Constant Change and the Unchanging Truth

by Amos Smith

One comes to understand…the changeable nature of visible created things: how they derive from the earth and return again to the earth, thus confirming the words of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

–Peter of Damascus

These lines come from an early Christian writer named Peter of Damascus who wrote a work called “Treasury of Divine Knowledge.” More or less one thousand years ago Peter wrote about how the only thing that is everlasting is the Creator. And so the only way to participate in life everlasting is devotion to the Creator through praise, written and spoken acclamation, and prayer.

The biological creatures of this planet and the dense matter that swirls through the cosmos all have their source in the Creator. According to Peter of Damascus when we go into the depths of prayer we perceive that all creatures arise for a time, then return to their Source. It is the Source that is timeless, eternal.

Worship in the most profound sense is acknowledgement that in the midst of all the numerous changes, in the midst of the institutions of society that were here for a time then vanished. In the midst of the tumultuous events of our times including global terrorism, climate change, and a flood of refugees, there is a constant that forms the universe and binds it together. It is enveloped in mystery, yet came to us in the fullness of time in the person of Jesus.

When the constant changes of life reach a crescendo may we recall that our Source is from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2). This Source is our ultimate security from age to age – not distant, but personal in the ministry of Jesus.

Innovation Lab Making an Impact

guest post by Rev. Sue Joiner

Note by Kenneth McIntosh, Church Growth and Renewal Coordinator for SWC:

“Last October, Sue Joiner and Ann Marie Stranger from First Congregational Albuquerque participated in the Innovation Lab Workshop held at the SWC office in Phoenix and led by Rebecca Glenn. They have attended video conference coaching group meetings in the months since then, and have facilitated an exciting process of innovation and healthy changes at their church. Enjoy this article, be inspired by some of these ideas, and remember that there are still openings for the Innovation Lab Workshop round #2 happening this fall.”

We began our process with a team of a dozen leaders in January. We were inspired by the Innovation Lab technique of experimentation, deep listening, prototyping and learning as we go. We interviewed people about the church to hear what their deep hungers were. The theme that was repeated the most was connection. Then we created a survey to help assess what would most meet that need for connection. We gathered to assimilate the information and discovered some themes:

There is a longing for meaningful relationships and we are addressing that by creating opportunities for people to get to know each other. We did a Lenten series using the book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons. We had four groups meeting at different times and places over a six week period. These were so well-received that we are doing three groups this summer – one group is reading a collection of short stories set in New Mexico, another is reading the book Being Mortal, and a third will gather later this summer to read plays and look at the themes as they relate to our lives. Our Green Justice team is sponsoring a dinner and movie discussion to explore food justice issues in more depth.

We talked about connecting in worship. We have found ways to integrate children in worship and relocated our children’s corner to give children better access to their own resources. We have added some visual arts for Easter and Pentecost. We did a community Candlelight Memorial Service for the victims of the Orlando shooting. Our sanctuary is now 100% LED lighting (a result of the Green Justice committee and our commitment to making the space more welcoming).

We are looking at our building as a resource and seeking to make it friendlier. We put rainbow doors on Lomas (a major street outside our church) that say, “God’s doors are open to all”. We want to do more with the inside of the building. We are committed to a master plan for the building. We have a trainer and opened a fitness room in our basement that is open to the community.

We became a Green Justice Congregation on May 22 so we are finding new ways to live out this commitment.

We are planning to send care packages to any UCC student at University of New Mexico (we are counting on churches to send us the names of students who are coming to school here).

We are committed to finding new ways to make our building and our community a place of connection. We are finding new ways to get the word out about our extravagant welcome. We are committed to the whole person and to a welcome that is long lasting.

The Heart of Worship

by Ken McIntosh

I’ve just returned from two weeks in the United Kingdom, where Christian faith has an ancient and storied history that contrasts with the lack of church attenders in the present day. According to a 2015 survey, Great Britain is among the least religious countries in the world.  In a global ranking of 65 countries, the UK came six places from last, with 30% of the population calling themselves religious. Some churches continue to thrive in the UK, but many rural congregations are only a handful of members.

