What divides us? What unites us? And what serves God’s Kingdom?

Sometimes our best laid plans go better than we think.

The reading for the Third Sunday of Pentecost was that tough passage from Matthew 10 in which Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In an age where such a saying is often seen as license to sow division “in Jesus’ name” what possible meaning could it hold for us?

That is the question I struggled with as I set about the task of preaching on this gospel. I told the people that (in Matthew’s day) this was not license to divide, but a reminder of the reality that following Jesus caused division between a man and his father, between a daughter and her mother. Further, I said that the larger message in the reading is that when we experience division for standing up for what we believe (as opposed to causing division) God is with us, God knows what is going on (like he knows the sparrows in the field and the hairs on our head), and that we shouldn’t be afraid.

At the end of the sermon I engaged the people in a participatory exercise based on an idea that I found in our worship planning resource, Sundays and Seasons. Prior to worship I had half sheets of paper inserted into the bulletins. I asked people to put their first name at the top of the page, and then to develop a list of words that describe them: mother, brother, daughter. I encouraged them to write down words that reflected their relationships and their roles: Dad, employee, boss. I suggested that they include words that distinguish them from others: Democrat, Republican, Rotarian. Gay, lonely, student.

When they were done I told them that they should have a pretty good start on a piece of paper that identifies them, who they are, what they do, how they are involved, what makes them different from everyone else. I then invited them to come to the font (where we had baptized a newborn earlier in the service: “Matthew Wesley, child of God, you have been sealed with the Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”) and to exchange their “identity paper” for another piece of paper, an identity card of sorts, which listed the only identity that matters. “Child of God” was printed on the front of the small slip of paper; on the back was a description of what it means to be a child of God—the list of promises we make when affirming our baptism: “live among God’s faithful people, serve all people following the example of our Lord Jesus,” and so forth.

The people dutifully and somewhat solemnly processed to the font where they surrendered their identity paper in exchange for a new identity card. I suggested that they might want to slip this identity card in their wallet next to their student ID or their driver’s license as a continuing reminder of who they are and what they are called to be and do.

That’s when things took an unexpected turn for the better: As I was exchanging their lists for the new identity card, I kept looking at the growing pile of paper. I realized the power and the significance of what was represented in that pile. My planned sermon completed, I told the congregation that I wanted to pray for the pile of paper at my feet.

“Gracious God we give you thanks for all of these things that make us who we are. They are important. Who we are, what we do, what we believe are important to you, for these are the ways that you work in the world. They are important to us, for these things make us who we are. But we give you thanks for this overarching identity: “Child of God.” For it is this identity that defines whose we are, who we are, and who you call us to be. May we go from here to let our light so shine before others that they may glorify you. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.”

A response to the ELCA’s “Called Forward Together in Christ for the sake of the world”

In the preface to the ELCA’s “Called Forward Together” document, Bishop Eaton rightly states that the anniversary of the Reformation “provides a powerful focal point for reaffirming who we are as a Lutheran church and understanding what God is calling this church to be in its ongoing reformation.” Then she asks, “How will we use this moment to explain ourselves and renew our commitment to sharing the good news of Jesus in a world suffering through growing conflict, fear and inequality, at home and abroad?”

Bishop Eaton adds considerable food for thought in stating, “[W]e are so far failing as a church to achieve our aspirations. . . . [C]ongregations, synods and the churchwide organization have struggled to find ways to reverse the decline in membership and participation in this church. This is weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of a majority of lay, lay rostered and ordained leaders. So how do we collectively respond to this?”

While it makes its appearance in a few places in the document, I propose that a renewed commitment to Luther’s understanding of the universal priesthood is a vital and overlooked answer to these and many of the questions asked in this report.

Bishop Eaton also states, “We speak about grace, about our work in advocacy, about the relief and development work we do, about our inclusiveness and diversity . . . about our ecumenical and interreligious dialogues and relationships. These are true and important, yet they are not exclusively Lutheran. . . . So what is distinctive about being a Lutheran church, and how do we agree on and unite around priorities that are important for the whole of the ELCA?” While the universal priesthood (aka priesthood of all believers, vocation, and ministry in daily life) is not exclusively Lutheran, it is a core component of the Reformation, it is likely the most underdeveloped aspect of our life together, and it holds the potential to renew and revitalize our church.

