This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregation or presbytery I serve.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lives Touched.

            How do we evaluate and assess a church?  This is an increasingly urgent question in our time of decline, when many churches are falling into unviability and facing closure.  How do we determine whether a church’s mission is effective and faithful, and hence worth supporting? 
            According to the model we are now thankfully abandoning, churches were evaluated in terms of what some derisively call the “3-B’s”: butts, bucks, and bricks (membership/attendance, money, and buildings).  We have painfully discovered that this is a woefully inadequate and inaccurate set of standards by which to assess a church.  Churches can register high numbers in all three of these areas and still not be doing effective or faithful mission.  At the same time, churches can register quite low on these scales, and yet communicate the good news to people quite effectively.
            We now accept that the 3-B’s are simply imported from the prevailing economic order.  They only tell us how successful a church is in terms of an ideology that holds growth and economic sustainability as primary values.  But these metrics have nothing whatever to do with the mission of the church, which is based on the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament.
            This mission, as variously articulated in the New Testament, always has to do with touching people in some way with the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.  I suggest that a more accurate and instructive way of assessing a church’s missional effectiveness is by looking at the “lives touched” by its ministry, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  That is, how are individuals being touched by the grace of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through the work of a particular gathering of disciples?

            Once we start thinking in these terms, it becomes apparent that there are different ways and degrees to which people are touched by the good news.  Some are more intense, personal, and intentional than others.  Certainly a person who attends worship regularly is impacted far more strongly by the message of the good news than someone who drives by the church and merely reads the message board.   Although certainly both are “touched” by that church’s mission.
            So I suggest four levels of intensity in the way a church touches people with the good news of Jesus Christ.
1.    Primary.  These are people who participate regularly and consistently in the worship and other ministries of the congregation.  
·      --  They support the church with their time, talents, and money. 
·      --  They serve on church boards and hold offices. 
·      --  They engage in spiritual practices.
·      --  They participate in educational opportunities.
·      --  They may be equipped to teach, lead worship, pray publicly, give pastoral care, and even preach. 
·      --  They understand themselves to have a personal calling from God to do specific mission in the community.
·      --  They are often elected to positions of leadership. 
      2.    Secondary.  These are people who attend and participate in the mission of a particular church more sporadically and situationally.  
        --  They attend worship, but infrequently and irregularly. 
·      --  They may come to some church programs like educational classes, mission and service efforts, and enroll their children in church school/confirmation.
·      --  They may contribute financially, though usually at a lower level.
·      --  They may be family-members of others who participate in the church.
       3.  Indirect.  These are people who are touched by the church’s mission but would not       consider themselves to be a part of the church.
     --  They participate in activities hosted in the church’s building (eg. AA, a daily nursery school, a counseling service).
     --   They may lead or benefit from mission activities funded by the church, whether in the area of social services or evangelism.
     --  They may choose to receive the church’s outreach in social media (Facebook friends and likers, Twitter followers, etc.)
     --  They may be members of other groups served or supported (eg. people visited in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, or members of other faith communities).
     --  They may attend church events for the public (eg. concerts, art exhibits, lectures).
     --  They may have attended a wedding or a funeral in the church, or performed by the pastor.
     --  They may participate in another congregation with which the church is denominationally or otherwise affiliated.
      4.      Incidental.  These are people who are touched by the mission of the church in very       small ways. 
·      --  They read the sign board as they drive by. 
·      --  They might see the church’s name in newspapers, receive mass mailings, have friends or acquaintances in one of the other 3 categories, etc.
·      --  They may simply be neighbors of the church or the pastor.
·      --  They have been made aware that the church is there, and not much more than that… but they do have that connection.

            It seems to me that these would be more instructive – and yet still quantitative – categories for measuring the effectiveness of a church’s mission in terms of lives touched.  The model clearly needs more development.  Stay tuned. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ghost Churches.