On a Thursday evening my wife and I entered the Cathedral church in the Welsh city of Brecon and sat ourselves in the section of the building where the choir sings, in order to hear Evensong. There was one other person in attendance there—an older gentleman who greeted us briefly, apparently a local. The lector came, asked us to stand, and the choir processed in—a dozen people of mixed ages and gender, robed in scarlet. After the service began, a group of four German tourists walked into the Cathedral and decided to sit in the larger sanctuary space and listen.

The service was perfect—as I expected in a Cathedral church. The Welsh are famous for singing, and this choir was no exception. The voices, the enormous pipe organ, and the acoustics were out of this world. The readings were pronounced by a speaker whose voice certainly merited a career on the BBC. And I couldn’t help thinking…such a huge place of worship, such a meticulously rehearsed service, yet if the tourists hadn’t wandered in, and we hadn’t made that trip to hear the choir…they would have had one congregant.

Yet there was a sort of beauty to that. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. My life is all about the worship of God and I rejoice when I see communities of faith growing. My vocation is helping churches to increase, and I love it when I see churches at home or abroad flourishing. I dearly wish that the nave had been filled with worshipers that evening. And yet…there was something pure and delightful about that service.

I realized that choir would have sung just as beautifully, the organ sounded just as grand, and the Scriptures read with the same eloquence if only that one gentleman had been in attendance. Or, I strongly expect, it would be the same if there were no human audience.

“O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD,” says the Psalmist (96:1). Thankfully, the choirs and worship groups at our churches usually sound forth praise to the Lord and to a congregation. The participation of those gathered adds to the energy of the worship event. At my own church, the congregation usually claps and exclaims when the choir finishes singing—and rightly so; it’s a good feeling for the choir and for the rest of us to hear that appreciation. I’ve also been in churches where the worship vibe was similar to what used to be the experience at Grateful Dead shows—the crowd and the band sending pulses of energy back and forth, clapping and dancing with abandon.

And the blessing of an audience is also a subtle temptation, because performing in front of a human audience, who are responsive and appreciative, it’s easy to forget that our worship is “unto the Lord.” Hearing their congregation clap or smile, the musicians may not hear God silently applaud, or see the Creator’s smile. But when a choir and musicians faithfully execute their craft for an audience that are half their size—or for no audience—they are touching the very heart of true worship.

When I was ordained as a minister, I was given a charge by the Reverend Stanley Green, then my bishop in the Mennonite Church. In that sermon he kept urging me to discharge the various responsibilities of my calling “for an audience of one.” Over and over, in different ways, he urged me not to base my ministry on either the praise or the disparagement of the people in my future churches; to keep my focus undivided on what best serves God.

That’s never easy to do, because the clamor of yay-sayers and nay-sayers can drown out the still small voice of Jesus. That charge has pursued me for decades now, and it sometimes seems more difficult as I grow older, but I keep trying to focus on Christ despite all the words that press around me. I hope that our churches continue to be filled with active worshipers, adding to the energy of praise. Yet it would be good for all of us who serve God’s people, either as ministers or singers or in any other way, to remember that we are ultimately performing our skills for an audience of one—for The One.

image credit: Ken McIntosh

Values stink.

by Karen Richter

Why do you bring your children to church? Why do you think there are children sitting in the pews of your church?

If you ask parents this question (or if just now, you answered this question for yourself), you might hear answers like this:

“It’s important for me that my child learns the values of our church community.”

“I want my kid to be a good person.”

“Church provides my family with moral guidance.”

Values stink. by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference Blog United Church of Christ
Can we agree than authenticity is better than shiny and happy?

Nope. Sorry – nope nope nope.

Church is not about values. Not only are there OTHER places in our society to expose your children to good values, there are BETTER places in our society to teach good values.

Scouting, team sports, community theater, chess club, school-based values curricula, VeggieTales… these are excellent sources for parents to teach their children the importance of fairness, teamwork, honesty, and cooperation. The kiddos will make friends along the way – it’ll be great!

