Saturday, August 30, 2008

Church for the 21st Century

Early in his new book, "The American Church in Crisis", author and consultant David T. Olson quotes from the poem "The Rock," by T.S. Eliot, who wrote incisively about the church's challenges and potential:

And the Church must be forever building,
And always decaying,
And always being restored.

Consider those three phrases to capture the ebb and flow of the life of Christ's church, writes Olson as he examines T.S. Eliot's poem.

  • "Always decaying" indicates that every organic entity diminishes and decays over time. Call it the law of entropy. Things wind down. Then, Olson reminds us that, in the biological world, decay is often necessary for new growth to appear.
  • "Forever building" depicts the pattern of creative initiatives that promote life and vitality. Building may be unplanned or strategic, and that choice will usually determine the level of its influence and its longevity.
  • "Always being restored" describes a spiritual and miraculous act of God's grace in the life of faith. Restoration takes place when God acts through the power of the gospel story and the movement of the Spirit, breathing new life into the church. The combined process of building and restoration unite human and divine efforts to fashion the household of God, argues Olson. "For we are God's co-workers; you are God's field, God's building." (I Cor. 3: 9)
Despite Gallup polling that reports that more than 40% of Americans say they attended church in the last week, Olson argues that "In reality the church in America is not booming." It is in crisis. On any given Sunday, the vast majority of Amerians are absent from church."

As many now observe, the fastest growing group in America is "spiritual, but not religious."

Delving deeper into actual church attendance patterns, and citing Gallup's own reservations about the accuracy of self-reported church attendance, David Olson offers some different perspectives. A simple definition by the American Church Research Project defines a "regular participant" in church life as someone who attends church at least 3 out of every 8 Sundays- or more than once a month. By using statistical modeling to calculate frequency of attendance, the results show that 23% of Americans are "regular participants."

The converse truth is that 77% of Americans do not meet the above definition.

The question is then raised: Is an authentic connection to the life of a church an integral part of Christianity?"

By way of response, Henri Nouwen is quoted:

"Listen to the Church. I know that isn't a popular bit of advice at a time and in a country where the Church is frequently seen more as an 'obstacle' in the way rather than as the 'way' to Jesus.
Nevertheless, I'm profoundly convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the Church. The Church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus, there can be no Church; and without the Church, we cannot stay united with Jesus. I"ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the Church. To listen to the Church is to listen to the Lord of the Church."

I recommend David Olson's book for its challenge to church leaders and members alike who love their church, but also remain unwilling to examine the cultural and spiritual changes and challenges to the healthy life of congregations. Too often, we refuse to ask: "What will the church in the 21st century look like and demand of us to live out an authentic and missional faith and discipleship?"

Here, Olson points the way: The Church Needs to Discover Which Century It is Living In. Too many of our churches act as if they are still operating in the 1950s; others act as if they are still living in the 1980s or 1990s.

The American church, argues Olson, must engage with these 3 critical transitions:
  1. Our world used to be Christian, but it is now becoming post-Christian. How does this call us to a more faithful practice of discipleship?
  2. Our world used to be modern, but it is now becoming postmodern. People are not asking so much if our faith is true, but is it relevant and can it actually be practiced.
  3. Our world used to be mono-ethnic, but it is now becoming multiethnic. How will this new reality shape the homogeneous worshipping communities most of us grew up in?
These are huge transitions and the church can respond with anxiety, paralysis and fear, or embrace with confidence that the gospel and our faith is ultimately "translateable' into any new culture and time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Choosing to Love the World

Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton continues to offer remarkable guidance for the times in which we live. I've long admired Merton and have sampled his writings at different times in my life. A wonderful new compilation of selections from Merton's key writings is titled "Choosing to Love the World". What a fit and striking reminder of the essence of spirituality in so many ways, in a day and time in which we are more tempted to fear the world, than love it.
"For God so loved the world..." the Gospel of John reminds us.

Here's a passage from Merton's writings in this wonderful book...

"He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.

