Pastors’ Blog

Lent Week 5: Daily Resurrection and Holy Week

During Lent, I’ve been blogging about our Lenten theme, “Daily Resurrection,” and in particular, looking at what other writers and thinkers have to say about daily dying to an old way of being, thinking or living, and daily rising to a new way of being, thinking or living.

This coming Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday. I remember when we used to call it simply “Palm Sunday,” and many folks still do. The switch to “Palm/Passion” happened when someone, somewhere – I don’t know who – said, “What a minute. If we don’t touch on the passion of Christ (that is, the days and hours leading up to his crucifixion and death) on the Sunday before Easter, most people will skip right over it. Because, let’s face it: No one is going to come to those Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Vigil services we so diligently and conscientiously offer. They’re just too darn depressing.  They make people uncomfortable.”

So the daily resurrection question I’m dealing with in this week’s blog concerns why we should bother with all that uncomfortable stuff between Palm Sunday and Easter in the first place. And how one form of resurrection might be moving beyond (or – dying to) a theology that would cast God in the role of a cosmic child abuser (not my phrase) and rising to seeing God as the one who pursues us and rescues us from the life of violence and domination by being just the opposite: by being the God of humility and self-emptying love that will not let us go. Read more →

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Lent Week 4: Daily Resurrection as Wholehearted Living

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In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, social science researcher Brené Brown describes “10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living.” These guideposts emerged from the data in her research on difficult emotions including shame, vulnerability and fear.  She found that some people are better able to engage in their lives from a place of worthiness.  They are able to cultivate “the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  … Yes I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”  She developed the ten guidelines because the research revealed that these people lived lives that reflected cultivated certain qualities, behaviors and attitudes, and letting go of others:

  • Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
  • Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
  • Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
  • Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
  • Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
  • Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
  • Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
  • Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
  • Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self‐Doubt and “Supposed To”
  • Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”[1]

What do these guideposts have to do with daily resurrection? Note that for each guidepost, we not only are to cultivate something, we are to let go of something else. We are to die to something, in order to live wholeheartedly to something else. I don’t know about you, but I find the “let go” list much more intimidating, much more personally challenging than the “cultivate” list. Read more →

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Lent Week 3: Daily Resurrection as a Practice

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Although we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on Easter Sunday, the resurrection holds little importance for us here and now if it’s only a historical event that we give a nod to once a year. The resurrection is intended to be so much more. It is intended to impact our lives every day. This phrase “every day” points to practice – to practicing resurrection.

Authors Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have devoted their lives to identifying resources for people in their spiritual journeys. They raise the question: “What happens when we think of [the word resurrection] as a verb? Then the resurrection becomes a spiritual practice in daily life.” They define the practice of resurrection as anything that brings hope and life, and defies death and needless suffering. They quote Catholic writer Megan McKenna: “Every time I bring hope into a situation, every time I bring joy that shatters despair, every time I forgive others and give them back dignity and the possibility of a future with me and others in the community, every time I listen to others and affirm them and their life, every time I speak the truth in public, every time I confront injustice — yes — I bring people back from the dead.”

In their article, “Easter: Resurrection as a Spiritual Practice,” the Brussats identify a variety of ways we can practice resurrection – ways that we can bring hope, healing, or reconciliation both to common, everyday experiences and to life’s challenges. Their list shows how our relationships with others, our work for the common good, and our own healing all are settings for resurrection. Read more →

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Lent Week 2: Daily Resurrection to “Black Lives Matter”

Stepping-stones

We’ve now concluded the conversation on race and privilege our congregation started 4 weeks ago. Our Sunday morning conversations have been both challenging and hopeful. As one participant put it, it seems as though we’re in the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement. The first movement changed laws. This second wave is about changing hearts.

The only way our hearts are changed is by opening up to the possibility that there are things we don’t know, ways to see things that we haven’t seen, ways to understand things that we never understood before. That is what we spent the last four weeks doing. It has been a time of resurrection: of dying to old ways of thinking about race and privilege, and rising to new awareness.