Church MUST be more than values instruction. I’ll risk overstating my point (and annoying my readers): if we structure programs for children in churches with the goal of teaching good values, we will lose. Not only are the organizations I listed above doing great things with kids, the Gospel of grace always trumps morality.

What then takes the place of values instruction? In progressive churches, we’ve somewhat abandoned old-timey instruction. I haven’t seen a good fill-in-the-blank Bible worksheet since I was 10 years old. We’re working on abandoning a school-based model and even in some churches we’re getting rid of a star-earning, funfunfun carnival model.

What’s left? Just two principles guide children’s ministry in the post-modern era, and the earlier a child can communicate and internalize these, the better.

“At church, people love me just as I am.”

This means prioritizing relationships and connections over curricula and content. This means children participating in worship – not as cute props for adults to coo at, but as full members of the worshipping community.

“At church, I can ask questions.”

Values stink. by Karen Richter, Southwest Conference blog United Church of Christ
Our kids can be like Jesus: more questions than answers!

Whether it’s a deep question like this one I got during Advent, ‘How do we know that Jesus was God’s son? What if he was just a good person?’ or it’s a question from the Our Whole Lives question box or just an everyday ‘Why?’ – questions are at the heart of the spiritual journey for every person. When our churches are safe places for questions, doubt, experiential pondering, they will thrive.

In fact, what would our churches look like if every person at every age and in every situation can express these same ideas:

“At church, people love me just as I am.”

“At church, I can ask questions.”

So, yeah, values stink. The Good News we have is so much better, deeper, and wider than values.

Peace to us all in 2016.

Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be

by Teresa Blythe

Lots of congregations sing “Lord of the Dance” on Sunday mornings, but really, what would most of them do if someone lost their inhibitions, took the song literally and began to “dance, dance,” right there in worship?

It is so rare to see a real outburst of spontaneous celebration of God’s Spirit in most established (especially white) churches that when it occurs we generally go in one of two directions. If we are inspired by it, we then want to control it ending up with predictable liturgical dancers—eyes and arms lifted toward heaven (in case we don’t understand that they are glorifying God)–or acceptable movement such as a little swaying and clapping. If we are embarrassed by it, we avert our eyes, ignore it and hope it goes away.

We could instead embrace it. Understand that we do not “have” bodies, we “are” bodies and sometimes those bodies want to move or otherwise express themselves in worship. We could, as they say, let the children, young adults and those with nothing to lose lead us toward a more embodied worship experience.

Embrace that Swing

Several years ago I had the privilege of working part-time at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson—one of the few multicultural progressive churches in Arizona. On this particular Sunday, children’s time had just ended, but, as was the custom at Southside, the children were not yet dismissed to their respective church school classrooms because the choir had not yet sung. With the children sitting on the flagstone floor of the Native American-style kiva sanctuary, the choir sang a rousing gospel rendition of the old favorite, “Love Lifted Me.”

In the middle of the song, with not a shred of inhibition, a six-year old girl leaps to her feet and starts free-form dancing. Now we’re all familiar with the one or two children in the church who enjoy making a scene during children’s time. But this little girl wasn’t in it for the attention. The motivation appeared to be pure adoration and praise. Most of the adults in the congregation were smiling—some had tears in their eyes—at the freedom the girl felt to “dance, dance, wherever she may be.”

When the song ended, the pastor, John Fife, stood to say, “That’s the difference between children and adults. She was inspired, so she got up and began dancing. Many of us were inspired as well, but we just sat there and let her dance all by herself!” Since then, when people at Southside feel so moved by the choir, they stand up and move.

That 6-year old dancer has a prophetic message for the larger church. On a base level, we have to understand how music moves the body and soul. I’m talking about music with full-bodied rhythm—and let’s be honest, most people just don’t feel like dancing to the pipe organ. Yes, saying that can start up a “worship war” in your congregation, but it doesn’t change the truth of the matter.

What this girl demonstrated was that if our churches want to be welcoming and attractive to people younger than your average church member, we had better be alive and ready for anything to happen in inspired worship.

