Transitions

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When we hear about transitions in Methodist denominations, we typically think about pastor moves. However, congregations are in a state of flux themselves as well. Many of our Hispanic congregations expect to lose 25% of their members each year due to relocation for work and family purposes. A large portion of our older Anglo congregations may be looking at losing that many to death, health concerns, or retirement relocation. Indeed, some of our congregations with a majority of members in their 70s and 80s may be looking at losing much more than that. Everything and Everyone Everywhere is changing… Except our mission.

Jesus raised up leaders after Him to carry on the process of making new disciples. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking our job is to get people saved and God’s job is to take them from there. Instead it is just the opposite. Only Jesus can save and He commanded us to go and make disciples and feed the sheep He brings into the fold.1 We all fall prey to this misunderstanding from time to time. Both churches young and old get mixed up regarding their mission and God’s part in that.

Perhaps it is because the specifics of God’s mercies are new each morning and He is not entirely predictable. Our egos cannot control Him and plan for Him. So instead, we plan around Him, leaving Him out of our plans. Ultimately, He is the one making the plans and we need to constantly realign our own lives around His vision. Perhaps it would make a difference if there were leaders set aside to specifically seek God’s vision and help align the ministries of their church in obedience to God. Normally, the main task of those leaders is making sure the bills get paid and the building does not fall apart.

Often this transition is experienced in a slow decline. A few members move away. Each year a few more pass away. We experience the normal passages of life as we lose more through graduations, marriages and divorces, and more. This is normal. This is life.

The problem arises when we realize that it has been several years since we have brought in new people to our family of faith. The births do not compensate for the deaths, and we hemorrhage out our graduates, who often never return. Essentially, our babies do not stay and become fully-functioning members… so where will our new members come from? When was the last time we had a visitor to church? When was the last time someone joined our congregation from outside our church families? These are some of the questions that do not get asked until we are already on the downward slope and losing our balance.

Sometimes, transitions occur because of new growth. Growth, which often seems to be the entire goal, brings changes itself. Many churches can tell stories of experiencing a period of great growth, followed by loss, and then ending in slow decline. Why is that? They were not equipped to handle the growth.

They may have run out of seats or parking spaces. It is likely they were no longer able to know everyone by name and people felt neglected. Ultimately, the church was able to grow in numbers, but not in disciples because all the energy was being directed to bringing in more people and keeping them there, instead of truly making them part of the family of faith and raising them up to be followers of Jesus… and that problem probably found its root with an insufficient number of leaders/teachers within the congregation. Where the leaders are few, decline is right around the corner.

There is another part of this story that may have occurred as well. Somewhere in the middle of that growth, a few people may have realized that some of the members (with longer standing in this church) were given more influence and input into the way the ministries were run. There is a certain justice to that, but when new people do not have clear ways (and clear filters) into the leadership of the church, everyone gets frustrated, lines are drawn in the sand, and conflict grows into a schism in the house of God.

This kind of conflict is never easy to resolve and almost always means losing not only attending people, but often losing good leaders within the church. It kills the morale of the congregation far more than the death of beloved leaders, because this kind of separation feels so unnatural. It feels like the church kicking people out rather than welcoming them in and it often takes years for a church to recover.

How do we hope to help? It may seem counterintuitive that an outsider could bring any practical help to congregations facing these issues. (Although, ironically, most of these congregations believe that bringing in a new (better) pastor from outside will solve the problem.) I am a pastor myself and I know that we pastors make our fair share of mistakes. Generally speaking though, removing people from the congregation is not the best place to start. Healthy congregations have ways of gracefully correcting us for the benefit of all, and that health can be modeled to a congregation through the intervention of outside leaders. These kinds of things are primarily helpful with churches in conflict though. What about the majority that are simply experiencing slow decline or a burst of growth they are unprepared to adequately disciple?

We invite the leadership into a discussion about Ability, Willingness, and Vision. It is not helpful to discuss major property renovation if the resources are simply not there to make it happen. Likewise it is useless to discuss the addition of major programming if the current property is unable to support it. We have to have a conversation about the current reality of the congregation so we can begin to chart a course to the place we need to be. Sometimes that kind of conversation is easier when you have a more objective outside presence in the room encouraging the conversation.

We also talk about willingness. Some congregations have leaders that are simply exhausted and do not have the capacity to lead the people into the next few years, let alone the next few decades. Lack of spiritual renewal often leaves them burnt out and when the church puts on revivals, they are often the ones left to carry the workload for the benefit of everyone else. Without willingness, a church cannot move forward.

Finally, we talk about the kingdom vision of the church. What do we know already that God wants us to be and to be doing? Do we know how to make disciples? Do we know how to reach people for Christ? Do we know how to call them to serve Him with their lives? Do we know why we exist?

