Month: November 2015

Crisis in the church is normal—success is not

Enough moaning, already.

I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of doing my fare share. In various places, I have lamented the paradigm shifts that the North American church is facing. For example, in a paper I wrote when I was interviewing for my previous job, I wrote:

We no longer hold the privileged position we once held as America’s moral and spiritual voice. For many people, religion is simply a private matter that encompasses little more than self-esteem or the maintenance of personal values and mores. People inside the church are left wondering, What happened to the church that we once knew and loved? People outside the church have little reason to re-evaluate their judgment that the Christian faith has little or no place in the contemporary world, outside of the individual believer’s life.

crisisAnd I’m not the only one. Maybe it’s just the friends I keep and the news feeds I read, but I constantly see posts and articles about the decline of the church, the irrelevance of the church, the stubbornness of the church, and what looks like the end of the church as we have known it. The sky is falling, and we’ve been saying that to one another for more years than I care to remember. Enough already.

Interestingly, in Transforming Mission, David Bosch’s 1991 book (yes, 23 years ago), on the second page of the introduction he looks at the situation we’re all in a tizzy about and he says:

It is…normal for Christians to live in a situation of crisis. It should never have been different.[1]

He then cites Hendrik Kraemer, an early 20th century lay missiologist and prominent figure in the ecumenical movement from the Netherlands, who said (long before the crisis that we are experiencing developed), “Strictly speaking, one ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.”

Bosch says that Kraemer’s claim was based on “the abiding tension between (the church’s) essential nature and its empirical condition.” Then Bosch continues with a one-two punch:

Why is it, then, that we are so seldom aware of this element of crisis and tension in the church? Because, Kraemer added, the church “has always needed apparent failure and suffering in order to become fully alive to its real nature and mission.” And for many centuries the church has suffered very little and has been led to believe that it is a success…

That there were so many centuries of crisis-free existence for the church was therefore an abnormality. Now, at long last, we are “back to normal” . . . and we know it!

Many of us (and I include myself in this group) have been lamenting the changes and the pressures—the crisis—of the past few decades from what we thought was faithfulness. We hurt for the church. We long to see the church return to vitality. We have a Word of hope and life that we want to speak to and embody for a hurting world. We say this while thinking that forces beyond our control are stopping us, sidelining us, or derailing our best intentions.

Is it possible that we’ve been wringing our hands out of faithlessness? Bosch seems to imply that. Rather than being removed from a privileged position, we’ve been restored to our position of powerlessness. Rather than operating from a success mentality we’re merely back to where we’re supposed to be — “to encounter crisis,” Bosch adds, “is to encounter the possibility of truly being the church.” Have we become so accommodated to success that we think our calling is, indeed, to build bigger barns?

It’s possible.

But what does it mean to be in the “normal” state of crisis? What does a church in crisis look like—if it doesn’t look like the handwringing we’ve seen in recent decades? If a church in crisis is normal, if being in crisis is how we discover what it means to be church, what does that do to us, in us, through us? What are the implications of this for congregational leaders?

OstrichesSome might argue that such thinking leads to defeatism. We begrudgingly accept the fate of being a funeral society, hoping to keep the doors open long enough that the last one standing can still have his or her funeral here. Others might say that it looks a lot like the theology of the cross (as opposed to the theology of glory). In a book on the theology of the cross Douglas John Hall says:

How in this world of the here and now are we to perceive the presence of the crucified one, and how shall we translate that presence into words, and deeds—or sighs too deep for either? That is the question to which adherence to [the theology of the cross] drives.[2]

Later in the book he adds,

[T]he message of the cross is that this world is the beloved of God and must not be abandoned, and that the church is that community of faith freed sufficiently from preoccupation with self and institutional survival to seek the welfare of the [world].[3]

It seems to me that Hall has hit the proverbial nail on the head. God’s love for the world didn’t stop with Jesus’ ascension. The church is indeed God’s beloved: called, claimed, empowered and sent—blessed to be a blessing, to put it in Abrahamic terms (Gen. 22:15–18)

The question, though, is whether (as Hall says) we are sufficiently freed from preoccupation with self and institutional survival to be that blessing in and for the world. Based on recent work, I have seen much evidence to the contrary. The external pressures we are feeling have driven us deeper and deeper into our institutional shells; everything we do and value and count is framed in institutional terms. We talk about making disciples, but what we really mean is making good churchgoers so that the institution can survive.

Hall presents a definition of discipleship that is a helpful corrective to our institutionalized preoccupation:

Discipleship of the crucified Christ is characterized by a faith that drives its adherents into the world with a relentlessness and daring they could not manage on the basis of human volition alone.[4]

In short, then, it seems that a church in the “normal” state of crisis will do that which is entirely counterintuitive: we will deny ourselves, ignore questions of institutional viability or institutional payback, and focus on that which all of us do in the world, in the roles, relationships and responsibilities of our everyday lives.