(Which is why it thrilled me this past Sunday at First Congregational UCC Phoenix to turn around during a high-energy gospel song and see one of the young adults who was running the media center in the back moving and dancing to the music the way God intended! I only wish everyone there had turned around to see how much fun he was having at church.)

Embrace the Awkward Illustration

Sometimes spontaneity is thrust upon us by those who have long ago lost the usual societal inhibitions. I once visited a Presbyterian church in Albuquerque as a wild-haired, scruffy older man in a heavy coat had a burden to share in worship. Rising during announcement time, he proceeded to the pulpit to confess to a number of “sins of the flesh.” The young pastor appeared to know this man, and was not exactly surprised at the pop-up confession but was at a loss for what to do. So, he let the man speak.

As fate would have it, the sermon that morning—from the lectionary—was the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus saying that the one who “beat his breast” saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” was justified. What a brilliant sermon illustration! Unplanned and awkward, yes. But, frankly a bright spot in the liturgy.

Was this celebrated as a happy coincidence? Or even a Godly moment? Hardly. No mention is made of the event after the man is escorted away from the pulpit, because his interjection is seen as an embarrassing disturbance.

We’ll need to shed this self-consciousness and a desire to control if we want God’s spirit to blow around in worship. If something bizarre but meaningful happens in worship, let’s make the most of it. It sure beats the Easter Sunday I spent at a mainline church in the Bay area where I counted at least three people in their twenties fast asleep during the sermon.

Let’s embrace the crazy outburst as important data for discerning when and where God’s Spirit is moving within the congregation. How can we follow it more closely? How can we stay open to those times when worship goes slightly awry, seeing what those moments have to teach us? Savor them, in all their ickiness, and you’ll soon become more comfortable with the unusual, the ecstatic, the surprising.

Honoring the Body

Church leaders could start to honor the body in worship by incorporating call-and-response music, drums, incense and a variety of simple prayer postures. Make worship a feast of all five senses, not just the ear and eyes. Instead of bringing on the approved liturgical dancer why not go into the community and hire a professional contemporary dancer to do an original dance illustrating the theme of worship that day? Lift our eyes from the bulletin by posting what we need for worship on a screen or even an old-fashioned poster board up front. Leave us on the edge of our seats by writing sermons with cliff-hanger endings, like the serial dramas on TV do each week. Ask us to yell out “Amen” to your sermon when we feel it. And then entice us with God’s word so that we want to.

Making room for the spontaneous will not be easy for people set in their ways. It requires an attitude of hospitality that says whatever is done in authentic response to the Word or the Spirit is OK with us.

It requires being brave enough to admit that if our music, preaching and prayer aren’t filled with enough of God’s Spirit to move people in some pretty significant ways, we’re in trouble and need to plead for God’s mercy. Remember, boring people in worship is a sin.

The good news is that the Lord of the Dance is the one who saves us.

5 Gifts for Postmodern Faith Communities

by Karen Richter

First, gentle readers, a confession:  I’ve got a lot at stake in this whole church thing working out.  I suspect that most of you do too.  I begin by letting you know that this might be way off-base as I definitely have a pro-church bias.  You’ve been warned.  I also begin with a bit of clarification; in the title I mean “all churches doing ministry in the 21st century, in this time of movement out of Modernity and toward whatever is next.”  To state the obvious:  some churches are already postmodern and some are not.  The clarification wouldn’t make a very good permalink.  

So what is church?  What’s the purpose?  What are we doing and why do we do it?

In my own answer I’m indebted to teachers in the tradition of the Ecumenical Order and its contemporary offspring:  Realistic Living  and Profound Journey Dialog.  This is a whole rabbit-hole, but I tell you this just to make clear that these ideas aren’t my own.

Church is people who are watching, waiting, and acting.

by Peter on Flickr
by Peter on Flickr

In the words of H. Richard Neibuhrchurch are those sensitive and responsive people who are first to perceive God’s work in the world and first to respond.  To me, this is beautiful imagery.  I imagine millions of sensitive and responsive people, those who care, looking around, finding God at work, and joining in.  Church folks are the “what’s next?” people.  In my mind, all of us sensitive and responsive ones are pausing every once in a while, looking toward the horizon, testing the winds… to see if God is moving in a new way in our world.  

