Category Archives: future church

A Shared Church

Holy Sepulchre JerusalemYears ago, on a Holy Land tour, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem,  considered by some Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  I went back a few days later to a Sunday worship service of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and found it was conducted in a small alcove of the church for an ethnic Syrian congregation of about 50 people.  Services of other churches were being conducted in other alcoves located off the main sanctuary.  In a city as plagued by religious division as Jerusalem, I was struck by the ability of Orthodox and Catholic Christians to share space in this way.

Since that visit, I’ve often dreamed of a large church building where several churches, or even different faiths, might worship at different times in cooperation with each other.  And my dream has come true in some places such as Springhouse Ministries in Minneapolis and the Brookville Church in Nassau . I’ve imagined that someday, one of those big mega-churches might be converted to a shared space church for small churches who can’t afford their own buildings, like condos.

I also used to dream of starting a church in a mall.  Just think of all that empty storefront space with big windows where people would walk by, look in, and see that we Christians aren’t ogres, after all!

Then I read this article about a mall in Ft. Myers, Florida that converted all its retail space into churches, synagogues and mosques: one stop faith shopping! As I listened to the article, alas, I realized it was a hoax, and a very funny one!  But even in this played up example of the “church mall”, I recognized a piece of my dream.

From Wikipedia (a slightly more fact-based source than the site above), I learned that simultaneum mixtum is a term coined in 16th Century Germany for a church where public worship was conducted by more than one religious group.  It is said to have been “a form of religious toleration” in the wake of the Reformation, stemming from a situation where both Catholics and Protestants needed worship space.

So it is not so new and cutting edge for churches to share space, and if they could do it in the heat of 16th Century Reformation conflict, we should be able to do it today.  Today, the conflict wouldn’t be about transubstantiation and consubstantiation.  It would more likely be about who gets the kitchen on Saturday morning and who left wax stains on the carpet!

In your community, who might share church space with each other for mutual good and the glory of God?

The Church After Katrina

Camp Restore/ Prince of Peace

Camp Restore/
Prince of Peace

Last week I went on an unforgettable mission trip to New Orleans and encountered a couple churches that gave me a lot to think about.

One was Prince of Peace Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.  In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama.  Over 250,000 homes were destroyed, plus businesses and community buildings.  Prince of Peace, once a thriving church and school, was flooded.  But with assistance from the wider church, its expansive building was renovated and converted into a volunteer camp, now called Camp Restore (a separate non-profit agency), which brought in thousands of volunteer workers to do hurricane clean-up.

Camp Restore has become a thriving center that provides bunk style housing and meals and matches volunteers with work sites where they do everything from hanging drywall to playing bingo with senior citizens.  They average over 3,000 volunteers per year.

Meanwhile, Prince of Peace is a tiny shadow of its former self.  At one time, they housed over a hundred members and a busy Lutheran school.  Since Katrina decimated the population of their community, they are down to about ten members.

I asked Bill, the church’s president, what it was like to experience such a massive loss of members all at one time.  “Well, honestly,” he said.  “We had other things to be thinking about.”

Those “other things” included the clean-up and restoration of an entire city.  “The only people who stayed,” Bill explained, “were the people who still had a house, a job, or a family here.  Everyone else left.”

Today, Bill occasionally stands in line to eat breakfast and meet some of the volunteers that crowd his church’s sanctuary for meals at long dining tables.  Recently, after years of meeting on Sunday mornings, the tiny congregation decided to try worshiping on Wednesday nights.  They invited the volunteers to join them, and the first Wednesday they tried it, they ran out of communion elements, because they weren’t expecting so many people in worship.

I had the privilege of worshiping alongside the congregation one Wednesday during my stay, and was joined by about 30 other volunteers.   Although in many places, Missouri Synod Lutherans do not share communion with people of other traditions, we were all welcome to kneel and partake at Prince of Peace.

I had to wonder what the Prince of Peace congregation is made of: they have survived one of the fiercest hurricanes in history and stayed in place.  Yet they have also take a huge leap into new territory, allowing their building to be transformed from a traditional church and school into an entirely different kind of ministry in rapid response to an emerging need, making all the sacrifices necessary in order to do that.

What can you and I learn from this tiny, amazing congregation?