Now it’s time to think about where we go from here.  To think of this in terms of our theme for Lent this year: How can we daily die to what gets in the way of our fully loving all of our neighbors regardless of race, ethnicity and class, and daily rise to new life that celebrates our common humanity and connection? Read more →

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Lent Week 1: Richard Rohr on 12 Ways to Practice Resurrection Now

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What does it mean to live resurrection daily? It means dying to ways that are not life-giving for ourselves, others, and creation, and rising to ways that are. But what does this look like? In a series of blogs this Lent, I’ll take a look at how several writers have interpreted this question.

Richard Rohr, one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the world today, has often addressed the challenges of ego, or the False Self, in his books. Either consciously or not so consciously, we put on the False Self in order to accommodate what society believes is “successful.” It is the polished version of ourselves, in which we’ve denied all our weaknesses and overworked our strengths. It is a mask we hide behind because we are ashamed of what we believe we really are. But Jesus teaches us again and again the most counterintuitive of messages: We grow spiritually much more by getting it wrong than by doing it right. Rohr writes:

“If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond imperfection.” (Rohr, Falling Upward, xxii.) Read more →

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Sharing David Lose’s “Terrifying Thought”

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More on the question of how we do church/the future of the church: A challenging set of questions raised by David Lose, one of my favorite writers and the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He calls this, “A Terrifying Thought,” posted today:

“So what if all the decline our congregations and denominations have experienced in recent decades has little to do with a failure of leadership (what congregational leaders fear) or changes in theological or political stances (what more conservative church leaders assert) or a degenerate or disinterested generation of believers (what people in the pew too often feel) or with any of the other things we usually attribute it to. What if the decline is simply the result of a massive cultural shift? That is, what if we now live in a world where the emerging generation a) has tons of options for ways to think about and make sense of their lives, b) has way less time for things that don’t feel purposeful or worthwhile, and c) (and as a result of a and b) just don’t do things because their parents did but instead only commit to things that make a tangible difference in the world, both theirs and the world around them?

I guess another way of putting this is, what if our congregations are set up – in terms of things like “membership” and “pledges” and “new member classes” and “friendship pads” and scripted worship services filled with sixteenth-century music – to respond to the needs of those who came of age in the fifties, sixties, and seventies but have little to offer millennials? In other words, what if the way we do church just doesn’t make much sense to the youngest third of our population? What then?

I find this to be a terrifying thought. Mostly because I think it might be true.”

You can read David Lose’s posts at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/a-terrifying-thought/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t mean what we’re doing is “wrong.”  It also doesn’t mean that if we switched to drums and guitars we’d “attract” a bunch of young people.  I am pretty convinced we would not.  What I’ve garnered is that what Lose is saying applies to all “church” offered as something people do on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Saturday evenings or any other time, in a building on a corner with a “sanctuary” and classrooms and a budget and all the rest of it.

I do NOT think the Church of Jesus Christ is “dying.”  I suspect, however, that it will look very different in 25 or 30 years.

In the meantime, we have to be agile, creative, responsive, vulnerable, and above all, faithful to Christ in a way that dares greatly, as we strive to “make a tangible difference in the world, both [ours] and the world around [us].”

The photo accompanying this blog is one I took earlier this year in Sonora, California, in the Gold Country.  It was in the window of a small coffee shop.  You have to click on it to read the sign.  I invite you to do so.

Together we serve,

Joanne Whitt

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Outline for Belhar Confession Study

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An Outline for a 1-Session Study of the Belhar Confession 

Sunday Seminar, October 5, 2014, 11:30 a.m. following worship.

 

Discussion Questions:

1) What is a “confession” of faith?
2) What is the Belhar Confession?
3) Why talk about it now?
4) What are the arguments for and against including the Belhar Confession in Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (our Book of Confessions)?

I. What is a “confession”?

What does “confession” mean in this context? To “confess” in this sense means to affirm, declare, acknowledge or take a stand for what one believes to be true.