Despite this lovely calling to pioneer God’s work in the world, the church isn’t doing so well.  You don’t have to look very far to find various bloggers, authors, ministers, and public personae having a big conversation about how close to death the institutional church is in our time.  I’m not interested in having that debate.  It’s clear that church has changed, is changing, can anticipate additional changes.  Because I believe in celebrating and being thankful for what is, I’m looking for the gifts in all this change.

Gift #1:  Smallitude
One of the biggest challenges facing the church is the commoditization of worship and community life.  A couple of examples will give you a feel for what I’m getting at.  I work at a church with an unabashedly progressive theology.  Every summer, some of our families attend Vacation Bible School programs at other churches with very different dogma and cosmology.  It’s something wholesome for the kids to do in the summer.  A couple of years ago, I got an email right before Christmas from a family explaining that they would be attending Christmas eve services at a church closer to their home.  Every church has candles and Silent Night, right?  I’m not criticizing these families’ decisions, but I am pointing toward an idea that, for many people, church is something that fits or doesn’t fit the family’s needs and schedule, much like sports teams and music lessons.  Folks shop around, and churches put their best foot forward to get in on the action.  It’s consumerism and it seems so natural, so much ‘just the way things work,’ that we can’t see it.

We’re better when we’re smaller.

Last year, I got a birthday card with a cartoon of Jesus on the front, captioned ‘Jesus on Twitter.’  His little thought balloon said, “Twelve followers… Sweet!”

Smaller means more intimate, less pretentious.  Smaller means more consensus and fewer committees.  Sometimes smaller means more REAL.

Gift #2  Permission to put Vision in the driver’s seat… and stop using the R-word!
Big churches have lots of programs.  There’s not a thing wrong with programs.  But programming (lots of Bible studies, small groups, family activities, fitness plans, travel) can be a distraction from a congregation’s shared vision.

When a faith community puts an emphasis on programs, they run the risk of people leaving when the church down the street offers a program they like better.  So program planning becomes a vicious circle:  offer more, fancier, more polished programs in brand new buildings or via shiny fast technology.  Church leadership becomes focused on numbers and fear.  A church focused on numbers and fear – no matter how nice their brochures or how hip their website it – is dying.  We are tempted to measure success with spreadsheets and numbers rather than with transformation.

The alternative is to let vision run the show.  A shared, energizing, hopeful vision for the future – not just the future of an individual church, but the future of a movement, the future of the earth community.  It’s risky, occasionally chaotic.  But it’s exciting.

When vision drives the church and becomes the center of decision-making and resource allocation, the church no longer needs to worry about being relevant.  (Side Rant:  I HATE talk about getting relevant.  Bleh.) We get behind the vision, do the work we are called to do, and leave the judgments for history to decide.  In other words, when we are busy working, we don’t have time for hand-wringing conversations about being relevant.  

Gift #3  Relationship gets more than just talk
All churches talk about relationship.  It’s a buzzword.  The hype around relationships is crazy-making.  A friend of mine had an interesting experience with a large Phoenix church.  The relationships this church seemed ready to build were with her husband (with a manly, trade show vibe) and with her children (with contemporary music and lots of technology).  When they stopped attending, no one noticed.

people huggingEveryone’s a pastor.  Everyone is a caregiver.  I struggled with this in my first year as a church staffer.  I had this idea that I would swoop in, fix the education programming (meaning, that I would fill a calendar grid with classes and speakers), and things would just get magically better.  Caregiving was just not in the picture.  Then I helped lead a retreat (more programming!  LOL) in which there were two people in a lot of pain.  One was grieving; the other was working through some painful experiences in her past.  This second participant had an obvious ‘tell:’ when she would talk about her family life and the difficulties they had experienced, she would grin largely and nervously.  The grin masked, just barely, the struggle.  I did a lot of caregiving that weekend and since.  It’s changed the way I listen, the way I show up, the way I measure my accomplishments in any given week.  I’m still growing in this area and feel so grateful for the grace my community shows me as I learn.

