Renewal is an elusive quality in most congregations. It’s also widely misunderstood.Renewal 2

Congregational renewal is not created by more people in pews, more bible studies or more outreach. It’s not a function of working harder or even smarter. It doesn’t come by getting younger people or expanding the ranks of young adults. It’s not caused by more money in the offering plates or even setting up online giving. It’s not about better preaching, or better trained people, or higher quality programs.

These may be outcomes of renewal, but they are not its cause.

So, if renewal isn’t caused by any of the signs we normally associate it with, what is it caused by? In this post, I want to share with you the underlying practices that give rise to renewal. And how to know if your congregation is practicing them or not.

In my work with churches, I have identified 7 areas that are consistently present in churches that experience renewal. These include Clear Mission, Bold Vision, Aligned Ministries, Flexible Culture, Courageous Demonstrations of Faith, Life-giving Spirituality, and Engaged Leadership. They seem to hold true whether your church is progressive or conservative, rural or urban, small or large.

To see where your church falls, take the self-scoring assessment, and then let’s talk.

If you scored 1-40 POINTS, your congregation is on LIFE SUPPORT. Your church is gasping for air. It’s in need of a strong infusion of faith, vision, and passion. Or perhaps a funeral. Either way, it’s time to put the old patterns and old ways of doing things on permanent pause.

Your next steps: Consider your options. Is it time to close? Become a legacy congregation? Or a resurrection site from which something new can arise?  Find ways to honor the past, then make way for a very different future.

If you scored 41-80 POINTS: it’s time to ask yourselves, CAN THESE BONES LIVE? Your congregation has likely slipped from serving God and serving others to a fear-based inertia. Sentimentality and longing are frequent topics of conversation while vision and passion are things of the past. Risky faith is but a memory. Spiritual practices and ministries focus only on comfort. Conflict, or the threat of it, is ever-present.

Your next steps: Gather a vision team and begin to pray for God’s next vision for you. Do not let the fear of conflict or time-honored tradition waylay you from sensing God’s new promptings. Pay special attention to cultivating Life-Giving Spirituality, Engaged Leadership and Flexible Culture.

If you scored 81-120 POINTS: discover FRESH WINDS OF THE SPIRIT.  One of two things is happening. Either your congregation is leaning into best practices, and discovering new ways to respond to the Gospel. Or your congregation is slipping away from its former glory days, and just doesn’t know it yet. You likely have a sense of Clear Mission, even if Bold Vision is tenuous. You have some strength in Aligned Ministries and Life-Giving Spirituality.

Your next steps: Cast a Bold Vision. Look beyond yourself and your own survival to the needs and resources of the community. The more you do this, the more fear will fall away and faith will take its place. Partner with God to launch new ministries aligned with your vision, to rotate leadership and practice more courageous demonstrations of faith. Ensure that you are practicing high accountability, and mentoring new leaders to get to the next step.

If you scored 121-160 POINTS: celebrate that you are RENEWED AND REFRESHED. Your congregation is leading the way with inspiring vision, life-giving passion, and fear-defying faith. You know who you are and what you’re about. You are on the leading edge of each of the 7 areas of best practice. Most of all, you are expanding assumptions about what is possible and deeply connected to the Source and Spirit of your faith.

Your next steps: Celebrate and freely communicate your successes! Mentor other churches, grounding them in the best practices you have discovered.   Make sure leadership is revived, and that you do not rest on your laurels for too long. Cast the next life-giving Bold Vision.

No matter what stage your congregation is in, once you start on the path of renewal, keep the lines of communication open. Treat each other with respect and patience. As exciting as renewal is, there will be some push-back as things change.

Ready to dig in or have questions? Please contact us for a free 30-minute consultation to map out your next steps. Email Or call 307-320-6779.

Finally, let us empower you to read your congregational culture, grow in leadership smarts and shift the culture of your congregation. Creating a Culture of Renewal Groups are forming for 2017-2018.  Join the one that’s closest to you.

Will the United Methodist Church split or not over differing interpretations of human sexuality and biblical hermeneutics? That was the topic my wayof informal conversation at a recent denominational retreat I co-led in New England.

“If The Way Forward doesn’t come back with something everyone can live with, we’ll split,” offered one pastor knowingly. “We’ve already split,” asserted another, “it’s just not official.” A contemplative silence ensued. “What if it’s not schism?” asked one savvy lay person. The group leaned in, curious. “What if it’s self-differentiation?” she continued. It got me thinking. Not all splits are schism.

Schism implies irreparable differences and anxious or angry reaction. Self-differentiation has a whole other feel to it. Yes, it’s a way of distinguishing oneself from the rest of the group. But it implies health, self-knowledge, and courage. Unity is the opposite of schism, but not of self-differentiation. Students of family systems know that anxious enmeshment is its opposite.

