Archives For Congregational Development

“Can I still call myself an atheist, and believe in God?” I looked up from the salad bar at the 20-something young woman posing the question, my fork hovering over the red and green peppers. “Tell me more,” I said, momentarily confused.

“Well, I now believe in a kind of power, but not what you believe in.” She knew I was an ordained minister. “Say meditationmore,” I urged her. I wanted to hear what kind of a God she thought I believed in.   “Well, I think God is in everything.” Me too, I thought. “That sounds like maybe you’re talking about panentheism,” I offered. “Pantheism?,” she said. “No, panentheism,” I gently corrected. “There’s a name for it?” she asked, surprised. “Yup,” I said, relieved I had something to offer this young woman. Never mind that I also believe God is in everything; what I was most intrigued by was her desire to identify as God-believing atheist.

My daily life takes me deep into the heart of SBNR (spiritual but not religious) terrain—from the gym, to encounters with 12-step folks, to seatmates on airplanes, to United Methodist churches. Atheists who believe in God are not the only unusual faith configurations I encounter. In my ongoing adventures with the spiritual but not religious, I’ve gleaned a few things I’d like to share with you, including three insights and action steps for the church.

The spiritual but not religious defy easy understanding. While the evidence I offer here is anecdotal, and names have been changed, these stories represent people I have met along the way.

SBNR are not shut off to God nor is God shut off to them.

“I was meditating when I was transported back in time and saw Jesus, palms cupped, with a flame rising out of them,” Josh explained. “I feel like I witnessed one of the miracles of Jesus.   I know he exists. It’s not a question with me. But, church? No, I don’t really go.” “Tell me more,” I said. “We didn’t grow up with much of a faith,” this intelligent 40-ish man observed. “My Dad was Catholic and my Mom Jewish, but we really didn’t practice anything.”

INSIGHT: Jesus steps outside church walls. Just because they are not in Sunday services, doesn’t mean that God is not in touch with the SBNR, and vice versa. In fact, Josh’s story reminded me of my own, told in The Jew Named Jesus. The only difference is I was in the Orthodox Jewish community at the time Jesus appeared to me in a vision. I could have easily opted to stay in the Orthodox world, or to surrender all religious affiliation, but a churched friend gave me a third option. She invited me into her world. Not to Sunday School class, mind you, but to the seminary she was attending. The meaty challenge of seminary was perfect for me. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but It gave me a chance to learn more about Jesus without having to commit yet to a faith community.

ACTION: Connect and Invite. As people share their stories with you, invite them to learn more about Jesus, with you. They may not want to come to worship. Instead, they may want to attend a Bible Study, or a spiritual retreat, or, who knows, even seminary.  Maybe they simply want to sit and talk with you about their experiences. Treat this as a sacred encounter. Don’t judge them or their experiences; instead look for commonalities. Be prepared to say, “Tell me more,” and then to listen. Feel free to share your own experiences with them. Above all, be prepared to learn from them more about what God is doing.

The SBNR are church members and leaders…if they haven’t left yet.

“I decided not to be a General Conference delegate this year,” Suri confided, matter of factly. “I’ve gone every other year. But I’m not sure I still believe in this stuff. I’m not mad. It’s not anything like that. It’s just that I’m more of a universalist. God is love; that’s it. I don’t believe in the duality of heaven and hell. If I don’t come back to Annual Conference next year, you’ll know why. I’ve just moved on.”

INSIGHT: Church on the move. As Phyllis Tickle famously observed, every 500 years the church feels compelled to have a huge rummage sale. We “move on” in our practice, our beliefs, and/or our organization. I think the church is actually moving on from the duality of heaven and hell into a kind of “God is love” unity.  Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins” is a sign of that.

I wonder how many of our church members and leaders lean toward universalism? Personally, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place. Remember, I’m a panentheist (not a pantheist): I believe that God is in everything, including in each person. Hell, as near as I can figure, is a life lived apart from love, but I don’t see it as a place that God sends us to, condemns us to, or abandons us to.

ACTION: Get clear and get honest. Conduct an audit of your actual beliefs—whether at the level of congregation, small group, friends, or even just yourself. Take an honest look at what you do and don’t believe, and whether your church’s worship, ministries, and classes, are reflective of these beliefs. Invite your SBNR friends. It could make for very stimulating dialogue and build bridges of understanding.

The SBNR are looking for alternatives, and finding them.

