Theology of the Nursery

by Karen Richter

This blog is dedicated to all church nursery staff and volunteers! You too are loved!

Where is faith birthed?

What early experiences correlate to a lifetime of prayer and service?

What opportunities are we overlooking or missing or failing to maximize for congregational vitality?

These are the questions that occupy me, especially on my commute to and from Shadow Rock UCC. As a parent and as a church staffer in the area of faith formation, these are crucial inquiries.

A couple of years ago, we were struggling with a mid-week after-school program. So many families couldn’t commit to regular attendance, and adult volunteers available 4 pm to 6 pm on a Wednesday were hard to find. For a time, we had a low-key program with several activity centers that required minimal adult direction. Different and often more cynical questions were asked: are social and play-oriented activities worth investing in? what kinds of experiences do kids need in the midst of the school week? where’s the proper balance between relationship-building and content for children’s faith programming?

In the end, we discontinued the program, but the period of questioning bore fruit for me. A vision for what children must experience in their spiritual community emerged: Church is where people love me.

I’ll say it again: Church is where people love me.

Church is where I am LOVED.

These wacky people really care about me!

When my teenage son was a wee Cub Scout, he got a little note from a church member congratulating him on a successful scout food drive. Under her signed name, she wrote (one of the church people you probably don’t really know). When I asked him about it, he said, “Of course I know who that is. She says hello to me every week.”

All of the life of faith, all service and care of people and creation, and all growth in faith, understanding and spirituality – the whole of what we do! – hang on this kind of experience. There will be time later to learn Psalm 23 and the Beatitudes, time for skits about Jesus calling the fishermen, even time for wrestling with Romans chapter 8.

But it starts in the nursery. The warm safety of the place, the gentle hands of nursery workers and volunteers, the opportunity to make connections and first friendships… for babies and toddlers, it’s their first Sunday learning.

So this week, show some appreciation and gratitude to those people who make this wonderment happen. Hug a nursery person. They might be a little sticky (or worse!), but it’s worth it.

I Just Wanted to Tell You Something

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

We lost a friend. And it’s all I can think about. When you lose someone you remember the most random things about them.

Sitting at IHOP hearing a crazy story that had us exchanging looks like “What the…”

Him vaping. Sitting outside vaping. Letting me try it and a fit of laughter when he saw the look on my face. He literally had the biggest tank for his vape. And the strongest dose of nicotine. Endless plumes of smoke.

When he learned I was trans he had this puzzled expression on his face. We were hanging out and I could tell he had questions. I prepared for the normal questions that often happen in social situations when folks discover I am trans, mostly about genitals. I said he could ask me anything. Ready for his question? “Wanna arm wrestle?” And that was it. Nothing more required to continue our connection.

Friendship as usual.

I was supposed to marry him and his wife. He told me he really needed me to show at their shower. It was important to him. Being the over-scheduled jerk that I am, I completely forgot and took my nephews to see Peter Pan. You know, posted pics on Facebook. Which he saw. At the shower. I did not attend. When I realized it I felt awful!

The next time I saw him I apologized profusely and his response “Oh, I am done hating you. I am back to loving you. Jerk.” And then the smile.

Ben introduced me to the Desiderata. And I read it all the time.

He gave me big hugs.

And I desperately want his big hug right now, as I grieve the loss of an arm wrestling, life affirming, forgiveness giving friend.

I lost the person who told me I need to get a suit because I was going to go to a lot of weddings and a lot of funerals. I never thought I would be attending his. Please read and share in honor of my dear friend who died this week at the age of 31.

[Editor’s note: The article below was originally published on this blog October 12, 2015.]

**************************************

I just wanted to tell you something. I think it’s time that I did.
I’m 37 when I write this.
I’ve known a lot of people who have died.
I’ve never been to war.
I don’t live in a prolific crime area.
I don’t work in a hospice. I don’t spend time in places where one would expect the end result to be death. Yet I have known a lot of people who have died.

“Get a suit. You are going to go to a lot of weddings and a lot of funerals.” Someone said this to me in 2013 when I admitted I had a problem with drugs and alcohol and wanted a different path. I spend time in places where one would hope the end result to be extension of life. Yet, I know a lot of people who have died.

What’s more is I have known a lot of people who have died recently. Their families are still reeling, recounting lost moments, angry conversations, desperate pleas, wishing they had done things differently. Their friends are still tearing up with the thought, “I can’t believe you are gone.” Their voice still hangs in the part of the brain where one can swear they JUST HEARD IT. It’s fresh grief because they just died last month, even the last week of the last month. It is likely going to happen today where I live that someone who is attempting to alleviate the endless aching of deep, deep soul pain will use the solution that always worked before and this time it will kill them.

This is nothing new. As long as there has been access to life threatening mind-altering drugs, people have used them and people have died. There is nothing new under the sun. Yet, I can still hear their laugh and their intention to stop as they wished for something better so I think I need to tell you a few things that will make me feel really vulnerable. I do feel vulnerable in this writing, but I also feel called so, here it goes…

I was different in my faith tradition and spiritual practice when I was younger. I was a super, uber born-again, biblical literalism Christian as a teen with values of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. I took myself to church when my friends were taking themselves to parties. I was scared of drugs and alcohol. I had lived experience of addiction from adults in my life since I was very young and I desperately wanted a life where none of that existed. I sought after a life where none of that existed.Though my values and my attempts at daily living were to walk away from any situation where drugs and alcohol were involved, there was also a deep aching for me where my sexuality and gender identity were concerned. Since this did not match the teachings and beliefs the broader church that I subscribed to at the time held, I very much felt intense shame and pain, constant preparation for rejection, a feeling of otherness at a level that sometimes relegated me to exist alone and isolated in my room, feeling desperate for love. It also led me to thinking of dying nearly all the time until I was 21. I am a queer person and transgender and this pain is a common story. My story is one of so many.