Why does the church confess? Part I of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution (The Book of Confessions) contains eleven confessional statements adopted by the Presbyterian Church as significant and instructive in both our individual and corporate Christian lives. Each one arose out of a perceived need for the church to define itself, both for itself and for the world, in response to:
1) a perceived threat to its integrity or identity;
2) a political or cultural movement that attacks the church or seeks to compromise its commitment to the gospel;
3) new insights into the promises of the gospel desperately needed by the church and the world;
4) or all three.

The eleven confessions are:
• The Nicene Creed (A.D. 381)
• The Apostles’ Creed (A.D. 180 – 8th Century)
• The Scots’ Confession (1560)
• The Heidelberg Catechism (1562)
• The Second Helvetic Confession (1561)
• The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
• The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)
• The Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934)
• The Confession of 1967
• A Brief Statement of Faith – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983)

Chart: For the historical context and crisis that inspired these confessions, see the attached chart from Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991). *The chart does not include A Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1983. The crises facing the church and world when A Brief Statement of Faith was adopted were the reunion of the northern and southern wings of the Presbyterian Church after over 100 years of separation over slavery, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

What do these confessions mean to us? (In other words, do you have to believe everything in them to be a Presbyterian?)

II. What is the Belhar Confession?

The Crisis: The Belhar Confession has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It does not, however, mention apartheid, but rather seeks to address a far wider context.

Date/origin: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church first drafted this “outcry of faith” and “call for faithfulness and repentance” in 1982, taking a lead in declaring that apartheid threatened the truth of the gospel. That church formally adopted it in 1986.

Issues addressed:
(a) Unity of the church and the unity among all people
(b) Reconciliation within the church
(c) God’s justice

A look at the Belhar Confession itself (see the attached).

Churches that have adopted the Belhar Confession:
• Dutch Reformed Mission Church (1982)
• The Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa (1994)
• The Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa in Namibia (ERCA) (997)
• United Protestant Church in Belgium (1998)
• The Reformed Church in America (RCA) (2010)
• The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) created a new, less-binding category for the Belhar, and adopted it as an “Ecumenical Faith Declaration” (2012)

III. Why talk about the Belhar Confession now?

This past June (2014), the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) approved the committee’s recommendation to refer adoption of the Belhar Confession to a vote by the Presbyteries.

History: The PC(USA) first considered adopting the Belhar Confession in 2008. A committee from the 218th General Assembly requested that a committee begin the formal process of including the Belhar in its Book of Confessions. That committee recommended adoption of the Belhar Confession to the 219th General Assembly in 2010. The General Assembly approved the recommendation and referred adoption to a vote of the Presbyteries. The Belhar Confession fell 8 votes short of the 116 necessary for adoption. In 2012, the 220th General Assembly began this process anew, and in 2014, the 221st General Assembly approved the new committee’s recommendation to refer adoption to a new vote by the Presbyteries.

IV.  What are the arguments for and against including the Belhar Confession in Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (our Book of Confessions)?

Arguments for adoption:
1) Belhar powerfully interprets the gospel around three central biblical and confessional terms of our Reformed tradition: unity, reconciliation, and justice.
2) Belhar is a powerful advocate of God’s salvation at work in and through the church for the sake of the world and the healing of the cosmos.
3) The church has a special need to be instructed on the continuing dangers of violence and warfare, of the division between the rich and the poor, and between those of differing races, tribes, and peoples.
4) The unity of the church is our common calling in Christ. The church’s unity is its mission.
5) Adopting Belhar would be a declaration of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.
6) Adopting Belhar would announce to the Church in the world our commitment as Presbyterians to unity, reconciliation and justice, not just in our own nation, but also in the world.