These are all questions that every church should ask of themselves at least once a year. They can keep us on the path of faithfulness to God if we continue to check our alignment with His will on a regular basis, instead of waiting until we are halfway off the cliff. I am beginning to use these questions among my own church leaders and sharing them with other pastors, to help spread this opportunity to encourage good spiritual health within our congregations.

We are training regional pastor and laity teams (2 by 2) to be facilitators in this process. I do not expect to be doing much consulting with this particular process myself, but I have already been involved in helping to train up some of the first facilitators who feel called to this kind of ministry. Among the many plates I have spinning at the moment (and there is more to come), this was one I feel I can support more from a distance, as a consultant to the process. I am saving my presence and efforts to be more involved when those turns toward health are made and opportunities arise for discussions about Fresh Expressions.

  1. Matthew 28:16-20; John 21:15-17

Where have I been?

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Where have I been?

Some of you frequent readers may have wondered what ever became of the daily blogs you had been receiving during much of the first half of 2017. Some of the small seeds I have been scattering for the past few years have started to take root and begin to sprout. Like the mustard seed, it has been a few small things with much larger implications as they continue to grow and connect with others.

First of all though, a short word about writing… A couple years back I began reading Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. Along with several other books and experiences in life, I began to start calling myself a writer, and to write on a regular basis. The most memorable part of King’s book for me was his comment about writing at least 2000 words each day. At first that seemed daunting, but before long I was easily writing at least 1000 words per day, while keeping my day job. A lot of fruit has come out of that work, much of it found on my devotional blog.

I wrote something like 1200-1500 words per day for that blog, every day, for somewhere around 8 or 9 months. There were ups and downs in the excitement level, but in the last few months I noticed my writing quality dwindling and something inside me was begging for a rest from the routine. So I pulled back the reins and slowed to a halt.

At the same time I began to spend more of my ministry time planning and working with New Church Development, and a particular form of NCD called Fresh Expressions. The simplest way to describe Fresh Expressions is taking taking the means of making disciples to communities outside the church. Imagine you were going to start a new Christian community in a foreign country far away. What would you need to do? What would you expect as a result in your home congregation? Now imagine that you are doing that in your own community but with similar expectations and results. That is what Fresh Expressions looks like. It brings the core values of church to a new context, linking them primarily by the missionaries sent from the local congregation.

Fully functioning Fresh Expressions are built around 4 main components, designated by directions.

  • UP – Loving and worshipping God (Worship)
  • IN – Building up the body of believers (Discipleship)
  • OUT – Reaching out to others in the community (Service and Evangelism)
  • OF – Connection to a local congregation

The form and methodology of ministry in these Fresh Expressions can be as varied as the number of Fresh Expressions themselves, however they are not meant to be Church-lite. They are meant to be the church thriving in places and among people that traditional ministries are unable to reach.

I am excited about this particular kind of ministry because the accessibility of it is not dependent upon large financial resources, growing metropolitan areas, or groups of people with any particular backgrounds with church. In other words, any church has the potential to start a thriving Fresh Expression in their community with prayerful, thoughtful investment. It is mission work at the level of small groups. Instead of getting other to come to us, we go to them and take as much of “church” (at least the good parts of “church”) that we can pack with us.

My work this past year has primarily been in supporting New Church Development in the Central KY area. In October, I was asked to help form a team and oversee Fresh Expressions all across Kentucky. This fall, I have spent most of my work in this area speaking to groups of church lay leaders and working to recruit members of the new KYFX team.

Through all of this, I have been sharing my vision of the means and fruitfulness of Fresh Expressions. I am not a math or numbers person in general, but I have been working with a formula as a guide to the possibilities of Fresh Expressions. It looks something like this:

  • If every church in our conference (800 churches) attempts some kind of new ministry in the next 3 years,
  • and if 1/3 of them fail (which we will learn from)
  • and 1/3 of them never grow beyond a small new outreach (which we will celebrate)
  • and only 1/3 of them grow and develop into full Fresh Expressions
  • We will have 235 Fresh Expressions in 3 years!

What is more

  • If only 10% of our Fresh Expressions grow enough to require their own pastors and become church plants themselves, we will have planted 24 churches (more than the number we planned to plant in total) at a small fraction of the cost of normal church plants!

If that was not reason enough to get excited about, then think about this: In our time where the local church has not often been faithful in raising up new leaders and new pastors to fill churches, let alone plant new ones, Fresh Expressions is becoming a means of raising up and training new leaders who are able to reach those who cannot be reached in traditional settings. Laity who are willing and able to lead a Fresh Expression may become some of the better candidates for pastoral ministry in the years to come, and they can discover and practice those gifts and skills first without incurring large debts from theological education. Essentially, they get free on-the-job training for ministry. The conference and local church also get a method of testing the fruitfulness of these leaders before investing large amounts of resources into them.