As I read through the report I consistently encountered pleas and aspirations to renew and invigorate the corporate, gathered aspect of our life together. For example, “membership growth is key to the ELCA’s future” (p. 5) and “To grow, ELCA congregations have to think and act more creatively” (p. 7). “Discussions, without exception, gave very high importance to the ELCA’s service and advocacy to alleviate poverty and work for justice, peace and reconciliation in local communities and nationally and globally” (p. 13).

I saw only passing references to the universal priesthood. “We are a church whose people engage in ministry in daily life—we empower people in God’s calling at work, at play, in families and households, and in communities” (p. 9) was the clearest reference, and there were a few others. Overall “the tide of declining membership” and concern about how to counter it appeared to be the most pervasive theme.

The missing link

As broad and thorough as the section (3.2) on trends affecting the church is, one critical trend was absent: the reality that institutions are no longer held in high regard or seen as being worthy of people’s time. This is especially true among younger people, and yet the focus of the report consistently hit on themes that revolve around the question: How do we make our institution more relevant, more responsive, attractive to younger people, and above all, capable of growing?

My argument is this: the way forward isn’t a matter of getting the world into God’s church; it is about getting the church into God’s world. And the easiest, most relevant and productive means of doing that is by returning to Luther’s focus on the universal priesthood. The Spirit’s power is unleashed when we simply thank and support people for the ministries they are performing by raising children, caring for elderly parents, being an ethical student or worker, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth.

I do not intend to pour cold water on being the “church for the sake of the world” through the many good things we do in and through the gathered church. The ELCA’s “hunger and malaria campaigns, responding to disasters and humanitarian crises, calling out racism and violence, and building bridges for peace and reconciliation with our ecumenical and interfaith partners” (p. 14) are important and vital work, and needs to continue. But when our focus remains principally on what we do in and through the gathered church, we overlook and (in fact) discourage the overwhelming amount of ministry that we do every day in our homes, at work and school, and in our communities. As the report says, “Members of this church live out their faith through service and engagement in their communities and with other parts of the church” (p. 9).

The critical question

In the section on Faith Formation and Discipleship the report asks, “A focus on faith formation and discipleship means always considering why we do what we do as a church.” The critical question here is this: What do we mean by church?

In the research I have done recently I have discovered that by and large people answer that question by saying that church is what we do when we are together. When we’re not at church, well, the rest is just life. Ask any pastor and you’ll find that most people are consumed by life, they’re overly busy, and because of that pastors routinely wring their hands and say “We can’t ask them to do anything more for the church.” The further implication is that we should be “understanding” when they can’t come to church because of all their commitments.

In addition, my research has led to the conclusion that ministry is defined as “something extra.” It’s teaching Sunday school, working in the food pantry, or serving on a committee if we have the time, the interest, or the money. “Young adults . . . juggle the demands of work, education or (for some) unemployment, they will look for and value flexibility in the ways they can connect to church and participate in worship and ministry” (p. 14).

What is wrong with that last sentence? What’s wrong is that we, the leaders of “the church” don’t see, value, or equip young adults (or most of our members) for the ministry that they carry out in God’s behalf in their work, their education, among their family and friends, or in the community.

“We have a precious gift in the eyes of younger people who are part of the ELCA, yet we struggle to attract young people. How can we be seen as more relevant and responsive to their hopes and needs?” (p. 16) How can we be seen as more relevant and responsive to the hopes and needs of all our members? By affirming, valuing, and equipping them for the multitude of ministries that they carry out every day of their lives.

Among the proposed priorities on p. 17 is this: “We are a visible church deeply engaged in public witness and service for the sake of justice, peace and reconciliation in the U.S. and the world.” Amen. This is most certainly true. But most of the time this “deep engagement in public witness and service” only gets reported and supported when it happens in and through the gathered church. Too often we categorically overlook the “deep engagement in public witness and service” that the church as ekklesia (the called-out people) perform on a day-to-day basis.

Conclusion

Refocusing our vision so that it includes both what we do as the gathered church and as the scattered church is a counter-intuitive move. At first blush, considering a deep and thorough emphasis on “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12) will not seem to be an answer to any of the pressing questions or critical needs facing the ELCA. More precisely, it is and will be a counterintuitive move as long as the health and vitality of the corporate, gathered church is our primary concern.

