A Church's Two Choices

This is a pivotal moment for many churches. Maybe I win an award for Understatement of the Year for that sentence.

A lot of congregations are in similar situations: budgets and attendance numbers are shrinking, there are less people to run the programs that people treasure, the culture as a whole doesn't seem to be very interested in making the same sorts of provisions and exceptions for the church's schedule the way it used to.

All the Churchy Experts point to the same causes: demographic shifts, the rise of categories of non-religious people, younger generations not wanting to gather the way their parents and grandparents do, there are many more Sunday morning alternatives to worship than there used to be.

How do churches respond? How do they cope with these shifts around them? Plenty of these same Experts offer a variety of answers, ranging from changing your worship style to greater outreach to adhering to certain theological positions to more emphases on mission, service, and justice.

But if I had to boil things way, way down to the barest and most basic choices that a church can make, I think it has one of two options. Neither of these are as simple as they sound, but I think that this is the decision every church needs to make.

1. Make the changes to be who you want to be. So maybe you want to start a new "contemporary" worship service, or you want to make your current worship "contemporary." Okay, that sounds great. And what's even better is that you have a high schooler who plays drums and a few older folks who can find their way around guitar and bass. Again, fantastic.

So the question is whether you're going all in on this or not. Are these people going to have regular rehearsal? Are you going to work intentionally with them to craft a list of songs each week? Are you going to try to insist on including a few token "traditional" things to try to make a small minority happy even though they won't really fit with the overall spirit of your new worship style?

Many churches say that they want to change. There come times when that change needs to be more incremental, with explanations given every step of the way and maybe a few small meetings with key people to get them on board. But if you really want to make the changes that you say you do, you have to go all in. You have to commit, and deal with the fallout as it comes.

2. Be who you already are with a high bar of quality. Maybe it's been made clear that only a handful of people are really enthused about your "contemporary" worship idea. Nobody else is stepping up, you don't have the musicians, the personnel, the general interest. Maybe people are okay with the few more modern elements that you have as part of your existing worship.

Well, then, step it up. Make it the best it can be, the most energized it can be, the best quality it can be. Believe it or not, "traditional" worship can be spirited, too. But to do that, you still need to set a high standard for the music, the bulletin format, the rubrics of who moves where and when, and so on. Just because people prefer the way it's always been done doesn't mean anyone should get away with that way being poorly done. If you can't change the logistics, change the quality.

What this all really amounts to is that you can't do church half-heartedly any more.

Churches could get away with that when they were the only game in town. Hymns could drag, sermons could be long and tedious, choirs could be off-key, bulletins could have poor formatting, the entirety of worship could be choppy and lifeless.

But that's not our reality any more. As mentioned, people have options. They have grocery shopping and brunch and soccer and a hundred other things they could be doing instead. And if a church doesn't seem to care about its presentation, they won't care either. The omelette bar or the hiking trail will be that much easier for them to choose.

Don't just add a guitar and think you've done what you need to do to be more "contemporary."

Don't just add a box for used clothing and think you're 150% more missional.

Don't insist on keeping Sunday School if nobody is coming.

Don't keep everything the same and think the way you're doing it is good enough.

So maybe a church only really has one choice: level up what you offer or want to offer, or keep getting present results.

(Image via Pixelbay)

October 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for October...

1. I read Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde this month. I've long enjoyed Wilde's blog of the same name, and this was on my shortlist of must-read new releases this year. Wilde writes of his experience in the family business, sharing many individual stories from his time in the profession but also using them to talk about his own struggles with burnout, our culture's fear of death, how we grieve, spirituality, and more. I found myself reflecting on many of my own experiences around funerals and the different ways people approach it. I think this would be a great resource for clergy, but for anyone in general who wonders what goes on behind the scenes in the "dismal trade," as well as those seeking a more well-rounded spirituality of death than what many resources offer.

2. I watched What Happened to Monday this month, a Netflix Original film set in the near future where overpopulation and food scarcity have caused a law to go into effect stating that families may only have one child. If a family has more than one, the children are cryo-frozen until some hoped-for time when the population drops. Terrence Stettman (Willem Dafoe) ends up with septuplet grandchildren (all played by Noomi Rapace), whom he is determined to keep hidden while setting up a system where each is named after a day of the week and can only go out on their namesake day. But of course they're eventually found out, and everything starts going wrong. As an action film set in an authoritarian dystopia, it was fine. It was on the gloomier side, but was an interesting concept.

