Blog Archives

Your Church Doesn’t Need to Be New to Grow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Pantheon, a place once dedicated to worship of idols but reborn to host the worship of God. May our lives tell a similar story as we realize what God does to us in baptism!

Discussion Thought of the Day:
35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News about the kingdom, and healing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses. 36 When he saw the crowds, he felt sorry for them because they were hurting and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Jesus said to his followers, “There are many people to harvest but only a few workers to help harvest them. 38 Pray to the Lord, who owns the harvest, that he will send more workers to gather his harvest.”  Matt 9:35-48  NCV.

Finally, I use these biblical, ancient roots together with insights and practices from Christian history to constitute the foundation for addressing the third issue faced by today’s church: how do you deliver the authentic faith and great wisdom of the past into the new cultural situation of the twenty-first century? The way into the future, I argue, is not an innovative new start for the church; rather, the road to the future runs through the past.
These three matters—roots, connection, and authenticity in a changing world—will help us to maintain continuity with historic Christianity as the church moves forward. I hope what I cull from the past and then translate and adapt into the present will be beneficial to your ministry in the new cultural situation of our time.

858      The first step towards bringing others to the ways of Christ is for them to see you happy and serene, sure in your advance towards God.

In my “different” (some would say twisted) experience in the church, more than once I have come across those who are focused on Church Growth.  Originally, church growth theory came from those who saw abundant numbers of conversions on the mission field, and sought to replicate it now that they were “back home”.  Now church growth is more affected by statisticians and pollsters, men who observe and make judgments based on what they see, trying to replicate what worked in Texas in Missouri, or what worked in Atlanta in San Diego and Boston.

And the cry today is not to grow the church because that doesn’t work!  The idea today is that new starts, new missions, new ideas make the greatest difference, and therefore deserve the greatest talent and the greatest money.

Churches that are forty years old or older and are in decline?  Give up on them, let them die the experts say. We’ve consulted with them, we’ve given them surveys and tests, we’ve tried to transform them, and they continue to dwindle.  Just give up on them, merge them into bigger churches, sell their properties and use it to start new churches. 

There is a greek technical term that describes such advice, taurus skubala!  Translated into English, it is easily seen as bullcrap.  ( I would type bullshit, but some people might be offended!)  

The reason the experts, the consultants fail to transform churches is simple.  They aren’t part of the community. They come in on a wing and a prayer, they don’t understand the dynamic of why God put a congregation in that place, ( see the dedication of the Solomon’s Temple for the reason) they try to create a vision where there already was a vision, where there has always been a vision.

And the community struggles to adopt its new identity. It isn’t them, it isn’t authentic, it’s an act.  And sooner or later they give it up, and give up the hope that was given to it!  They wander around like sheep without a shepherd, simply following what is in front of them, and the shepherds, tired and weary, plod on after them. 

But what if the church went back to what it treasured, and from their roots, used what they treasured in Christ and allowed Him to transform them and the world.  That was Webber’s plea, with his Ancient-Future Church series.  That is what Escriva considered the Opus Dei – the very work of God.  

We can shepherd people toward the God we know, that is our call in a new church plant or in a church that is 1700 years old.   It is the work of the 80-year-old retired pastor caring for the inner city church that can’t afford a full-time guy; it’s the work of the 26-year-old, fresh from seminary.  It is the work of the lay people, who are shepherded by their pastors and priests.  For as we do our job, the people know the happiness and serenity that is found in the presence of God.  There, in His glorious presence, they find all they need, and it is contagious. 

Bring people to Jesus, show them His way, reveal to them His love through word and sacrament.   That is how you apply the Bible to their lives.  That is how you give them hope, bring them healing, teach them to love as they are loved. 

This is what we’ve always done, though somehow we lost that in doing that.  It is the reason for the liturgy, for the praises we sing, for our homilies and sermons, for the sacraments we invite people too, knowing that they can and do experience God as they are washed and absolved and fed.  As they have always been.  Whether they realised it or not, whether we realized it or not.

As we gather tomorrow, may we shepherd the people to Jesus… may they respond as they find healing, peace and joy, and may others come to see Him as well.  AMEN!

Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.

Escriva, Josemaria. The Forge (Kindle Locations 3040-3041). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

When the Church is the Building….