“I’m the acquisitions editor for an evangelical Christian publishing company,” Shanda, an accomplished woman in her 50s, told me, “but I almost never go to church anymore.” She hesitated. “My theology has opened up quite a bit.” Another pause. She lowered her voice, “It’s boring. Especially compared to the personal development groups I am part of.”

INSIGHT: Don’t bore folks. SBNR folks are not anti-group, anti-growth or anti-God. They are anti-boredom. There are too many other options out there to waste time on experiences that don’t deliver. If church isn’t conducted in a way that connects, engages, inspires, provokes, challenges, or causes spiritual growth—then folks will look elsewhere. Don’t give them any excuses! Notice, I didn’t say church needs to entertain, babysit or amuse. It doesn’t. Yes, people want high quality experiences that engage them. Challenge and engage people with a love that risks everything and promises a real difference in the world! That’s never boring.

ACTION: Stand for something. Many churches are in survival mode. They have given up on standing for something. Instead, they’re trying to not lose people. Paradoxically, that loses people. Find a kingdom-oriented passion and stand for it. Preach it, pray it, and live it. Risk the church for it. After all, that’s what Jesus did.

Here’s the bottom line, church: SBNR folks have something vital to teach the church. If we listen, we might just gain clues to our own re-birth.

This article first appeared on June 21, 2016.



Alcoholics Anonymous has forever changed the church.  And it has done it right under our noses.  Or better put, in our church basements, classrooms, and meeting rooms.   AA introduced the concept of spirituality apart from religion.  It took away the middleman.  It has put into place the most successful self-duplicating, small group model in recent history.  And it has done it by emulating the model of the early church.  On June 10, AA turned 80 years old.  From extremely humble beginnings, an estimated 23 million people in the US now live with long term recovery from alcohol and other drugs.  Here are the top 15 things AA can teach the Church.

  1.  Stick to your primary purpose.  AA doesn’t try to be all things to all people.  It’s primary purpose is to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.  That’s what it does, and it does it very well.  If someone wants to apply the 12 steps to overeating, smoking or hoarding, a new fellowship is formed.  This laser like focus allows for great success.  What if the church kept the main thing the main thing?  Such as making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
  2. You can’t keep it unless you give it away.  AA’s know that in order to maintain their sobriety, they have to work with others and share the message of recovery.  That’s how Bill W. and Dr. Bob got sober.  And it hasn’t changed since then.  Evangelism is built right into the 12 steps.
  3. Get a sponsor.  Sponsorship is the key to success. Every AA who hopes to remain sober gets a sponsor to help them work the 12 steps.  Then they turn around and sponsor someone else.    What if churches focused on creating sponsors or disciples who disciple the next person?
  4. Insist on experiencing God.  God is very loosely defined, if at all in AA. Each person works on their own concept of God, and it changes and grows as they change and grow.  The church has made much of trying to define God instead of helping people to experience God.
  5. Promise a spiritual awakening.  It’s the results of working the 12 steps.  The church is short on this promise and long on trying to get people to join.
  6. Focus on spirituality.  Deepened spirituality is the marker of growth among AA members and groups.  Is that what drives your church growth?
  7. You don’t need a building.  AA has an estimated 2 million members worldwide I 115,000 groups.  Most of them meet in someone else’s space, paying rent instead of mortgage and repairs. That frees up a lot of time and energy to stick to their primary purpose.
  8. Don’t sponge.  AA has a tradition of being self-supporting through its own contributions.  Is your church looking for someone else to foot the bill?
  9. There are no stars.  Anonymity, not celebrity, is the key to the success of this program.  Humility is also a characteristic of Christ.  How about your church?
  10. Don’t shoot your wounded.  Relapsers are welcomed back with open arms.  Judgment, or the perception of judgment, is often felt in churches.
  11. Have fun.  Lots of laughter emanates from AA rooms as people laugh at their former follies.  “We absolutely insist on enjoying life” is an oft-quoted line from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Laughter keeps people coming back.
  12. Let the hierarchy serve the local group, and not the other way around.  The General Service Office of AA exists only to serve the local groups.  Denominational offices sometimes give the opposite impression.
  13. Share your story.   Early Christians had stories of salvation and they shared them.  This also helped them stay strong in the faith and hold one another accountable.  AA is all about sharing their stories.
  14. Focus on the newcomer.    The newcomer is the most important person in the rooms of AA.  They are actively welcomed, told to keep coming back, and encouraged to get a sponsor.  Their transformation begins immediately. Churches too often stay focused on the longtimers, and are reluctant to make space for newcomers.
  15. Expect resurrection!  People come back from the dead all the time in AA rooms. It’s what AA specializes in.  New life is expected and demanded.  How about in your church?