This pain accompanied me. One day, I tried alcohol. Hello, sweet relief! No pain, no worry, no fear. And the people I drank with did not care one bit that being a girl and female didn’t ever fit for me, but I was super glad it fit for them: “Hey girl, how you doing? Come here often?” I could tell the truth about the person I was and they did not reject me. With that first drink, my internal and external world had congruency. So I sought that moment over the next many years, again and again and again. Richard Rohr poses that the only reason we do something again is that the last time we did it, it wasn’t entirely satisfying. We were left wanting. The alcohol that flowed into places never touched before and met a need I never knew could be met before, awakened a wanting that would never leave. I wanted to feel that way forever and ever and ever. Amen.

I also did not want that addiction thing I grew up despising. The loss of control for me was gradual. I had dreams, I had wishes, I had hopes and even though I found sweet surrender in alcohol, it took some time for that to become my focus. It was gradual, seductive and debilitating. Without too many details, this ebb and flow of trying to be in the world and follow dreams, live values, be authentic, seek spirit while also trying to meet this ever growing need that took me further away from everything that was life-giving became a tsunami of pain, loss and certain death. I expedited this when I discovered opiates.

People often die when they combine opiates and alcohol. This combination is one of the deadliest in the world. They may not die the first time, often not the second, but if it continues, they will die at a higher rate than either alone. I know that. The reason I know that is that when all of this was happening in my life, I worked professionally as someone trying to help people who were in addiction and asking for help. It is my craft and my career. Those words, on paper, in front of me now, seem ridiculous. I was drowning trying to help those drowning. Here’s the thing, though, I didn’t know I was drowning. That’s the trickiness of this whole painful disease: you often don’t know you have it until it nearly kills you. And I thought I was breathing fine as the tsunami overtook me.

I knew if I took these pills and I drank, I could die. I didn’t consciously want to die. I had developed a lot to live for. There was incredible pain deep within that beckoned me to consider death, but I wasn’t aware of it most days. I drank and I took those pills. A few things led me to ask for help. We got that alcohol thing in check. That just freed me, though, to really start taking those pills. And I was addicted to opiates in nearly no time at all.

There are stages of addiction. It is a deadly disease, once activated, it often ends in death, but along the way, it separates the sufferer from experiencing anything loving and life-giving at all. It depletes the world from light; darkness overtakes everything in its final stages. What’s so awful, though, what’s so incredible soul wrenching, is when it started, I felt like I had finally found light. Isn’t that the worst thing ever? I finally felt peace. Ease. I felt equanimity, truly. I feel sacrilegious for that statement since there is nothing I know more soul stealing than addiction, but it finally gave me that “We are meant to love and be loved” awareness that overtook everything bad. And then it immediately started killing me.

Opiate addiction is its own animal in so many ways. I have a teacher in my life, Dr. Wen Cai, an expert in the field, who gives an amazing talk about opiate addiction I have listened to a number of times. One of the things he talks about is viewing this as the disease that it is. He describes opiate addiction as the cancer of addiction. People are dying at an alarming rate if it is not interrupted. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that every day in the United States 44 people die from prescription opioid overdose. Add another 21 people who die every day due to heroin overdose. Put another way to help us fully understand this magnitude, there are now more deaths from opiate overdose than all motor vehicle accidents and the numbers are growing. And how do we fare in Arizona? Arizona is ranked in the top 10 states struggling with this epidemic.

When someone activates the disease of addiction with their first use, opiates commonly administered the first time in pill form, they are stepping into a life and death situation. It’s a gamble every time a person uses. That alone is awful. You know what makes it even worse? The person putting that pill to their lips for the first time is often a teenager wondering what this thing their loved one has been taking feels like. And they just activated a disease that could have them dead before they ever have a chance to live.

I’m 37 when I write this and I have a full life expectancy because my disease, for all intents and purposes, is in remission due to the work I do daily to maintain recovery. If I were to use again, I would be back in the gamble of life and death.

I have known a lot of people who have died and I desperately want that reality to change. It is the work of the church with extravagant welcome to consider our role in addressing what the CDC has described as the worst outbreak of opiate and heroin addiction in the history of the world. This submission to you is just a start for a conversation I hope will be very much ongoing.

I just wanted to tell you something. I have the disease of addiction and I have hope.

Speaking Truth is a Duty

guest post by Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director, New Mexico Conference of Churches

I’ve been speaking with pastors over the past two months and although I have 5 specific questions, the content of these conversations is deep and wide. A few themes are emerging:

Hope: I anticipated hearing at least a few complaints, but frankly, there have been precious few. Most pastors experience great satisfaction and joy in their callings; some feel overwhelmed; but, rarely is heard a discouraging word. Moreover, the sense of hope is linked to growth among the members and leaders of the churches: new ideas, new visions, new challenges and new opportunities are combining to create new steps for Jesus’ followers.

Relationships: Every pastor, at some point and always in a unique manner, identified ministry as grounded in strong relationships: with family, colleagues, members, neighbors, and friends. Moreover, all affirmed that their effectiveness in ministry is directly related to these relationships. Most spend time and energy being with others — so that together, they will be strong for doing the ministries entrusted to them.

Speaking out…together: This theme included a bit of sadness and/or frustration. Almost every pastor interviewed expressed a passion for speaking the truth of our Christian values and convictions in a bold and free way; but also expressed was the persistent awareness that in our culture, the voice of many churches is inaudible. The “Christian voice” has been kidnapped by evangelical or conservative churches and the progressive or socially engaged churches have been put on mute. The pastors I interviewed longed for to speak out, together, and be heard.

