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Nov 022013
 

cart_before_horseI’ve been thinking a lot about evangelism lately. I’ve been speaking with groups from several different congregations as a facilitator for our national Comprehensive Review of the United Church. Without fail, every single church group named having more congregants as their greatest dream. And without fail, every single church group seemed at a loss for how to accomplish that. The simple answer is evangelism. If you want more people to come and share your journey of faith and help them grow in their journey of faith then you have to do something about personally inviting them. A spiffier sign, a catchy mail out, and a video screen for hymns are all well and good but just because you built it doesn’t mean they’ll come. (They haven’t come yet, have they?)

So evangelism is the key. That’s obvious. Then why isn’t it happening?

We could preach on it every week and give it catchy names like “sharing your story” or my own favourite “faith-vertising,” and we could jump up and down explaining why evangelism is the only real way to grow a church (aside from baby-making which is beyond the majority of our members!), and folks will probably nod in agreement and may even be convicted enough to try a bit of it, but I suspect it will fail – not for lack of desire, but because it puts the cart before the horse.

I like to describe spirituality as “glowing, growing, and going.” Evangelism is the “going” part – it’s the sharing of the gospel through words and actions to everyone you encounter with the ultimate desire of drawing them into a relationship with God so they too can enjoy the wonderful benefits of the journey of faith. That’s the cart.

Who pulls the cart? The horse. Why would the horse want to do such a thing? What’s the motivation? What’s the driving force?

The horse pulls the cart, ideally, because it can do no other. The horse is so fired up by their personal experience of the Sacred and their immersion in the Holy Mystery we call God (that’s glowing) that the horse hungers and thirsts for deepening through worship, learning, and prayer (that’s growing) and as they glow and grow they feel they’re going to burst if they don’t share their glowing with others (that’s going).

Evangelism flows out of transformed lives. If evangelism isn’t happening naturally we’re doing something wrong.

I think our denomination and our churches have poured the lion’s share of our resources over the years into building a better cart. And it’s a great cart!  But I think we assumed the horse would be fed by pulling it.

If a full church of people on an ever deepening journey of faith who share the gospel in word and action is our dream……it begins by feeding the horse.

Oct 242013
 

talk to hand1A recent dust-up around ministry in our United Church has me stewing. What’s grabbing me is not the content of the issue but why I’m agitated by it. Why this issue? What is it about this that’s pushing my buttons? What is it about this that has me feeling offended?

There are all sorts of ministers in our church. Some of them are great, some good, some not so great.
I’ve heard terrific preaching from colleagues and endured colleagues whose preaching made me cringe. But that doesn’t offend me.
I’ve partaken in liturgy that lifted me to the heavens and liturgy that sounded like it came from a greeting card. But that doesn’t offend me.
I’ve heard intriguing and challenging theological arguments and heard interpretations that made me laugh out loud at their ridiculousness. But that doesn’t offend me.
There are all sorts of ministers in our church. Some I’d like to learn from, and some who provoke an eye roll and a face palm. They may make me sad, or nervous, or angry but they don’t offend me.

But today I’m offended and I think I’ve figured out why. I get offended when a person disrespects my vocation.

A person who claims the benefits of the honour and high calling of ministry, and chooses to trade on the honourific title of reverend (one who because of their high calling is given a certain amount of reverence), and who courageously yet humbly dares to take a place in the line of theological interpreters of scripture and the spiritual life that stretches back to Jesus and beyond, had better deserve it and treat it with the utmost respect. Anything less cheapens and disrespects those of us who, whether we’re good at it or we suck at it, humbly stand in that place.

I’m offended by people who have been granted this honour and privilege and responsibility and who treat it so casually and dismissively by thinking they’re better or smarter or more enlightened than everyone else.
And I’m equally offended by people who claim these privileges without doing the hard work of advanced theological study, sacrifice, shared discernment, and commitment to the church.

If you want to be a minister in the Christian denomination called The United Church of Canada and enjoy the status and privileges (such as they are) of being a “Rev” then earn it. Don’t pretend to stand in a place you don’t deserve because you think the rules or traditions don’t apply to you. If you want to be a “Rev” sacrifice and get the proper education. If you want to stay a “Rev” have the personal integrity to respect the office and what it stands for among your colleagues.

There are many, many ways to exercise spiritual leadership within and without our churches. Many, many people can benefit greatly from all sorts of leadership styles and callings. I’m not saying that there’s only one way to “minister”. Ministry takes myriad forms. Thank God!

But you don’t get to be a “Rev” just because you like the way it sounds. It means something important. If you don’t think it does, then don’t claim it for yourself. You don’t get to define what it means. A “Rev” in The United Church of Canada is a person who has been educated, trained, vetted, discerned, and willingly chooses to stand in the Christian stream (as they, with integrity, understand it).

Anything less than that disrespects my vocation, and offends me.

Oct 232013
 

praying-senior.manHere’s a really serious question I’d like people to ponder. Why do you want your church to grow? Why would we want a full house each week?

If it’s just to pay our bills then I’d want no part of it.
If it’s to prop up the institution of the United Church or keep our buildings open I want no part of it.
If it’s to get things back to how they were in the good old days colour me absent.

BUT!

If you want to draw more people to church because you’re on an incredibly life-giving and life-transformative journey that’s making you a better, kinder, gentler, more open, more caring, more joyful, more loving person and you’re seeing the Sacred in more and more places and feeling like the whole world would be much better off if they could have even a taste of what you experience and you passionately want them to experience it too…
…then a full house every Sunday is the best idea I’ve ever heard!

Oct 142013
 

journey_of_faith1What is our purpose as a church?