Discussion thought fo the Day….

27  “But will God really live on earth? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built! 28  Nevertheless, listen to my prayer and my plea, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is making to you today. 29  May you watch over this Temple night and day, this place where you have said, ‘My name will be there.’ May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. 30  May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive. 1 Kings 8:27-30 (NLT)

41  “In the future, foreigners who do not belong to your people Israel will hear of you. They will come from distant lands because of your name, 42  for they will hear of your great name and your strong hand and your powerful arm. And when they pray toward this Temple, 43  then hear from heaven where you live, and grant what they ask of you. In this way, all the people of the earth will come to know and fear you, just as your own people Israel do. They, too, will know that this Temple I have built honors your name.
1 Kings 8:41-43 (NLT)

But more than that: we want to see heaven, we seek something greater, for the human soul thirsts for God, for the living God. The places of pilgrimage have marked a kind of geography of faith in our country, that is, they make visible, almost tangible, how our forefathers encountered the living God, how HE did not withdraw after creation or after the time of Jesus Christ, but is always present and works in them so that they were able to experience HIM, follow in his footsteps, and see him in the works HE performed. Yes, HE is there, and HE is still there today. It is from this inner encounter with the Lord that there originated the places and images of pilgrimage in which we, so to speak, can participate in what they saw, in what their faith provided for them.  (1)

It has become a mantra among modern Christians, “the church isn’t the building, it is the people!”

And as this has become more common, we see the church becoming more disposable, we are willing to let them fade into ruin, we are willing to sell them off and let them become restaurants, or antique shops, or be torn down to make way for homes or strip malls.  

Let me be clear, I am not talking about Gothic cathedrals; the Church might be a store front, or a modular building, or an old wooden frame building out in the country.  Nor am I talking about a form of worship – either that modified from ancient forms of liturgy, or free-form prayer and study that is equally ancient. 

But these places are the church.  

Because they are the places, like the temple, where God put His Name, they were dedicated to God’s work, to bring honor and glory to His name by becoming a place where the gospel was shared, where people were taught about God’s faithfulness, where people would be baptized and enter into fellowship with others who depend on God.  They are the place where that fellowship, God and His people was expressed and celebrated in Communion.  

Not just one generation, but generation upon generation.  They are the places of pilgrimage we have been given, Pilgrimages that aren’t once i n a lifetime, but daily and weekly..As such, they do what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about – “they make visible and tangible how our forefathers encountered the living God, how He did not withdraw from them after the time of Jesus Christ, but is ALWAYS present and WORKS in them so that they were able to EXPERIENCE HIM, follow in His footsteps, and see Him int he works He performed. ”

As I watch the church experts these days, there is a new mantra.  No longer is it the building that is not the church; the congregations are no longer the church either. More precisely, they find that God doesn’t sustain a church past 25-40 years (they forget the part of the original study talking about rededication  – holding on to part that explains their observations)  As they have been willing to close the buildings, now we are willing to close down the people.

In doing so, we lose the history, not of this person or that, but of their encountering God on His terms, on His ground, on Holy ground, holy because it was where He put His name, where they built it to honor Him.  This is what Cardinal Ratzinger was writing about when he continued,

 HE is there, and HE is still there today. It is from this inner encounter with the Lord that there originated the places and images of pilgrimage in which we, so to speak, can participate in what they saw, in what their faith provided for them.

As I talk to people who are broken, there is a need to find something bigger than they are, something that will give us hope, something that will assure us that we can go on, that God is still working with HIs people.  That there is something work sacrificing for, not just for our sake, but for our communities.  Something that is not just a testimony to this generation, but to generations to come.

These places where God meets His people, where He assures them of His love, where He welcomes those foreign to “religion” to come and pray,t o come and find God’s heart, where they find God revealed to them, can serve in such places, because they always have.  They are the gathering places, they are places of peace, because they are places of prayer, and absolution, fellowship, sanctuaries and fortresses where we can find rest and healing.

Sustaining them will take work, sacrifice of time and money.  THat’s okay; they took that to build them.  It will take a lot of teaching, a lot of sharing why God’s love is important, from scripture and the lives of those who went before.  That is okay as well!  The greater cost will be found when by closing them, disbanding their people, we send an unintended message of what doesn’t matter to “organized religion,”

They are where we, as a communion meet God. These places, centuries old or decades, large or small, ornate or plain, are where we become part of the church, where we become the church.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to abandon them, or the people and God that are the reason they exist.