In these days of political turmoil and distress, the voice of the silenced progressive, socially engaged and liberal Christian churches is needed. A very helpful article, “Unprohibited speech“, Christian Century, July 20, 2016 reminds:

“There’s no law against religious leaders speaking and living out the truths of their faith…What (by law) is prohibited is an explicit endorsement of a candidate.”

This is followed by a stirring string of strong words churches may speak.

“Churches are free to say that a candidate who threatens opponents with violence is undermining the basis of community.

They are free to say that a candidate who targets people of one religion for discriminatory treatment is attacking the basis of everyone’s religious freedom.

They are free to say that campaigning by name-calling and personal insult is an affront to reason.

And they are free to say that a candidate who sneers at the disabled, ridicules people because of their appearance, and promises to engage in torture fails to understand that all humans are made in the image of God.”

Dear ecumenical community, we are old and young, rich and poor, Protestant and Roman Catholics living in New Mexico; let us speak up as individuals, as church leaders, as congregations, as an ecumenical community of believers. Let us claim the freedom we have to lift up our distinct and deep Christian values…especially within the current political context.

Share with me your statements and I will share them with the ecumenical community of the New Mexico Conference of Churches.

I remain, steadfastly, Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director.

Review – Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light

by Ryan Gear

Brandan Robertson has written a book, just released in the UK, that any spiritually searching, thoughtful person can appreciate. This includes evangelicals, the expression of Christianity with which Brandan identifies. Contrary to some who have questioned their faith, Nomad is an honest story of a spiritual journey that has not left the author cynical. Brandon can’t be smugly written off with a label. There is no hint of academic elitism in his writing. He has not forsaken the Bible or become “just another one of those liberals.”

It’s clear from reading Nomad that Brandan loves God and the Scriptures and that he simply brave enough to say (or write) what many evangelicals are too afraid to admit… they have questions.

I first heard Brandan’s story when he shared it on a Sunday morning with the church I founded, One Church in Chandler, Arizona (onechurch.com). I can personally attest to his humble spirit and the grace that he writes about so beautifully in chapter 13. Brandon is not angry or vindictive. He is a loving, open-minded, young man who is an inspiration to anyone who wants to work out her or his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

In the early chapters, Brandan tells his story of coming to faith in Christ in a high-octane fundamentalist KJV-only church when he was a teenager. He was so hungry to grow in his new relationship with Christ that he watched Charles Stanley before going to school in the morning. The church was a new family for him that modeled some level of love and healing in contrast to his hurting and dysfunctional family. Searching for belonging, he took on the same Bible-thumping ethos as his newly adopted church family. He began a teen evangelism, winning souls for Jesus and preaching against the Religious Right’s common enemies, abortion and homosexuality.

But then…

Questions.

Chapter 6 is the turning point of Nomad and of Brandan’s life. I love Brandan’s description of his first encounter with doubt while watching a History Channel Easter special at 13 years old (58). He was terrified that Jesus may not have been raised from the dead, but at 13, sobbed with relief at the fact that the Gospel of Matthew reported otherwise. Still in early teens, Brandan absorbed his church’s commitment to biblical inerrancy, but the doctrine would not go unquestioned forever.

Brandan addresses the common conservative evangelical conundrums of biblical contradictions, Bible class questions, and the favorite apologetics buzz phrase “absolute truth.” I was reminded of how tortured I felt as a teenager trying to make the Bible a cohesive document, like a term paper dropped out of heaven.

He identifies with so many serious-minded young evangelicals who learn to become intellectual circus acrobats as they try to harmonize Bible verses that clearly contradict one another. In fact, the term contradiction carries negative connotations, while the Bible is actually a collection of books, a library, and no one expects every book in a library to agree on every topic. The biblical books are more like a conversation, sometimes even an argument, than a term paper.

Later in his teens, Brandan bravely and honestly acknowledged his questions. He writes, “The beliefs that we once held to be absolute and certain suddenly become subjective and unclear. The answers that we once held to so tightly dissolve and new, terrifying questions emerge” (56-57).

In my own experience, once a crack of intellectual honesty appears in the dam, it won’t be long before a flood of questions rush through, breaking apart what was once thought to be an immoveable concrete wall. Honestly acknowledging the first question begins the journey of the spiritual nomad.

Brandon then relays his story of discovery, becoming acquainted with church history and the ancient rhythms of a spiritual life that were ignored in his conservative evangelical church. He studied Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. He became aware of a new world of Christian history, belief, and practice.

He points out what many evangelicals are becoming aware of, that Christianity is much larger than one particular Baptist-y megachurch, and in fact, evangelical megachurches are still a minority in global Christianity:

“In the churches I grew up in, there was absolutely no sense of tradition or a broader narrative we participated in. Instead, we focused on our communities’ autonomy and God’s unique work in our midst. We were rarely connected to other churches in the area because all of us were focused on creating our own unique style and brand of Christianity” (83).

In chapter 11, the second major movement of Nomad is Brandan’s discovery of his fluid sexuality in his late teens. Of course, this is the current hot button issue in the U.S., and within American Christianity, one’s full acceptance or non-acceptance of LGBTQ persons is the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy.

Sadly, there will be evangelicals who write off Brandan’s spiritual journey due to their judgment of his sexuality. This is tragic, and one that will ultimately count as their loss. Brandon is a sweet-spirited, grace-filled evangelist who will likely lead a megachurch in the future. His humble and loving presence will win over many detractors, but unfortunately, some will not even give Brandan or Nomad the chance.