Everyone is a caregiver.

Gift #4  Getting Creative… because it’s required
In the 1950s when everyone went to church, I imagine that creativity was a luxury.  When everything was going well and the church was ahead on budget items, the staff would get creative.

These days, creativity is an everyday thing.  Newly minted M.Div. graduates get creative when putting together their call to ministry in order to become ordained.  Children’s ministry teams get creative when they don’t have a budget for the off-the-shelf pageant or VBS curriculum.  Churches discover that they have gifts sitting RIGHT THERE IN THE PEWS!  Chefs, teachers, organizers, plumbers, drivers, engineers pitch in to do the work we are called to do.

Gift #5  Lay Leadership Gets Real
Again, I imagine that in days gone by, lay leadership was something a little extra.  Churches set aside a day in the fall to recognize the church board chair and the Sunday School teachers.  Isn’t that nice?  The niceness was propped up by a culture of single income nuclear families and at-home caregivers.

Now, there is less of a division between authorized ministry and lay leadership.  More ministers have day jobs to pay the bills.  We are getting rid of the idea that being called to ministry requires a Rev in front of your name.  These are “fighting words” for some of my friends and colleagues, and this warrants much more digital ink, but this is what I see.

Additionally, despite the necessity of intensive volunteer work and expertise and involvement, there are fewer June Cleavers in our pews.  There’s a squeeze of time that we are all living with.  AND YET… I see busy and passionate people at board and team meetings every week, prioritizing God’s work over the millions of distractions technology and culture afford us.  


UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Church is people who are watching and waiting – looking toward the margins to see the next place where God is at work.  Church is people who are acting – serving peace and justice on behalf of all.  These pioneering actions continue to happen despite the naysayers who are ready to write the church’s obituary.  A smaller church for postmodernity can be MUST BE a visioning church, a caring church, a countercultural church, a serving church.

I hope I’m at least a little bit right.  I’m leaning in with this church thing.  Peace to all.

How to Welcome New People…Wisely

by Ryan Gear

I am currently reading John Dorhauer’s new book Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World. In it, Rev. Dorhauer presents an exciting challenge to let go of some restrictive institutional structures and allow a “Church 2.0” to emerge and engage our postmodern world.

I find it incredibly refreshing that the new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ is urging the use of new metrics in place of the old metrics of attendance and offering to measure church “success.” Instead of counting success in terms of heads and dollars, he advocates for the blossoming of new, adaptive expressions of faith that count people served. How blessed the UCC is to have a leader who understands the true mission of the church!

As congregations adopt this view of the church’s mission, lives will be changed, as John likes to say, “by the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” As hope is renewed, healing is found, and communities are served, people touched by the church’s mission will take notice… and something else will happen.

Ironically, as the church shifts its focus from heads and dollars to service and mission, the church attendance will likely increase. Please hear me, I don’t want to sound presumptuous, and serving is certainly not a means to an end. When churches serve their communities and allow new expressions of worship, however, new people will likely want to worship there. Love is attractive.

Although many congregations currently feel as though they’re struggling, if these churches re-imagine their mission and serve their communities, they will likely welcome many new people. Moreover, as our society continues to progress and evangelicals continue to double down on backward social stances, I believe that the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations will attract a new wave of people looking for a mission-focused, thinking, and open-minded church.

Some of these folks will bring new ideas that will help you to reimagine church– creative worship, new music, poetry, video, and dialogical sermons, worship experiences that don’t fit the usual mold. Some will bring new life to church governance and budgeting with the newest leadership practices. Some will start new ministries and lead others to serve their communities in creative and inspiring ways.

In fact, I believe that one of the greatest challenges mainline denominations will face in the twenty-first century is how to welcome new people wisely. What do I mean by that?

Some congregations are not good at welcoming people at all. They almost make it difficult for a new family or unmarried person to join the church. They use insider language that newcomers don’t understand. They crush new ideas. They underfund ministry to children and students. They focus on pleasing the biggest givers rather than welcoming new blood. They cling to structures that no longer make sense. You get the idea.