This article first appeared in June, 2015.

Why do good churches die?

I’m not talking about churches who have an apparent fatal flaw like mean or nasty people, terrible location, clergy sexual misconduct, 3D Modern Church Interioruninspiring worship or the like.  Churches can and do recover from all of those things.

No, I’m talking about good churches that care about people, hold decently inspiring and cohesive services, are doing their best to reach out and respond to a changing world, are led by a committed leader, and backed up by laity who truly care.  Good churches.  Why do they die?

Theories abound, including changing demographics, young people leaving the church or not being raised in church at all, the rise in the spiritual but not religious crowd, the appearance of “nones” and “dones”–those that have no religious affiliation or once did but have now retired from church, and the changing culture around us.  Yes, these factors all play a part.  But churches can and do transcend these factors too.

There is one hidden reason why churches that seem to be doing it all right still die.  I want to share that with you today, plus four hints to discover if this hidden reason is operative in your church, and what to do about it.

The secret reason good churches die is they lack a vision.  In fact, I believe 100% of church decline and demise is due to this.

Here’s how you know you lack a vision:

1.  Your current vision doesn’t expand assumptions about what is possible.  Instead,  it describes what you are already doing. For example, let’s say your church’s vision is “Extending the love of Christ to the heart of our community.”  Let’s say in the past, against all odds, you started an outreach to the homeless with food, clothing, and prayer.  Once upon a time it seemed impossible to do.  But now you are doing it on a regular basis. Guess what?  It’s no longer a vision.  Now it’s a program. Time for a new vision. Because a program, no matter how positive, won’t keep a church alive.

2.  Your questions change from Who is God calling us to reach? to How can we avoid losing what we have?  The first question is forward-looking, outward-focused and risky.  The second question is backward-looking, inward-centered and cautious.  It’s a sign that maintaining structure has become more important than doing real ministry.  Also, that fear has become more important than the Gospel.

3.  You have not put your own credibility on the line when articulating what’s next.  In other words, you are trying to look good, be liked, not rock the boat, save your job, or save the church. Jesus put his own credibility on the line when he cast his vision that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  So much so that Rome crucified him for sedition as “King of the Jews.” But his vision worked!  Here we are 2000 years later, still organizing around it and implementing it.  I’m not saying we will be crucified for having a vision.  I am saying that putting our own credibility on the line, for the sake of the vision, is the only way we can be agents of transformation.

4.  You are waiting for someone else to come up with a vision. If you are leading in any capacity–whether you’re in charge of the Rugrats Ministry or you lead a team of 20 denominational executives, it is your responsibility to come up with a vision.  That’s what leaders do.  Waiting for someone else may be a sign that it’s time to retire or to re-tool your understanding of leadership.

You can tell when you are in the presence of a visionary leader, congregation or denomination.  It’s exciting, invigorating and a little bit scary.  You sense purposeful movement, forward direction, and perhaps more faith than you yourself currently possess.

I had this experience when I attended the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations international conference last summer. This is a group that is basically inventing a new branch of Judaism which bridges traditional Judaism and classical Christianity. They’re fully identified as Jews AND as followers of Yeshua/Jesus.  Don’t tell them it can’t be done.   Because they are doing it!

Theologically, socially, politically and demographically they are all over the board. They include Jews by birth and conversion, and lots of Gentiles too.  It’s hardly a uniform group of people. But a single vision unifies them and propels them forward:  to restore the Jewish Messiah to the Jewish people.

I didn’t sniff a whiff of decline among them!  And I’m trained to detect that.

Here’s the point:  if they can do it, you can do it!  Good churches don’t need to die.  And good leaders don’t need to let them!  Envision a future that expands assumptions about what is possible, get back to asking the right questions, take risks, and be the one to get the ball rolling. This has the power to unify even the most disparate group.

Then, new life is not only possible, it’s inevitable!

This article first appeared on January 6, 2015.

Sunday Morning WorshipLet’s say you have recently arrived at your new pastoral appointment. You’re wondering just what sort of people you are serving. Worship services can give you a strong indication of how people perceive their power in relation to the world. This sense of personal power defines a group so thoroughly that it is often invisible to them. And to us. But get it wrong consistently, and people will begin to react. Get it right and you will master a key element of emotional intelligence.

