It’s Not Your Fault

It’s Not Your Fault

I was working with a church in northern California, a church with a long history and many years of vibrant ministry.  But now it was struggling.  The church was down to its last 40 or so members, and most of them were older. The church was founded years ago as a downtown church.  More recently, it had moved into a then booming new neighborhood.  Now the neighborhood was in decline.  In fact, the whole city was experiencing depopulation. I met with some of the church’s leaders.  At one point I asked, “How long can you afford to keep going at the current rate you’re using your reserves?”  Two people said they thought the church could last for five years, another one guessed seven.  The church treasurer silently raised two fingers in the air.  They were only two years away from closure. The leaders asked if I would return a couple of weeks later to meet with “anyone in the congregation who might be interested” in this conversation.  When I came back, almost every single member of the congregation was present. I talked about what I had learned during my conversation with their leaders and how something different needed to happen … and happen soon. I invited them to imagine as many faithful options for going forward as they could.  They came up with everything from selling their property to relocating to a storefront back in downtown to merging or nesting with another congregation.  No one mentioned the possibility of closing. I asked them to assess how doable each option was.  “Do you have the financial resources for that option?”...
Watching the Future Emerge Together

Watching the Future Emerge Together

I am fascinated by the things that turn out to have retro appeal. People warn you not to get rid of your old clothes (the classic case being bellbottom jeans), “because they’re sure to come back in style again.” The whole business model for the cable channel Nick at Night was based on assumptions about the retro appeal of old cartoons and sitcoms to a new generation of children.  Technologies developed for Baby Boomers turn out to fascinate Gen Xers and Millennials. In The Postmodern Parish, I wrote about the first time I saw someone with a new Polaroid camera.  Although I couldn’t have imagined it at the time I wrote that passage, Polaroids are now experiencing a comeback. The cameras and film are being manufactured again, and young adults flock around this “old school” technology in the same way some younger music lovers now prefer vinyl over digital downloads. I remember how exciting it was to watch the image emerge on that first Polaroid picture.  As soon as the picture was taken, a completely blank piece of photographic paper shot out of the bottom of the camera.  As you watched, the yellow part of the image appeared on the paper, then the red part.  Finally, the blue portion emerged, and you could make out the whole image clearly. We are in a “Polaroid” era in the life of the church.  We all sense that the Holy Spirit is revealing new ways for churches to be faithful in our rapidly shifting American cultural landscape: showing us new “images” of what a post-Christendom congregation looks like. Our problem is that...
Preaching from the Purple Pulpit

Preaching from the Purple Pulpit

Except in very rare cases, there is always a bit of tension between a pastor and his/her congregation when it comes to preaching, especially prophetic preaching. We all know a few congregations where a liberal pastor and liberal congregation seem to be perfectly matched.  We also know a few conservative churches where the same is true.  But we also know how few and far between such perfect matches are, and we suspect that even those pastors hear from an angry parishioner at the back door of the church every once in a while. For most of us who preach, however, the context is quite different.  We preach in congregations that some are calling “purple” churches: neither all “red” (conservative) or all “blue” (liberal).  We preach to pews filled with Republicans and Democrats, with a sprinkling of Independents and Libertarians added in. This inherent tension between pulpit and pew has escalated dramatically in some churches over the last few weeks as the Trump administration has begun to implement its agenda. Some congregations – and pastors – are already showing signs of being stretched to the breaking point. The question many of us who are pastors find ourselves asking is, “How do I do this?  How do I engage the issues the Spirit has laid on my heart and maintain my relationship with these people I love … even if I disagree with them sometimes?” There is, of course, no “one size fits all” answer to these questions.  Every pastor finds him/herself in a unique context and will have to balance many factors in play in that particular congregation. There are, however, some...
Is It Post-Christendom Yet?

Is It Post-Christendom Yet?

It was one of lines you read in a book and then say to yourself, “Well, of course that’s true, but I’ve never realized it until now.” It came from one of the thousands of “post-modernity/post-Christendom” books that scream at us to read them before our congregation’s heart finally gives out. The author of the book is of a different theological stripe than I am.  I wasn’t looking for theological confirmation; rather, I wanted to hear what the church looks like to someone who sees it from a different vantage point than my own. The sentence was not the main point the author was trying to make in that particular chapter.  He may have even thought of it as filler.  But it hit me with the force of a Zen koan: “We have to remember that postmodernity does not reach every location in the United States at the same time.” Boom! See what I mean?  See how immediately self-evident the sentence is?  There are parts of America where the church has lived in a post-Christendom context for decades.  There are parts of the country where Christendom still reigns supreme.  Other churches live in communities all the way along the spectrum between those two extremes. And yet many of us act as if the opposite were true.  We act as if every church in America struggles with post-Christendom in exactly the same way.  That’s why we keep reading all those books but come away from them feeling uninspired.  We dive into them thinking that the author is talking about a church just like ours.  Truth be told, that is almost...
Those to Whom Much is Given

Those to Whom Much is Given

It was a shockingly wonderful gift. The church I was serving as interim pastor was notified that a long time member left her house to the church’s foundation upon her death.  The donation was given with no restrictions on how it was to be managed or to be used. This was no ordinary house.  It sat along the “Gold Coast,” the three most expensive blocks in San Francisco. We were told the house would sell for close to $16 million.  This was a game-changing gift. We quickly discovered that the second half of Jesus’ saying to which this article’s title refers applied to our situation: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  This marvelous gift also presented many challenges as the church decided how to manage it and for what purposes it would be used. We faced a whole range of issues: Will real estate agents within the church be invited to make proposals to represent us or only non-member agents? Who will make the final decisions about how the gift will be used: the foundation’s board or the church’s Session (main board)? Will all the proceeds from the sale of the house be held as an endowment or can some of it be used to pay for immediate needs? Even though it was an unrestricted gift, did the church have an obligation to try to figure out how the donor would have wanted them to use it? And even more importantly: What impact will the gift have on the giving patterns of the living congregation?  Will people now think of us as a...