To me, the possibility of raising up the next generation of church leaders is even more exciting than planting new churches. Buildings and programs come and go, but the people whose lives are changed and who give them over to the service of God can touch hundreds and thousands of others each. Fresh Expressions, to me, are not a means of changing or reforming the Church. It is a way of starting new ministries based upon the place where the needs of the people intersect with the commission of the gospel so that all may be saved, transformed, and given new life.

This hope for the future hinges upon the willingness of the local churches to try something new to reach new people, the ability of our district and conference ministries to give them adequate support to match their faith, and God’s grace to cover and lead us all. Failure is certainly an option, but giving up is not. God may not demand that we succeed perfectly every time on our own, but He does command that we seek His help and attempt to fulfill the mission He gave to us.

Tweet: Failure is certainly and option, but giving up is not.

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What is a disciple and why are churches talking about them today? (part 3)

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Tuesday I defined a disciple as: a student or apprentice who follows, learns from, and imitates a master or teacher.

I also pointed out that there are two points of being a disciple (and doing any other kind of work): Philosophy and Praxis.

Why are so many churches talking about disciples today?

The Short Answer:

Because, across the board, we have not done a good enough job of making them.

The Longer Answer:

So much of this question is tied into several dozen other questions about dealing with change, getting with the times, being relevent… as well as remaining faithful, saving the next generation, honoring our heritage, and all that “gimme my Old Time Religion” perspectives as well. All of that mess and clamor really comes down to one singular concept: Passing on values.

What?

How can all those people from all those different places and perspectives… people who often cannot stand in the same room with one another, all be dealing with the same problem? Like a great many things in life, we overcomplicate things with our own opinions and motivations. So lets oversimplify things to make the point.

If there (hypothetically) were only one church in the world, and every few years that church raised up new leaders who were trained in both the Philosophy and Praxis of that church (so they would not only do all the same things, but understand why they were doing them that way), you would see no change in the church other than names and faces of people over the years. The worship would be the same, the potlucks would all have the exact same foods every time, every week they would teach the same lesson that they did last year at that time, and everyone would understand why they were doing it that way. There would be no need for change as long as they could keep teaching new leaders the Philisophy and Praxis of the church. Change would not be necessary as long as those values continued to be passed down from old to new.

However, this is not the reality. Because we are creative and individualistic people, we take the values we are given and we mix them with our own values – sometimes creating new values that are not part of our heritage. Someone brings porkchops to a cookout that had been exclusively hamburgers and hotdogs, and it is a big hit with the community… suddenly things have changed and we have to raise extra money to afford more pork chops next year, and while we spend time worrying about food costs, we take our attention away from the guest speaker who always comes to present at this event and we cut the band out altogether to save money for extra food. Soon, something that may have started out as a informal outreach to preach the gospel to a community becomes a new tradition focused on bringing extravagent food. A few years later, the leaders realize it would be easier to have this inside the church rather than outside. In five years what began as preaching to those outside the church becomes a party the church people throw for themselves.

No one intends for this to happen. It happens because we are not aware of the original values – they do not get passed down. We replay our traditions of last year over and over and don’t even know why they were made traditions in the first place. It is not a question of good or bad, right or wrong… it is a question of understanding and intentionality. Change is good and Faithfulness is good as well, but each can only be good when you understand the values (the Philosophy and Praxis) beneath those tasks.

Somewhere down the road, many of our churches forgot how to make disciples. It was, and is, simply easier to just go through the motions and keep doing things, helping people, teaching bible studies, and let God do the work of actually mentoring people and walking with them as they make decisions each day that change their lives. It is easier to say that is God’s job, not ours.

Yet, we find ourselves surprised when these people do not share the same values as us, and we are frustrated when they want to be in leadership, but they want to change everything that we spent so many years trying to fix ourselves. After all, you cannot get rid of the previous generation’s traditions overnight – it took us hard work to do that to our forefathers and foremothers and we want to enjoy those changes ourselves for just a little bit before someone comes and changes things on us.

It feels easier to control the church than it is to actually pass on our values and raise up new leaders. Sadly, the opposite is true. We are never truly in control, and our best means of keeping our values safe is to pass them on intentionally to new leaders we raise up ourselves.

– What values have been passed on to you?

– Who are you passing your values on to?

Stones

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“The Lord sent a word against Jacob,

and it fell on Israel;

and all the people knew it—

Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—

but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:

“The bricks have fallen,

but we will build with dressed stones;

the sycamores have been cut down,

but we will put cedars in their place.”

So the Lord raised adversaries against them,

and stirred up their enemies,

the Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west,

and they devoured Israel with open mouth.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

The people did not turn to him who struck them,

or seek the Lord of hosts.

So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,

palm branch and reed in one day—

elders and dignitaries are the head,

and prophets who teach lies are the tail;

for those who led this people led them astray,

and those who were led by them were left in confusion.