There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which we are driven by our own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been. The result of this is evident. We are living through the greatest crisis in the history of man; and this crisis is centered precisely in the country that has made a fetish out of action and has lost (or perhaps never had) the sense of contemplation. Far from being irrelevant, prayer, meditation and contemplation are of utmost importance in American today."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Food for thought

"Life is about passion; the intense and undeniable emotion that fills the body with overwhelming energy and strength. It allows good people to become great people, their passion so contagious that their words and deeds inspire others to follow and rise to do great things." by Windland Smith Rice

(In a recent visit to the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. I saw this quote in a National Geographic Photography exhibit. Some of the most striking photographs of nature and wildlife I've ever seen were exhibited there. Life is about the creative process and all around us God has provided the canvass and the materials to get in touch with a passion for living.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not say, "I have a very good plan." Instead he cried out, 'I have a dream."

As I seek to provide leadership with churches and their leaders, I often find people hungering for a fool proof plan that will take them from step 1 all the way through step 7 in renewing and growing their faith communities. But churches are birthed out of a dream. Jesus had a dream of the Kingdom of God, and he called to disciples to pursue that dream. People are energized by dreams, not so much by plans. What passionate dream do we Christians have to share with people around us?

"Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death." Anais Nin (Cuban-French author)

Quite often church leaders ask about change. You often sense a great ambivalence about the subject. Can't things remain the same? That's a common wish. Deep down we all know that's impossible. It wouldn't even be satisfying in the long run. Remaining the same spells an end to hope and our growth as individuals and as communities. The Spirit of Christ is the "giver and renewer of life" according to one statement of faith that Presbyterians often profess. I like what one politician once said, "The status quo is Latin for the mess we're in..." When you think about it, faith is always about change, and presents us with the courage to deal with the mess we're in.
Or as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12, "be transformed by the renewing of your minds."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Converting the church for the 21st century: Mapping the Way

Below you will find a Select Bibliography for “Out of the Box” Discipleship and Ministry
that I recommend as a starting place for re-envisioning the church for the 21st century.

The North American church is suffering from severe mission amnesia.

It has forgotten why it exists.” Reggie McNeal

The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church Reggie McNeal

McNeal addresses the collapse of the church culture. As he notes, “In North America the invitation to become a Christian has become largely an invitation to convert to the church..” In a day of anti-institutionalism, people run from this. As McNeal observes,

“people outside the church think church is for church people not for them.” How do we Deconvert from churchianity to Christianity? is only one of six tough questions raised in this book. McNeal’s aim is to help us think, pray, live and witness outside this church bubble we’ve created, that’s separate from the world where we live.

>Emerging Hope : “A Strategy for Reaching Postmodern Generations Jimmy Long

Long is the editor of the “Emerging Culture Curriculum” (IVP) and a veteran of 25 years of campus ministry. This is an excellent resource for understanding and responding to the changing cultural context of ministry, with GenX and Millenials. Long is a bit hard on blaming Boomer parents for the struggles of younger adults! Very helpful in discussing how younger generations view the church, their differences from previous generations, and implications for ministry. Summarizes material helpfully.

>ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry Eddie Gibbs

Another outstanding and hard-hitting survey of how the church needs to reposition itself vis-à-vis the culture we are seeking to address. Are we even seeking to address the culture?

Gibbs challenges us to move from living in the past to engaging the present.

Great discussion questions at the end of each chapter for your leadership team.

Nice quote: Gibbs describes much boomer religion as “religion-as-accessory, resulting in Gen X children taking the next step to religion as unnecessary.”

>The Essence of the Church Craig Van Gelder

Van Gelder is a leader in the Gospel and Culture Network. If you think there’s a simple method or technique to renew the church, you need to read this very stimulating book. The shelf-life of methods is shorter and shorter: from Seeker Sensitive to 7 Day A Week to User Friendly to Purpose Driven, to you name it. Dig deeper with Van Gelder

>Missional Church Darrell Guder ed.; The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin Substantive and challenging examinations that are foundational! Transforming Mission David Bosch is the most comprehensive missional theology of all! It is biblical, cultural in its analysis of obstacles to mission, deeply ecumenical, and practical in its strategic directions. Bosch reminds us that we in the church sometimes think crisis is abnormal for the life of faith. We would be far better off, argues Bosch, to realize that crisis has always been the church's context for ministry.

