Category: church as abbey

A New Subtitle: Churches as Communities of Reconciliation

The new subtitle of this blog is Churches as Communities of Reconciliation. Let me unpack this phrase one element at a time.

Let’s start with churches. This blog began with a focus on small congregations, but over the past seven years’ of writing, I have come to the conclusion that size is the least significant factor in church vitality. Rather, a church’s sense of mission — missional consciousness, to use the jargon — is a better gauge of church vitality than size. Churches with a clear sense of purpose, whether large or small, thrive and are vibrant members of their communities. And, just to be clear, my confidence is in churches, not other organizations, to embody and exhibit the Kingdom of God as a contrast society in contemporary culture. Those churches can be traditional, seeker-sensitive, neo-monastic, denominational, or any of the other flavors that churches come in today. The form is less important than the way in which local congregations live out their calling to be salt and light to their communities and the world.

Secondly, I’m interested in churches which are practicing reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). I’m convinced that the Bible is the story of God’s reconciling love beginning in the Garden of Eden and concluding with the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. The reconciling love of God finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul continues the theme of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Down through the ages, Christian churches, evangelical churches in particular, have emphasized reconciliation between God and humankind. However, there exists also the unmistakable idea that we cannot be reconciled to God — we cannot say we love God — without being reconciled to one another. Theologians have called these the cruciform (meaning “cross-shaped”) aspects of reconciliation. We are “vertically” reconciled to God, while being “horizontally” reconciled to those around us, even our enemies. If God has given us the ministry of reconciliation — and I believe along with Paul that God has — then reconciliation should be the signature ministry of churches.

I wrote my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the subject of The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. In my research and writing, I explored not only the theological and theoretical aspects of reconciliation, but the practical, applied aspects as well. Of course, I wasn’t the first to come to this awareness, and I discovered that scores of churches in the US (and, other places), are actively practicing reconciliation in their communities.

Finally, to put it all together, I am focusing on the result that churches practicing reconciliation are building peace communities. In reconciliation studies, much of the literature is theoretical. Authors focus on the theology of reconciliation, the multi-disciplinary nature of reconciliation, and stories of reconciliation in places like South Africa and Rwanda. However, I found very few resources that could describe what a ministry of reconciliation looked like on the ground in real life. To that end, I synthesized the best of the theoretical research to develop a list of criteria for what reconciliation looks like. I’ll list those in a later post, but my point is that for churches to be able to engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we have to know what one looks like, and what result we seek as agents of reconciliation.

The goal of churches which practice reconciliation is, in my opinion, to build peace communities. I don’t mean peaceful communities, although they certainly would be. Peace communities are those neighborhoods and areas included in a local church’s ministry influence, that have been transformed in measurable ways by the practice of reconciliation.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or 72) disciples, among other things he instructed them in the practice of peace: “ “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’  If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6 NIV). We have neglected this idea of speaking peace, finding the person of peace, and “staying in one place” to bring about transformation of an entire community. That’s what peace communities are — communities that have been transformed by the shalom of God into places where Kingdom ethics are lived out, hurts are healed, relationships are restored, and God’s children live in harmony. If that sounds like an improbably fantasy we must remind ourselves that Jesus said some pretty improbable things.

In future blog posts, I’ll tell the stories of churches that are practicing reconciliation and building peace communities in their own neighborhoods. I’ll also present resources, books, seminars, and organizations that can be helpful in your church’s quest to become a reconciling community. I’m convinced this is the church of the future — engaged, vital, and transformative — and I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

Don’t Confuse Authority With Power

The church growth movement helped foster the idea of the pastor as the authoritative leader of the congregation.  I know because I studied church growth at its height at Fuller Seminary.  The premise of the theory of “pastoral authority” was that churches grew faster and larger when the pastor asserted his authority as the leader of the congregation.  The numbers seemed to verify the idea of absolute pastoral authority.

Of course, the idea of pastoral authority also appealed to the egos of lots of pastors.  “I can make it happen” pastors thought, “if only the deacons, or committees will give me the authority to take charge.”  The ecclesiastical landscape is littered with the train wrecks of that kind of thinking.   What some pastors really wanted was power, not authority, and therein lies the problem.  Power is not what we as pastors are called to exercise, but too often we confuse authority with power.

“Authority in the church is never the monopoly of the ordained few — whether bishops or clergy” writes John Chryssavgis in his helpful book, Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction.  Chryssavgis, an Orthodox priest and professor of theology, corrects the notion that spiritual authority belongs exclusively to the professionals.  Rather, Fr. John argues, “All too often authority is confused with power, meaning the ability to compel others to do something.”  He continues, “It is not control over others, but commitment to them, even to ‘the least of one’s brethren’.”

