A Letter to Wyatt

A Letter to Wyatt

Dear Wyatt, It was so much fun to get to be in Rock Hill for your first birthday party with your mommy and daddy and big brother, Elijah. It was a very quick 48-hour trip, and I wish I could have stayed longer, but I’m glad we live in a time when I can get on a plane that will cover the 1,050 miles from our house in Dallas to yours in about three hours. What an amazing time we live in when we can travel by plane or I can get a video of you taking your first steps on a phone I carry in my pocket. Even though your Ellee and I fret a bit about what is “too much screen time” for you and your brother, Elijah, technology is such a gift. Buddy, I want to chat with you about how faith is passed on to the next generation. I know you’re a bit young for this talk, and I admit I’m thinking aloud here. So bear with me. This past spring I had an opportunity to lead a worship and music consultation with the historic First Baptist Church of Columbus, Georgia. Their staff and key music ministry leaders invited me to help them to do some strategic planning for worship and music ministry. A question that emerged while I was there was, “How does a church almost 200 years old pass on faith to the next generation?” Even though you’re just learning to walk, I don’t want to talk down to you. Let me ask three questions here to get us started that may get...
Everyone Needs to Go to Arabia

Everyone Needs to Go to Arabia

One of the pressing concerns of 21st century individual and congregational spiritual life is the question of depth. To be blunt, there isn’t much. Study after study has revealed the sad truth that much of what we call faith and commitment is actually a thin veneer of religious ritualism that wilts at the first hint of stress. It is stunning to watch long-term, regular participants in a congregation’s life resort to all manner of psycho-babble or afternoon talk show wisdom when confronted with a crisis. Every pastor has watched in dismay as life-long believers revert to their worst and darkest selves when things don’t go their way. The self-absorption of our culture has come to define our churches. Affluenza is not just a cute way to describe the American way of materialism, it is what robs would-be disciples of the joy of authentic stewardship of all our life and possessions. The list goes on and on. I propose a cure for this “mile wide, inch deep” variety of faith that plagues the Kingdom. Everyone needs to go to Arabia. Now, I am not a travel agent, and I get no kickback from the airlines. To fully appreciate this invitation, you must know your Bible trivia.  Specifically, what did Paul do after his conversion on the Damascus road? You’ll find that story in Acts 9. Christianity’s most ardent opponent, a genuine first-century terrorist, is dramatically converted and transformed. Think of a leading ISIS terrorist confessing Christ and leading the Christian church in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, other disciples are incredulous at this turn of events, and eventually, the church...
Ministry in the Meantime and Mean Time

Ministry in the Meantime and Mean Time

Ministry happens in the meantime and in the mean time. The meantime is a season of sometimes bewildering change and troubling transitions. It’s an interval between a past we know well and a future which isn’t yet clear and between a familiar way of doing things and an emerging way of doing them. One indication of this interval is a leadership gap which exists in many churches: an older generation of experienced leaders is passing from the scene, and younger generations have not yet developed the skills for, or shouldered the responsibilities of, constructive congregational leadership. We live and serve in the tension between what has been and what will be, and this meantime calls for discernment, perseverance, and courage. Meantime also refers to the climate in which ministry happens these days: it’s a mean time. The tone of public debate is coarsening, and verbal violence is increasing. It’s common to reduce complex issues to bumper-sticker or tweet sized slogans aimed at the single goal of winning an argument, and it’s uncommon to engage in thoughtful listening and speaking with the purpose of mutual understanding. Concern for the common good is eroding. Political polarization and partisan wrangling are more intense than they have been since the late 1960s and early 1970s. These factors adversely affect ministry. Conversations about a church’s challenges and opportunities too-frequently reflect the stridency of public debate. Add to the corrosive tone of public debate other factors that make this a mean time: Decades of worship wars have splintered some churches into factions organized around differences in musical taste, matters of style, and differing opinions about...
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?”...
What are you hearing in the churches?