            A friend of mine once told me his theory about ghosts.  He suggested that ghosts are people who died, but don’t know they are dead.  (I seem to recall something like this hypothesis articulated in the movies, Poltergeist, and especially The Sixth Sense.)
            Setting aside the questionable metaphysics, it seems to me that it describes a lot of churches.  They’re dead but don’t know it.  They’re able to go through the motions of a kind of half-life, only barely and incidentally visible to their wider communities.
            Such churches are recognizable.  They haven’t changed very much over the years since they stopped relating to their actual world.  Notice the pictures on the walls.  Notice the hymnals.  Notice what translation of the Bible they tend to use.  Notice the architecture and the furnishings.  Notice the office and audio technology.  Notice the books in the library.  Notice the age of the worshipers.  If we find many of these indications that the place is caught in some prior decade, then we may be wandering through a ghost church.
            Ghost churches may be frozen in any decade, from the 1940’s (still remembering “the boys” serving in the Pacific and Europe), to the 1950’s (the mainline churches’ perceived “golden age” when the church was wealthy, popular, and influential), to the more recent decades of the Great Decline (where we see on the walls fading posters from old evangelism and stewardship campaigns).  Even if there are conspicuous displays of pictures from mission trips and fellowship events… from 3 or more years ago, we may be dealing with a ghost church.
            Ghost churches can be wedded to the organ, they can feature liturgies and vestments more appropriate to another time, or they are still going through the motions of ecclesial life (think Strawberry Festival and Spaghetti Supper) that haven’t been effective or meaningful to anyone in the wider world for many years.  Ghost churches also feature a lot of clutter and just plain trash lying around, probably because the people are not conscious of what it looks like, and certainly not seeing it from the perspective of a visitor.
            I know this sounds very critical and judgmental.  But my heart goes out to many of these ghost churches.  Often congregations descend into this state because of various kinds of trauma.  I mean, there is the shock of the cataclysmic changes going on in the world and neighborhood around them.  These can be factors like increased traffic, demolition of neighborhoods for highways, deteriorating air quality, a plague of ugly strip-malls, and other indications of a steep drop in the quality of life.  Then there are the effects of the 2008 recession, from which many churches are still reeling.  Or there could have been a debilitating crisis – perhaps a clergy sexual misconduct case, or an incident of financial malfeasance – and the traumatized congregation just got stuck, unable to process and move past it.
            A ghost church has to be confronted with the evidence of its death.  This is difficult because the congregation has constructed an elaborate scaffolding of rationalizations, explanations, and justifications for their condition.   They do not want to hear that they are dead.  Somehow someone has to hold up a mirror to demonstrate that they do not have a reflection.  The world only sees them partially if at all.  They are feeding on memories more than hopes.  They have no energy to change.  They do not grow.
            Facing this reality, a church may choose with dignity and grace to close the doors.  There is no shame in this.  Maybe something new can be seeded with its remaining resources.  It is better to cash it in, than to hold on to the dishonest, disoriented shadow existence of a ghost church.  Most ghost churches don’t even get to this point.  But I suspect that most churches that do finally face their own death choose this path.
            Yet we are people of resurrection.  The apostle Paul talks about how much it frees a person to have already in some sense died.  Anyone coming back from death in this way is certainly not going to be frightened or controlled by the fear of death.  For them, death is in the past and the whole future opens up.  The early church knew this, and instituted Holy Baptism as a sign of resurrection.  Jesus himself seems to have had an experience at his own baptism that was powerful enough to drive him out to the desert to process it.  Baptism is a ceremonial dying and rising, by which death is symbolically placed in a person’s past and the basis of their life relocated to God’s future, which Jesus reveals as resurrection.
            So, upon facing, recognizing, and admitting its own death, a ghost church may rise up with new life in this world, and accept God’s call and mission with energy and freedom.  Ghost churches, then, have to decide to take up that new life with enthusiasm and energy.  New life is not like the old life.  What emerges from this choice will look and act very different from the now former ghost church.  It will be as different from what went on before as an oak tree is from an acorn or a butterfly is from a caterpillar.  It is for all intents and purposes a new gathering of disciples.
            Such a metamorphosis may be demonstrated in such things as a new name, a new worship style and place, a new sense and statement of mission, new leadership, and a new identity.  That is, it will have a new story that lifts up and lives in and for the future.  Only in this way does a gathering of Jesus-followers become visible and real in the world.

Friday, March 28, 2014

If It Ain't Broke... Break It.