Jesus was self-differentiated. He didn’t go along just to go along. He stated his beliefs, his values, and his world-view. Even when it wasn’t popular. He offered his teaching—both when it coincided with current Jewish teaching, and when it veered away from it. He didn’t back down from either.

He was a non-anxious presence who allowed others to claim their own truth and life- experience. He was clear about his purpose, but he didn’t insist that others follow suit. For instance, he never decided for others whether they were “true Jews,” or faithful followers of his. By his estimation, even the Pharisees would enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus didn’t ostracize Judas, or cut him off from the others. Nor did he split his followers from mainline Judaism. That happened way after his death.

Could we learn to do the same?

Could we allow people to pursue truth as they see it? Could we calmly and lovingly self-differentiate, even as we maintain our bonds of connection? In other words, is there room for an intentional big-tent United Methodism?

Yes, I think so. Local churches do it all the time.

When you walk through the doors of First UMC, Anytown US, no one stops you to find out your theology or sociology. There’s no litmus test for biblical interpretation, or understandings of human sexuality. We don’t sort people at the door. We don’t sort people at the Lord’s Table, or at the Baptismal font. When we are baptized, it’s not into a set of doctrines. It’s into the Body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

When a person joins the UMC, they covenant to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness. That’s it. The rest is open to interpretation.

The way our current system is set up, a simple majority prevails when it comes to setting up the rules we live by in the Book of Discipline. The whole idea is get people to agree with you so that your “side” can “win.” But we all know that that’s a losing battle.  Winners create losers.

We’re not made to agree on everything. We’re made to be one in Christ—in all of our glorious differences. That’s the miracle and magic of it all. We can be Jew and Greek, male and female, servant and free. And be one in Christ Jesus.

A self-differentiated United Methodist Church would be unlike our current gridlock Methodism. It would require an intentional openness about our differences. And an intentional acceptance of them.

We would need to make space for a wide spectrum of understandings of sound biblical interpretation and healthy human sexuality.  Likewise, we would need to make space for a spacious variety of Christologies, and understandings of the Holy Spirit. And we would have to be okay with them openly co-existing.

It would mean giving up being right. Or making others wrong. And it would mean more Christlikeness than we currently manifest as a body.

It can happen. Confirmation came around a New Mexican table laden with carne adovada and green chile stew a few weeks ago. I sat with a group of beloved colleagues I met through Creating a Culture of Renewal; we were talking theology. In our small group of 3-4, we had at least one tongues-speaking Charismatic, one fervent evangelical, and one liberal-evangelical-passionate-progressive (me).

It took a while for us each to be clear about our theological differences. But as we did, we discovered something very interesting. We had many things in common—beyond our love and respect for each other. We had shared goals in ministry. Shared compassion. Not to mention shared fears of being marginalized in our current system.

God had called each of us to ministry in a unique way. Yet, no one person’s call undid anyone else’s. They were all valid; they all came from God.

What if we treated each other the same way? No insistence of sameness. Just insistence on authenticity. The truth is, the UMC is inherently diverse. We just don’t really ‘fess up to it—in a non-anxious, self-differentiated way.

I wonder what might happen if we could openly own our values and worldviews and theologies?  We might not need to split. Or schism.

News flash!   The orthodox wing of the United Methodist Church is not going away.  In fact, it’ll likely get stronger.  Likewise, the progressiveConfusing directions road signs (Vector) wing of the United Methodist Church is not going away.  It too will get stronger.

That leaves us with a dilemma: How to go forward when we have two very strong, and somewhat opposing points of view?  Especially when it comes to human sexuality and biblical hermeneutics.

Here’s what else is not going away:  a fair number of United Methodist people who identify as LGBTQ, and their supporters.

What’s a denomination to do?  If we want schism we’re set up perfectly for it.  After all, we seem to have irreconcilable differences.  If we want unity, not so much.  Neither side is going away and neither side is backing down.  All of us want to be heard and respected.  Now what?

May I suggest a really good fight?  Before you hit “delete”, allow me a moment to elaborate.

Patrick Lencioni in his bestseller, 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, lays out the pitfalls of not engaging in constructive conflict:  meetings are unproductive, a team doesn’t commit to the decisions it makes, no one holds each other accountable, and desired results do not materialize.

For 45 years, United Methodist General Conferences have been unproductive in resolving our differences of opinion on human sexuality.  About 40% have favored full LGBT inclusion in the life and leadership of the church; 60% have been against.  Even though we make doctrinal decisions on human sexuality via the Book of Discipline, we lack commitment to carry them out.  Once back home, people perceive the movement of the Holy Spirit in very different ways.  And act accordingly. Many conferences ordain gay people. The Western Jurisdiction was swayed by the Holy Spirit in the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.  The truth is we have varying commitments.  We can’t hold one another accountable to a vision we don’t share.