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

and every mouth spoke folly.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still. “ Isaiah 9.8-17 (NRSV)

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

It was a popular saying when I was young, but by the time I had entered high school, the educators were already talking about how untrue this saying was. Words do hurt us. In fact, sometimes the wounds they leave can continue to bleed years after the words were said… long after any physical wounds could have healed.

Sticks and stones do not just harm though, they are used to build. The proud Israelite leaders claimed that if their buildings were destroyed they would simply rebuild with even better materials. They boasted as if the oncoming judgment would simply be doing them a favor, allowing them to start over fresh without carrying the baggage of the past. I have heard this spoken among new church leaders (of which I am a supporter myself).

Some have the impression that if we could just wipe the slate clean, we could start over and do it better this time. They sometimes neglect to see that the problems we face do not find their root in “church traditions”, but rather somewhere even deeper, in our own sinful nature itself. Just as in marriages, it is not the couples who do not have conflict with one another who succeed, it is those who know how to have healthy conflict that allows them somehow to come out closer to Christ after the heated discussion about the color of the carpet.

Churches are just slightly bigger family systems. If you want to know how to lead a family well, find yourself a good church. If you want to see how to lead a family poorly, find an unhealthy church. None are perfect, and all have family dynamics, just like our own families.

God knows this, and that is why, instead of building things Himself, God instead sent prophets with words. He knew His words would outlast any building we might put up to honor Him. God knew that those words would do more for shaping our lives than anything physical He could do for us. And so it is this Advent and Christmas season that we remember the greatest gift God gave to us was not words carved in stone, but a Word made flesh. Jesus is the Word that speaks the words of life. He is the greatest embodiment of God ever given to the world. It is this Word that not only saves us and guides us, but that will truly judge us in the end as well.

  • How does God speak to you?
  • What has God spoken to you?
  • How do you see the blessings and judgment of God in your life reflected in Jesus Himself?

Word of God speak

would you pour down like rain

washing my eyes to see

your majesty

Wednesday December 14, 2016

Hungry

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My people go into exile without knowledge; their nobles are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure; the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and all who exult in her. People are bowed down, everyone is brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are humbled. But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness. Then the lambs shall graze as in their pasture, fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins. Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them; the mountains quaked, and their corpses were like refuse in the streets. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still. Isaiah 5:13-17, 24-25 (NRSV)

Justice is not blind… it is hungry. Science Fiction writer Douglas Adams wrote many of his stories about a concept of “the interconnectedness of all things”. For those who read and affirm the Bible, this is the same kind of idea we teach when we teach that God created all things for a purpose, that God is a god of order, and that when one part suffers, all parts suffer with it. That last bit Paul wrote about the Church primarilly, but I think it applies to a broader group than one set of people.

Interconnectedness is the founding premise of both global warming and the “trickle down effect”. It is the motivation for welfare and war overseas. It is the purpose behind foreign policy and the insurance premiums and we built a monument to this idea in the paradoxical entity called “Wall Street”.

It’s weird. It’s hard to wrap our minds around. But with all of this being supported by it, there has to be some truth to it. For better or worse, we are all connected.

Justice, then, is not just a fancy idea either. Justice is the tension that exists between all things. If we are all connected, and my actions can either hurt or help you, there is necessarily a right and wrong way to do anything and everything. This is our problem today: we want there to be a clear right and wrong for anything that affects us, but not for our own actions. We want to receive the benefits of being in community, but not the responsibility. The more we shake responsibility though, the greater the tension in the community around us, until something snaps and we find ourselves broken, as well as the community around us. The gravity of justice is inescapable.

If there is a right and wrong way to deal with poverty and hunger, there is a right and wrong way to deal with romantic relationships. I think that is why God included problems of murder and theft in the ten commandments along with faithfulness in marriage and honoring parents… and ended with coveting – the sin of wanting what others have. That is one of the hidden sins of our society. Whether it is materialism and keeping up with the Jones’s, or the envy of wanting the looks or abilities of others around us, God calls it sin and our nation is riddled with it. The tension is beyond the breaking point. Justice is starving.

What can we do? The only way to find true justice is to put aside our desires and find new ways to live that bless others instead of just ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you are a white American or an Iraqi immigrant. We share the same world and our actions matter. Isn’t that what Advent and Christmas is all about? Isn’t that what Jesus came to do for us? He took the tension upon His own body and in His grace gave us the strength to lay down our own desires and live for righteousness. Because we trust in God’s provision, we are able to live for God and for one another instead of just living for ourselves. This holiday season, can we put down the thoughts of getting what we want and start giving God what He deserves?

  • Where do you feel the tension of injustice the most?
  • What part of your life do you try to protect the most?
  • How can you begin turning over your desires and replacing them with trust and obedience to God today?

Dies Irae, Dies Illa

Tuesday December 6, 2016