 

 

 

To Weed or to Seed?

white cockleThe gardening season is upon us now in Wisconsin, and I am pondering the  wildflower patch.  It was started as a 4H project when my daughter was young, and it was fun–until the white cockle took over.  White cockle is a noxious weed disguised as a flower.  It produces a little balloon seed pod that, when you’re six, is fun to pick and pop.  But when you’re a grown up and you have to pull out the cockle because it shades out all the prettier wildflowers, it’s just, well…noxious!

I used to spend hours battling the white cockle on summer afternoons.  There was no end to it, and truthfully, it was hard to tell if the more desirable flowers appreciated my efforts.  I told myself I was being industrious.  But year after year, the cockle just got worse; it was winning the battle.

So last year, I gave up.  I told my family I was letting the wildflower garden go to seed.  We would mow it over and be done with it.  But after we mowed, things just started coming up as they had before.

About mid-way through the summer, I looked closely at the little patch.  Indeed, it had gone to seed.  The seeds had flowered and filled the garden with color.  Sure, there was some white cockle, but it wasn’t out of control.  It was just another color in the garden.

I wonder: is it really worth the effort I put into removing the noxious weeds?  Or should I let nature take its course and see if the good flowers don’t win out on their own?  Maybe instead of weeding, I should be seeding more and more wildflowers so they can take root, flourish and crowd the cockle out without my intervention.

Gardening always makes me think about the church.  We work so hard to “fix” our churches, trying to weed out all their bad habits and lazy assumptions, their dusty rituals and moldy hymns.  We pray quietly–but regularly–that the more troublesome members will move to Florida. We try to muster up the strength  to shout down the demons.  But sometimes it seems we are getting nowhere.

An alternative to weeding might be seeding.  While it is sometimes necessary to call out bad behavior and eliminate outdated practices, we can also be strengthening our churches by relentlessly casting out our best ideas and observations (even when we think we are being ignored), nurturing the church culture with Christ-like behavior, bravely singing a new song, and fertilizing the most faithful and creative members with support and affirmation.  Maybe by empowering what is good to grow toward the sun, those noxious aspects of church life will stay close to the ground and out of trouble.

This spring, I ordered a big bag of wildflower seeds.  I’m going to mow down last year’s stubble again, mix the seeds with sand and broadcast it over the garden.

Take that, cockle! 

 

 

 

Resurrection and Ralph

shapeshifterI ran into Ralph at the café yesterday. Ralph is a retired paper mill worker, a Vietnam vet and a self proclaimed “wise sage” who drives everyone in the café crazy with his incessant theological chatter.  He always interrupts my sermon preparation.  He wants to talk about God or Jesus or numerology or the chickens he’s raising.    But most times, I come away from a conversation with him having yielded a little jewel of insight.

This time it was a big one, though.  He helped me figure out the bodily resurrection.

“Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ, Ralph?” I asked him.

“I have to,” he said.  So I took this opportunity to ask something I could never ask in front of my parishioners.

“Okay, so, if Jesus rose physically from the dead, with his body, then where is his body now?”

Ralph didn’t skip a beat.  “It’s wherever He wants it to be.”

I pondered this.  I’m getting older, but I’m proud to say I’m still manufacturing new brain cells.  Did he mean Christ’s physical body moves around?  Travels the globe?  Changes form?

“Ooo…do you mean Jesus is like a shapeshifter?” I asked, popping out another brain cell or two.

“A what?” Ralph squished up his face.  Apparently, he hasn’t been reading the Twilight series.

“So, you’re saying Jesus’ body can inhabit your body?”

“Well, I certainly hope he does,” Ralph said.

“But…not all the time.  I mean, you’re not Jesus, Ralph.”

“No, that’s true.”

“But maybe now and then, Jesus might inhabit your body and I could get a little glimpse of him by looking at you, just for that split second.  Is that what you mean?”

Ralph was just now figuring out what he meant.

“So that explains why, sometimes, when you are with someone, you feel like  they’re channeling the Holy Spirit or something.  That’s Jesus deciding to put his body in someone else’s body, right?”

“That’s right,” Ralph smiled.

“I can buy that,” I said with satisfaction.  Finally, the bodily resurrection made a little sense!  There’s probably something deeply heretical about this idea, but if there is, I don’t care.   I like it.

And if Jesus can do shapeshifting with his body, I wonder what he can do with that body we call the Church!

