Archives For Church

My colleague, Martha Taylor, recently reported a conversation with a parishioner in which said parishioner gushed, “Oh, I just love my church to death!”  Martha noted that she had a tight grip on the reins and leadership of the church and thought, “Yes, sadly, you probably do.”Wooden Background With Olive Heart And White Cross For An Obitua

In a time when different factions are fighting over the future of the church, it’s important to consider how not to love the church to death.

These days biblical interpretation, the unique claims of Christianity, worship on Sunday mornings and even church itself are up for grabs.

What’s a church leader to do? How do you achieve peace in your congregation?   Is it even possible?

One of the biggest spiritual challenges for people of every age and generation is learning how to let go. Click To Tweet Letting go of power, control, possessions, preferences and life itself is tough stuff.  Yet, this is the call of faith and of spiritual maturity.  It is also the pathway to harmonious relationships.

How might this work?  For now, I’m going to skip over the obvious disagreement before United Methodists—norms of human sexuality and of biblical interpretation—in favor of something less charged: worship style.  When traditionally-minded worshipers are able to let go of the exclusive use of organ music played at a stately pace, in order to accommodate the addition of a band’s lively music or meditative Taizé chant, this move not only includes more worshiping preferences, it also enriches the spiritual life of the whole community.

The key word is exclusive.  It’s not that the organ can’t be incorporated into multi-generational worship.  It’s just that insisting on it can suffocate other options.  And ultimately the life of the church.

If we are to make way for new generations, new expressions of faith, and new leaders, we have to practice surrender. Click To Tweet

The current rate of change is more rapid than any previous generation has ever experienced. That means Postmoderns, Millennials, and Digitals are far more fluid and adaptable than Baby Boomers, Pioneers or GIs.  Futurist Ray Kurzweil noted, “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

So while the church is deciding if it’s okay to sing songs out of the new hymnal, use projection screens, or incorporate new musical instruments, the Confirmation Class of 2019 is learning how to navigate more change in a few months than we have previously encountered in our lifetimes! They don’t understand the church’s collective reluctance to embrace change. For them, change is a matter of course.

Before you love your church to death, ask yourself these questions:  What do I need to let go of to be faithful to younger generations?  To older generations?  A house divided against itself cannot stand.

handsIn grade school, I was part of a brief study on the meaning of love.  My third grade class was interviewed, a few at a time, on the meaning of love.  I thought I knew what it was until I tried to articulate an answer.  “It’s when you like someone very much.”  Even as I said it, I felt flustered, unsure.  Somehow I knew those words came up short.  But I also knew that I didn’t really know what love was.

As Christians, we are committed to love.  It’s our watchword.  It’s our definition of God.  Our highest human ideal.  Yet, in church, the practice of love often falls short.  As leaders, we draw the circle of concern close enough so that our sermons, prayers and conversations don’t stray into areas that might evoke feelings other than compassion and care.

But what good is love if we aren’t called to exercise it?

Sure, we’re good at praying for the old and ill.  We intentionally feed the hungry in our communities.  We respond with killer generosity to victims of natural disaster. Those are all important.

But what about when love stretches us into terrain where disagreement crops up?  Where we feel afraid or unsafe?  How do we exercise love then?

I encountered it everywhere this week.  One leader I coach came away deeply unsettled from a meeting with a denominational board that tried to anticipate future rulings on leadership and human sexuality.  Later that week, I attended a small, local prayer vigil for immigrants, refugees and Muslims.  It was for the community, but was overwhelmingly attended by clergy from a variety of denominations.  Still later, I attended a gathering of citizens who aimed to transcend fear and exclusion by actively engaging the democratic process.  My takeaway from all this? As leaders, we care deeply about the issues before us, but we’re not always sure how to engage or empower those we lead.

I get it.  These are not easy topics.  But they are important.  Especially for us Christian leaders.  They rightly engage our deepest values, and our deepest fears.

Paul wrote that God has given us not a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-control.  With that spirit, Jesus counsels us to “Love those who hate you and do good to those who persecute you.” This isn’t the kind of love I was familiar with as a grade-schooler.  It still takes more heart muscle than I can easily muster.

I’m not alone.  We live in a time of increasing angst.  Tempers are short.  Insecurity is high.  Outrage is the new norm.  It seems like anything can happen.

