly voted out of office. Alan Turing conceived the logic behind the modern computer, and then was discredited, ostracized, and driven to suicide, least he enter the digital age. An ungrateful military complex revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance after he had midwifed us into the atomic age.


The most memorable example, however, is Dr. Martin Luther King. He referred to the end of Moses’ leadership on Mount Pisgah, when he said:


…it really doesn't matter to with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  (Martin Luther King’s last speech at Memphis, Tenn. April 3, 1968)


Moses doesn’t enter the promised land. That doesn’t make him a failure or mean that he was being punished. The lesson is; many of us will have tasks where we participate in or lead in a difficult journey, but are locked out of the destination. We do our best work, when we accept this Moses-like role. In fact, great evil has been done in this world by people who insisted on the being both transitional guides and promised land politicians. It’s OK to die in the wilderness. Dr King says, “I’m not worried about anything.” That requires faith.

The vehicle that gets us across the desert is deserted at Mt Pisgah
Last Sunday in Pentecost
Your churches economic culture effects its temporal focus

On two occasions, I have pastored congregations whose people and leadership had less expendable income than the average resident of the the state. I noticed that when I went to meetings, I was the only person with a calendar. It was part of the culture of both of these congregations, to focus only on the present. I had a hard to time drumming up interest in planning programs that occurred in the future. A Zen master might praise these people for being mindful and living in the moment. Imagine how frustrating I found it.


On another occasion, I served a church where the average member had more disposable income than the residents of the immediate neighborhood. Here my board members dutifully brought their calendars to meetings. But, the conversation around the table was littered with talk of things past. There were many sacred cows that could not be moved because they were given in memory of someone long dead. 


The other congregations that I served, were closer to the economic mean. They had middle class values which included a tendency to focus too much on the future. They never rested to simply enjoy the moment. They never looked back to previous generations for wisdom.


The “Circles out of Poverty” program has a significant piece dealing with the value people place the past, present, and future. People who have been raised in poverty, tend to focus on the present. Those who are relatively well off, focus on the past. Middle class people value the future above the present and the past. This is a rough, but helpful, generalization. The generationally poor, need to plan more for the future. Those who are wealthy, need to let go of the past. We in the middle, need to realize that our mental focus on the future is only appropriate about a third of the time. 


Church leadership often involves challenging the temporal focus of your people. if they are past oriented, try to help them understand how wealth colors their world view. If they are future oriented, help them to see that their middle class values might be acting as a set of blinders, preventing them from seeing the full breadth of human history. If they are struggling along, one day at a time, help them to realize that an exclusively present-oriented world view  is one of the things that entraps them in the downward spiral of poverty.

Circles Out of Poverty
Deuteronomy 8:7-17

The Lord God led the people for forty years in the wilderness in order to bring them to the only land in the Middle East that doesn’t have oil. Still, it was a pretty good Promised Land. It had pomegranates and figs. It had copper and affordable housing. But, what Deuteronomy 8:7-17 fails to mention is the location. They say that the three most important assets of any piece of real-estate are location, location, and, Location. Palestine had that in spades.


God set his beloved people up at the cross-road of the ancient world. A prime location. They weren’t given a quiet cul-de-sac. Medieval mapmakers called Jerusalem the navel of the world. There is a certain responsibility that comes from being in the center of things. The role of the hub is to keep the wheel intact. Even today, many of us wish that Israel would move from it’s current snapping turtle-like, defensive posture, to a more collaborative role in the politics of the region. Would the Arab Spring have gone better, if Israel had played a more supportive role in aiding the new democracies? 


God makes only one request, that people remember the Lord God when they settle in the new land. It seems to be human nature, that when we are successful, we say, “I did this all myself.” Like ancient Israel, America has been given a good land. We can sing, O beautiful for spacious skies…  Every line reminds us of the natural resources God has given us. Further, for over a century, we have held the prime location in global commerce. In our success, we have repeated ancient Israel’s mistake of forgetting God. We say, “we have all these things because we work hard.”


Next time you feel like a self-made person, remember all the gifts God gave you along the way. Consider the pomegranate. The fruit symbolizes the gift we are meant to be for others. Some of our resources come filled with seeds. God wants us to sit at the cross roads of our community and share the seeds of hope and love. With a prime location comes great responsibility.