Those who do will discover an inspiring leader and communicator who does his best to live out his understanding of the Eucharist in chapter 12. It is one of the simplest and best descriptions of the Gospel you will read:

“The first was that at the Table of the Lord where the Eucharist was served, all people are equal… For one moment of time, all of us stood on level ground. All our prejudices and biases were forced to fade into the background. We came together as one broken but connected body in need of grace” (113).

“The Eucharist also reminded early believers of a second truth – the pattern of life that they were to live. When Christ commanded us to do this ritual ‘to remember and proclaim his death until he comes again’, he was asking us to remember the way of life that he lived and to follow him in it” (114).

The remaining chapters of Nomad, “Grace,” “Journey,” and “Wonder” offer practical examples of how Brandan attempts to live this eucharistic lifestyle. He tells a stirring story of reconciling with his abusive father after his father’s arrest and release. Brandan finishes his story with an invitation to journey through the questions, citing that the narrative arc of Scripture is one of a journey, and the only way to travel is with an attitude of wonder.

At its heart, Brandan’s honest sharing of his journey is an invitation to all readers, not to necessarily begin a new spiritual journey, but to be honest about the journey they are already on.

A Plea to Progressive Pastors: Stay Put.

by Kenneth McIntosh

Once in awhile I get asked by acquaintances in my town, “How are things at the new church?” The question comes because I’ve served two congregations in Flagstaff, and folks who haven’t seen me in a few years still think of First Congregational as ‘Ken’s new church.’ I don’t qualify that phrase ‘new church’ when I answer, because I likewise think of First Congregational as my new church. And yet…when I look at the plaque on the sanctuary wall, listing  the pastors who’ve served here, the longest tenure on record is five years, and I’m almost to my fourth year, so I’m actually one of the longer-tenured ministers at this church.

Historically, five years is not a long pastorate. In the 17th and 18th centuries, ministers were expected to answer a call to service and then remain at the parish of their calling until death. One of my favorite spiritual writers from antiquity, Thomas Traherne, said : “It is no small matter to Dwell in community or in a congregation, and to convers there without complaint, and to Persevere Faithfully in it until death. Blessed is He that hath Lived there well, and Ended Happily.

A millennium before Traherne, one of the greatest influences on Western Christian thinking, Saint Benedict, added a fourth vow to the monastic calling. Monks were already expected to take vows of purity, simplicity and obedience: Benedict added to that ‘stability.’ He explains in his monastic rule: “We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.” There’s universal wisdom in Benedict’s appeal.

This call for continuity in one’s place is especially vital for Progressive churches in our time. James Wellman, Professor and Chair of Comparative Religions at Washington University, recently published a blog with the provocative title Is there a Future for Progressive Christianity? on Patheos.  I am sorry to say that Professor Wellman’s research leads him to answer in the negative.  Surveying the landscape, he finds precious few growing Progressive congregations. His take on decline is interesting: he notes that the most influential and successful Progressive ministers are leaving local congregations to pursue careers writing and speaking in other venues. Examples are Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (of course there are exceptions to this—i.e., Molly Baskette ). Wellman points out that Progressive Christian leaders seem more enthused about spirituality –in-the-world than they are about churches as institutions insofar as it’s easier to be successful as a speaker/ writer-at-large than as pastor of a local congregation.

There’s a real allure to this way of thinking. My editor keeps pointing out that while church attendance in America is declining, there’s increased demand for our books on spirituality from a Christian perspective. Why not leave the ecclesial sinking ship and focus on a broader audience? One of my closest friends in spiritual leadership has left working in churches and has no desire whatsoever to return to such employment, finding it much easier and more rewarding to be a speaker-and-writer at large. And another (possibly related) trend: while congregations are declining, the demand for chaplains in the workplace is currently growing, which explains why a number of my previous fellow pastors are now working full time as chaplains. For ministers who remain committed to local parish ministry there is a draw to seek greener pastures in other pastorates. I’m sympathetic: some of them have ‘pastor killer’ churches that are impossible situations, and some are burnt out casting themselves against the granite of congregations unwilling to change.

And yet, there is need for pastoral longevity in local congregations.  Thom Rainer points out that the average US pastor stays less than five years, and lists reasons why transitions are not good for churches (his research is not limited to Mainline churches, but I believe these observations nonetheless apply to Progressive congregations): Six Reasons Why Longer-Tenured Pastorates Are Better.

Most pastors would welcome a magical ingredient that would help their to prosper, yet they may overlook the simplest ingredient for success: stability. It’s a repeated observation—and one I confirm from two of my four experiences as minister—that one’s ministry deepens and becomes more effective after year five at a church. It can be tough to stay in a difficult situation, but it’s rewarding not only for the minister’s personal growth but also for the benefits to the church. In our rapidly changing Post-modern world, the ancient admonitions of Saint Benedict and others may be truer than ever: inasmuch as we can, we Progressive pastors need to stay put.

2 Ways to Make your Church Exits Less Attractive

by Kenneth McIntosh

Late last summer there was an article in the Huffington Post titled “Are you Fed Up with Church? 30 Million Say Yes!” The Writer, Patrick Vaughn, is a Presbyterian Minister and the article summarized the findings of research by Dr. Josh Packard. The full report by Dr. Packard is available from Group Publishing for $25.00. Vaughn’s article can be accessed here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-vaughn/are-you-fed-up-with-churc_b_7941012.html

I wish I could say that I was shocked by the article, but I’m not. Other research—such as the Pew survey of American religious life– confirm similar results: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

But the Huff Po article does more than report weal and woe; Vaughn pulls out two lessons from Packard’s study that can be helpful for congregations desiring to be an exception to the rule of decline. The study is basically an exit interview on a mega-scale, finding out why those who are “done” with churches (plus those headed for the exit at the time they were surveyed) are walking away.