Friends, this is our time!  It’s our time to demonstrate courageous love.  In order for us to love in the midst of angst, we need practice. This won’t be easy.  But it’s definitely do-able.  Here are specific ways to develop our capacity to love.

Love of God

  1. Begin by creating time in worship for people to directly experience and receive the love of God.   Invite folks to sit quietly in worship for a few minutes of guided or silent meditation.  Follow it up with a ritual of candle-lighting or reaffirmation of baptism.  Enhance the power of this experience by reminding folks that God’s love is not dependent on their good behavior, self-evaluation, being perfect or any other quality.  They don’t even need to be loveable. They are loved simply because they are creations of God, made in the divine image.  Jesus’ own love of us reaffirms this.
  1. Next, lead people in expressing their love and appreciation back to God.  Giving thanks for the smallest blessings to the largest ones increases one’s spiritual and emotional resilience.  Every week invite people to share 3 things they’re grateful for with a person sitting close by.  Or invite people to write a gratitude list that can be added to the offering plate. This expands our connections, raises the vibration of worship, and heightens our appreciation of life.

Love of Self

  1. Doom, gloom, and critical self-talk is the default position of our brains.  This makes its way to our hearts and gets expressed in our behavior. Being hard on ourselves ultimately means we are hard on others.  Help your people practice affirming themselves.  This is not selfish or self-centered.  This is sanity.  It leads to calmer people who have an overflow of love to share with others.

Love of Enemies and Persecutors

  1. Having cultivated emotional resilience and a reservoir of love, guide your people in sending intentional love to those around them.  This works for people near and far.  They don’t have to like them, agree with them, or approve of them.  They don’t need to be loveable by them.  But offering love to others in prayer—enemies and persecutors included—shifts the heart and embodies Christ.  It makes new conversations possible.
  1. Guide your people in how to speak from love when interacting with enemies and persecutors. Reacting from fear, hate, outrage, vitriol, or fear only sets up a chain reaction.  Encourage them to refuse to demonize others.  Counsel them to look for the best in other people, and grant them the dignity due fellow human beings.

From this place of intentional love, lead your people to take actions on behalf of those the world does not love.  Grounded in love, you will be able to keep your cool in the midst of angst.

More than anything, love invites us to step into the gap between fear and faith.  Continue to cast a Kingdom vision of the Beloved Community, of the reign and realm of God.  Don’t abandon it because it might be uncomfortable, inconvenient, or controversial.  Instead, lift it up because deep down it’s what we all yearn for.  In the end, it’s all we have to offer.

It’s on everyone’s minds. It’s all over the news. Millions of women took to the streets to make their voices heard. Should churches join in the political talk or religion and politicsnot?

I say yes. The Bible is intensely political. Every prophet risks their skin by talking truth to power. Every king weighs obedience to God against other concerns. Every temple, shrine, and altar has political ramifications.   The same with every war, skirmish, and battle. Even the Sermon on the Mount is political. Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Who do you think Jesus is talking about? Religion and politics have always been deeply intertwined. Jesus’ own life is an example of that.

This co-mingling didn’t end with the biblical era. The church, at its best, and its worst, has always been political. We’re at our worst when we imagine Christ is aligned with one political party or another. Or when we cut deals. Or when we trade faith for power. We’re at our best, however, when like MLK, we strive for the soul of the whole nation.

How to talk politics though, without causing further pain and discontent?   Here are some suggestions to get you started.

1. Start with ground rules that insure careful listening and mutual respect.

2. Don’t assume they voted for their candidate for the exact reason you didn’t. In other words, don’t assume the worst in them and the best in yourself.

3. Plan to listen deeply for the personal stories behind the political passion.

4. Assume they’re not 100% wrong and you are not 100% right.

5. Assume God loves you all.

Once these are in place, look for biblical principles that you agree on. Look for how the biblical principles might get played out in a particular policy.  Ask, What are the ethical ramifications of such policies? When we discuss things at this level, we are talking politics in a way that edifies and builds us up, rather than divides and tears us down.

To get beyond knee-jerk reactions means listening deeply. To the Bible, to the Spirit, to one another, to journalists, and to the politicians who present these options.

This is far from easy. It requires us to be well-schooled in both our faith and in the issues at hand. It means digging into the Bible, our personal beliefs, and the guiding principles behind legislation and policy. You gotta to listen to more than sound bites to do that.