I concur with John M. Buchanan who wrote in The Christian Century:

I have a proposal: let’s call a moratorium on counting members. Let’s consider that we are called to witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ and to do everything we can to be Christ’s body in the world, to do what we believe he would be doing and is doing through us.

This is no simple feat. Denying ourselves is hard. Denying our institutional selves might be even harder. But it is the way to life. (Matthew 16:24–26)

If you’re so inclined, I’d love to have you chime in with a comment. I’m particularly interested in your answers to the question I asked about what a church in crisis looks like.

∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞          ∞

PS: The March 5 issue of The Christian Century is focused on the future of the church. For an interesting take on what the church of the future, a church of the cross at that, might look like, read Heidi Neumark’s article, “Companion to Strangers.”

[First published in March 2014 on a previous blog.]


[1] This and the following quotes are from David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 2-3.

[2] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 42.

[3] Hall, 220.

[4] Hall, 183.

What hardens the hearts of our people?

I preached an experimental sermon this past Sunday. And I got some amazing results. In fact, they were results that I never thought to anticipate.

Inspired by a book I had read (The Art of Curating Worship), a friend of mine who is a gifted leader of creative worship, and by a conversation with the staff member at our church who is responsible for crafting a new kind of worship service, I set out to experiment with a participatory sermon. I had my fair share of time to talk, but I involved the congregation in several ways.

The text was Mark 6:30–34, 53–56, the story of the disciples and Jesus responding to the needs of the crowds swarming around them. Inspired by another friend’s exploration of the Greek, I called attention to the different pronouns that Mark uses in the two halves of the reading. In fact, this was the first bit of participation; I had the congregation break into pairs and trios to compare verse 33 with verses 53-54. I hoped they would find that in the first part of the reading, the crowd notices them, that is, Jesus and the disciples. In the second half, the crowd only notices him, that is, Jesus. Then I had them revisit the text between the two parts of the reading to see what had changed. While the first half reports that the disciples had great results from their being sent out two by two, in the skipped portion of the reading Mark returns to his drumbeat of criticism: the disciples just don’t understand what Jesus is up to. In fact, in verse 52 Mark says that the disciples’ “hearts were hardened.”

Like the disciples, Jesus calls and sends us. Like the disciples, Jesus intends to carry on his work of compassion, care, feeding, justice and peace—through us. And, like the disciples, we too often don’t “get it.” Our hearts, too, are hardened.

“What is it that hardens your hearts?” I asked the congregation. “What is it that keeps you from participating in God’s ongoing work of loving and restoring the world?” I then sent the congregation back to their pairs and trios to talk about those questions. And I told them to boil their principal answer down to one word or a very short phrase and to write that word or phrase on sticky notes that I had supplied in the bulletins. When they were done I had them walk to the front and stick their reason to the cross. (The property board would not be happy had I asked them to nail them to the cross!) You see the result in the pictures. It was a moving and significant moment; as they stuck their notes to the cross several people whispered to me, “This is a great idea.”

This is the point at which I began to see the results that I didn’t think to expect: In the collage that appeared on the cross, I saw some patterns emerging. I decided on the spot to take the sticky notes home and compile the results. The word cloud here is a compilation of the 140 or so responses that the congregation gave.

(For those who are not familiar with word clouds, the point size of the words indicates the relative frequency of responses. The more responses, the bigger the word. In this case, the largest words represent about 20 people using the same word; the smallest words/phrases indicate single responses.)

Do be sure to click on the word cloud (above) to get the full-size version. It is arranged according to the patterns that I saw in the responses. There are two major hubs and a few lesser groups, somewhat connected to the others (or not).

On the left I saw a strong connection between busyness and selfishness. One person’s response crystalized the connection: “Busyness leads to self-absorption.”

On the right there is a significant cluster of responses that centers around doubt. This was most frequently stated as self-doubt, but as you can see, there were a lot of other responses that spin “doubt” out in several directions.

Perhaps I should move greed and laziness more toward selfishness. I not sure that they are the bridge between the two major parts of the cloud. I still wrestle with whether there is a connection between those two realms.

The other less frequently mentioned clusters were family/health issues and politics. (Note: I may have stirred up the political pot. In my introduction to their discussion in pairs/trios I gave my personal example: political cynicism. Had I not given that example, politics may not have come to mind as much as it did.)

One of the most significant implications of this exercise occurred to me while the people were sticking their notes to the cross. As I watched I saw words like mother and family life problems, and I thought, “The very things to which we are called to minister in Christ’s name are being seen as something that keeps us from being ministers in the world!” In a larger sense, this applies to the whole busyness realm. What is it that keeps us busy? I suspect that, in most cases, it is work and life and other things in which God wants to be present and active through us. And, one could argue, the same applies to much of the doubt side of the word cloud. Like the disciples, we just don’t understand that Jesus wants to be active in and through our everyday lives. Like one person said, we wind up doubting that we can make a difference.