Vaughn says, “the Dones are not giving up on God. They are giving up on an institution.” Parenthetically, this contrasts with my own first-hand observations (which are vastly more limited, and confined to my politically liberal college town setting). Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with the majority of people who’ve left my congregations, and the largest single cause has been loss of religious belief; people’s beliefs changed from Theist to Atheist or Agnostic, and they felt incongruent in a Christian worship setting. But again, this is apparently not the case on a larger scale national-scope survey; the broader majority left their churches while still identifying as believers in God.

The first major reported cause for being ‘done’ with church was failure to experience deep and meaningful community. The people surveyed wanted very much to be part of a group, where they belonged, were supported by others, and were connected to other church members in substantial ways—and they were largely disappointed by the lack of such experiences.

The second reason for the disappointment of the Dones was the failure of churches to engage them in activities that were of value to the larger world. While churches were eager to solicit volunteers, the content of volunteer activities was focused on institutional maintenance, such as committees, classes, work days and etc. that were purposed for the continuation of the congregation. In other words, churches were internally focused, rather than seeking to better their cities or planet.

This survey of those leaving churches can be useful for those of us still active in churches insofar as they suggest a dual focus of our energies. There are manifold aspects of church life, and proponents and enthusiasts of each aspect can make good case why more effort be expended in their sphere of interest (I recently blogged in this forum suggesting the neglected importance of contemplative spiritual disciplines). Looking at the big picture of Dr. Packard’s work, it behooves us to focus on two things:  building community, and encouraging participation in social action.

Efforts at building community within a church are sometimes disparaged as “social club,” with the insinuation that they are less valuable than “spiritual” or worship events. This survey suggests that they are, however, essential for continuity of healthy congregations. Worship itself can be re-designed to foster community; by seating people facing toward one another, inviting lay members to share the rites and symbolic actions of worship, inviting prayers from the congregation, framing the sermon as more of a dialogue, and so on. Likewise, all other activities of a church—small groups, classes, and even the dreaded committees—can be re-designed to facilitate fellowship. And activities that smack of “social club” such as dinners for eight, or amateur talent night, or microbrew tasting (for the hipster church) should perhaps be elevated to more valued status.

It’s good news for UCC churches that people wish to be involved in activities that better society. Our churches are premier social justice centers, and even our small congregations tend to be outward-focused. Perhaps we can refine this area of our expertise? Rather than simply posting meetings for the homeless, racial justice, refugee advocacy and so-on, make sure that every notice is an invitation with the clear message that newcomers are welcomed and encouraged to participate. And when mobilizing, make sure that new volunteers can be incorporated into ongoing projects with the least possible amount of hurdles to jump (accountability and safety are always paramount—but sometimes we have rules that are just unnecessary barriers for new participants).

In this age of church decline, it’s a valuable gift knowing that there are ways to make the church exits less appealing. By shoring up our ministries of community-building and mission, we can lessen the flow of members toward the exits and strengthen the Body of Christ.

Does our Extravagant Welcome Speak to the Soul?

by Kenneth McIntosh

Last Sunday a visitor at our church mentioned her frustration in another congregation, her feeling that “I’m not growing deeper with God.” I wonder how many people in our churches share that sense of need? There’s much talk about the missing millennial generation (18-29 year olds) in our churches. Indeed, a 2013 Barna survey titled “Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials” confirms that more than 50% of persons in that demographic have dropped out of church. But the study goes deeper than that, placing these leavers into three categories, and the biggest category of church dropouts is what the Barna survey calls “Nomads.” “This group is comprised of 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background who walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians. “ So they consider themselves Christ-followers but aren’t finding what they desire in church.

I wonder if the problem for these “Nomads,” at least to some extent, might be our failure to advertise or facilitate ways to genuinely experience and grow deeper in God? When the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Ephesus in the first century, his greatest desire for them was “that the God of our savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator” (Ephesians 1:17, The Inclusive Bible). The same need may be truer today. Amos Smith, pastor of Church of the Painted Hills UCC in Tucson says “People in our time think scientifically, we need practical verification that something is true or not. If I don’t experience something in my nervous system, there’s a lack of verification.” Smith then refers to the positive example of psychologist Karl Jung who was asked by an interviewer if he believed in God? Jung replied, in a modest voice, “I don’t believe, I know.” Such faith, grounded not in rote propositions but in experiential reality, may be the deepest need for Christians in a Post-modern age.

Could it be that the political polarization of society has pushed both Conservative and Progressive faith communities to emphasize things other than experiencing God? I expect this is true more in terms of public perception than of actual congregational life—but what the public perceives has significant impact on churches. Conservative churches, associated with the political right, can be characterized as rule-focused. They offer the do’s and don’ts of morality, based on hyper-literal Bible interpretations, as the focus of spiritual life. But by the same measure, Progressive churches may so emphasize justice and peace that they can also reduce the Christian life to saying and doing the right things.

I sometimes wonder, as we offer extravagant welcome, what are welcoming people to? One person seeking a church—a lesbian who is politically involved in liberal causes—told me “I visited several UCC churches in my area, but they only offered confirmation of my social and political beliefs. I need a church where they’ll help me deepen my relationship with God.”

A decade ago Richard Peace and David Schoen, two of the most prominent UCC thinkers on spiritual formation and evangelism respectively, wrote an article titled “Listening for the Still Speaking God: Contemplative Evangelism” (you can Google it and read the pdf online). In that article they emphasize the importance of “classic spiritual formation … birthed in silence, shaped by the spiritual disciplines, and guided by a knowledgeable spiritual director.”