Arguments against adoption:
1) Not timely: The apartheid it addressed in South Africa no longer exists.
2) Redundancy: The PCUSA has spoken clearly on racism in the Confession of 1967, which is already included in the Book of Confessions. The Belhar Confession is redundant.
3) A waste of resources to “talk” rather than “do”: The church today desires to bring reconciliation through Christ to the world by doing the work of releasing the captives, bringing sight to the blind and binding up the wounded. Spending the church’s time and resources to debate an outdated, 20 year old document – written to address apartheid in Africa – is wasteful of her time, energy and resources.
4) Liberation Theology: The concern is that there are phrases in the Confession of Belhar, written from a Liberation Theology perspective, that could be used by other groups [read: LGBT] that consider themselves oppressed, to bolster their agendas in the church.
5) Failure to focus the Confession on the Lordship of Christ: The Belhar Confession emphasizes the unity of the Church, which is not a confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, but a confession about what the Church is or must do. Unity is not necessarily tied to Christ’s Lordship, since unity may be achieved by other means.
6) The issue of homosexuality: The argument is that because unity is the main point of the Belhar Confession others have insisted on using it for issues that are “unbiblical.” One of the contributors to Belhar, Allan Boesak, has sought to use it as a means to gain ordination for practicing homosexuals in the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.
7) The Israeli and Palestinian conflict: Speakers for the Reformed Church in America have suggested using the Confession as a solution for what they perceive as racism on the part of Israel. As one South African put it “If there is one situation in this world that contextually fits the antiapartheid struggle and its dynamics, for which the Belhar Confession was written, it must be the Palestinian situation, currently.”
8) The issue of pluralism: At several places in the confession the word “church” is replaced by another category called “the People of God.” The Belhar Confession uses this term to describe the church. The question has been posed: “Is it possible to expand this “People of God” terminology to encompass the ‘peoples of God,’ including in this Jews and Muslims? And by this to provide a monotheistic platform for unity?”

(Resources for arguments against Belhar: Advisory prepared by Sue Cyre, Theology Matters, May 2008 http://newchurchrising.org/lessons-from-south-africa/the-belhar-confession/joint-renewal-ga-teams-argument-against-belhar/; http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/05/11/belhar-confession-yea-or-nay/)

Response to Arguments Against:
1) Redundant? By that standard most of our current confessions would have to be excluded.
2) Waste of time – to whom? This is a complete insult to anyone who has experienced racial discrimination, and only demonstrates the ignorance and insensitivity of the Joint Renewal General Assembly Team.
3) Liberation Theology is problematic? Is the book of Exodus not liberation theology? What about Jesus’ ministry “to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free?” Black South Africans, most of whom were Christian, desperately needed liberation from a white supremacist so-called “Christian” regime. Nelson Mandela was labeled a “communist” by the Reagan administration.
4) With regard to “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” as a central focus: In reading the Book of Confessions one does not read any one part of it as if it were the whole. Belhar will stand along beside the other witnesses made over the past two thousand years.

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A Home for Our Cranes

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I just wrote the members of session an email about a wonderful phone conversation with Mike Trautman, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson, MO.  I want to share it with everyone.  Rev. Trautman was delighted we are having the conversation about race and white privilege, and that we hold his community in prayer.  He and his congregation would be delighted to receive our cranes, which he will share with their equivalent of our Marin Interfaith Council – so the Lutherans, the Catholics, the Methodists will also receive them.

Ferguson is about 67% African American, and the other 33% is mixed. Many of the non-black people there are there because they have made a commitment to diversity, while many of the white residents of Ferguson fled north and west decades ago.  Rev. Trautman said that it is a town with some serious divisions, but there is also a wonderful grassroots movement among the people of Ferguson that the national news doesn’t cover.

This grassroots movement is paying attention to policing policies, including the fact that the many small municipal police departments in suburban St. Louis support themselves with speed traps and traffic fines – it is their major source of revenue.  This turns into a regressive tax which impacts people of color disproportionately because of the economic disparities that follow color lines.  When people can’t pay fines, a warrant is issued for their arrest, they are jailed, they lose jobs, and the bad feelings between white police and people of color intensify.  It raised for me, again, one of those things I never have to think about: Will a traffic violation cause me to go to jail and lose my job?