Although his book focuses on the ancient art of spiritual direction, much of what Chryssavgis says applies to pastors in general.  Our ministry, he says, is built upon the tradition of obedience and authority of those who have gone before us.  Only those who have submitted to the spiritual direction from others, can assume the responsibility to offer spiritual direction to others.

We also are called to mutual submission with our congregation before God.  Granted, pastors have special responsibilities, but our authority is, to paraphrase Rush Limbaugh, “on loan from God.”  It is an authority not inherent in any human being, but an authority that resides in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is similar to what Alan Roxburgh says about finding God’s direction for a congregation.  It doesn’t lie solely with the pastor, but Roxburgh believes that “the future of God is found among the people of God.”

Finally, Chryssavgis says, “Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to ‘diakonia’ and dialogue, not domination.”  Good direction from one who knows what it means to be under authority.  I recommend the book.

Finding Our Place Among The Hungry

empty_bowls2More world citizens and more Americans go hungry each day than ever before in the history of the world.  One billion people out of the 6-billion who inhabit the earth, do not have enough to eat.  Almost 17% of the world’s population — 1-in-6 people in other words — are undernourished or malnourished.

In the United States of America, the numbers are no better:  16%, or 49-million Americans do not have access to adequate food.  Again, 1-in-6 in the most affluent country in the world go hungry.

The reasons for this record rise in world hunger lie in the global economic crisis coupled with the rising cost of food.  Food costs worldwide have increased 24% in just 4-years.  Civil unrest has followed the increasing cost of food and threatens to be the next global catastrophe.

But, here’s the interesting part:  In a newly-released Pew Forum survey, a majority of Americans prefer that religious groups feed the hungry and homeless.  Faith-based programs remain popular with the American public, and 52% said faith-based organizations are best able to feed the hungry.  Interestingly, those numbers are actually up from 8 years ago when the same questions were asked.

But are faith-based groups, churches included, doing what we can to feed people?  If 1-in-6 persons are hungry in America and the world, they should no longer be invisible to us.  Unfortunately, the hungry are disproportionately poor, minority, and marginalized by society.  They remain invisible to a vast majority of Christians because our paths do not cross, our children do not go to the same schools, and our social calendars do not coincide.

But this is a golden opportunity for faith-based groups to step up and fulfill the vision that America has for us.  If we as churches can do what our culture thinks we ought to do, which includes feeding hungry people, then we might find our place again in our own culture.  With church attendance continuing its 50-year decline from a high of 40% to today’s 17.5%, we need to reclaim our place in the world.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the church reclaimed its place in culture by finding its place among the poor?  Of course, that’s what Jesus did.  And he fed them, too.

Urban Church Connects with Local Artists

P1040079_lgIn its heyday University Baptist Church in Baltimore overflowed its expansive neoclassical sanctuary.  Designed by the same architect as the Jefferson Memorial, the church’s impressive dome now shelters fewer worshippers each Sunday.  But changing times haven’t discouraged the members of University Baptist Church.  Instead the congregation continues to find new ways to impact its urban neighborhood.

Located across the street from Johns Hopkins University, University Baptist Church draws dozens of students each week for its Sunday evening service, “The Gathering.” But as the neighborhood on the other side of the church evolved into an arts enclave, church members wanted to reach out to these artists as well.

“We are in our fourth year of hosting an arts camp for children,” Associate Pastor Robin Anderson explained.  With that experience, and a growing arts presence in their neighborhood, members sought new ways to engage with their creative neighbors.

A casual conversation about art galleries led Robin to ask, “Would it be a dumb idea to do an art gallery at the church?”  Church members thought she might be on to something.  The result was  Art Under The Dome, a gallery show for local artists hosted by the church.  Twenty percent of show sales went to the African HIV/AIDS ministries of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  On the night the art show opened, an African drummer stood on the steps of the church, beckoning passersby inside with the rhythms of authentic African drums.  Almost 500 people attended the art show opening, and 400 of those had not been to the church before.  Dozens more viewed the show during its two-week run, and many signed up for a small group study.

Here’s how they did it:

1.  Direct mail and internet sites advertised the event. The church solicited artists through art-related internet message boards.  Direct mail invitations to the show opening were sent out to the neighborhood surrounding the church.

2.  A gallery team coordinated the show. One member acted as curator, selecting artwork submitted by local artists.  The curator’s choices were reviewed by the entire gallery team for final approval.  Over 20 artists participated in the art show.