In fact, if our purpose is only to perpetuate the institutional church, then focusing on the ministries our people do every day will be a threat to our vitality. It will take away energy from propping up the crumbling walls. If, however, our purpose is to join God’s work in the world, there is no better place to do that than through the universal priesthood.

My vision is that “of a gathered community that earnestly 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 will expand our understanding and practice of ministry beyond our wildest expectations. This vision will make our congregations incredibly exciting and vibrant places. Living out this vision will finally provide an answer to the question, ‘Why are so many people leaving the church?’ Why? Because they’re heading back out into the world as God’s agents of hope, faith, and compassion!” **

Dwight L. DuBois

Appropriately written on Labor Day, 2016

May our labor “serve all people, following the example of Jesus.”

Download the ELCA’s document here

 

 

**DuBois, Dwight. The Scattering: Imagining a Church that Connects Faith and Life. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015, pp. 147–48.

Meet “Rebecca,” the bent-over woman of Luke 13:10–17

Sermon for Pentecost XIV (C)
Luke 13:10–17
August 21, 2016

Hello, my name is Rebecca. I am the “daughter of Abraham” that Luke told you about a few minutes ago. Actually, that description might be a little confusing to you: I’m not actually Abraham’s daughter since he lived at least a thousand years before I was born. Luke might have done better to describe me as a descendant of Abraham. You might think of it like being Dutch in 21st century America. To make it really simple, just call me Rebecca. I’m Jewish. I lived at the same time as Jesus, and this is my story.

While Luke may have been fuzzy about my name, he got this right: I lived most of my life bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Imagine that if you can. I did a lot of what your expression says about people who are embarrassed or ashamed: I spent a lot of time studying my toes. Instead of calling me “Rebecca, daughter of Abraham” you could just as easily call me “Rebecca the Invisible.” You literally couldn’t see me in a crowd. It was extraordinarily difficult for me to make eye contact with anyone—not that anybody wanted to make eye contact with me. You know how it is when you see someone who is disfigured or maimed. You suddenly get interested in a nearby sign or a bird in a tree. Anything to keep from looking at “them.” Yeah, that was my life. Eighteen years of being invisible. Rejected. Shamed. And people had the nerve to blame me for my condition: Surely I must have done something to offend God. Why else would I have been punished so severely?

Eighteen years. In my day that was long enough to go from being born to having a child of your own. It was long enough to go from becoming a parent to becoming a grandparent. A lot of water flowed under the bridge in the 18 years that I was bent over.

What have you been doing for the past 18 years? I’ll give you a moment to think this through: Where did you live 18 years ago? What was your family like back then? What has happened over the course of the past 18 years? Children have come and gone. Jobs may have changed. Perhaps you’ve moved. Think what it would be like to have missed those 18 years because of a physical ailment. Not only that, think about being like me for all those years: Invisible. Rejected. Shamed. Blamed.

So, yeah, I was interested when I heard that Jesus was in town. Stories about him were big news in my day: Jesus was teaching, feeding, and healing people. He was doing something new, something freeing, something radical, which caused the religious leaders to fret and complain. All of that is what got me interested, so I hobbled over to the synagogue to see what I could see.

It wasn’t easy, you know. I mean, being bent over like that. I couldn’t see what was going on. That, and the fact that I’m a woman. Women aren’t allowed to enter the part of the synagogue where the men gather, the place where Jesus was teaching. The best I could hope for was to overhear a few words. That would have been enough. I mean, he was so famous! To be able to say that I had once heard him teach would have been amazing!

Then it happened. Suddenly everyone in the women’s section of the synagogue parted, like Moses and the Red Sea, and there I was, left in the middle, all by myself. It was an odd feeling, not being invisible any more. I stood out like a sore thumb. An abberation. An embarrassment. I wanted to run but… well, that would have fueled the gossip in town for months!

When I looked around I realized that Jesus was pointing at me. Not only that, he was calling me over. He was actually asking me to enter the men’s section. You can hear the gasps, can’t you? “For shame!” people said. “Women don’t go into the men’s section, especially women like her!”

“Woman,” Jesus said (you see, he didn’t know my name, but that didn’t matter at the time). “Woman,” he said, “you are set free from your ailment.” Then he laid his hands on me, and immediately, incredibly, I stood up straight. For the first time in 18 years. And heck, yeah, I began praising God. You would have, too!