If a church service focuses only on the sovereignty of God, or the need to wait on the return of Christ, or the overwhelming presence of evil in the world about which only Christ can take action, then independent and innovative risk-takers may feel restless, uninspired, and even depressed. Their attendance may become spotty or they may leave—feeling there is not enough call to action, personal or corporate empowerment, or encouragement.

On the other hand, if a worship service focuses only on the power of human free will, the need and ability of the congregation to act, and the necessity to overcome evil or apathy through personal action, your harmony-seekers, stability-creators and conscientious may wilt, feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed.

Learn how to read the dynamics of a worship service and you will understand much of what makes a church function the way it does. Get savvy about how to adapt worship to address all the behavioral styles, and you will be a miracle-worker! Don’t be surprised when more people say that God spoke to them, they were fed, they were inspired, or they learned/heard something new.

Check out these four examples of worship to see what they communicate about power.

Sts. Peter, Paul and Mary Roman Catholic Church holds a praise Mass. Featuring acoustic guitars, and easy to sing songs, this Mass has been popular for decades. The musicians/worship leaders wear jeans, and the Priest often ministers from down front. Rather than being held on Sunday morning, this Mass takes place on Saturday night. As is true in most Catholic Churches a wide array of generations are present. Children sit with their parents and grandparents and are instructed as they go along. Everyone seems to sing, and enjoy it. Instruments are passed out and people worship joyfully. A relaxed attitude prevails. Worshipers linger after Mass has ended, enjoying coffee and dessert and occasionally the thoughts of a visiting speaker. Two offerings are taken during each Mass; one for the Parish, and the second for a charity that varies month by month.

Lutheran Church of the Ascension is high church from start to finish. The processional features young people carrying in the cross, then the Bible. Next comes the minister and lay
reader. From there, a well-ordered service unfolds that includes traditional liturgy, a creed, four scripture readings, three hymns, and Holy Communion. There is no children’s message. Small activity bags are given out to children who stay in worship but most of them attend Sunday School. From the stately processional to the chanted psalm response to the closing hymn, the powerful pipe organ decisively leads each song and chant, as if carrying it up to the throne of God. Announcements are noted in the bulletin, not spoken. No prayer concerns are solicited from the people, rather a liturgy of prayer is recited, and an optional anointing before worship is offered to individual worshipers. Other than responsive readings, the only people speaking in worship are those of the robed minister and the lay reader. People leave as quietly as they came.

Suburban United Methodist Church conducts a well-rehearsed and imaginative service; four of them in fact. The 10:30 am service generally features four pieces of live vocal music, two of which are usually secular pieces of music. The latter selections are done in a startlingly fresh way. The service begins with a short dramatic piece to set the theme of the day. The call to worship is sometimes sung, sometimes recited, sometimes chanted. While there is an order to the worship, it’s not the type of liturgy that can be predicted. It’s always something different at this church, with a variety of people involved in the worship service itself. The preacher does not robe, but is impeccably dressed in business attire. The sermon is often interactive including Power Point or video shorts. When creeds and responsive readings are used in the service, they are set against images on a screen. A children’s message is delivered each
Sunday. Catered meals, Bible studies, or collections for disaster relief follow services each week.

Rural Church of the Desert has begun a new contemplative Taizé service. The service opens with the lighting of candles and the singing of Taizé chants. A long period of reflective silence ensues before the next Taizé chant. A single passage from the New Testament is read and reflected upon several times. No sermon is preached. However, Holy Communion is served, after which worshipers may light prayer candles or write out prayers. Then, two kinds of offerings are taken. The first is a monetary offering for the upkeep of the church. The second is a prayer offering in which the prayers of the people are lifted up. The worship leader blesses both offerings. The written petitions are then re-distributed through the congregation for prayer during the week. The service ends with the holding of hands, the singing of a Taizé benediction, and a personal blessing for each worshiper. Many people stay for coffee hour.

Which congregations communicate personal power? Corporate power? Which service would you be most comfortable with? How about your people?

Want to discover what your worship service is really communicating? Or to learn the EQ dynamics that contribute to engaging and empowering worship? Send me a copy of your worship service at and let’s set up a brief consultation.

This blog is adapted from the Workbook on Congregational Intelligence, by Rebekah Simon-Peter, from Track 1 of Creating a Culture of Renewal.


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.