The big concern looming on the horizon for Ferguson is the grand jury decision about whether to press charges against the officer who shot Michael Brown.  Rev. Trautman says the general fear and suspicion is that he will not be indicted.  It will cause problems – protests and perhaps rioting.  I promised we would hold the community and the grand jury process in prayer.

Rev. Trautman said the community, black and white, is worn out by protests, by news people, by cameras, by national attention.

I said we would like NOT just to dump the cranes and run, but stay in touch.  We will keep him up to date with our evolving plans for learning about and discussing white privilege, leading up to the celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of our involvement in the Selma-to-Montgomery March which is coming this spring.  He will keep us posted about the grand jury and other ways they need prayer.  We will keep this conversation going.

In that vein, I would like “News from Ferguson MO” added to the regular session agenda for the time being.

Those of us who are planning Sunday Seminars about race and privilege have lots to talk about.  I look forward to a creative and energetic meeting soon – we need to figure out when to do that.

In the meantime, when our cranes are all folded, they have a place to land.

Together we serve,

Joanne

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From Bill Wilson: The Worst of Times – Really?!?

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I’m sharing with our session (that’s the governing board of a Presbyterian church) articles and insights about the state of the Church in our changing culture. Far from thinking “the church is dying,” I believe there will always be a church of Jesus Christ, although it may look different – eventually. It will evolve as it has for 2,000 years. What will it become? I do not know. But I am certain that responsible and faithful church leaders need to pay attention, be agile and adaptable, and continue to respond to and move with the winds of the Spirit, which blow where they will, after all.

I offer this article by Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches as a sign of hope.

The Worst of Times–Really?!?
Sep 09, 2014
by Bill Wilson

It happens nearly every day for me. It’s the inevitable conversation about the demise of organized religious activities, specifically local church attendance and giving. The vultures are gathering to feast on the carcass of the local church. Clergy and lay leaders are wringing their hands. Is there any hope? The sobering statistics and gloomy projections made most of us long for some good news.

Well, here you go. I believe there are some very encouraging signs and trends for congregational life in the 21st century. Here are some thoughts to get the conversation going.

The boomer generation transitioning to retirement is going to provide opportunities for churches that prepare well for them.

Much congregational angst is expended on the question of how to attract young adults and young families. Truthfully, aging congregations that are primarily internally focused and dedicated to maintaining programs, facilities and dated staffing structures are highly unlikely to make the radical shifts required to be relevant to large numbers of young adults.

Such congregations are much more likely to reshape themselves to be relevant to the masses of senior adults in their community. While still welcoming the occasional twenty-something that walks into the church, congregations would be wise to invest in the fastest growing age group in their community. This is much more, by the way, than taking senior adults on church-organized vacations or gathering to hear bad music once a month. Relevant ministry with this age group is complex, diverse, and demands excellence.

The demographic data about the surge in retirees may be welcome news to such congregations. (see: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-baby-boomers-retirement-means-for-the-u-s-economy/) The population of the United States is aging rapidly, and congregations who pay attention to the boom in senior adults may be able to provide meaningful outreach and ministry for this overlooked age group.

Congregations that have been divided by worship style are reuniting.

Thom Rainer recently noted something many of us have recognized for several years: dividing a congregation along musical preference lines has negative consequences that many have downplayed. (http://thomrainer.com/2014/08/30/six-reasons-churches-moving-back-one-worship-style/). When the multiple worship style fads erupted among traditional worship congregations 15 years ago, it was based upon the assumption that traditional worship formats and their leaders were increasingly irrelevant to younger constituents. In an effort to remain relevant and appeal to young adults, many congregations started a “contemporary service” as a means of reaching this age group.

While some of these efforts were successful, the unintended consequences were legion. Divided churches, poor quality music, and half-empty worship spaces often resulted.