     Recently I was able to take my first trip to Palestine and Israel.  Touring the holy places, now commemorated by monuments and big, old churches, it is easy to forget that in the time of Jesus this land was the nasty backwater of the Roman Empire, and that Jesus associates with the dregs of this society.  He is present among the most broken people in the most broken place. 
     When he enters Jerusalem, the first thing he does is go to the one place that worked, the only international tourist attraction in Judea: the spectacular, gleaming Temple.  Rather than praise its success and glory, he predicts its destruction, and puts a down-payment on that wreckage by disrupting its business and nearly causing a riot.  The Temple wasn’t broken, far from it; but Jesus’ approach is to break it.
     The book, Rebel Music, begins with the author meeting some of the young people who now come from all over the world to absorb the vibe of the place where hip-hop was born: the South Bronx.  I remember when the South Bronx was dismissed as the prime example of burned-out, crime-ridden, cataclysmic, unmitigated urban failure.  It was in those years, the late-1970’s, that young, poor people began fooling around with turntables and rhyming, rhythmic, spoken poetry.  Hip-hop is now the lingua franca of young people all over the planet.    
     Real growth, and an authentic future, comes in and through the broken places of this world.  Often, it is only after some kind of shock or disruption, even total collapse, that new things can emerge into a system.  Sometimes I am more worried when things are going well.  Not because I am expecting catastrophe to strike, but because I am not.   And nothing good is going to happen until some kind of disaster clears the landscape of our grandiose, successful projects.
     Maybe it is the church that is in decline, losing members, poor, struggling, and by all accounts broken, that actually has the most promise and potential as far as real discipleship is concerned.  The church that has nothing-to-lose and nowhere-to- go-but-up may be perfectly positioned to take the necessary risks, and step up and show some real trust in God.  That’s the church more likely to be open to the new things the Spirit is doing, and to create innovative, edgy, and out-of-the-box ministries.
     But they have to take the risks.  As the vast majority have found and are finding, such broken churches are not in a position to resuscitate the old, familiar, comfortable, and “successful” ecclesiastical model.  If they keep trying to do that, that is, to “fix” the church, and restore it to some fantasy or rosy memory, it will fail.
     Indeed, the choice for many churches is either fail and then die, or die now… and start living!  A declining church has to die in the sense of let go of its old identity and narrative, its former dreams and hopes based on popular models of success.  There is no going backward; there is only going through… and emerging on the other side.  It has to give up any notion of being restored to the glory and status of a conventional, traditional church.  In many cases this means divesting itself of the One Big Thing that keeps the church nailed down to that view of itself: the building.
     A baby bird is not going to get out of her shell without breaking it.  If she is under the impression that she can have new life while remaining in the old shell, she is mistaken.  We have a lot of “shells” constricting us these days.  Not just our expensive buildings, but our doctrines, practices, habits, traditions, and worldviews are walling us in and apart from a broken world.  New wine bursts tired, old wineskins, says Jesus. 
     Jesus doesn’t quite write off successful people and institutions, but he knows it is unwise to invest too much of his time on them.  He is far more interested in the unsuccessful people, the broken, the losers and failures, the rejects, and those branded as sinners.      
     Jesus knows what it takes to “get ahead.”  He knows what it means to be “successful.”  And he knows that those who have taken this path have necessarily had to compromise, if not completely reject, their trust in God.  They have had to adopt beliefs and practices of their economic and social overlords which are frequently completely at a variance with God’s will.
     I wonder about the degree of compromise and accommodation that is normally necessary for a church to thrive in this society.  I fear that many churches that are successful according to the standards and values of our culture have achieved that success by, well, selling out.  They present a rendition of the good news that is domesticated and watered-down, drained of all offense and discomfort, serving only to bless, affirm, and even sanctify a fundamentally corrupt order. 
     A church like this, that looks like 1956 – that idealized (and idolized) era when churches were full of well-dressed, prosperous, suburban, white people in tidy and intact nuclear families – may very well carry with it all the other qualities of that age too.  In other words, it may tolerate segregation, ignore lynchings, and excuse the violence of the establishment, like the police.  It may be soaked in blind, self-righteous patriotism and a corrosive glorification of war.  It may rationalize and deny economic injustices and inequalities, while enthusiastically advocating the interests of business and the wealthy.  It may care nothing about creation, and actively participate in its destruction and degradation.  It may conveniently reduce discipleship to mere verbal assent to some arbitrary cognitive propositions.  It may imagine that the Kingdom of God is where you go when you die if you have led a “moral” life, usually reduced to barely more than a few sexual categories.  It may think “mission” is defined as bringing the “American Way of Life” to people in Africa.  It may assume that colonialism is part of this and therefore a good thing.  And so on.  That’s all the dark side of the church of 1956.  Is that really what we want to aspire to?
     This kind of church, one that by our human judgment is not broken but rich, influential, exemplary, and successful, may need to be broken.  Maybe God is working on that right now.  How many formerly big and glorious churches are now scrounging around the bottom of their endowments to pay the heating-oil bill?
     How many churches are looking at their broken situation and concluding that because they can’t live up to that 1956 vision and memory, they have no future, and have no choice but to close?  The tragedy is that if they could get that fantasy of what-a-church-is-supposed-to-be out of their heads, they may find themselves perfectly positioned to move into God’s future.  The tragedy is that nowhere in the New Testament do we hear Jesus talk about establishing churches that are successful according to the usual, quantitative measurements: bricks, butts, and bucks (buildings, attendance, and money).  The tragedy is that they never looked around to see the brokenness in their own communities, to which Jesus sends them with a mission of service and redemption.
     How does a church that “ain’t broke” get broken?  It starts following Jesus.  The more a gathering of disciples seriously follows Jesus, the more it will lose all the trappings of success.  And – listen – the more a congregation follows Jesus, the more members it will lose, at least for a while.  The more we imitate and live like Jesus – in terms of simplicity, gentleness, healing, and blessing… and explicitly in terms of identification with and empowerment of the poor, outcast, disenfranchised, losers, needy, unpopular, sick, imprisoned, and bereft – the more it will be judged and dismissed as he was: a failure.
     But as he says, it is the broken and the failures who are the blessed by God.  It is these “stones rejected by the builders” who become the foundation of his church and bear it into the future.  Jesus’ message and ministry, the mission we are given to carry forward, is profoundly revolutionary and disruptive… and also hopeful.  For it is about the Holy Spirit knitting together a community of love that expresses and embodies the new life of resurrection.  The point is not breaking the pavement, but the sprouts of new life that are allowed to emerge in the cracks.