Category Archives: future church

Mission Trumps Size

St Mark's New Jersey

If you think you’re too small to have an effect, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”       (Bette Reese)

Many of us might assume that a church with only 32 members automatically qualifies as a “struggling church”, or even a dying church.  But in the case of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg, New Jersey, many of us would be wrong.

St. Mark’s housed a non-profit meal program out of their building for years, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, and the electricity went out, the program was unable to continue.  Members of St. Mark’s came down to the church after the disaster and found hungry people at their door.

At that moment, they demonstrated that they are a church with a vital mission.

They took the thawing food out of the church’s freezers and started cooking for anyone who showed up.  From there, a new meal program was born, as volunteers returned or showed up for the first time, to help feed their devastated community.  Today, they serve breakfast and lunch every day, about 5,000 meals a month.  A nurse, social worker and crisis counselor visit regularly.  And they also gather for weekly worship, healing services, and  monthly “Recovery Eucharist in the AA tradition”.

Most of St. Mark’s members are over the age of 70, but the congregation has welcomed in outside assistance, including other churches and Scouting groups, who come in to help them carry out their mission.

A few things worth noting in this story:

1) It reminds me that a disaster often gives us the urgent ability to respond to a crisis with compassion, and can become a wake up call about whatever true mission a church is called to carry out

2) A small group of people may not be able to do it all on their own, but with coordination and delegating, any size group can have a significant impact on the world.

3) A church full of 70-year-olds can be a vital church!  And with the changing demographics of our country, we are going to have to stop assuming that churches need big Sunday Schools and youth programs in order to be vital.  Vitality is not limited by age or size, but only by our ability to respond creatively to what the Holy Spirit is doing around us.

Here’s another story about a church that found vitality and a new mission in the midst of a disaster.

Partners in Sacred Place Sharing

SOAR Powerkids

SOAR Powerkids

Recently, my church made a connection with an after school program for kids.  They needed a large room for martial arts classes after they lost their space at a nearby school.  They found our building, with its large hall and polished wood floor, and asked if they could rent the space from us for a small fee.  After checking out the insurance arrangements and how furniture would be moved before and after the program, an agreement was reached, and now, two afternoons a week, the upstairs is full of kids kicking and punching the air, testing each others’ strength,planning community service projects and, most remarkable, listening quietly and respectfully to their leader, a female martial arts expert.

The program not only teaches martial arts, it also focuses on character development, bullying prevention and civic responsibility.  While it is not a faith based program, it is consistent with many of the core values we teach kids in our own youth programs.

Your church may be sharing its building with other community organizations: a Scout troupe, an AA meeting, or a yoga class, for example.  You might think of these other groups as “tenants” who help you pay the bills.  But it’s possible that they are co-workers alongside you in the building of God’s reign.

Partners for Sacred Places is an organization that provides resources to help churches team up with other organizations for the building of community life through “mission based space sharing”.

In this Youtube video, they explain how they are creating a network to match local arts and non-profit organizations with churches for space sharing that is not only mutually beneficial for each group, but also creates “social capital” in neighborhoods, helping them build their own cultural life using the “moral and physical” presence of church buildings.  The video points out many other reasons why sharing space is a good idea for your church AND your neighborhood’s vitality.

Check it out!

 

 

 

The Servant Who Risks and Loses

John the Baptist having a bad day

John the Baptist having a bad day

The parable of the talents is making its annual appearance this week, and I put it before some teenagers I know last night. I handed out wads of cash and asked them what they might do as stewards of it for a year.  One, predictably, said he would spend it on McChicken sandwiches; who cares about the Master?  One said she would open a savings account because, even at less than 1% interest, at least she wouldn’t lose it (she had not, of course, figured in the current 1.7% inflation rate).  One 5th grader said “I would give it back to the Master; it’s not MY responsibility!”  Finally, one young man said he would invest it in the stock market, where he might make a gain, or he might take a loss.  And he could live with that either way.

I want that last guy to lead the church when I’m gone.

The problem with the parable of the talents is that nobody in the story loses their money.  The ones who risk it in investment and trading actually double their money.  I’m sorry, but in today’s market, that is highly unlikely.

I think Jesus should have included a fourth servant: the one who invested the money on an ambitious idea that simply did not pan out.  This servant laid all her money down to create a church where children and people with dementia could worship together, or a farm market with produce grown by teenagers, or a bed-and-breakfast where you pay whatever you can afford.   And the great idea flopped, because the world is not quite ready for all the great ideas God’s people are dreaming of.  And the Master came home and said, “Well done, good and faithful servant, because taking a leap of faith is more important than doubling my money.”

God’s people are starting to dream, at least a little, about new ways of being Christ’s church, and people like this blogger are calling us to take more risks in the church in order to reach those outside our doors.  I agree wholeheartedly!

And I also believe that taking risks in the church is like playing the stock market in one way: we might fail.  We might lose something.  It might hurt.

But that’s okay.  Because whatever happens, we will learn a little more about what steps God wants or doesn’t want us to take next.

To take a risk and double your money is a great thing, and it might happen!  But risking failure is also part of being faithful.

Just ask Jesus.

- *Painting by Geerten tot Sint Jans (1465-1495)

How Can We Keep From Singing?

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

Boston Harmony World Music Chorus

No storm can shake my inmost calm,  while to that rock I’m clinging.                 It sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?                             (Folk hymn)                  

I started singing in church choirs when I was  a teenager.  There I learned to read music and find acceptance among the grown up singers.   It was my church’s choir director who helped me find my spiritual voice again after a car accident that fractured my larynx.  I went on to study vocal music, compose hymn lyrics and sing in choirs at my college, seminary and several churches over the years.

There is a special kind of relationship that forms among choir members.  Something about those rehearsals, with their jokes, irritations and prayer rituals, creates a spiritual bond that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

But my view of the traditional church choir has changed over the years.  One time, I watched a song leader, without any written words,  notes or accompaniment, teach a room full of people to sing a simple hymn in parts.  The effect was electrifying.  I have sung improvisational jazz in groups, never sure exactly what note might come out next, or who it will come from.  I have even been to a “tunnel hum”, standing shoulder to shoulder with wanna-be druids and aging hippies, humming placidly until we all found a common, harmonic drone.  I’ve learned there are a lot of different ways to make sound together, but what really makes it groove is when everyone is engaged in the making of it!

One of the changes we’re seeing in churches today is the decline of the church choir.  This article* documents how church choirs, including some of those large, contemporary ones, are on the wane.  Choral directors, pipe organs and sheet music are costly in a church that may not even have enough money to pay the pastor.

Since many people like me learned how to read music by singing hymns, we may be losing a vital place for music education, as well as the potential for those unique spiritual friendships built in the choir loft.

Some churches are holding fast to their choral traditions, and I am hopeful that, if they are flexible and resilient, people who love music will return to find the joy in group singing.  Other churches are expanding their idea of sacred singing to include choral flash mobs like this one, Taize worship, “threshold choirs” that sing to the terminally ill, or simply a renewed emphasis on robust congregational singing.

Without music, worship will lose its vitality and without that one place in society where people gather to sing, our communities will lose some of the glue that binds them together.

How does your church make music these days?  Are you listening to others make music, or are you finding a way to chime in?  Do you think sacred music is a luxury or a necessity?

*Thanks to Joe Duggan at Congregational Seasons for sharing this article!

P.S. Here’s a great movie to watch about the importance of singing together, and the bond it creates.

(Photo licensed by Creative Commons)

 

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!