Even so, we’ve tried to enforce accountability through the Book of Discipline.  We’ve tried it through church trials.  These have only increased the rift, and the resolve.

In the midst of if all is this persistent fact: we don’t have the real results we desire – an overall increase in the number of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Even with all the resources at our disposal, our numbers show that we’re not gaining ground.   US churches have been shrinking for decades.  If it wasn’t for our expansion into Asia and Africa, our denomination would be significantly smaller.

The history of how we got here is long and arduous.  But here’s where we’re at: the Judicial Council both ruled that the consecration of the first openly gay, partnered bishop stands, and that in the future, more attention must be paid to the sexual orientation and practice of would-be clergy. At the same time, the Bishops of the UMC have commissioned a Way Forward for the entire denomination.

After 45 years, a lot of folks would be okay with schism. But here’s the thing. It would be like most other church splits: two very different stories of what happened, lingering hurt, blame and resentment.  Yes, there would be freedom; there would also be regret.

That’s why I’m suggesting a really good fight.  The Commission on the Way Forward could accomplish this.  I’m talking robust conflict, vigorous debate.  Mind you, not the kind of fight we have at General Conference every four years.  Keep the legislators away.  No secretive filings with the Judicial Council allowed.   Instead, let’s have an old fashioned, no holds barred sharing of ideas, concerns, fears and worries of all sides.  This needs to include orthodox and progressive, gay and straight, perhaps even Christian and non-Christian folks.   Include biblical scholars who deeply understand the text and context of our sacred texts, and the times we live in.  Let’s get all the consequences and implications laid out on the table. People won’t buy in if they don’t get to weigh in. But if they do feel heard, they’ll be much more likely to commit to future decisions even if their ideas didn’t win out.

Here’s what constructive conflict could do for us:

  • Air the real fears people have.
  • Surface all the consequences and implications of our potential decisions.
  • Cause us to feel and think outside the box.
  • Co-create something no one has thought of yet.

But before we have a fight like this, here are the ground rules I suggest:

  • Establish trust by sharing stories.
  • No personal attacks.
  • No assuming the worst about each other.
  • Be vulnerable with one another.

Patrick Lencioni says “vulnerability based trust” (not predictive trust) is the foundation for cohesiveness. It’s the willingness to say I’m sorry, I don’t know, I was wrong, I’m in over my head or I’m not sure.  It comes from knowing each other at a deep level.  From sharing and listening deeply, without fear of censure or retribution.  It requires real courage.

One ground rule for the rest of us: give them latitude and freedom to come up with solutions that are very different than what we might have imagined.

Is there a future for a united Methodist Church?  Only if we remember that we’re not stuck. Jesus gave us permission to decide how things will be:  whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  In other words, we get to decide how to interpret and apply scripture.  As long as we’re aligned with each other, Heaven will align with us.

Trust is essential to conflict.  Good constructive conflict is essential to commitment.  Commitment is essential to holding one another accountable to shared decisions.  And accountability is the only way that people will strive together for the results they profess.  You want results?  It all starts with conflict grounded in trust.



I attended two Passover Seders last week.  One I led for a large group of New Mexican church-going Christians.  The other was in the Reinvent Puzzle Pieces Word Redo Restart Innovate 3d Illustratiohome of my Jewish kid brother and our religiously, ethnically diverse gathering of family and friends.  The first one was designed to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus.  The second one was designed to raise issues of societal injustice.  Both relevant emphases for a Seder.

Even with their different focus and attendees, I was reminded of the meta message of a Seder.  Any religion worth its salt must re-invent itself from time to time.

The Passover Seder as we know it now didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.  Jewish as he was, he wouldn’t have eaten charoses mixed with horseradish sandwiched between 2 pieces of matzah.  He wouldn’t have invited the youngest disciple to chant 4 questions.   He definitely wouldn’t have hidden an afikomen.

Here’s what he would have done:  recited blessings over a paschal lamb.  Blessed matzah and wine.  Sung hymns.  Most of which is noted in the various accounts of the Last Supper or Seder.

Why the difference?  When Jesus was alive, the Temple still stood.  That meant that the Jewish form of worship was sacrifice-centric.  Leviticus 23 gives ancient instructions on how to observe these holy days.

Less than 40 years later after Jesus died and was resurrected, that whole system of sacrifices was gone, destroyed along with the Temple.  Judaism had to reinvent itself—in a hurry.  And it was the Pharisees to whom that task fell.