As we have grown in our appreciation for musical diversity, and as a generation of musical leaders who were the most resistant to change age off the scene, a more rational and logical approach to worship is emerging. I think this is a very encouraging and hopeful development.

The population is returning to the city center, and the churches that stayed there are perfectly positioned for that surge.

Nearly every mid to large city I travel to is experiencing a boom in population in the center of the city. The rush to the suburbs has been replaced by a documentable tsunami of population growth in urban areas. Suburban sprawl is giving way to the new urban growth boom. For the first time since the 1920’s American city centers are growing faster than the suburbs. It’s not just anecdotal, the statistics are impressive:

http://www.veteransunited.com/realestate/suburban-flight-and-what-it-means-for-real-estate/

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304830704577493032619987956

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked with congregations who are watching this unfold in Charlotte, Louisville, Greenville, Atlanta, Nashville, Richmond, Greensboro, Orlando, Pensacola, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Kansas City. The energy and growth and excitement are in the city center. The suburban growth wave has peaked, and people are coming back downtown to live.

Unfortunately, many churches long ago abandoned the city center. A North American Mission Board church planter recently shared with me that, in 1965, there were 166 Southern Baptist churches inside the I-285 beltway of Atlanta. Today, there are 37. Of those 37, only 13 average more than 100 people in worship.

I see an immense opportunity. The city center is re-emerging as a dynamic center of life, and churches that stayed in the city are perfectly positioned to become part of that fabric. One warning: the new urbanites are VERY different than their predecessors and will demand creativity and innovation from established churches in order to get their attention. “Business as usual” will only hasten your demise.

The rediscovery of the neighborhood as our mission.

The missional church movement is forcing us to think beyond patriarchal mission endeavors. One fascinating trend I am heartened by is to see local churches take ownership of their neighborhood as a primary component of their missional strategy. The energy and innovation in churches that take seriously their call to their community is palpable and transformative. You’ll find many resources and encouragement for this important shift in attention. http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/leaddocs/2014/140521_article.html

So, when the talk turns negative about the church, these trends (and others) make me say with enthusiasm: “There has never been a better time to be a church on a mission!” How about you?

Bill Wilson
About the Author
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson, the founder of The Center for Healthy Churches, has previously served as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health and brings more than 33 years of local church ministry experience to the Center. He is a certified coach and facilitator and has experience as a consultant in numerous settings.
http://healthy-churches.org/worst-times-really/

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The Future of the Church, #1: “RIP Average Attendance”

Today I sent this email to the members of session (the session is the governing board of a Presbyterian Church)

At the last session meeting, I made a statement to the effect that Diana (our associate pastor) and I have absorbed a great deal of information about the trends in the American church that we have not shared with you, and that you as leaders of the church really need to be brought up to speed, so to speak.  In response to these words, Elder Royce Truex said something like, “Well, share with us what you know.”  This email is the first of perhaps many in which we will share with you the latest wisdom about the future of the Church.

First, a preface: If you’ll remember, a few years ago our Officers’ Retreat topic was “Our Iceberg is Melting.”  We know that the culture is changing, and that we need to respond, not react; to adapt, not panic.  Still, the way was not clear.

Last year, our retreat theme was “Why We Start with the Why,” because in order to step with confidence and integrity into an unknown future, we need to know why we exist in the first place.  And, as Simon Sinek said, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

There are still many articles being published about how the church is “dying,” but more and more, the wiser pundits and observers are saying, no, the church isn’t dying, but it is going to look different.  The Church of Jesus Christ will continue to thrive in ways that are faithful to the gospel as long as there are people faithful to the “why” of the gospel – but again, we do not know what that future looks like.  We do know that knowing our “why” and living into it as a community makes us more flexible, more adaptable, more ready to become what God is calling us to be.

