The Stranger in Our Midst

The Stranger in Our Midst

Virtually every church I know, if asked to describe itself, would use words like friendly, caring and welcoming. Not every new person who comes their way would use those same words. While churches are not hostile to newcomers, many of them are unaware of the coolness that belies our intended warmth toward the stranger in our midst. While churches want to be friendly, they often lack the intentionality required to generate that reality. When I started seminary, my family and I moved to a new city, and thus, to a new congregation. There was a church less than a half mile from our home. How convenient. On seventeen (17) different Sundays we participated in Sunday School and worship. We enjoyed the sermons, the music, the opportunities for our elementary aged children, and we had a good SS teacher. Hardly anyone spoke to us. No one in SS ever called us by name, though we worked to learn theirs. We introduced ourselves to the pastor all 17 Sundays. He seemed to never recall who we were. After five months of feeling ignored, we decided to try to find a new church home. We ventured downtown to a much larger church and quickly made the assumption that we might be ‘swallowed up’ in such a big congregation. As we left worship that day, the pastor was greeting folks at the door. When we got there, he knelt down to talk with our children. Impressive. After a time, he stood and greeted us. On Wednesday, a hand-written note from the pastor arrived in the mail. We went back the next Sunday, and...
Learning to Navigate Diversity

Learning to Navigate Diversity

One of the most enriching and fatiguing things about church life these days is the vast diversity within most local congregations. During some recent days of self-reflection and ministry evaluation, I spent some time thinking about why I feel more fatigued these days than I did a few years ago. There are likely many contributing factors including my age, my length of tenure, and what Paul called “the daily pressure of my concern for the churches” (II Corinthians 11:28). But it dawned on me that a part of this new mental fatigue is caused by the continual task of navigating diversity within the church, a phenomena for which I was neither trained nor prepared. To further process my notion, I started listing the ways the church is more diverse today than it was when I began my first tenure as a pastor. I quickly identified 10 areas of church ministry that illustrate this proliferation of diversity: Generational diversity: There are now 4-6 generations present on any given Sunday in many multi-generational churches. Translation diversity: Rather than one standard Bible translation, members of my congregation read a variety of different Bible translations, and I am sure there are a dozen or more different translations present each time I preach Racial and ethnic diversity: There are multiple races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds present within most congregations. Worship time diversity: Many churches have multiple worship services. Worship style diversity: Our church has two Sunday morning worship services, each involving a different style of worship. Curriculum diversity: Rather than a standard denominational literature, there are multiple curricula used by Sunday School and Bible...
The Ministry of Words

The Ministry of Words

I stood in a hospital room crowded with family members of one who, without a single word, had summoned us all together. She was ready, after almost 94 years, to leave this life. So that is what she did. She left a hushed silence unable to muffle the emotion of time spent, joys remembered, and sorrows borne. Hospitals are places of healing. For those who work there it must be wonderful to take part in someone’s battle for life and equally devastating when healing does not occur. These caregivers are on the front-line, walking alongside people on the road toward wholeness. Sometimes, after a visit to see a parishioner, I would imagine my life as a physician, instead of a pastor. That happened most often on Monday mornings, discouraged by a Sunday that was, at least by chosen metrics, showing signs of failing health, if not impending death. Pastors put tremendous pressure on themselves, especially when it comes to the sermon. After all, pastors are purveyors of words, trained in seminary to craft powerful, life-giving words, as they lead Sunday morning worship. No wonder that on most weeks pastors feel weak in the knees as they ascend the steps to the pulpit. No pressure. Hear me when I say that corporate worship on Sundays can and should be life-giving and healthy. The words proclaimed from the pulpit both in sermon and song should be dynamic and relevant, worthy of dedicated study and preparation. But the truth is the pastoral call to ministry transcends the Sunday experience. Corporate worship can’t be all there is to a healthy church.  Sunday morning...
The Flip Side of the Bivocational Coin

The Flip Side of the Bivocational Coin

The treasurer reported that everything looked good. Giving was slightly exceeding our budgeted needs and financial obligations. Immediately, there were smiles all around the room. Everyone relaxed, happy to know that we didn’t have to worry and stress about our church’s budget this time. Everyone, that is, except me. We knew it was going to happen. The grant money that fully funded my position would not last indefinitely. Our small church wasn’t in decline. In fact, we were seeing growth and our participants were generous and sacrificial givers, many of them going well beyond a traditional tithe. Nevertheless, we knew that significant financial changes were inevitable. A few months before, I had volunteered to essentially become “bivocational.” I had a few other projects that I wanted to pursue and I was willing to see if they could generate some income to cover the resulting shortfall. It seemed like a win-win situation. The church was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The unintended consequence of that shift was that what began as a challenge for our entire congregation essentially became my problem to solve alone. It was no longer a case of “This is our challenge. We’ll solve it together.” Instead, it was assumed that I had it covered. I was now responsible for making up the difference between our current level of giving and my intended salary. I reduced my work hours accordingly and the church continued with minimal disruption to our regular worship schedule. While it is easy to count the cost of financial adjustments that result in a loss of materials, programs, or staff positions,...
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...
Are you living on the right side of Easter?

Are you living on the right side of Easter?