3.  Professionalism was important. The gallery team maintained a professional atmosphere by replicating a real art show opening at the temporary church gallery.  This approach showed respect for the diversity of artists and patrons, while inviting further contact with the church.

4.  The community came together for a good cause. Johns Hopkins University is world-renown for its research, including research into HIV/AIDS.  Raising money for this cause helped draw both church members and artists together for a worthy endeavor.  In addition, local HIV/AIDS groups were invited to display brochures about their work in the Baltimore area.

5.  Follow-up included a small group study. Over 30 people signed up to study “The Artist’s Way,” a book written by a Christian artist, but directed toward the broader arts community.

The church is already preparing for its next art show.  The majestic church sanctuary is now a landmark recognized by the arts community as a place where faith and creativity meet under the dome.

— This article first appeared in Outreach magazine in my Small Church, Big Idea column.

A New Model Merges Pastoral Care and Social Action

I am speaking tomorrow at Duke Divinity School to students in the Rural Ministry Colloquia, a monthly gathering of students involved in, or interested in, rural church ministry.  I have been asked to tell our story of how we started a community center, community music school, and several other projects here in our small town of 1300 people.

In addition to telling our story, I’m also going to share some very quick thoughts about the role of small churches in rural areas.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the theology and practice of pastoral care in a missional church, and how that is different from pastoral care in traditional churches.  I think I’ve come up with a least a few questions, if not fully-formed answers.  Here’s some of what I’ll share tomorrow:

  1. Missional theology and praxis calls for contextual, incarnational engagement with the community.  How does “the care of souls” fit into the missio Dei and our part in it?
  2. Why is pastoral care largely ignored in the on-going conversations about the tranformation of the church?
  3. Given the social structures of rural society, and the aging populations of small town and rural America, shouldn’t “the care of souls” be a part of our intentional ministry, and not just an afterthought during times of crisis?
  4. Considering the rampant poverty, increased alcohol and drug abuse problems, lower educational levels, and other social issues affecting rural areas, shouldn’t our care of people also include care for the community, and the transformation of communal issues?

I am also proposing tomorrow a new way to look at pastoral care and social action (which is not a term I like, but I can’t think of another more descriptive).

The typical pastoral care model is a dyad of both the spiritual and psychological care of a person or family.  The typical “social gospel” model (or social action model) is a dyad of  spiritual and sociological engagement with a community, or group in a community.

I am proposing a new model that is a synthesis of both pastoral care and social gospel — a triad of the spiritual, psychological, and sociological concerns addressed by both individual approaches to care, and communal approaches to care.

In the Bible, salvation is often seen as coming to a people, not just individuals.  Certainly, the salvation of Israel was not thought of as future, but as a present reality that God could, and often did, provide.  This does not diminish the importance and necessity of a personal response to Jesus’ call to “come and follow me” but rather it broadens that call to include the salvation of social systems and communities.

I believe that “the care of souls” is going to burst into our theological imaginations in new and exciting ways.  Some of those will be that care will be more relational and less educational; and, more contextual and less general.

The “care of souls” will also fill the gaps in the social fabric of rural communities who have lost much of their social framework to chain stores, increased mobility, and the loss of public spaces.  I am convinced that we need to see our communities, not just as potential additions to our membership roles, but as “sheep without a shepherd.”

Creating networks of caring, training spiritual directors, offering healing solutions to intractable social problems — these are some of the new ways in which pastoral care in the missional church finds new expression.   One of the primary tasks of churches is to make meaning out of life’s stages and events.  By viewing our communities, and the individuals and families within them, as in need of Christian care, I believe we change the tone and effect of what we are doing.

What do you think?  How has your church, small or large, had opportunity to express care both for individuals and the entire community?  How have you brought about community transformation through “the care of souls?”  I’m really interested in gathering examples of churches doing this because I think it’s the next new awareness of the missional movement.

The Care of Souls as Outreach

My latest interest focuses on exploring pastoral care as outreach.  I talk to lots of small church pastors and leaders, picking their brains for stories of smaller churches doing effective ministry.  More and more I’m hearing stories of people helping people — people caring for people —  as a means of outreach.

Pastoral care, to use the well-worn phrase, has not been in vogue in the past 20-years or so — really since the church growth movement changed the pastor from shepherd to CEO.  (But that’s another story for another post.)