Just as suddenly as I had been freed from my ailment, wouldn’t you know it: my ex-husband’s cousin, the village rabbi, started protesting. It’s all a blur now and I’m not sure if he was chastising Jesus or me, but it sure felt like he was saying, “Woman, don’t you know there are six days of the week when you can come here to be cured, but not on the Sabbath! This is God’s day, a day of rest. Shame on you!”

I hadn’t come to the synagogue to be cured. I hadn’t done anything but hope to hear a few words from Jesus. He’s the one who called me into the men’s section. He’s the one who freed me. And suddenly this is my fault?

But Jesus—he was wonderful. He took that hypocrite to task. He lectured all the religious leaders about doing what is needed on the Sabbath, and he said that it was only right and just to set me free from my bondage regardless of what day it happened to be.

I don’t know, something about what Jesus said, or did, really caught the imagination of the crowd. Just as I had been freed so that I could stand upright, they too seemed to be freed from their bonds. Like me, they started rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing. It was a fine day. The best day I can remember in many years. And it was a fine day for those who had crowded into the synagogue with me. They, too, were freed from the oppressive rules and regulations that the religious leaders used to hold us down.

But that was all five years ago. “How’s your life now?” people ask me. “What’s changed? How’s it going?”

Well, as you probably know, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he stopped by our little village. He eventually made it to Jerusalem, and it didn’t take long before the powers that be hung him on a cross—precisely because he wanted to set people free rather than bind us for our sins or failures.

Even though Jesus is no longer with us, I am part of a small group of people who follow him and his teachings. It’s no easier for us than it was for him. We are blamed and shamed for simply speaking his name, we are rejected and persecuted for hoping and working for a better life, a just and compassionate world.

That might seem odd to you—and it is. Trying to live by love and compassion—that shouldn’t upset people, but it does. It’s easier to understand this reaction if we recall the dream Jesus’ mother had for him, the song she sang when she found out she was pregnant:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

I am here to tell you that this dream came true in my life. Jesus lifted up the lowly—I couldn’t have been any lower, if you know what I mean. He freed me from that which had ruined my life, and for that I will be forever grateful. Even though some people still remember the way I was and are suspicious of me because of that, I have friends again, especially among those who follow Jesus. I’m able to work again, and contribute to the welfare of others. It’s still a little hard to believe—and it’s a small thing—but I can actually make eye contact with people around me.

Sadly, though, five years later, many things have not changed. My ex-husband’s cousin is still in charge of the synagogue. Women are still banned from entering the inner chamber. The hungry still beg on the street. Suspicion and hatred still drive the village’s gossip. Injustice, oppression, and corruption seem to have the upper hand.

But I have changed. I try to live every day in response to the mercy and compassion that Jesus showed to me: I tell other people about Jesus and how he freed me from my bondage, how he frees all of us from whatever binds us; I look for ways to show strength in opposition to the proud, the self-righteous; I work to lift up the lowly and to fill the hungry with good things.

And those I know who follow Jesus have changed. We befriend the invisible. We help those who are helpless. We bend down to lift up those who bent over by the weight of this unjust world.

As you go your way today, remember me, and remember my story. I was bent over and held captive by a physical ailment; what is it that binds you? What is it that keeps you from living the life that God intends for you? Is it anger or bitterness? Is it the inability to forgive someone for perceived offenses? Is it the need to be successful or at least better than someone else? Is it a lack of compassion or understanding for someone who is different from you? Is it a physical ailment like mine? Whatever it is, Jesus is here to touch you, too, to say, “you are set free from your ailment.”

I am Rebecca. It is no longer Rebecca, daughter of Abraham; it is Rebecca, child of God, for that is who I am now. And that is who you are: Rachel, child of God, Frank, child of God, Tom, child of God, Stephanie, child of God. Loved, freed, forgiven, restored. Receive that love, that forgiveness, that restoration, here, now, in scripture and prayer, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, in Christian community.

Then, as you go back to your everyday life, tell everybody how God has freed you. In all you do, free others from whatever it is that binds them, bends them over, or holds them back. When people see you, may they rejoice at all the wonderful things that God is doing in and through your life.

© 2016 Dwight L. DuBois
This work may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.

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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