It’s worthwhile though. I believe engaging in these kinds of conversations keeps the church honest. It helps us determine if we are living out the love we profess.  It helps us be clear if we are living out our baptismal vows of using our God-given power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. It helps us get straight on if we are furthering the Kingdom.

In the midst of our discussions, let’s not forget to pray. For ourselves.  For our country.  For one another. And for our leaders.  President Trump needs our prayers, and our love.  Really.  At the same time, he needs our accountability and engagement. His success, and our success as a country—whether you voted for him or not—depend on that. We can only hold him and other leaders accountable, appropriately, if we are spiritually grounded, well-informed, and speaking from love.

Want to get in on the whole discussion?  Click here to check out this recent conversation with Discipleship Ministries’ Scott Hughes and I.

 

 

“We’re always on to the next thing,” one pastor friend confided to me. “At least that’s how the people in my Annual Conference see it. We’re ever on to the latest, greatest solution for church growth.”

“Do you ever pause and celebrate what you have accomplished?” I asked.resting on laurels

“No.”

That got me thinking.  These initiatives may seem like passing fads which Annual Conferences mindlessly chase after.  But I doubt that’s what’s actually happening.  In my experience, denominational executives are working on several fronts at the same time. After all, different kinds of congregations and leaders need different kinds of approaches. Congregational renewal is not one size fits all. My work with emotional intelligence demonstrates that.

I have often wondered, though, if people would respond more favorably to the myriad processes their Annual Conferences offer, if only they were aware of how much had actually been accomplished with each one.

There’s no way of knowing what’s been accomplished if we don’t pause, communicate, and celebrate. That’s why I’m defending the oft neglected practice of resting on your laurels.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with savoring our successes.   When the Romans borrowed the Greek idea of presenting a wreath of laurel leaves to victorious military commanders, there was no implication that “resting” on them was bad. That negative connotation didn’t come for another 10 centuries.

Getting back to my friend’s Annual Conference–I wonder how many new ministries they have launched since focusing on processes for renewal? Harder to measure but equally important—how many fights have been avoided, how many members and volunteers have been re-energized? How many callings to the ministry have been reclaimed?

We can’t know these things unless we make space for collecting and telling these stories. That means taking time to rest on our laurels. Not forever. Not even for a long time. But long enough to actually soak up and celebrate all that has been gained.

As the semi-frenetic pastor of an active congregation, I had habitually pushed on to the next thing. And the next. And the next. Driven by both the joy of accomplishment and the fear of boredom.

“Rev. Rebekah,” my active lay leader sheepishly confessed to me one day, “we’re tired. We need a rest. Can’t we just stop for a bit and see how far we have actually come?”

When Jesus went into the wilderness to pray, we have no idea what he prayed. But we do know this: he paused.   Surely something good and life-giving happened during that time.

Year End Reports are a statistical attempt to pause and to reflect on what has been done.  But we have to look beyond our own particular congregations to get the big picture. Sure, worship attendance or membership may be down in your setting. But other numbers may be trending upward. In one Annual Conference I work with, church attendance is down, but baptisms are up! Not bad. In another, average worship attendance itself is actually up.

There’s no way of knowing this stuff unless we, as a body, actually stop and reflect. Then take it one step farther: celebrate.

What could you celebrate in your Annual Conference? Look for what you are doing doing well, and then emphasize it. Perspectives shift when we focus on what is going well.

Recently, I listened to a panel of General Conference delegates report on what happened in Portland last month. I expected a reprisal of the tougher issues that emerged at GC including painful disagreements over how to address human sexuality. I was not disappointed.

What most captured my attention, though, was the report of a first-time laywoman delegate.   “This was my first time at General Conference,” she smiled. “I didn’t even begin to think about it until about a week or two before I went. I arrived with an open mind.”

She went on to relate her delight about the milestones celebrated: the 250th anniversary of John Street Church in New York City, the 200th anniversary of Bishop Francis Asbury’s death, the 60th anniversary of full clergy rights for women, the 30th anniversary of Disciple Bible Study, the upcoming 25th anniversary of Africa University and 150th anniversary of the United Methodist Women. She was amazed at all the Church had accomplished in such a short period of time.

Now I’m the last person to whitewash history. Much of my work has been about empowering the church to embrace a truly Jewish Jesus, unlearn anti-Semitism, deal with what our Scriptures say about environmental stewardship, and creatively address the reality of church decline.