I am glad to say that we have all of that in the Southwest Conference. There are SWC churches where the pastors and lay people are pursuing contemplative prayer and integrating spirituality into their everyday lives. We also have Teresa Blythe with the Heysechia school and Amanda Peterson with Pathways of Grace both offering venues for seekers in the Southwest to grow deeper in contemplative and experiential faith.

But do we emphasize such opportunities for spiritual experience when we invite people to our faith communities? Schoen and Peace, in the aforementioned article, draw a picture of “Contemplative Evangelism.” They write, “What if prayer were the central component of evangelism? By this I mean, what if the very desire to reach out to others was born in the fire of contemplative prayer where the presence of God was so palpable that one could not help but want to share this reality with others?” Imagine a faith community where the message “Whoever you are, you are welcome” is followed with, “We will explore spiritual practices together with you, experiencing the healing presence of God.” Peace and Schoen further explain, “This would be evangelism out of the silence rather than via the loud proclamation. It would be evangelism of companionship—as both evangelist and seeker reach out to God. It would be evangelism of the retreat and the small group conversation, rather than evangelism of the large meeting and forceful challenge. It would be evangelism of spiritual direction (in which the voice of God is sought) rather than evangelism of the witnessing monologue.”

Church of the Painted Hills offers a practical example of such “Contemplative Evangelism” with their Friday Centering Prayer gatherings. They advertise via flyers at local Yoga studios, and half the people who attend their gatherings are unaffiliated with the church. They come driven by a desire to experience God.

Theologian Karl Rahner said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or will not exist at all.” In a time of declining church attendance, perhaps we should more openly advertise that our faith communities offer ancient and effective spiritual practices, trails inviting those who wish to walk on such mystical paths.

The Art of Playing Well Together—For Pastors and Church Leaders

by Kenneth McIntosh

We all want our churches to be healthy and effective in mission—but we know that isn’t always the case. Over the past decades I’ve seen that conflicts between pastors and lay leaders—especially church council members—are one of the most common causes of problems in congregations. The sad results of such a disconnect can include church splits, declining attendance, and pastors leaving churches.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so may I suggest that you read on through, and see if some of these thoughts are helpful for you and your congregation?

FOR ALL (CLERGY AND LAITY):

1. Don’t say “my” church.

I know, “my” church can be a sign of pride—like “my” family or “my country.” But even when used innocently, it can pave the way to a less noble use of the expression. Recall a time when church disagreements have grown serious, notice how talk of our church shifted to my church. The pastor starts talking about what won’t be allowed in my church, the deacon will be darned if such-and-such happens in my church, and by the time it reaches this level of misguided ownership, it goes to heck in a hand basket.

How to prevent such self-centered thinking? It’s better if everyone speaks of our church, so long as we includes everyone in the church and not just a faction. But really it is Christ’s church! Or God’s church, if we prefer. Church decisions shouldn’t be about what suits this person or that person, but about how any decision lead to the creation of the Beloved Community. Sometimes a little word can make a difference, so listen to yourself—do you speak of my church, our church, or God’s church?

2. No surprises!

There is only one exception to this rule, which is a surprise party in someone’s honor. Otherwise, there is never any reason to surprise someone–either with an unexpected meeting, sudden resolution, unscheduled vote, or unscheduled visit by a delegation to an office. The need by any party to bring something up in an unexpected and unannounced manner always indicates some level of distrust or malfeasance—it is prelude to a power play as surely as Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March. If you hear that a group of people plan a surprise meeting with the pastor, or the pastor decides he has to drop in on someone with a bombshell, beg them to reconsider. If you’re at a council meeting and something gets brought up suddenly, or it’s obvious that a motion is being railroaded, say “this is rather sudden—let’s give it more time for thought.”

Of course, the positive antidote to surprise actions is communication in advance.  As a minister, I consult with the church moderator (or whichever persons will be effected) before  introducing any change. In return, I appreciate that lay leaders know to bring up any matters of substance in advance of formal discussion or action. This sort of “testing the waters” with people builds relational confidence between parties and it enables deeper thinking about decisions.

3. Fight against Common Foes—not Against Each Other

I often use this metaphor for marriage counseling, but it can apply as well to church councils and ministers. Suppose you’re walking together down a dark alley, and a bunch of thugs jump you. Instead of struggling against your attackers, you turn on one another and start beating each other up.

The picture is ludicrous, but that’s what couples sometimes do in a marriage—and pastors and church leaders do it as well. Your church is assailed with all manner of challenges—financial needs, ways to connect with the larger community, straining resources of time and energy, etc. When these foes assail a group, they sometimes turn against one another, beating up and blaming, rather than standing together as a united front and directing their combined energies against the problems. As Ben Franklin put it at the beginning of the colonial revolution, “If we don’t hang together, then we shall surely hang separately.” When troubles confront your church, seek ways to frame it as “all of us united” against the common threat.

FOR MINISTERS:

  1. Non-Anxious Presence

This comes from Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s classic book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Over the past twenty years I’ve spoken to a number of pastors who agree that this is as close as it comes to a “silver bullet” for surviving church conflicts. There are two parts: (1) “Non-anxious” is self-explanatory; when you sense disagreement do all you can to reduce your own stress; try to look at it playfully and lightly. Even if there is something vital at stake, thinking of it as being of great consequence will not help the situation. Of course, keeping one’s Zen-state when others disagree with us requires considerable spiritual and mental practice. And don’t forget (2) “Presence.” This is also counter-intuitive, but when you know someone disagrees with you stay close to them relationally. When there is heat, we naturally desire to back-away; that is instinctive, but it exacerbates problems.  