>The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship by Dan Kimball

Kimball is known as one of the leaders in the movement known as the Emerging Church. He’s in his early forties. In the first book listed, you’ll get a marvelous overview of what is happening in this movement of young leaders, with very helpful summaries of what this whole “postmodern” thing is about. Kimball’s book on worship shows how the seeker-sensitive movement addressed many baby boomers, but fails to connect with many of the rest of us, including younger generations drawn to an Ancient/Modern faith.

>Ancient-Future Worship and Ancient-Future Faith by Robert Webber

Webber is describing worship that has depth, is participatory, and is passionate. Webber is a well-known worship scholar and leader with a maturity in understanding the emerging church movement and challenges. Not to be missed. Sadly, Webber died about a year ago. But his legacy remains.

>A New Kind of Christian and More Ready Than You Realize by Brian McLaren. Mclaren until a year or so ago was pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in suburban Maryland near D.C. He is a well-respected pastor, author, conference speaker and mentor to many in the Emerging Church movement. He is very imaginative! The first book comes in the form of a story dialogue between a near burned out pastor and a high school science teacher.

If you, like many of us, suspect that something radically different is happening in culture and church, this book is essential reading. Check out the discussion guide. The second book listed is one of the best books on faith-sharing with younger generations, or any other for that matter. This book takes the form of an extended conversation between McLaren and a young woman, a musician, via the use of e-mail. What if we thought of evangelism as a passionate conversation about things that matter? Things like beauty, purpose, love, life, faith, values, hurt and hope. Get this book!!!!!!!!!

<Why Christian? Douglas John Hall

Highly esteemed theologian here shows what it’s like to do imaginative theology and faith-sharing in the form of an ongoing series of tough conversations and patient listening between a college student and a professor (Hall is the professor). You’ll be drawn into this one!

>Life on the Vine Philip D. Kenneson IVP

What’s the point of church and the Christian life? If we aren’t being transformed, why bother? Kenneson’s book is terrific in examining how the fruits of the Spirit challenge the consumer culture and emptiness of much of contemporary life inside and outside the church.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Your Church Is You

What final comments will I make as Interim Senior Pastor?, I asked myself recently. For 14 months I have been serving a mid-sized congregation in western Nebraska, and I discovered over the course of that time that I was coming to care for and love a group of people I knew I would be leaving at the end of this summer. I didn't plan on feeling this way. But it happened.

And along the way I also have come to believe that all ministry is "interim ministry." None of us stays forever! You could say that about life as well.

So, I shared the following charge to this congregation of Christians I came to love. I've had this statement "Your Church Is You" with me for several years now, and I don't remember where it came from. So here goes....

"You are a walking advertisement of your church and the Christ whom it proclaims. You take the church out of its four walls, and make it live in the everyday affairs of life. In fact, what people think of your church, they think of you.

Some have the idea that the pastor is the church. It is true that the pastor often speaks for the church, declares what it stands for, and invites people into its fellowship. It is the pastor's job to know the church's business and to act on its behalf. The pastor is your representative, but certainly not your substitute.

The preaching in the pulpit is fruitless unless it is reflected in the lives of members of the congregation. Classroom teaching is ineffective unless it comes to life in the attitude and behavior of people. Your church is measured not so much by what its leaders say as by what you do. You are the means by which the good life advocated by the church is communicated to people.

Your church professes a concern for people; you express that concern in the way you act toward others. Your church tries to build up a Christian world; you validate these attempts by your community. Your church claims to have a gospel that will make people new, opening to them a fuller life; you are the demonstration of that claim.

Your daily acts as a Christian preach more sermons, teach more people, and save more lives that the words that are spoken inside the four walls of your church building. You are a cell of the living church. Without you, the church has no life."