Even the desert blooms - Trust God's wisdom
Pentecost 24
Homer Simpson is your typical church snacker

Every church deals with four kinds of people: Faithful, Snackers, Near, and Far. To be successful, you need to tailor your evangelism and mission to meet the needs of each group. You also need to be brutally honest about your programing and budget. It’s very easy for the Faithful to consume all of the resources to the exclusion of the other three people groups.

The four groups are:

    •    The Faithful - people within the church that know their need of continuous
nourishment in Christian Truth and want to provide the same spiritual food for their children. Too often, the cry of this group is “feed me.” You must help these people shift their focus outward. 

    •    The Snackers – people living near the church that participate erratically.  Thy are often unaware or uncommitted regarding spiritual matters. They occasionally stop by to see what your church is offering. 

    •    The Near – people who live near your church but are yet unaware of how life transforming church can be. They are the lost that Jesus calls us to save (Luke 15). 

    •    The Far – those who live far from the church, but are connected and fed through mission and denominational ties.

Successful churches have a magnetic quality. The Near are always being invited to Snack, Snackers in time become faithful, and the Faithful learn to express their discipleship by reaching out in hospitality to the Near and in generosity to the Far. They count hungry people everywhere as their asset, because the church’s mission is to feed the hungry.

Exodus 32:1-14

A Crosby, Stills, and Nash song used to advise that when you’re down and confused because the one that you belong to with is far away, you ought to just, “Love the one you’re with.” In Exodus (32:1-14), God’s people get discombobulated because Moses is up the mountain and God seems far away.  There are times in our lives when we find our primary relationships thinned out and fuzzy. It may be that our spouse is traveling or working a different shift. Face time disappears. Every word between us is miscommunicated. In these situations, there is always someone who says, “If you can’t be with the one you love…” What follows may be an affair, a prodigal use of credit cards, or a spiteful revenge act. Exodus shows us both the danger inherent and the grace available for those traveling through this wilderness.


There are two parts to this story. The first is the making of convenient gods. Aaron says, “the people you love, will always leave you.” Pastor Moses gets called to another church. The God that he was an ambassador for, begins to feel very distant. It is always better to have a god at hand. One should choose ones religion, a la carte. It’s easier that way. Less rules, less stress. The same is true of relationships like marriage and child rearing. It’s only understandable that concentration slips away, because your baby is so far away.


I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I call, primary relationships. Our relationship with God is one. Other primary relationships include our parents, spouse, siblings, and those we enter into a covenantal relationship with. These are the cables that anchor our lives. We dare not cut our moorings and try to love the one we’re with.


The second half of the story involves God playing the devil’s advocate. He models back the behavior of the Israelites, as they attempt to make gods out of gold. God says to Moses, “I’ll love you alone, and not my people, because I’m near to you. My primary relationship with the people feels confused and distant, right now.” Moses has to play along, by arguing with that others would notice that God was being unfaithful. This dialogue underscores this concept of being faithful to our God and to our primary relationships.

Steven Stills sings, "Love the one you're with."
Pentecost 23
A small tool box limits your ability to see solutions

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Denominational officials have a very limited tool box. They can credential new clergy and defrock inept ones. They can move pastors from place to place (or make suggestions if it is “call” system). They can keep both the congregation and clergy persons informed about policies and best practices. Given this tool box, every church problem looks like a leadership issue. The nail that fits the denominational official’s hammer is a church that will do better, if only they have the right pastor. But, what if governance of the congregation is dominated by a group of dysfunctional lay leaders? What if, a congregation needs to change its DNA or systemic culture? What if they need rebirth at the grass roots?


I was with a mix group of trained intentional interim clergy this past weekend. A common complaint from everyone, whether they be Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Methodist, was that the denominational leadership above them failed to appreciate that every local church is a family system. Dysfunctional church systems can’t be fixed by changing the pastor any more than an alcoholic family fixed by swapping out one parent.


So the moral is, district superintendents, bishops, and synod officials, must learn to think outside the box—their leadership oriented tool box, that is.

additional author: 
Lake Erie Regional Interim Ministry Association