*Artwork by Thomas O’Rourke, licensed by Creativecommons.org

 

 

 

Trees for Tomorrow

A 200 year old hickory tree

A 200 year old hickory tree

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:6

My husband Charles grew up eating hickory nuts. Hickory trees grow in parts of Wisconsin and there must have been some on one of the family farms because his mother always had hickory nuts to bake into brownies or sugar cookies, and he loved them.

As an adult, now in his fifties, Charles has lost both his parents. But he has not lost his love for hickory nuts. So, a couple years ago, he ordered ten hickory tree starts from a nursery. He cleared a piece of brush-covered land about 3/4 mile from our house and put them in the ground, a long ways from any water source. He encased them in little cages to keep the deer and bunnies out. All summer, we empty 5 gallon pails of water off the back of his truck to water the starts when the weather is dry. All winter, he looks across the pastures and wonders if those little trees have become snacks for hungry wildlife.

After we planted the hickory trees, we did some research and discovered they are slow to mature, but he expects that, if they survive cold winters and dry summers, they will begin producing nuts in about 40 years. Yes, 40.  He will be in his 90’s then. Hopefully, he will still have a strong set of teeth.

In an interview, a faithful church leader once said this to me: “My period of leadership is ending soon, and I sense that my church is in decline. What can I do now to leave a legacy that will help them get through this phase and move on to a better future?” One hunch was that she could help train younger and newer members with leadership skills. She also had a wonderful, “non-anxious presence” that served as a model to others, and her encouraging leadership style was infectious.  That’s a great legacy!

Whatever that leader leaves behind, she is asking the right questions. How can we be useful now in ways that pay off in the long term future? It sometimes seems we are casting seeds in the desert, unsure whether anyone will come behind us to water them, whether those seeds will be allowed to grow up as wheat among the tares, or ever produce a harvest. But seeds are seeds. It’s up to us to plant, and it’s up to the next leader, and God, to make them grow.

What has God given you the capacity to plant, or to water, in your faith community today so that it may still bear fruit in the distant future?

*Photo by G.W.  Bill Miller

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Exposure

CC cover 3-19It’s a bit late, but I’m happy to announce that The Christian Century has printed an article I wrote entitled “Holy Stuff” in their March 19, 2014 issue, which you can find here.

This article draws on a few stories from my book “Toward the Better Country” about the way Christians mourn the loss of physical objects they identify with their life in a church that is closing.

I’m happy that the article offers my book a little exposure to people who may benefit from it as they struggle with leadership in declining churches.  The Christian Century is read and respected by many of my colleagues, and the article is helping to get the word out.

But I’m finding that marketing the book is a challenge for me personally.  People want a short answer: “What’s your book about?”  and I’m tempted to say “It’s about church closure”.   The Christian Century article would certainly make it seem that way.

But the book is about more than closure.  It’s about the grief, disorientation and powerlessness many of us are feeling as we watch our churches shrink.  It’s about identifying what is really important in your ministry and putting aside everything else that gets in the way of that most vital mission.  It’s about the creativity and collaboration–with God and neighbor–that is allowing some churches to do ministry in new, more vital and sustainable ways.

Why can’t I seem to get that into an elevator speech?

If you have read or even skimmed my book, and want to help me with my elevator speech, please post a suggestion below,  I could use your help!

Turning Burdens into Blessings

IMG_8965The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) is finally doing something about the growing problem of how church building maintenance is colliding with pursuit of a church’s mission.  They are gathering leaders to talk about how congregations can use their buildings in new ways.

The ECBF will gather on April 28th – 30th in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to discuss ways churches can transform their empty, expensive buildings into uses that complement or fund their true missions.

The ECBF website includes clips from the 2012 ECBF conference, at which Bishop Gregory Rickel and others spoke.  It was in his address at this conference that Rickel used the phrase “Religious Industrial Complex” referring to the grand building campaigns of growing churches during the post WWII boom.  This phrase seems harsh to those who lived through the optimism of that time, but to a younger generation now encumbered by the buildings their parents erected, it seems strangely apt.

Nevertheless, there is hope for churches and their buildings.  When you go to the site, be sure to click under “info., links and tools” and check out the many alternative uses for church buildings they have documented.  These are real examples from real churches in real cities you can check out.  And these are only Episcopal churches!  It is inspiring to see the creativity that is emerging as churches wrestle with the challenge of turning real estate from a burden into a blessing.

*Photo by Katjusa Cisar, licensed by Creativecommons.org