Of the 4 parties that existed at Jesus’ time—Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes—only the Pharisees survived much beyond the fall of Jerusalem.  Sadducees, whose members were tasked with Temple duties, disappeared—their services no longer needed.  Zealots, with their penchant for stirring up trouble, are credited by historians for hastening the destruction of the holy city.  Their remains were scattered among the charred rubble of Jerusalem. Essenes, who didn’t believe much in reproduction, simply died out.  That left the Pharisees.  It was their creative intellectual, theological and ethical genius from which Rabbinic Judaism sprang. Rabbinic Judaism provided the template from which today’s many Judaisms have flowered.

The Pharisaical emphasis on right action rather than right belief, and their ability to thrive under oppressive circumstances served them well on many accounts.  Especially when it came to their biggest project yet–reinventing Judaism in the face of a world that no longer existed, and a religious system that could no longer function.  Once the sacrificial system was gone, they figured out how Judaism might live on.  They reinvented religion—while holding the core of it in place—one God, and a people dedicated to the service of that God.

Judaism is famous for reinventing itself over the millennia.  But they are not the only ones.

At many critical junctures, Christianity has had to do the same. When Jesus didn’t return right away—Christianity had to take a new path without a living leader. When Constantine converted to Christianity and it became the dominant religion of the Empire–it again reinvented itself.  And once again at the behest of Martin Luther’s demand for transparency and accountability. Each church split has signaled a kind of reinvention.

We’re not done reinventing ourselves, either.  Twisted experiences from the Crusades and frontier America have caused most churches to drop coercive evangelism. We have re-invented the way we read scripture. Most Protestant denominations now welcome divorced people, female leadership and women clergy.  We haven’t worried about wearing mixed fibers for a long time.

Even as our structures and hermeneutics have changed, so have our ecclesiologies. We have already begun moving away from a clergy- and cathedral-centric expression of faith. Trained laity, house churches, experimental missional and other “weird” faith communities are taking root.

While our central tenets remain the same—and people of good faith will disagree about which tenets belong in this list, but here’s mine—God is love; Jesus Christ is God incarnate; The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; We are Kingdom people—the way we live those out has changed radically. Rather than see these changes as a weakening of the faith or unholy compromises with culture, perhaps its time to see them as part of the natural evolution of a religion that has staying power.

After all, reinventing religion is the very process by which Christianity arose. As I demonstrate in The Jew Named Jesus, Jesus was a Jew through and through. That means the religion of Jesus was Judaism. The religion about Jesus, however, is Christianity. It will be interesting to see how this process of reinvention continues to evolve as we meet the realities of a changing world, expanded knowledge, and unfolding opportunities.



This week we celebrate the miracle around which Christian life revolves: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It makes me wonder if we jewish jesusare truly ready to embrace a Jewish Jesus.

Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly. In too many sermons, commentaries, and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion, and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:

“Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the “poor and the marginalized” (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”

Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counseled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, I suggest it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice, and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.

Think about it. If Jesus was fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from? If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets, and kings that preceded and surrounded him. Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing, and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.

More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile. Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.

If we were to truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus, it would take a renewed scholarship among preachers, prayers, poets, professors, and Bible study writers and teachers. It would take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes. Not easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help, many of which I note in my book The Jew Named Jesus. It’s worth the effort. We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized.

This historic reconciliation points out an underlying truth: it hasn’t always been good between Christians and Jews. A long history of Christian teaching of “contempt of the Jews” made positive interfaith relations all but impossible for centuries. After hitting a theological bottom in the Holocaust, though, the church has intentionally hammered out new theologies and reached for new understandings that allow for love, acceptance, and embrace of Jews.   In response, Jews have done the hard work of forgiving and rapprochement too.

All of this brings us to the point where we can ask the question: Can we truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus? In good Jewish fashion, I assert that even the question is a good one.

It leads to all kinds of other interesting questions. If Judaism and Christianity could hammer out a new relationship, is the same possible for Christianity and Islam? If we could, should we?

The truth is, the work has begun. And it’s been initiated by Muslims. In 2007, 138 Muslim clerics and scholars representing every branch of Islam sent a beautifully worded and carefully researched letter to Christian leaders. This letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” stated that as the two largest world religions, the peace of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.It used as its reference point the Hebrew Bible teachings of love of God and neighbor, saying they were common to both Islam and Christianity.

We have the opportunity to turn a new page.   To restore and revamp our understandings of Jesus and Judaism. And to open our hearts to new understandings of our Muslim neighbors. What a great start to the Easter season this would be.

They’re risky moves for sure. Especially in an age of nationalism, terrorism, and blame-game politics. But isn’t that when the resurrection is needed most?