What are you hearing in the churches?

My colleague Bob Dale often asks me a simple question: “Bill, what are we hearing out there in the churches?” He knows that every week members of our team are fanning out across the country to work in dozens of churches of every size, shape, denomination, setting and orientation. We hear and see first-hand what many others only know second-hand. The news is usually a mix. Some churches and clergy are fully awake and leaning into the challenge of being a vibrant and thriving church in the 21st century.  Others are frustrated and bewildered by the challenges they face. They tend to want to revert back to what worked in an earlier programmatic era, rather than embrace the new. When that, inevitably, doesn’t work, the mood and tone of the church often turns dark. The halls are filled with anxious deacons or elders and worried finance committee members. During these rocky times, a familiar scenario seems to be playing out in many churches. Attendance is trending down. Offering plate receipts are sliding. Soon, budget adjustments have to be made and since the vast majority of a typical congregation’s budget is fixed (facilities and personnel), mission and ministry dollars are the ones that bear the heaviest cuts. Despite belt-tightening in increasingly creative ways, the bottom line remains troubling. Into this highly anxious mix a voice begins to be heard. The Bible calls it “murmuring”. It is a voice that seeks someone to blame for the metrics and economic ills that plague the congregation. Leviticus 16 describes a community blaming practice known as “scapegoating”. On the Day of Atonement, an innocent...
Graduation and Commencement

Graduation and Commencement

This is the time of year for graduation ceremonies. In recent days, families of high school and higher education graduates have celebrated the “moving of the tassel.” Churches often join in these celebrations to mark this significant passage in a person’s life. Woven into this cultural season of commencement ceremonies is Pentecost Sunday, the day earlier this week when Christians celebrate the birth of the church and the powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the first believers. Maybe the convergence of these academic and sacred seasons will have some lessons for healthy churches today. The words that we use are interesting. Do you know the meaning of them? “Graduation” is from the Latin gradus, meaning “grade.” A graduate is one who “has completed a course of study.” This person is one who has made the grade and moves on to the next level. The word graduation signals completion, accomplishment, and achievement. In addition to the word “graduation” we also use the word “commencement.” To “commence” means “to initiate,” “to start,” or “to begin.” Graduation marks an ending – commencement marks a beginning . . . and yet we use both words to describe the same event. The story of the events at Pentecost is a story of graduation and commencement. GRADUATION: A SEASON IS COMPLETED Pentecost represented graduation for the followers of Jesus. A season was coming to an end – completion was being marked. The season began about three years earlier. Jesus called to himself twelve men to be a special class. He was their rabbi, or teacher. Others were in the larger group that followed along....
A Pastor’s Response: Where Is God When Life Gets Tough?

A Pastor’s Response: Where Is God When Life Gets Tough?

During my years as a pastor, the question I have been asked most frequently is “Where is God when bad things happen?”  The question may follow a devastating storm, an unexpected diagnosis, or a catastrophic event. The contexts vary but the query is the same. This question has perplexed and frustrated those afflicted with suffering, grief and pain. Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with scriptural texts and rational thought striving to make sense of the enigma. Pastors and counselors continually search for explanations that provide encouragement and hope for those scarred by raw human experience. In one sense, to attempt to respond to such a challenging question can seem arrogant or presumptuous. In another sense, the question begs to be addressed but is entirely too big to have a simple, singular answer. Religious clichés and slogans may offer momentary hope or comfort, but to the person who is hurting, “canned” religious answers seem hollow, shallow and often insulting. As a pastor, I only know to be transparent and confessional in sharing with my congregation how I am processing the question in hopes that my small insight might provide a little light for those dealing with the question from a dark place. 1. Life is not fair. I wish someone had taught me this when I was much younger. My early faith was predicated on naïve assumptions: God is good and life is fair. If I go to church, read my Bible, pray and try to keep the commandments, I will prosper and God will protect me. If I misbehave, bad things will happen. Now I would be inclined to...
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...