The church I planted, One Church, is only two and a half years old, but we grew to 165 in worship after only 14 months. We focused on serving the disadvantaged in our community and on communicating what makes our church unique in our area. For example, we are one of the few churches in our community who welcome and affirm the LGBTQ community.

One Church also worships in a style to which a fair number of postmodern people can relate. We offer contemporary worship with lyrics on video screens. We present sermon series that address the questions thinking people have about faith. We used an up-to-date professional website, search engine optimization, Google Adwords, and Facebook advertising to promote the church and those sermons. We allow smart, capable people to create new ways of serving. At two years old, One Church would be considered a success by the old metrics and hopefully the new, as well.

Then after a year of growth, One Church paid dearly for a mistake. I placed someone into a leadership position without properly vetting him. Within a few months, I discovered that he secretly struggled with mental illness when it manifested itself in a church conflict. Acting in the only way he knew how, he created an incredible amount of hurt and distrust in the congregation. Putting someone not properly vetted into church leadership cost One Church both emotionally and numerically.

In contrast to churches who don’t really welcome new people, some congregations are so desperate for new leadership that they will place any new person into an influential position within weeks of arriving. Yes, you want to welcome new people, but you want to welcome them wisely.

As you welcome new people, you will also find that there are people who change churches frequently for various reasons that are less-than-healthy. As new people arrive in your church, you are bound to meet some of them in their continuing journey. They are often called “Church Hoppers.”

You can and should welcome each and every one of God’s children with open arms, but not everyone is ready for a position of influence in your church. While the mission of the church is to offer healing, the church you lead needs emotionally healthy, stable people in its core leadership. Again, God loves everyone, and every church should welcome hurting people. Not everyone, however, is emotionally healthy enough to have influence in a church.

Here are three ways to welcome new people well:

1. As John Dorhauer urges, “Reimagine” church.

New persons to your church will often bring new ideas about worship, be skeptical of hierarchy, and view faith as an ongoing conversation. Be open to their input, and be willing to adapt to new ways of being the church. The Center for Progressive Renewal ( is a great resource.

2. Make church guest-friendly.

Eliminate insider language that new people will not understand. Install signage helpful to first-time guests. Use twenty-first century methods of communication like social media, video, and image-based communication that Americans are now accustomed to.

3. Enrich the lives of people with felt-need sermon and ministries.

Make it your goal to create the best progressive children’s and students’ ministry in your area. Preach sermons that speak to the felt-needs we all share, as well as answer questions thinking people ask. Then, allow room for dialogue, as intelligent people appreciate the space to process verbally and share their own experiences.

Here are three ways to welcome new people wisely:

1. Resist the temptation to give authority to everyone who flatters you.

It can be tempting to automatically trust someone who tells you how great your sermons are, always encourages you, and praises your pastoral prowess… but as good as it feels to believe the hype, behind flattery may lie a hidden agenda. Be discerning.

2. Vet people before entrusting them with influence.

Develop a policy that people new to the church wait for at least a year before putting them in any positions of leadership. Watch for signs of emotional distress. In addition, if the person was offended by a former pastor, why not contact the former pastor and get his or her side of the story? It might be quite revealing. Observe the way they interact with others, and do not ignore red flags.

3. There is strength in numbers.

Limit the amount of time you spend with people who have repeatedly left other churches, and when you meet with them, make sure other trusted members of the church are with you to prevent any he-said/she-said.

As congregations reimagine church and open themselves to Church 2.0, new people will come. In faith, you can prepare for them now. As you adopt new metrics of people served, and create new expressions of worship, your church will have the opportunity to welcome people well… and welcome them wisely.

Author Bio

Ryan Gear is the founding pastor of One Church, a progressive non-denominational church in Chandler, Arizona ( and the founder of, a growing, national directory of churches willing to wrestle with questions and doubts.

He is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, OnFaith, Beliefnet, and Convergent Books and has been featured in Real Clear Religion.

Ryan also serves as an initiator in Convergence U.S., a movement bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues.

Follow Ryan on Twitter at