Again, prevention is better than cure. The best way to ensure “non-anxious presence” is for pastor and congregants to establish good rapport. It’s easy to think “ministers are so busy, it’s a waste of time to just hang out with parishoners.” But in fact, just talking when there aren’t any heavy issues is a vital use of time. Pastors and lay leaders with well-established relationships are more likely to be able to stay in-sync and weather storms together when they arise.

2. “Watch your life and doctrine closely.”—1 Timothy 4:16

Rabbi Friedman says the primary task of a clergy person is: “take primary responsibility for his or her own position…and work to define his or her own goals and self.” Putting that in mystical terms, I recall the words of a mentor on a personal retreat: “You are the sacrament of the Holy Spirit for your congregation.” The pastor’s  own being—what they do and believe—is, as the Apostle Paul wrote, a critical element for the health of God’s church.

In the United Church of Christ, ministers are fortunate to have two outstanding documents that can aid in this. The minimal statement of a clergy person’s expectations—a list of lines to never cross—is the Ordained Minister’s Code, and particularly the section titled Ethics of Ministry. A teacher in seminary often said, “Every minister has his or her price,” a caution that no-one is above failing ethically, given the worst case scenario. Unfortunately, it is possible to gradually descend into such a worst case scenario like the proverbial frog boiling unknowingly in the pot. A regular reading of the Ordained Minister’s Code is a good way to ensure that the pastor stays far from the boiling point.

On a more positive note, the document titled The Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers of the United Church of Christ is a great summary of what the Apostle Paul enjoins when he says “watch your life and doctrine.” Its comprehensive nature can be a bit daunting at first glance, so remember that this is a listing of the ideals for ministry. The Marks of Faithful and Effective Ministers is a great summation of the high call of God so an occasional review of the marks can provide a valuable refresher for active clergy.

3. Bless the “Loyal Opposition.”

This is another excellent suggestion from Friedman. Do you know a member of your parish who always has something critical, snide or oppositional to say? The one whom you think of as the burr stuck permanently under your saddle? Yeah, you have someone in mind when you read this.

When viewed negatively, such individuals can grow to become a minister’s pitfall—like the burr that chafes until it opens a wound and then becomes infected. But there’s a way to re-interpret such a person: they are in fact doing the minister a favor. Social psychologists verify that every group needs a consistent critic; any organization comprised entirely of “yay-sayers” will stagnate. There has to be a voice of correction. Leaders don’t have to agree with that voice, but they do need to hear it.

In one of my churches there was a woman who did not profess Christianity, and who was outspoken in her disagreements. Sometimes she’d come out and say “That’s silly—do you people realize how ridiculous that sounds to people outside of this church?” I came to realize that in some cases her stinging insights were spot on. I would thank her for such remarks, and others in the church picked up on that cue. I came to privately regard her as “our congregation’s B.S. meter.” When she passed away, she donated all her remaining assets to a new church that I was then planting—and then I realized she truly was the loyal opposition.

FOR LAY LEADERS:

  1. Never Relay Anonymous Negative Comments

Would you like to know how we can destroy our churches? Ruin our pastors’ health? I’ll tell you how. It’s simple. Just make a point of telling the pastor “People are saying…”and end the sentence with a negative comment—about the music, sermon, outreach ministry–you name it. This puts the minister in a position of fear (what people? How many?) Then the minister looks at people wondering “Is it so and so?” It is double jeopardy because not knowing whom to address, the pastor has no idea how to rectify or approach the situation. No wonder Jesus tells us to confront people directly—to their face—if we must speak words of correction (Matthew 18).

The solution? If you hear someone saying negative about a third party, ask them “Have you spoken directly to so-and-so with your concern?” Especially if “so-and-so” is your pastor. Doing this could save your church.

And a tip for ministers: next time someone comes to you saying “People are saying…” Reply with this: “I’ll address that when the person concerned tells me to my face—until then, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t real.”

2. Offer positive and specific feedback

Everyone appreciates appreciation, and clergy are no exception to the rule. But even better than gracious sentiments is specific positive feedback. So instead of “Great sermon pastor” you could say “I appreciate the way you applied the Old Testament to this week’s political events.” Rather than, “Our church is doing great,” you could say “I was pleased this week at my Rotary club meeting to hear a city councilman speak well of our refugee ministry.” Statements of this sort provide the minister with a sense of being appreciated and also provide valuable information.

The pastor(s), council members, and ministry leaders of any church are a team, and congregational health depends on their ability to play well together. Remembering these suggestions may help your team to stay successfully in the game, effectively serving God’s Beloved Community.

View what’s possible: an astonishing experience of the infinite

By Kelly Kahlstrom

I don’t know if you recall the View-master’s from childhood. A “reel” of slides could be dropped into the stereoscope and with a click the slides would change and tell a story. Even the slogan “View-master- View what’s possible” held great intrigue for me. I am asking you to imagine this blog as a story in a View-master.

*click*

Title: ChazzyBear: a story in four pictures.

*click*

I was in the car driving to Tucson for a weekend with my grandchildren. I hurriedly leave right after work hoping to arrive before they go to bed; a few minutes of Oma time and perhaps a few books before lights out. Just outside of Marana I received the text. Chaz was dead. So many questions I could not address in the car nor adequately from Tucson. I was alone with my thoughts and my time with the kids was frequently punctuated with images of Chaz. Chaz my love…such a short life you had…woefully packed with more than your fair share of demons…Early life trauma begat addictions to food, nicotine, alcohol and pain meds which seemed to manage you for much of your life as did the medical complications that followed…Your anxiety and alternatively your depression seemed immeasurable and endless… You had aged out of services but were not yet ready to fly… You did not fit the gender binary… So many obstacles for one young person to have to hurdle in a thousand lifetimes of trying…The pathology was overwhelming… And then you were gone… a death out of the normal sequence of time…suddenly, regrettably, but sadly, not unexpectedly.  