But still! What a breath of fresh air to listen to her celebrate our accomplishments. For a moment, we all rested on our laurels.

I wonder what would happen if we insisted on these breaths of fresh air more often? If we purposefully paused and savored our successes more than once every four years?

No, it wouldn’t resolve all our challenges or erase our differences. But it might just energize us to carry on creatively—conscious of the positive impact we are having on the world around us, and proud of the gains we are making.

Long before Starbucks offered 80,000 different ways to order a beverage, Burger King urged us to “have it your way.” The primary product in a consumer culture is choice. And the primary question it invites consumers to ask is “What’s in it for me?” But is there any place for that sort of question in the church?whatsinitforme

The Church prides itself on being a self-sacrificing body, modeled on Christ’s self-giving love. “What’s in it for me?” runs counter to everything we believe in. Or does it?

I’d like to suggest that there is a secret value in urging people to ask us that question. And a not- so-secret value in the church answering it. After all, Jesus did.

Jesus gave people a reason to follow him, answering the inherent question: What’s in it for me? He met people’s deepest needs through his hands on healing. When calling disciples, he said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women!” Notice he didn’t say, “Follow me so I can use you to take care of my business.” He put it in their language and answered from their perspective.

I was often unnerved, as a pastor, when someone wanted to do or be something that we didn’t already have a place for in the church. How could I fit them into our structure? How could I keep the church running? How could we get our needs met if they wouldn’t do what we needed? After all, we had trustees and church council to fill; we needed people to collect and count the offering; we needed Sunday school teachers; we had to find people to do missions, outreach and participate in Bible study. I started with what the church needed, not what they needed or wanted to give. I started with what’s in it for us, not what’s in it for them.

Turns out that’s not a recipe for longevity or sustainability. It’s not what engages most people. Yes, slots got filled, gifts were matched with needs, and the church functioned fairly well for years. But not everyone who came stayed. We were left with what we started with: structures to be filled.

But those structures aren’t necessarily designed to answer people’s deepest needs, fulfill their dreams, or empower them in the journey to be fully human.

Now I would want people to ask me, “What’s in it for me?” It’s an honest question that deserves an honest answer. The secret value in their posing the question is they might actually find their own unique reason for being part of the church. They might find their answer for being connected to Christ. The not so secret value in our answering it is we get to check if we are actually serving people or asking them to serve us. In other words, if we are there to help them fulfill their lives, or just our structures.

I sat sipping one of the 80,000 Starbucks beverage choices with my 40-something cousin, Brent, last week. “I don’t really attend church anymore,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem relevant to my life. I mean I believe in Jesus and all. But why keep rehearsing the same stories over and over? Does it really change anything? I’m left with the question, ‘So what?’”

There’s a person who never got to ask the what’s in it for me question. And a church that never got to answer it.

I’ve participated in Landmark Worldwide programs for almost a decade. It’s personal and professional development based in a coaching model that engages the question: What does it mean to be human? The organization is secular in nature. But they do an excellent job of prompting questions the church is likewise concerned with. When someone registers for a Landmark program they’re asked, “What would you like to get out of your participation in this course?” It’s a powerful question that helps people connect with their dearest concerns and their long-lost dreams.

What would it be like for us to ask that question of seekers and disciples? All too often we simply tell them what we the church are prepared to offer. Or what we think they should be looking for. Or perhaps we don’t even explain that. But when people can connect with what truly matters to them, and see a way to fulfill that through the church, then they will be eager partners in their own spiritual formation. They will be eager disciples of Jesus Christ. But we must be willing to have them ask us the “What’s in it for me?” question.  And to wrestle honestly with the answers.

One hot and humid Philippine afternoon, I traveled on a bus with the marvelously eccentric and profoundly visionary Bob Hentzen. A former Catholic priest and co-founder of Unbound, an organization that matches over 300,000 children and elders with sponsors, Bob had the long view on the church. “We are great at making Catholics,” he said, straw cowboy hat akimbo, as he reflected on his mother church. “But how do we do at making human beings?”

That question has stayed with me. The United Methodist Church is great at making committee members, and even church members. And now we are working at truly making disciples. But how do we do at making human beings?

The more we can deal with people as they are, and not as we think they should be, the better we’ll be able to do at it. Today, people do ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” Not a bad question for us to wrestle with. It assumes they have personal agency as well as God-given dreams, hopes and questions. And it assumes we truly have something to offer.