Easter changes everything. Like no other part of the Christian faith, the story of Easter is at the heart of what makes our faith unique and life-changing. Death is overcome by life. Not even the grave is immune to the life-giving power of Jesus Christ. Those simple statements have profound implications. Across the centuries, this triumph of life over death has proven to be the spark that has inspired individual believers and the church. No obstacle has been too large, no challenge too intimidating. Men and women have found hope in the midst of oppression, loss, and excruciating pain. Faith communities have leaned into challenges that seemed overwhelming with conviction, grit and confidence in victory. Living on the right side of Easter makes all the difference in the world. There really are two sides of Easter, aren’t there? One is the side of Easter that the disciples experienced during the dark hours following the crucifixion. It is the side marked by discouragement, loss and despair. There is also the side of Easter those same men and women experienced when they discovered the tomb was empty and Jesus had been resurrected. This is life marked by confidence and hope. Why, then, do so many of us, and so many of our churches seemingly live on the wrong side of Easter? Think about the difference in a church that finds itself mired in a “pre-Easter” mindset versus a church that lives out of it’s “post-Easter” mindset. Here are four key contrasts between the two. A pre-Easter church believes only in what they can see. Thus, they work very hard and are...
What’s Right with the Church?

What’s Right with the Church?

Sometimes a book ends up in your hands at just the right time with just the right words.  Reading that kind of book is like meeting with a mentor or friend.  You read a bit and think. Maybe you write something in the margin.  It becomes a conversation.    A book like this ended up on my desk about 30 years ago. I had served enough churches that I had faced some challenges and some discouragement. I was coming to grips with my own limitations.  I had even had a conversation with a trusted counselor about doing some coursework to prepare to take the MCAT to apply to medical school.  I wondered if I really should continue being a Minister of Music.   Fortunately, there were many voices that encouraged me to find a way to do more than survive, but to thrive in local church ministry.  Among those voices was a book by William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church? [1]  You see, part of my struggle was I had been taught to love the church in theory but I didn’t have much practice in loving the church in practice.  My error:  loving everyone but not every one.   Willimon’s book helped me to begin to reframe some of the resistance I had experienced from church folk.  (I’m sure it had nothing to do with my “I-have-a-graduate-degree-in-music-and-we’re-only-doing-great-music-here” attitude.)  There was much to appreciate, to value and to love about particular people and places.  To quote Robert Webber, “All worship is local.”  Yes, I could honor the gifts and callings bestowed on me but when I was at my best...
Holding Your Staff Accountable

Holding Your Staff Accountable

Whenever I have an opportunity, I suggest that the starting point for bringing health and effectiveness to a church’s ministerial staff is the critical work of clarifying mission, vision and purpose in the congregation. That clarity then becomes the “north star” for every decision, every investment of resources, every staff position, every event that a congregation chooses to engage in. What comes next? May I suggest that accountability is essential for a healthy and functioning staff? We find that many times congregational staff members operate in a bizzaro congregational world devoid of healthy accountability. Without a thoughtful, rational system in place, evaluation and accountability disintegrates into personal opinion and judgments made without benefit of facts. Expectations are fuzzy. Ministers find themselves pushed and pulled by individual tastes and priorities. Congregational bullies show up and exercise inappropriate influence. Motives begin to be assigned. Facts take a distant backseat to innuendo and gossip. Other times, congregations are victimized by clergy who seem to operate without rules or fail to practice rudimentary work habits. Clergy too often operate in silos, content to patter around their ministry corner without concern for the church as a whole. Clergy who are not held accountable make mistakes that no one calls them on, and thus fail to learn valuable lessons. Boundary violations are inevitable, as most are reticent to “call foul” on a man or woman of God. There must be a better way! Accountability for clergy teams begins with healthy peer pressure. Patrick Lencioni  (The Advantage) goes so far as to say that “peer-to-peer accountability is the primary and most effective source of accountability on...
The Church & Social Media Workshop

The Church & Social Media Workshop

Belmont University, Nashville, TN April 18, 2017 8:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Transitioning to the Digital Communication World Now that your church is ready to communicate in the age of the Internet, the next steps can be daunting. What exactly does a communication director do? How do you manage a Facebook page? How important is your print newsletter? What do you do with email? And what are you missing? We’ll talk about all these needs and more as your church transitions to the digital communication world. We’ll also discuss the rewards as well as the risks of how and when to use social media for your church and as an individual in ways you may not have considered yet. Question and answer time will be provided. Our workshop presenter for the morning is Natalie Aho. Natalie is the Interactive Communications Specialist for Baptist News Global. In addition, she works as a communications specialist for the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and as a communications consultant for the Center for Healthy Churches. She brings years of experience in both social media and church engagement to the workshop. Cost: $40 – Includes Breakfast & Materials To register go to www.belmont.edu/ifbl and click on the “Upcoming Events” tab.  (For information on how to register more than one participant from the same organization, contact Jon Roebuck, 615.460.6073 or...
Unity of the Spirit

Unity of the Spirit

I like the story of the man from the Northeast who was in the south for a conference. He went to a diner for breakfast and asked for eggs, sausage, and toast. As the server brought the order he noticed a little white puddle on his plate. “What’s that?” he wondered. “Grits,” she replied. “What is a grit?” he asked. She rolled her eyes and said, “Honey, they don’t come by themselves.” Neither do Christians who are trying to be devoted followers of Jesus. Instead we connect in a community. This has been the commission of Jesus from the very first days. He drew his followers together into a community and said to them, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, NRSV) Christians . . . honey, they don’t come by themselves! From the earliest days of the church, our challenge has been living together in a community of love. After two thousand years, this challenge has not grown any easier. The culture today is divided by politics, ideologies, generational differences, economics, race, and the list goes on. The church cannot avoid these cultural differences. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities, but the Body of Christ, in which all members, however different, (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.” (Letters of C. S. Lewis) How can we live together as a community of...