*click*

Now imagine her peer group huddled together in disbelief at this turn of events. It had been 3 days since the news broke of her accidental overdose. Skillfully encouraged by an adult volunteer, her peers offered their expressions of remembrance…Silly, brave, fun, divine, daredevil, genuine, compassionate, funny, artistic, wonderful, thoughtful, mindful, deep, enduring, laughter, real, outspoken, smile, caring, open, sharing, friend, courageous, supporter, leader, sassy, survivor, inspirational, powerful, heartfelt, dancer, joyous, empathetic, rebel, charismatic, non-apologetic, beautiful, challenger, fearless, forward, radiant, sparkle, confident, loved.

To her peers she was a bad-a** woman who was not afraid to own her issues, and who expressed her pain and joy through music and dance.

*click*

Flashback, if you will, to a time before photography, at the turn of the 19th century, in the center of cultural life in Berlin. The literary salon; “a simple tea-table with a charming hostess, enthusiasm for reading and discussing literature, sparkling conversation and an atmosphere of friendship”. The Aufklärung, or the Enlightenment, dominated the world of ideas shared in these salons. Reason was fast becoming the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Yet, one member of Henriette Herz’s salon was something of an enigma to the typical salon participant. A brilliant and gifted conversationalist, by all appearances an Enlightenment thinker, but also a cleric who retained his Moravian roots and, seemingly, the antiquated beliefs of the church. For his 29th birthday, the salon participants gave him free reign to “explain himself” to the “cultured despisers” of his day. This is what he said to them:

  1. You think religion is only about priests and rules (or knowing and doing). It is not.
  2. This is what I think religion is: an astonishing experience of the infinite which can be found in the most mundane, finite moments of our lives if we are awake to them.
  3. Learning to “stay awake” must be cultivated and takes practice.
  4. These experiences of the infinite are so cool that they beg to be shared with others. The more they are shared with others the better each of us are at recognizing the infinite when we see it.
  5. There is a social structure already set up to cultivate and talk about these experiences. It is called church. You should try it sometime.  The only differences between the experiences of those inside church and those outside of church is that the church calls these experiences God.

Young Friedrich Schleiermacher was able to convince some of his closest friends to consider this possibility.

*click*

Now picture the conference office, fondly called the 917, filled to capacity and decked out in flowers, candles, and pink and purple balloons. A video projector played a loop of the many pictures of Chaz dancing, singing, and participating in the life of this community. Through the outreach efforts of Elizabeth Youngberg, pastor of Rebel & Divine, Chaz’s mother, younger brother and maternal grandmother were present for the service. It was peer led; her friends offered the prayers, the music, the poetry readings, and the remembrances. Simple…Heartfelt…Tearful…Beautiful.

This was the environment that Chaz’s brother stepped into when he stood to say a few words. He was, by his own admission, as shy and introverted as Chaz was outgoing. The dress shirt and pants purchased for the occasion seemed uncomfortably out of character for him. He apologized for his perceived lack of eloquence and then, with quiet sincerity, he shared his thoughts. He was surprised to learn of Chaz’s attachment to this community – a community that we call church. And through this experience, he realized that he had never really known his sister. This led to a request for conversation; an open invitation to all who knew Chaz to share their stories with him so that he could fill in the gaps of his own, and perhaps fractured, experience of her.  

*click*

Epilogue: Only Chaz’s brother can say if the service and fellowship afterward constituted an experience of the infinite for him. It certainly was for me. Like the View-master slogan- “View what is possible,” I am continually amazed at the opportunities we have to adjust (and by this I mean broaden) our own perceptions when we actively participate in the life of a community. Especially a community that finds experiences of the infinite so cool that they beg to be shared with others; whether or not they can call these experiences God. ChazzyBear…you left bigger shoes to fill than I first imagined. Rest in peace.

Starting a New Church? Be Different.

by Ryan Gear

One of the biggest reasons many new churches fail:

Blending in.

When people ask you as a church planter what your new church is all about, here’s the wrong answer:

“Well, we wanna worship God authentically with contemporary music, let people dress how they want, care about social justice and make the Bible relevant to everyday life.”

The most visible churches in your town started doing that before the Spice Girls came out. A contemporary church was scandalous… then.

Because they were unique at the time, those churches are now much larger than yours. They worship God with contemporary music better than your church plant’s music. They have more experience preaching than you do, and they even let people dress how they want better than you do.

Now, all of the sudden they’ve started caring about social justice too (or at least making people think they do), so that’s not different anymore either.

They even pretend to be authentic.

In order to survive, your church has to have a reason for existing that makes it different from the other churches around you. This is differentiation.

It’s true that churches are not in competition with each other. There are far too many unreached people. At the same time, if unreached people decide to seek God in a church, they have to be able to see your church in order to show up.

  • Can they see your church?
  • How well does your church stick out in the church landscape of your city?
  • What makes your church different from the other churches that dominate the landscape?
  • What does your church offer your city that current churches don’t?
  • Most importantly, how does your church live out the mission of Jesus in a way that other churches don’t?

Here are 3 questions from a pastor named Adam Hamilton that sum it up nicely. If you’re going to start a new church, you have to be able to answer these 3 questions. If your answer to the last question doesn’t make your church stand out, your church plant won’t make it.

  1. Why do people need Jesus?
  2. Why do people need the Church (worldwide)?
  3. Why do people need this church (the church you’re starting)?

Answer that third question in a way that blows people’s minds in your city… and then every other church will copy you.