(By the way, “look different” is NOT about worship style.  The so-called “worship wars” are behind us, and more and more writers are realizing that liturgy and traditional music have tremendous value.  “Look different” is more about ministries, programming, and people’s connection to the church.  I invite you to refresh your familiarity with “The Missional Church: Simple” video (it’s 2 minutes long): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arxfLK_sd68 )

Below I have printed out an article about the end of “average attendance” as a measure of church health.  More and more, I am thinking in terms of lives touched by hope, rather than weekly worship attendance.  The Church is one of the few institutions in the U.S. (and maybe the world) that offers a word of hope, even a plan for hope (we call it “the Kingdom of God”), in this broken and hurting world.

Please read this at your leisure.  Diana and I will not flood you with reading material (or videos) – you can expect perhaps one piece a week from us.  I saw this article but it was Diana who suggested it as something we ought to share with you.

Thank you for being leaders.  Thank you for your vulnerability and courage – for daring greatly along with us.

Together we serve,
— Joanne Whitt Pastor and Head of Staff First Presbyterian Church San Anselmo, California

 

RIP, Average Attendance

by David Odom, August 21, 2014

http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/08-15-2014/rip-average-attendance

The Rev. Dr. David Odom is the associate dean for leadership initiatives at Duke Divinity School, which includes Alban, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and Faith & Leadership. He blogs regularly on Call & Response.

Average worship attendance was once such an important number. With it, I could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.

Back in the day, church consultant Lyle Schaller was quoted as saying that average worship attendance was a better indicator of congregational behavior than denomination, geography or neighborhood.

Today that number means much less because the definition of an active member has shifted.

At one time, “active” meant attending services three or four times a month. Today people feel active when they enter the church building once or twice a month. Some people engage worship more regularly online than from the pew. Others prioritize participation in a small group over worship attendance. Congregations have multiple services and, increasingly, multiple campuses.

It is more and more difficult to determine what “attending” means, much less judge someone as “active.”

These changes are signs that congregational culture is now less uniform, which has practical implications for things like the development of a Bible study curriculum.

When a denominational publishing house could predict the needs of congregations, curriculum materials could be mass-produced. While the number and variety of materials have expanded in recent years, teachers are often dissatisfied with their options. They then feel obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.

Developing customized curriculum and activities, such as missions experiences, means that the congregation feels a need for more staff, regardless of the church’s size. The needs are not connected to any predictable ratio of ministers to members, but the costs are.

In the old days, attendance was a good predictor of revenue for the church. Today, revenue can be up when attendance is down–sometimes these trends can go in opposite directions for years.

In a doctoral seminar with experienced pastors last semester, the group begged for help in developing a score card of statistics by which they could monitor the vitality of their congregations. Each was tracking average worship attendance, giving, mission/ministry hours and more. Yet, the relationships between the numbers were not clear.

Church attendance was once a key indicator of a virtuous cycle. If the church could get a new person in the pew regularly, offerings would go up, involvement in small groups and missions would climb, and the church would be healthy. If attendance was declining then everything else would eventually decline.

The growing lack of dependability on attendance is a sign that the virtuous cycles that have sustained congregations since the end of World War II are collapsing. In order to sustain congregations over the long haul, new cycles need to be developed. Once that begins to happen, new measures can be identified.

One place to start is to map all the ways that a person engages a congregation — joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to special causes and to the church’s general budget, reading sermons or other resources on-line, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class and more.

What patterns of engagement emerge? Which activities encourage participation in other activities? What practices are most likely to lead to spiritual growth? These are the building blocks of virtuous cycles.

Having answered these questions, look at the numbers the congregation is gathering or could be gathering. How do these numbers help track the ways of engagement? What other data could be gathered easily? It is important to gather data that are measurable signs of the engagement that matters most.

Marketing is all about answering these sorts of questions. Rather than seek to master this field, I prefer to ask for help from an expert. No marketing professional knows the church like the leaders, but the expert can ask the questions and organize the data into something that can be tracked over time.

Yes, this is a lot of work. I wish we could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers. But, most people know that is no longer working. What will we do about it?

 

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