Category archives: mission

Congregations Dying and Rising

In his own blog, Bishop Grant recently brought my attention to a blog post entitled “A Growing Church is a Dying Church.”

I liked what the blog post said about the role of the pastor:

What then can your pastor do? She can make your board meetings longer with prayer and Bible study. She can mess with your sense of familiarity by changing the order of worship and the arrangement of the sanctuary. She can play those strange new songs and forget about your favorite old hymns. She can keep on playing those crusty old hymns instead of that hot new contemporary praise music. She can bug you incessantly about more frequent celebration of Communion. …

and:

What can she do to grow your church? Nothing. There’s nothing your pastor can do to make your church grow. She can’t save your church. Your church already has a Savior and it’s not her. She can push you. She can open doors. She can present you with opportunities. It’s up to you to take advantage of them.

But the greater point was that churches often look for numerical growth and a prolonged lifespan, which isn’t very Christian. More bodies, sometimes, is precisely what God refuses to provide. And as for length of days: we of all people should not be afraid of death like those who have no hope. Resurrection can’t happen until there’s been a death.

My only quibble with the article — not, I think, with its main thrust, but with its wording — was that it conflated two ideas: transformation and resurrection. Resurrection includes transformation, but not all transformation is resurrection. (Consider the transfigured Jesus and the risen Lord. Consider the Peter of Luke 5 and the Peter of Acts 4. He’s been transformed, but neither one is the Peter we will know in the age to come. Or the Paul of Acts 7–8 and Acts 21. He’s been transformed, but not yet resurrected.)

In the case of a local congregation, what the pastor is trying to orchestrate (midwife?) is transformation, not resurrection. The congregation may resist that transformation. It may prefer to die with dignity than to contextualize the gospel for neighbors who don’t look or sound or behave like the people who paid for the organ or put in that stained glass.

What happens when a congregation dies? Sometimes, our church buildings are recycled as restaurants, or even homes and condos. But sometimes they are resurrected for new worshipping communities, like when the small foreign-language Pentecostal congregation buys the old First Mainline Protestant church downtown. May God bless them and give them a fruitful ministry.

I can’t criticize those few survivors hanging on in First Mainline. They’re tired and dizzied by the way the culture has changed under their feet and overwhelmed by the new demographics of their community. I can understand why they might be ready to go home to be with the Lord, just like Paul.

But life is a gift from God, and we are called to make good use of the time we have been given. Paul himself says it: “if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.”

So let’s let God take care of resurrection, and in the meantime, apply ourselves to the work — and it is work — of being transformed so we can be agents of transformation.

Boundaries in a Church

Ed Stetzer‘s been blogging about boundaries lately. I thought the fourth in the series was especially useful. He describes how he encouraged an “issue Christian” to move along and find a different church that better met his passions and beliefs.

The principle at stake for the pastor is this:

Your church is not a public square for people to debate and opine. It’s a place that you are to guard and shepherd. You create boundaries—both personally and congregationally.

A pastor is, literally, a shepherd. Doing that job means keeping out the weird religious people.

What’s “weird?” Here’s some advice from Stetzer:

Creating a healthy boundary for your church means knowing who you are as a church, where you are, where you’re going, and what that means for people who are outside of that. Your church is not the place for issue Christians who want to dominate your time to be given the freedom to do so. Save that time for counseling the hurting, not arguing with the agenda-driven.

One of the reasons why it’s important to have a clear mission and vision is so you can have healthy boundaries for your congregation.

A Great Time to Be a Pastor

I’ve recently come across two articles that illustrate why this is a great time to be a pastor. Or, for that matter, a follower of Christ.

Presbyterian leaders in Pittsburgh reeling from latest exodus:

At least 200 other churches have similarly left the 1.9 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) since 2007. The most prominent issue was acceptance of local option on gay ordination, but those departing say that changing sexual standards reflect a broader disregard for the biblical authority. Defenders of the changes compare them to earlier reinterpretations of scripture involving women’s ordination, divorce and slavery.

Tod Bolsinger’s blog: Hemorrhaging Pastors:

Three. In one day. On Monday, I heard of three of my pastor friends who all resigned this week. No affairs, no scandal, no one is renouncing faith. But three, really good, experienced, pastors all turned in resignations and walked away. Two are leaving church ministry all together.

I have been hearing from more pastors these days. Some of it is related to my work with TAG Consulting, a lot of it is because I am, well, one of them. We chat and email and text and the common thread is always the same: “The church is stuck and we don’t know what to do.”

For the record, I’m not planning to resign anything. I like my work and my church. But that doesn’t keep me from seeing the problems. Problems in my denomination, problems in the local church, and my own problems as someone trained to lead a church that no longer exists.

The Church is in crisis. People who don’t see it are kidding themselves, especially pastors. The lay leaders in a congregation ought to know, or certainly ought to suspect. The church as we know it is dying.

But in a perverse way, that’s good news. As Samuel Johnson put it, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

A few weeks after World War II began, the English writer C.S. Lewis gave an address to students at Oxford University called “Learning in War-Time.” In it, he said this:

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

The same is true of the church. In North America, the Church is in a crisis like nothing it has experienced before.

But God is still in his heaven, and Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus told Peter that was the rock upon which he would build his church, and the gates of Hades would not overcome it.

Christ’s Church endures. The programs and buildings and even the friendships we have mistaken for the church may not endure — or let’s be honest: many of those things certainly will not. But it’s not our church, it’s God’s. “Many are the plans in a person’s mind, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.”

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
—“How Firm a Foundation

Something Wonderful: Hallelujah

Here is something really special: the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, with a live performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. A good way to spend four minutes.

One Hundred Years

A hundred years ago, leaders of the major Protestant denominations and missionary societies met in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the World Mission Conference. Historians of the church mark this conference as the beginning (or rather, the formal recognition) of the modern ecumenical movement. Churches had come to see that if they could cooperate on the mission field overseas, they should also be able to do so back home.

The theme of the 1910 World Mission Conference was “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation.” Everyone in the world would have the opportunity to learn about Jesus and choose whether to become a follower before that generation had passed away.

Well. Two World Wars later, after a Cold War and a Great Depression, after decolonialization in the developing world and societal upheaval in the developed, that goal may be somewhat closer, but we seem, a hundred years later, to be in no danger of attaining it in a single generation.

One thing has changed for the better. Today, we know who the target is. A hundred years ago, they said “the world” but they meant “distant lands full of heathens.” Today, we know better: Christendom is dead-if it ever existed-and the mission field is just as ripe next door as it is across the planet.

During that same year, 1910, the United Presbyterian Church of North America (a predecessor of our denomination) adopted what it called the Great Ends of the Church:

The great ends of the church are (1) the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (3) the maintenance of divine worship; (4) the preservation of the truth; (5) the promotion of social righteousness; and (6) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

It’s not a bad list, but we sure can be selective in advancing those ends. For example, the greatest part of our budget goes to #3: divine worship, led by myself and our choir director. The bulk of your volunteer effort goes to #2: fellowship and congregational care. The 4th and 5th ends — truth and social righteousness — need not be in conflict, but it’s a very rare church (or denomination) that is able to hold the two in balance. Generally, what we do is choose one or the other, and then say bad things about Christians who pick the other one.

And that leads us to #1 and #6. How serious are we about proclaiming the gospel to people who’ve never heard it? How much thought to do we give to exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to the world?

Especially since we now realize “the world” is next door. It’s across the street and down the block. It’s the grocery store and the gas station. It’s all over. “The world” is everywhere. How well are we doing in evangelizing it? Does it even know we’re here?

Those conferees in Edinburgh a hundred years ago wanted to evangelize the world. They didn’t realize how much of the world needed to be evangelized, but they were willing to try.

Let’s try, too. Let’s not let our church be defined by just one or two of the Great Ends of the Church. Let’s maintain divine worship and nurture the children of God, by all means. But let’s not forget to tell people about Jesus, or to exhibit his Kingdom to them, either.

Apparently We Don’t Believe Anything

Another problem with the new PC(USA) web site: apparently we don’t believe anything anymore. Or, if we do, those beliefs are carefully hidden.

Now, I’m on record as liking the new look of our denomination’s website. And I’ve already commented, negatively, about a particularly smarmy “reasons I’m a Presbyterian” badge posted there.

But I was hoping the PC(USA) web site would at least be better organized. I entertained the hope that it would be easier to find things there now, and it’s not.

Read more

Atheist Recommends Christians Convert Muslims?

MacLeans has an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who was raised as a Muslim but who has become an atheist. In the article, she said Christians should proselytize Muslims, at least in the West: Read more

Encountering the Culture

Then he went about among the villages teaching.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two.
Mark 6:6-7

In AD 100, the worldwide total number of Christians might have been about 25,000. For the next two centuries, Christianity was an an illegal religion, and endured several waves of violent persecution. It had no trained clergy, nor any church buildings as we know them. But in the early 300’s, when Christianity was finally legalized, the number of Christians was about 20 million.

Read more

What’s Your Problem?

There’s a fascinating conversation between Moses and God in Exodus 4. You know the story. Moses has just been called to lead the people of God up out of bondage in Egypt. God wants Moses to go tell Pharaoh to let his people go. But Moses doesn’t want to go. He’s got a new life in Midian–a wife and a son. And there’s another complication: Pharaoh has an outstanding warrant for him back in Egypt. So Moses is pretty cool to this project of God’s. But the conversation that follows is what makes the passage so interesting. Here’s a synopsis.

Moses: They won’t believe me.
God: I’ll lend you some credibility.
Moses: But I stutter.
God: Since I made you that way, do you think I could fix it?
Moses: Please, don’t make me!
God: I’ll get you some help: Aaron, say.

We, like Moses, are called by God. First, God calls us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we fail, God calls us to repent and put our trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Finally, God calls and commissions us to proclaim the good news about Jesus and make new disciples. That’s true for everyone who follows Christ. But what about you? What is God calling you to do, specifically? And which of Moses’ objections do you raise?

Moses’ first objection was external. There are external conditions that will prevent him from doing the job God’s assigned him. He’s afraid that the Hebrews won’t believe that God sent him to bring them up out of slavery. To that, God says, “I’ll give you the power to show them signs that will be convincing. If anyone isn’t convinced by the first sign, here’s a second. And, just in case, a third.” So, what about you? What are the external factors that prevent you from doing what God wants of you? What is the least thing God could do to overcome them? What would make it a little more convincing? What would it take to completely sweep those obstacles away?

Moses’ second objection is internal. He is limited in the things he can do. God replies that peoples’ gifts and abilities come from God, so when Moses speaks, it will really be God speaking through him. So, what limits do you have? What limitations do you operate within? How do they keep you from obeying God? How could God work through you to overcome your frailties or disabilities?

Moses’ third objection is just a cry from his heart: “God, I don’t want to!” This is the request God grants–at least, partially. What God tells Moses is that he won’t have to do it alone. In fact, God had anticipated this objection, and by his providence, God arranged for Aaron to be available: “even now, he is coming out to meet you” (Exod. 4:14). Like Moses, we may have our objections answered and yet still be afraid to obey. That is why God called us together as the church: so we could help each other–so we can encourage the faint-hearted and share the load between us. So who could help you do the work God has given you? And who can you help with their work? And–especially–what’s stopping you?

Dictation Software Chuckle

In my work, I use MacSpeech Dictate, a voice-recognition program for the mac, a fair bit. (It’s pretty good software: the kind you swear by as much as you swear at. Most bad software you either throw out or become resigned to. Dictate I like enough to entertain hopes they’d improve it. Another sign of my regard: I’m thinking about getting their new product, MacSpeech Scribe, so I can have non-interactive voice recognition. Think, sermon transcriptions.)

Anyway, one of the ways I use it is to save myself the trouble of typing some of the prayers in the PC(USA) Book of Common Worship. Mostly, the software does a good job, but once in awhile you get something amusing, like this:

Two.
Grant us, O Lord,
the grace always to do in pink
what accords with your purpose;

That’s an interesting image. It was supposed to be “and think.”

Maybe this was an “inspired” error: it’s a lot easier to think about things than to do them. So, to combine two slogans (from Nike and the breast-cancer awareness people): Just do it. In pink.