  • To enlarge our congregation?
  • To have a vital ministry and a viable building?
  • Or is it to make disciples of the Way of Jesus?

Obviously (at least I hope) we’d all instantly say it was disciple-making – but is that what we actually do? Is that what we pour our resources into? Or is that what we say because we know we’re supposed to say it but then we spend all our time doing the first two things?

The phrase I like to use draws on Jesus’ commandments for us: to Love God (growing deeper in communion), to Love People (growing broader in compassion), and to Love One Another (to grow stronger in connection). That sounds a lot like disciple-making. In other words, that’s what we’re supposed to be about – that’s our purpose.

Our purpose as a church is to help people grow in faith. Another way to look at it is to say our purpose is to resource your journey. So let’s ask the question: how are we resourcing people’s journeys?

Our primary event is Sunday morning worship. What aspects of the faith journey are resourced on Sunday morning?

  • worship
  • learning (bible)
  • caring
  • prayer
  • fellowship
  • hear about or engage in opportunities to serve
  • etc

That’s a pretty good list! Those are terrific things for resourcing someone’s faith journey. You could say then that Sunday morning is an excellent delivery system for those resources. But is it the only one? Is it the best one? What about those who can’t access it for whatever reason? How do we engage in our purpose for them?

What other delivery systems might we use to resource people’s journeys?
What other ways, days, venues, formats, etc. might be useful for resourcing someone’s journey?

  • Facebook bible study
  • YouTube sermons
  • alternative worship times or styles
  • email daily or weekly devotional resources
  • create house church network
  • begin pub theology nights
  • use our website to coordinate service opportunities
  • etc

If we are serious about our purpose then we have to get serious about exploring additional delivery systems for our resourcing efforts. Churches aren’t supposed to be in the business of making church-goers, we’re supposed to be in the business of making Christians!

I think we need to expand our concept of what church means – more of a centre for spirituality in addition to being a Sunday morning worship space.
If I could spell out a vision for the church it would be to make our tag lines about resourcing journeys – and then doing it!

St. Somebody’s United Church and Spirituality Centre ~ Resourcing Your Journey!

 

Oct 062013
 

music-notes-burstOur church hosted a concert on Saturday night. It was a resounding success. We had a full house! But it got me to thinking about a few things.

Why were there 350 people there on Saturday night and 150 people there on Sunday morning? Why don’t we have standing room only at worship services?

I imagine one chief reason is that the concerts happen once in a while and the worship happens weekly. Mathematically speaking worship has more people over the course of a month than the concert did, but that’s kind of cold comfort.

Several congregants joked this morning that if I played the fiddle and did some step dancing maybe we’d have a full house on Sunday! That’s an interesting comment for a few reasons. First, it suggests that it’s the minister’s job to entertain people. Second, it  suggests that the reason people might not come is because we don’t put on a good enough show. But the biggest concern I have from that is the suggestion that people are looking to be entertained. Hmm.

The concert was old time fiddle music. The average age of the audience was around 70. It was pure nostalgia for a bygone era. Sure it struck a chord, but I worry that folks are living in the past.

I’m not sure what I want to say here. I’m just kind of thinking out loud. Something about the collective shrug of the shoulders and the sense that there’s no way that all those people would ever dream of coming back the next morning just kind of irked me.

Maybe it’s just a matter of how we approach these things. There was a significant crew of congregants who worked very hard to promote the show, get advertising, talk it up to their friends, sell tickets, and generally invest tons of energy into making it a success. And what was the motivating factor? Fundraising.

What would it take to motivate our churches in the same way to “fish for people”?
What would it take to get people to pour that much energy into encouraging that audience to come back in the morning?
What would it take to shift the expectation from a “gee, why would they come” to a “we’re gonna need more chairs!” kind of attitude.

See, the funny thing is, we actually put on an excellent “show” every Sunday – great music, good messages, deep prayers, warm people, and a few big laughs. It’s got it all!

So where’s the full house?

What are we missing?

Sep 302013
 

321I think we’ve got it backwards. Generally speaking, I think our core understanding of church is backwards. Jesus gave three commandments: 1) Love God with all your being 2) Love Neighbour (others) and 3) Love One Another (which I interpret as referring to one’s own local faith community). Here’s what I see:

The mainline, North American, Christian church is more of a 3rd Commandment church, but it thinks it’s a 2nd Commandment church, and needs to become more of a 1st Commandment church.

The mainline church has had a certain emphasis for the last century or so. It’s called the social gospel. It focuses hard on Jesus’ second commandment of compassion. Justice has been by far the primary preaching topic for generations. That’s not wrong – justice is not wrong – the second commandment of Jesus to love others is not wrong – it’s essential. It’s just a matter of emphasis, and we have tended to strongly emphasize compassion in our preaching.

(This part may sting a little.) Now if you look at the typical United Church (and yes, clearly there are wonderful exceptions) I think you’ll find a group of people who invest the lion’s share of their time and energy and resources on the 3rd commandment, not the 2nd. This is pretty understandable.

If your ship is full of holes you need to tend to the holes or you’ll sink. Sadly, most churches spend most of their time trying to stay afloat. And beyond that they invest their resources in loving one another, being community, working shoulder to shoulder. Again, this is not bad, it’s essential. It’s just a matter of emphasis. While the preacher preached justice the people worked hard at keeping the doors open so the preacher could preach justice! That’s how we’ve done church for a long time!

As you’ve heard many times it is utter madness to continue to do the same things over and over again and expect different results. For something to change something has to change! I propose that the church should change its emphasis. Rather than pouring all our energy into the 3rd commandment and lamenting that we’re not doing enough of the 2nd commandment I propose that we pour our energy into the FIRST commandment and see what happens. I think we’ll be amazed!