(1)  Ratzinger, J. (1992). Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. (I. Grassl, Ed., M. F. McCarthy & L. Krauth, Trans.) (p. 165). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

A Prophercy Self-fulfilled: The Church Life-Span

Devotional Thought of the Day:

19  Nevertheless, listen to my prayer and my plea, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is making to you. 20  May you watch over this Temple day and night, this place where you have said you would put your name. May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. 21  May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive.    2 Chronicles 6:19-21 (NLT)

1  If GOD doesn’t build the house, the builders only build shacks. If GOD doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap.
Psalm 127:1 (MSG)

About 12 years ago, I was in a program that trained pastors for what is called Intentional Interim Ministry, or what I prefer to call Transitional Ministry.  It trained pastors, many retired or about to retire, in how to help a conflicted church or a church whose identity was found in relationship to their old pastor prepare to be shepherded by someone new.

A lot of the material was excellent, but there was one theory I questioned then, and I question even more now.  It was called the “life-cycle” of a church.  It proposed that most churches were lasting about 40 years, and 25 years into that cycle they began to decline.  Often overlooked in that discussion was the exception.  I questioned the theory and the basis for it.  I have seen too many churches that have existed for hundreds of years and are still a cornerstone of their community. I also wondered about the correlation of the theory to the generation it originated in – the baby boomers.

Now, I see the theory has become self-fulfilling.   But I still don’t think it is accurate.  Here is why.

1.  How we use our talent.
If we buy into the fact that a church has a specific life-cycle, then we will see a move to use our human resources and gifts accordingly.  Our brighter seminarians will be taught that the best will be the large church pastors or church planters.
After all, the statistics infer that the biggest “bang for the buck” is not in established parishes and congregations, but in doing something new.  Those churches in the decline or approaching 40 years will be relegated to men who go through the motions, or as the clergy crisis draws nearer, to retirees who are great preachers, but don’t have the energy or drive to disciple and work in the community.

2.  How we use our money.
What we will see here is similar,  Rather than invest in the costly upkeep of 40-70-year-old churches, we will fund new initiatives, and ministries that make us feel like we are accomplishing things now.  Effectively we will teach the next generation that sacrifice and determination are not as important and that it is better to give up and abandon, rather than dig deep and care for a community. (we already see this in the wastelands of cities that have been abandoned)
By the way, I am not just talking about the gothic cathedrals, but the store front chapels, the inner city, and extreme rural churches.

3. We devalue the people in a place
The first church I was called to pastor was a little place with 14 senior citizens left by the time I got there.  I was told by “the experts” that the most effective strategy was to drive off the people, close the doors, and re-open the church six months later with a new name.  They were willing to put their money where their mouth was and offer me a generous salary if I went with their logic.

But they couldn’t answer how these people would be cared for, where they would hear of God’s love.  I have since heard other leaders say it doesn’t matter; they will find some place to go, if they can’t travel to the new church plant, well they can go to some other church in their community.  These people of God didn’t matter, what mattered more were the resources they were hoarding, that they weren’t using. They didn’t see any value to them.  They didn’t see them as children of God, as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

Where there’s is no prophetic vision, scriptures tell us, people will perish.  When we teach them that their church must leave a legacy, rather than have them share what God is doing, then that is all that is left.  A legacy.  We’ve robbed them of what is theirs in Christ Jesus.

4.  We dishonor God, and dismiss His promises
As I look at scripture, while the church is the people of God, there is always a special bond between the people and the land where they gather with God.  The promised land to Abraham, the altars of Jacob/Israel, the role of the tabernacle and then Solomon’s temple.  God always talked of a place where He would put His name, where He would gather His own.  The only time those places “closed” and something new was started was during times of sin and rebellion.  Times where people did what was right in their own eyes.  Times when the people forgot the promises of God, and leaned on their own strength and understanding.
While a church building today isn’t the same as the Temple – it is still dedicated and set aside for a purpose.  There are still those who are baptized there, where the Body and Blood of Christ is a feast of our communion with God.  Where we celebrate new life, both physical and spiritual, and where we give thanks for those who are part of us, who have died and gone home.