David Augsburger, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Fuller Seminary,  bemoans the neglect of pastoral care in evangelical churches today.  In their new book, Connected, sociologists Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler point out that 12% of Americans have no one in their network with whom they can discuss important matters, or go out with socially.  That in itself should present churches with new opportunities for caring ministry.  But, too often the care of souls, or “the cure of souls” as it was called about 500 years ago, conjures up images of the pastor as pseudo-counselor or chaplain. Hand-holding is not what most pastors aspire to, even if we all have to do some of it on occasion.

But the kind of care I’m talking about isn’t psycho-spiritual navel-gazing.  Nor is it practiced only by pastors.  I’m talking about the kind of care that seeks out those in need and helps them.  And, help isn’t just defined in spiritual or psychological terms.  Help, or care, is that which responds actively — with food, rent, a warm meal, a heartfelt conversation, or a word of encouragement.

Just about every church I’ve written about exhibits some form of caring ministry.  Small churches can do that because caring is about relationships with people; not programs or marketing.  The big kicker is that the unchurched are ahead of us on this one — they think the church ought to do more caring for people in need.

What are your experiences?  Have you used a caring ministry as outreach?  What were your results?  How did caring change both you, and your church?  Let me know because this is a topic I’m going to visit regularly from time to time.

The Indispensable Church

People don’t need to go to church.

At least that’s how the majority of people in America act.  Less than 18% of the population attends church on any given Sunday.  In the U.S. we are chasing downhill Europe’s church attendance rate of 7%, and David Olson predicts by 2020 we’ll be halfway there.  And that is precisely our problem:  we’re stuck on Sunday morning church attendance as both the measure of a church’s health, and an indicator of a person’s spiritual life.

The question that church leaders need to ask now is not, “How can we get more people to come to church?” We’ve been asking that question since the numbers started turning down in the 1970s.  All our solutions together haven’t turned the tide of declining church attendance.  Throw in all the megachurches, all the church growth seminars, all the church marketing, the millions spent on programs, and the kitchen sink, and the result is the same:  people continue to stay away from church in droves.

The question we need to be asking is, “How can church become indispensable to a community?”  People don’t come to church because church isn’t essential to their lives.  Church is a take-it-or-leave-it experience, and most are leaving it.

Our challenge is to make our churches indispensable to our communities.  The well-worn, but telling question — “If your church closed tomorrow, would anybody notice?” — has been answered by millions of Americans with a resounding “No.”

But, I am not advocating a return to “attractional church” programs and activities, either.  Rather I am advocating the following:

  1. Sunday morning worship isn’t the most important thing we should be doing.
  2. Missional isn’t missional until people outside the church notice.
  3. The unchurched will tell us how we can be indispensable to them.

Those three ideas all reflect the need to change perspectives from our self-congratulatory, self-validating point of view to an outsider point of view.

Here’s an example:  In North Carolina, Crossfire United Methodist Church got started because one biker (the Harley riding kind) had been befriended by a member of the dying Moravian Falls United Methodist Church.  When Alan Rice, the UM district superintendent, showed up to close Moravian Falls, Duncan Overrein showed up on his Harley and wouldn’t leave until Alan promised him to keep the church open.

But, the old church congregation was too small to sustain the church, so the old Moravian Falls church died and the new Crossfire UM Church was born in the old church building.  Now 110-plus people, bikers and others, ride from 30-40 miles away each Sunday to come to church.

But Sunday isn’t all they do, or even the most important thing they do.  They help each other.  They repair houses, fix cars, buy groceries, care for the sick, pray for their brothers and sisters.  Crossfire is buying an old abandoned refrigerated warehouse as their new home.  Part of the refrigerated space they’ll rent out, but they intend to start a beef aging business there, too.

The church has become indispensable to the community of bikers and their friends and families.  It’s there because one pastor listened to one long-haired, do-rag wearing biker who wanted a church for people like him.  Crossfire doesn’t have any problem with attendance, except they’re outgrowing the old Moravian Falls building.  They don’t have any problem with wondering how to get people to come.  Instead they go into the community to families in need, to those who are sick, to brothers in jail, and they listen to them.

I want our church to become indispensable to our community.  I want us to touch more lives during the week than we have bodies in the pews on Sunday.  I want people to ask us to stay in business because we’ve made a difference in their lives.

I am repeatedly drawn to the Celtic Christian abbeys.  Those early monks built their monastic compound at the crossroads, or next to a village.  The abbey became the center of the community.  It became necessary for the community’s survival because they fed people, cared for the sick, gave shelter to the homeless, provided refuge for the weary and wanted, and lived out the Gospel in tangible and essential ministries.

What do you think? Is your church indispensable in your community?  Would anyone notice if your congregation folded?  What are you doing to become indispensable to the people around you?