I’m still processing this information. What do you see when you look at the word cloud? What did I miss? If you put together a word cloud with these responses, what patterns would you draw out?

[First published in July 2012 on a previous blog.]

People are leaving the church on purpose!

The Barna Group published results of a study they did on young adults and faith. One of the articles about their research was entitled, “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts.” It is a worthy and helpful read that examines young adult dropouts from several perspectives. Three comments caught my attention—riveted me, actually, to the point where I had a hard time catching my breath. In three different places the article said:

Two out of ten young Christians feel lost in the gap between church and society, saying things like, “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” or “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me.”

and

Only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests.

and

[Young believers] require a more holistic understanding of their vocation and calling in life—how their faith influences what they do with their lives, from Monday through Saturday.

Yes, I took these three comments out of context. There is much more to the Barna report than just this. But (as I said) these three came together for me in a breath-taking way.

I’ve been known to say lately that recent research on why people leave the church often lists as one of the top reasons, “Because the church doesn’t connect with the rest of my life.” This Barna report set me on an extended journey of looking for that research. I was surprised that I couldn’t find it, at least I couldn’t frequent mentions of this particular reason.

Most of what I found is along the lines of this:

Someone offended them, God disappointed them, they don’t have time (read: they’re not committed), they want a different style (music or preaching), they never put down roots, they need to hide a problem (pending divorce or drug problems), church members were judgmental or hypocrites, they didn’t like a change that was made, they have doubts about God and/or the church, or they want a church that offers a ministry their former congregation doesn’t.

A sample of some of the books that deal with people leaving the church.

First, it’s interesting to note that most of these reasons relate to “why I left a congregation” rather than “why I gave up on the church.” Second, I was intrigued that just about all the information I encountered came from evangelical/conservative leaders or institutions. With few exceptions, it seems that this isn’t a topic that respectable mainline leaders talk about. As I said, this is intriguing. Perhaps it’s because evangelical/conservative churches are focused like a laser on “saving souls” and “winning the lost.” Perhaps they are distraught over people who leave; maybe it’s seen as a personal failure.

Nevertheless, I did find one blog that cites British academics who researched why people leave church. Of the 18 reasons listed, the seventh highest (at 46%) was people who said the church “failed to connect with the rest of my life.”

Maybe it’s not the most frequently mentioned reason for leaving the church, as I had thought. But the Barna Group’s report certainly puts the Sunday–Monday disconnect in front of us in a way that is hard to avoid.

If you’ll allow me to engage in some unsubstantiated speculation, it seems the indicators that the Barna Group found about young adults could easily be applied to older adults as well.

  • We want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with our daily lives.
  • Only a small minority of us have been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture.
  • We all require a more holistic understanding of our vocation and calling in life—how our faith influences what we do with our lives, from Monday through Saturday.

And yet the church persists in focusing on what happens in the church. What counts in our institution-centric way of thinking is what our members do in and for the church—and if we’re forward-thinking, how we can attract more people to join us. We value Sunday school teachers, board members, Bible study participants—we call them active members—and we count them because those numbers tell us whether we’re successful, if we’re growing, and how effective our leaders are. (In a related vein: I quipped recently that we need to ban talk about “how many people we worship on Sunday” because we worship God, not the people who participate. One person responded, “Maybe we do worship the people, that is, we place our trust in and we judge our faithfulness by our ability to attract people to our churches.” Ouch.)

One comment I ran across on this research journey was, “People on the outside see the church as candles, pews and flowers, rather than people living out their love for God by loving others.” That sounds like a simplified way of saying that people on the outside only see our love affair with life in the church rather than our embodied love of God in all of life. On another site, a comment in response to a blog about why people leave the church was much more to-the-point:

For the most part…leaders and staff of a church are often primarily concerned most, above all other things, about keeping people coming on Sunday mornings and catering to what the people want in order to sustain a consistent congregation. This is because the church has been “professionalized,” and the leaders of a church are driven to do things in a way that will keep the tithe money coming in. They aren’t believing that God will provide what they need (NEED–not want), and therefore their decisions and leadership are consumed by their own efforts in their own strength to keep themselves afloat. On the whole, “professional church” is lifeless, stale, and in many ways nothing like what the church was intended to be. People know this and feel this.

And, I would add, at least in part (according to the Barna Group report) they are looking for something that isn’t ghettoized in the church.

On a different but wholly related topic, I’ve been struck lately by the persistent theme of busyness and how it’s destroying the church. In fact, the research journey I’m describing started with several friends posting the Barna Group article on Facebook. One thread of comments that followed one of those posts went straight from the Barna research to lamenting that families don’t make the faith community a higher priority than sports, music, and other “competing” interests. I’ve heard pastors say (a lot!) that they “can’t ask their members to do anything more.” “They’re already so busy that the church just can’t burden them further.”