When we invest in the new, as if it is the best, if not only hope for the church, we dismiss God, and we discount people.

But what if we invested in these places, in the communities?  What if we sent pastors who would sacrifice and strive, who would guide and be patient?  What if we rededicated those buildings, and re-read the gospel as the Jews were told to do regularly.  What if we treasured what happened in those buildings, and invited people to join us there.  What if we realize God was with

What if we sent pastors who would sacrifice and strive, who would guide and be patient?  What if we rededicated those buildings, and re-read the gospel as the Jews were told to do regularly.  What if we treasured what happened in those buildings, and invited people to join us there.  What if we realize God was with us there, and put His name there for a purpose, for people?

I bet that would fulfill a different prophecy, and we would see that God doesn’t abandon a congregation, that God doesn’t forget His promises.

That God hears, and forgives, and reconciles and bless His people.  What if that vision were given, in such a way, that the people and the church didn’t perish?

Could we give that a try, rather than just abandoning people and planting new wildernesses?

Pray to the Lord of the Harvest – for these fields are still ready for harvesting..

Church – your consultants faith? Is it in statistics and probabilities, or in God?

Featured imageDevotional Thought of the Day
 Do this because you are a people set apart as holy to GOD, your God. GOD, your God, chose you out of all the people on Earth for himself as a cherished, personal treasure.  GOD wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you.  He did it out of sheer love, keeping the promise he made to your ancestors. GOD stepped in and mightily bought you back out of that world of slavery, freed you from the iron grip of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  Know this: GOD, your God, is God indeed, a God you can depend upon. Deuteronomy 7:6-9a (MSG) 

Something similar has happened to us. With little effort we could find among our family, friends, and acquaintances—not to mention the crowds of the world—so many worthier persons that Christ could have called. Yes, persons who are simpler and wiser, more influential and important, more grateful and generous. In thinking along these lines, I feel embarrassed. But I also realize that human logic cannot possibly explain the world of grace. God usually seeks out deficient instruments so that the work can more clearly be seen to be his.

I have had it with the church statistics “experts”.  The well intention men and women who tell churches that they have only a 25 year life cycle, that they are going to die and close their doors, and that this can be a good thing.

Or the men who say that the fastest growing churches, and the best return of investment is to plant new churches (even if they are only 2 miles from a healthy church.  Who play around with statistics and charts and give advice and sell their coaching services. Whose advice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as people believe them, and forget that ministry is not about statistics and what gives us the biggest bang for our buck.  The new thought is that a church while it still has value should close, before it loses what value it has, in order that God would do something new somewhere else.  (That line I have a problem with, because doing something new in scripture was about the cross and resurrection – the death of Christ – not his church)

We don’t “do” church in ways because of what makes sense in a business model.  Statistics don’t governthe church, God does. Brooklyn Tabernacle was once a dead, tiny church, the American Baptist hcurches in Northern Calfiornia were once empty.  My first church was under 20 in attendance.    We do church because God calls us to minister to those who are broken, to reconcile people to them, to see their souls healed. We are there to pray for comfort and healing of the cancer patient, to remind the imprisoned that God hasn’t given up on them, to help people broken by divorce, or challenged by changes in their lives, or the past that haunts them.

Wo are the church to “do” grace, to be “grace”, to be the place where God incarnates, where he is revealed.

The church is something that can’t be reduced to statistics, or to methodologies.  Because it isn’t about numbers, it is about life.  It is about the supernatural invading and transforming the natural. It is about the power of God made clear as it transforms the lives of people who thought there was no hope.

What does beating the statistical models take?  How can we avoid being another church which closes its doors?

It’s so simple that the experts can’t see it.

Know Christ! revel in His presence! Help people give to God the burdens and anxieties they carry.  Plead with them to let God  reconcile them!  Teach them to treasure God’s time and presence. Fall in love with Him to the point where your heart beats in harmony with His.

It works, because God promised not to abandon us… but to work through us.

Abide in Him. And watch what He does … it is amazing!

Escriva, Josemaria (2010-11-02). Christ is Passing By (Kindle Locations 424-429). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.

%d bloggers like this: