Things Are Going To Change

November 24th, 2015

One author put it simply … if things are not going to change, don’t bother considering alternatives.  If things are, however, going to change, consider alternatives.

Smart to bet on things changing.

Churches have to walk towards that storm, that change.  Toward it.  Not away from it.  Not yelling at it. Not silent in the face of it. Towards it.

And that might just take two things that need one.  The two things … (1) Parishoners willing to ask the dramatically unsettling questions that flip them from consumers of church to partners in building a kinder world. (2) Pastors willing to step up, plant a flag, step back and say “go.”

The one thing then the two need?  Both desperately need God and the then unfolding courage that comes from a vision beyond our reach.

What is a “Christian”?

November 23rd, 2015

What a question!  Serving dinner recently at a homeless shelter, a man turned from his table and asked me.  One answer from Matthew 25…

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40  “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

I mean that is pretty disarmingly simple.

Many define Christianity differently, as being baptized, meeting sacraments, taking Communion. Yet Christ baptized no one that we read of in the New Testament.  He never commanded seriatim the full list of the many sacraments we align religion with.  He does not command Communion but instead offers it.

And it is not to say those things are wrong or mistaken. They are powerful.  Important. Clearly inspired. Cleary carriers of the Divine. But not the litmus test.

The litmus test – simpler and more challenging … what are you doing for those who suffer?





The Aftermath of the Bombings in Beruit and Paris Last Week

November 16th, 2015

We worked hard to capture some sort of message, for Sunday, moving forward after the bombings in Beirut and Paris last week.  As a pastor … challenging to offer words given the deep strains of grief and fear so many of us share after events like these.

The final point, one worthy of consideration … we must embrace a theology of vulnerability and see humanity.

That sounds odd but I think that is Christ’s message in times of such fear.  Our vulnerability in some miraculous way pulls us down into a shared humanity. I think of how easy it was to share stories with strangers on 9/11, how easy to hug friends after Newtown.  The list goes on.  And with each … our vulnerabiliy opens up to our humanity.  The two intertwine.  A miracle.

The opposites works as well.  As we faultingly strive to create lives that are invulnerable, totally secure, impervious to change and challenge, we pull ourselves further from our own humanity and from the humanity we share with others. Such is one of the inborn fault lines within religious fundamentalism/ extremism.  Fundamentalism thrives in certainty, inflexibility, and a supposed invulnerability to question or challenge that makes it all the more dangerous because with those go humanity.

Fear at some point becomes a choice.  And so does love.  So does compassion. Even when our hearts are broken.




November 6th, 2015

I love this simple concept … while events gain our attention, trends remain far more significant.  So what are the trends with church for the next 10 years?  One guess…

Many churches will continue to decline in numbers and donations.

This is a sad one.  Many churches, contemporary and traditional, progressive and conservative, will continue to struggle.  Congregations under a certain number may no longer remain financially viable.   There is currently no data that I am aware of that sheds a positive light on this trend.

One fear may be this … declining churches can become hostile churches. Reactionary. Misplacing understandable grief around decline with a rage directed out at broader culture and others. This could in turn lead to a denominational “doubling down” as it were.

One can see that in the current challenges in the Catholic church where Pope Francis noted his concern around “the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the churches teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

For churches to remain viable, they will need a a focused mission, a deliberate dedication to service.

And not everything is doom-and-gloom.  The future while uncertain is paradoxically hopeful as well.

There will always be a space for Christianity. While Christianity clearly will no longer remain a cultural “given” as the question shifts from “Where do you go to Church? to “Do you go to Church?”  it will still exist and will thrive in pockets.  I believe New Church Christianity will find a thriving place there as well.

Those thriving pockets I imagine will be centered around churches and groups steeped in a deep missional focus.  The broad color of that mission will center on Christianity’s heartsong … expanding the circles of compassion in loving service to the other and the sacraments that support that mission, i.e. the archain disciples of Communion etc….  As Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it, “Religion is of life and the life of religion is to do good.” A place where love of God and love the neighbor work functionally as one.

That missional focus creates great leeway in terms of belief and individual perspective.  That fits well with current desires for non-authoritative, non-exclusive truth claims offered with a humility of presentation and clear valuing around freedom of movement while at the same time finding a concrete centering on sacred texts.

It is movement from church in the age of belief to church in the age of service.

More congregants will join online than in person for Sunday Services

The internet remains a game changer.  Some predict the end of the Sunday service, a demise to be replaced by online content and small groups. For some that may indeed be true. However there will always be space for the traditional Sunday gathering.

What I imagine will most likely evolve is a hybrid model combining both inperson and online audiences.  Small groups obviously play a critical here as well given their ability to serve both audiences.

At NewChurch LIVE in two short years we have seen a dramtic shift.  Two years ago 9.6% of our Sunday attendees joined us live via a simulcast.  That percent has grown dramatically, now reaching 24%. And there no signs of that trend ending. Important to note those tuning in come from remote locations yet also many local families who tire at the idea of pushing the kids out to the door to church and prefer instead to watch at home.

One can legitimatly grieve what may be a loss of community in the name of convenience but I believe this is trend to be embraced not refuted.

So what could NewChurch LIVE look like in 10 years?

  1. Sunday: An inperson service, bringing together a wide variety voices – male and female, multigenerational, multiethnic – that combined with our LiveStream audience tops 1,000 each week with the majority watching online
  2. Small Groups: A thriving small group program made up of numerous small group structures, durations, themes etc…..
  3. Service: A “hub” in which we facilitate, support, and connect with numerous non-profits allied to our layity’s interests.
And these are all best guesses.  What I know in these uncertain times … remain true to the mission of humble service.  And God will lead us in the rest.






Why Small Groups Matter

October 29th, 2015

As we move into November, our small group and its fall “Living Gratefully” campaign is winding down.  What a blessing “Living Gratefully” has been.

Why are small groups so valuable?

  1. They create a “family” of sorts, made of up of a wide variety of ages and perspectives who can all share around the adventures of life.  Just in our group the ages ranged from 20 to 69.
  2. They allow people new to the congregation a simple mechanism to connect with others in meaningful ways.  In our overall fall campaign for example, 7 of the 10 groups were led by people relatively new to our church.
  3. They capture the lived experience of faith. Within the group there are those falling in love, those losing loved ones, those restlessly searching for purpose, and those calmly resting in times of deep peace.  And each of those is looking to God for help.  Each of those belongs.
  4. They allow for leadership from the bottom up vs. the top down.  I grew up in an era where small groups were really doctrinal classes led by a Pastor.  Great value there.  And it is a different era, one in which we can celebrate people’s willingness to lead in things spiritual.
I love this piece of New Church theology…
… all the life a person has come from God by way of communities. (Secrets of Heaven 8794)
I have found that to be blessedly true.

Marketing a Church

October 28th, 2015

Is it possible to “market” a church?  Unsure. What I imagine is this….

We need to create churches that are worth talking about

Much of what people talk about in churches is, frankly, not worth talking about.  If conversation tends towards carpeting, music, “good” sermon/ “bad” sermon, who-is-doing-what-with-whom, I think we miss it.  Those conversations, tintilating as they are, will ulitmately fail to inspire growth though they will inspire gossip.

And a blessing … there are countless things so very bright and worthwhile to allow on “center stage” in terms of the great coversation to be had by a church. Mission, purpose, questions around faith and culture, pain, birth and death.

We need to serve our wider communities self sacrificially and with contagious generosity. 

The above … the best “marketing” there is provided we serve cleanly without a “so that we grow” agenda.

There must be a word out there for the opposite of entropy – where things fly apart.  A word to describe the fall of a church where things fly apart because they collapse in.  As New Church theology notes again, and again, and again, when charity/ service takes a back seat to other concerns we pull ourselves from the blessed order that will in the long run not only be our redemption but our joy.

Let it all go

“Caring and not caring.”  ”Pray like it all depends on God and work like it all depends on you.” A hard balancing but churches can do it.  Just work THERE. Right THERE. Pouring our lives into love and service sacrificially. And God will bless it. Sometimes in ways we anticipate. Most often in ways we don’t. So in the end, when we have faithfully done what was ours to do, let it all go.


Inclusion and Division

October 23rd, 2015

Many read and comment on this blog who are interested in church growth.  That is the audience for today’s post.

Fascinating to read the challenges and changes facing the Catholic Church.  And the amazing part … simply change the names and you have the same contentious “script” that many Protestant churches are moving through.  And what are the main issues embedded in that script?  It seems the seminal issues appearing again and again include the role of women, divorce, homosexuality, concern for the poor and the environment, and the role of clergy.

These are clearly heated, contentious issues argued with great vigor by those desiring a more inclusive church and those desiring a more traditional church.   Given that rawness, civil dialog comes hard and at times appears impossible.

So what is the solution? The way forward?

I would imagine there is no one solution.  I imagine this is a tension we will live with in the upcoming years, not a problem we will quickly solve.  Likewise this inescapable tension will gather more “steam” so to speak as numerous churches experience continued decline. (Only 6% of churches experienced growth last year)

My hope is that respect … even through gritted teeth! … reigns.  Both sides claim to be stewards of the Christian message.  Both center on God.  On God’s Word.

My belief is that a more inclusive model is being born.  My prayer is that it remains inclusive.  Inclusive of many of the groups noted before. And inclusive of those who see the world and the future of Church differently – traditional and progressive.  As one priest noted in regard to welcoming back divorced parishioners to communion…

Everyone is trying to find a solution, putting together concern for the institution of marriage, and compassion to people in difficulty.  We just have to find a way to put these two together. 

A beautiful statement.  A meaning underneath the words that echoes a third way.




Football, Anchoring, And Just A Lot Of Questions

October 20th, 2015

For starters, I love football.  Passionately.  I don’t watch many games live because they are too anxiety producing.  But I watch dozens on replay, hours after I know the score.

And well there is struggle.  A great deal of questions.  Over the past two weeks…

  1. USC fired its head football coach as he struggled with an obvious alcohol addiction.  Maybe the pressure was relentless?
  2. USC’s AD, Pat Haden, later collapsed on the sidelines at the first game under an interim coach. Passed out.  Not alcohol induced.  Nerves I would imagine.
  3. Michigan State beat Michigan on a last second gafffe by the punter.  Michigan’s punter later received so many death threats that Michigan’s AD wrote an open letter imploring the no doubt small group of wayward fans to stop the harrasment.
  4. The young man who scored Michigan State’s last touchdown in the miracle win broke his hip on the play.  How will that turn out?  A legend maybe but maybe a legend who never plays a down as a starter again.
  5. Johnny Manziel, Heisman winner and QB for the Browns, well just look at his exploits this weekend.  An argument with this his girlfriend … while driving … that became so heated several people called the police.  No big deal he said.  Alcohol involved.
The struggle is this … a gnawing worry that we have anchored far too much of our lives in sports. And as a pastor, I know that comes with a cost.  I hear constantly from parents who can no longer bring their family to church on Sunday because of athletic commitments.   The anchor for life becomes sport/ athletics.
And that sounds so old and fuddy-duddy doesn’t it?  Like some 1950′s Father-Knows-Best line.
But I do know this … faith lived well, lived courageously builds character too.  Builds teamwork.  Builds commitment. Builds dedication. Builds a moral foundation.  Gives a higher perspective. And maybe on some Sundays church does those things even better than sports do.
It is not a conversation about Sports or Church.  But maybe there is space for “and.”  I hope so.

18 Seconds

October 16th, 2015

Amazing to tour a news studio.  Monitors everywhere.  And a central monitor counting web traffic.  Counting top stories, daily peaks. Average time readers spend on each story? 18 seconds.

And the sunrise that same day, that morning, was beautiful. Bright. Crisp fall day. Too good to actually be shoe horned into language.

“18 Seconds.”  I wonder where we are going. So fast. Writing for things to be scanned not read.

And the sunrise. Different. Peace. Calm. That reminder that God is here too. A deeper movement, something beyond 18 seconds.

5 Years and New Models of Leadership in the World of Churches

October 15th, 2015

A recent post by a friend started with THINGS ARE CHANGING … FAST….

Very accurate.  The speed at which change is occuring is remarkable.  And churches need one thing more than ever as a way to cope with rapid change … agility.

  1. Agility to work with shifting concepts around attendance.  Sunday attendee?  Online?  Small group but never at church?  Service but never small groups?  A lot combinations beyond what was imaginable just 5 short years aog.
  2. Agility to serve a very wide clientel.  Congregations are serving NATIONAL audiences often.  There are local needs … and you have many localities in one congregation.  Look at old churches.  What do those beautiful old buildings lack?  Parking.  No need for it given they drew from several mile/ block radius.  In 5 years the definition of “local” has shifted dramatically.
  3. Agility to empower lay interest and talent to drive programs.  Two basic models … the pyramid and the tree.  Top down or bottom up.  Better be agile enough to be top down about the critical need to be bottom up!  The top down of 5 years ago is rapidly winding down.
  4. Agility to work with many faith systems.  People are not necessarily looking for one faith system.  They are looking for a church community that works for them, that reasonates with their heart.  Don’t be suprised at the Christian who loves Buddism and hangs out with Franciscans.  The “shingle” out front does not matter as much as it did 5 years ago.

For these new models to flourish, we need clear and clean water to sail in.  We need clear and clean air to breathe.  This list from Seth Godin is spot on for churches seeking a way forward….

Expectation: When people wake up in the morning expecting good things to happen, believing that things are possible, open to new ideas–those beliefs become self-fulfilling. We expect that it’s possible to travel somewhere safely, and we expect that speaking up about a new idea won’t lead us to get fired. People in trauma can’t learn or leap or produce very much.

Education: When we are surrounded by people who are skilled, smart and confident, far more gets done. When we learn something new, our productivity goes up.

Civility: Not just table manners, but an environment without bullying, without bribery, without coercion. Clean air, not just to breathe, but to speak in.

And we need this to give shape to agility … we need to be SUPER clear.  We are here to follow Christ’s model of love in action.  To look at that model and do our humble best to live it.  Simplicity, contagious generousity, radical welcome.  Live it better each day.  Better than we did 5 years ago.  And hopefully something we are doing even better 5 years down the road.