If we’re serious about the connection of faith and life in the world, if we’re serious about empowering and supporting ministry in daily life, why are we “competing” to take people out of the world? Shouldn’t we, instead, be working to help them “be a Christian without separating from the world around us”?

I have a vision of a church that sees its purpose in terms of forming followers of Christ who are ready, equipped, empowered to be his agents of love, care and compassion in the world (not just in the church). It is a vision of a community that gathers on a regular basis to hear “reports from the front lines,” and to engage the ancient practices of the church (scripture, worship, prayer) around matters of relationships, calling, and culture. I have a vision of a community that actively discerns how God’s presence influences what we do with our lives from Monday through Saturday, and then sends us back out into the world, in peace, to serve the Lord. This vision, if enacted (it seems to me) would make our congregations incredibly exciting and vibrant places, and we would finally have an answer to the question, “Why are so many people leaving the church?” Why, silly, they’re just heading back out into the world as God’s agents of hope, faith, and compassion.

[First published in December 2011 on a previous blog.]

Equipping the saints

It started out as a simple request: a nearby pastor suggested that we find a few pastors who would be interested in gathering for a book study on what it means to be “an equipping pastor,” that is, what it means to be a pastor who sees her or his job to be that of equipping members for ministry in daily life. It’s been a buzzword in the church for a good many years, so I was immediately interested and started looking for a book that would serve as the centerpiece for a study group.

I was amazed that—as popular as the topic is—I couldn’t find a definitive book on the subject. I found books aimed at helping laity understand their ministry (William Diehl’s Thank God It’s Monday comes to mind). I found books that were approaching 30 years old. I found newer books that focus on particular pieces of the puzzle (Chris Scharen’s excellent Faith As a Way of Life: A Vision for Pastoral Leadership is a good example). But I did not find a comprehensive book that is designed to help pastors understand and live out their role in this way.

What does it mean to be an equipping pastor? How is that different from what most pastors were trained to be and do? What implications does this hold for program, staff, structure, and day-to-day ministry?

How does one shift from being a ‘pastoral’ or ‘program’ pastor to being an equipping pastor? How does a leader foster a community that equips people for ministry—not in the church, but in the world?

When I left the parish to work at the Center for Renewal at Grand View University, I experienced several ‘revelations.’ One of them was the realization that for 25 years I had been totally consumed by life in the church. I realized that I had little clue as to what it meant to live “in the world.” So I started watching my wife, who happens to work in an architectural firm. What does it mean, I wondered, to work in a place where the focus and the conversation has nothing to do with faith? I’m still figuring that out.

So how is it that I am supposed to be an equipping pastor? How am I—who “lives the church”—supposed to help people live out their faith in the “real world”?

Foundational characteristics

In my work I promote thirteen characteristics of a renewing congregation. One of them is:

Pastors will be as adept at equipping members for ministry as they are at providing ministry for others.

Pastors often buy in to the notion that we are the ones who “do ministry.” After all, that’s what we’re educated and paid to do. Members are all too willing to remind us that our job is either to minister to them or to minister on their behalf. So what would it mean to change—and how would we go about changing—that dynamic so that pastors are as good at equipping members for ministry in the world as they are at providing ministry for others?

A related characteristic is:

Ministry in the church will be valued principally as a means for empowering ministry in the daily lives of our members.

Pastors and members both buy into the notion that it’s what happens in the church that is important. If we talk about the ‘ministry of the laity,’ most often we speak about recruiting Sunday school teachers, altar guild members, or volunteers for the food pantry. If you need proof, audit a Time and Talent sheet. How many options involve activities in or through the church? Don’t get me wrong; ministry in the church is important—but to what end? Most often, it’s to ensure institutional vitality. So what would it mean to change—and how would we go about changing—that dynamic so that ministry in the church is seen principally as a means for empowering the ministry of our members in their daily lives?

Conversations in process

Remember that “simple request” in the first paragraph? It led me to send a letter to pastors in our area, hoping to find 6 to 12 that would be interested in being part of a one-time conversation about this topic. To my utter amazement and delight, over 60 pastors responded! I wound up traveling to 11 different sites to engage pastors in conversation. I wrote a report that summarized what I heard. From there, I wasn’t sure where this topic would lead.

There’s time yet to engage in conversation online. How do you feel about your ministry in daily life? How has your congregation equipped you for that role? If you are a pastor, how well are you prepared to equip your members for ministry? What have you done that worked well, or what questions do you have?

Jump in. I’d love to hear from you!

[First published in November 2011 on a previous blog. It’s interesting that the last sentence in the next-to-last paragraph indicated that this “simple request” might lead somewhere. In time it led to the publication of The Scattering!]

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