3. I also watched Get Out this month, starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, a young black man whose white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) brings him home to meet her family. While the family seems warm and welcoming, it doesn't take long to see that there's something strange and sinister underneath their accommodating demeanor. This suspicion is amplified by tone-deaf racial comments various family members make thinking they're helpful, and the only other black characters acting stilted and strange. I figured out the plot because it reminded me of another movie with a similar premise, but the execution and message was still well-done and I can see why this has been deemed an important and meaningful movie since it was released.

4. I watched the first season of Ozark this month, a Netflix Original series starring Jason Bateman as Marty, a financial advisor whose partner has been embezzling from a Mexican drug cartel for whom they've been laundering money. He convinces them to spare his life by saying he'll keep laundering for them by moving to the Ozarks and doing it for them there. Once they get there, they find several groups of characters, frequently with their own sinister ends in mind, who put what he's trying to do in jeopardy. I thought I'd like this more, but it amounts to a bunch of people being miserable in the woods threatening each other, with every episode feeling twice as long as it really is.

5. I've been a Torres fan since hearing her 2015 album Sprinter, so I was excited to hear about her follow-up Three Futures, released at the end of September. She takes a different approach on this album: it doesn't have as many hooks and there aren't many driving tunes. The entire thing has a slower, more reflective tone. Here's the video for the title track:

Book Review: The Story of Our Time by Robert Atkinson

While each spiritual and religious tradition includes detailed beliefs and practices that promote the spiritual life, it is only in the mystical branches of those traditions that a deeper path to oneness is laid out. The mystic path is meant to lead us to union with the source of our being. Teasdale implies that we don't have to be part of any one [of] those traditions to have this same deep desire, or urge. It is an all-human trait, or characteristic, to want to seek union with the deepest part of who we are that comes from and connects us to our Creator, or to all of creation. - Robert Atkinson, The Story of Our Time

My denomination's website used to feature a discussion forum where people could log on and engage in conversation with each other about different topics. Some of these were topical, whether of current events or some faith-related issue, while others were more light-hearted in nature where people could swap snippets of their lives and get to know each other.

For a time, the theological conversations tended to be the most heated. It would bring together a variety of people whose views spanned the spectrum, and as many internet-based interactions go, civility and understanding was not always in abundance. In those days I was much more on the conservative side of things and regularly got mixed up with one or two people who were far more progressive.

I recall one person in particular who tended to go on long flourishing diatribes regarding the movement of all humanity toward wholeness of existence and understanding. Maybe if I could somehow recover those postings I'd appreciate them more now, but at the time they seemed so overloaded with nice mystical-sounding phrases that sounded impressive and nice and might have meant something to the person writing them but just read like hyper-spiritual nonsense.

Those words about unity and wholeness might have meant something, but they were so weighted down by jargon that they didn't translate.

The first thing that a spirituality book--a good, engaging one--needs to do is discern between what will translate to readers and what will just sound like hyper-spiritual nonsense.

The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness by Robert Atkinson seems to have too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

It starts out well enough, with observations about how much we don't realize who interconnected we really are. We're more comfortable with dualities, he says; we're used to them because we're told to think in those terms by so many people and entities and media outlets. But once we change such thinking, he observes, "we will want to see [this oneness and wholeness] everywhere" (p. 11). To Atkinson's credit, his premise is clear: how much more could humanity benefit from realizing how much those of different cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs have in common.

It's when he expounds on his point that he weighs his arguments down by the same issues that beset many spirituality books and that put me off to those internet conversations. When taken in small doses, The Story of Our Time makes its points decently, but more than a few pages will yield a certain amount of repetition and, for me anyway, fatigue.

Atkinson moves from our giving into duality to appealing to a combination of reason and seeking the commonality among religious belief systems to work toward greater purpose and shared goals. He appeals to a variety of traditions to accomplish this, including Ba'Hai and Native spirituality, as well as a discussion of Darwinian theory and appeal to human instinct and behavior.

When taken slow, a reader should be able to understand each of these concepts. But if their experience is anything like mine, their eyes might glaze over after a chapter or so.

Maybe I've read too many spirituality books and I'm judging this one unfairly. Atkinson's aims are admirable and clear. At times it gets tripped up by the execution. But curious readers are free to judge for themselves.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Vintage CC: Five Tips for Being a Writer

For reasons I can't divulge just yet, this post from September 2015 has been on my mind lately. In the anticipation of publishing my first book, I tried to nail down what worked for me during the process of finishing the manuscript, and this was what I'd come up with. If you are aspiring to be published yourself or are looking for a shot in the arm while trying to complete a project, I hope this is helpful.

It took me a long time to realize and accept that I'm a writer. I thought that I needed to contribute an article for a notable magazine or website or sign a book contract in order to do that, but that is simply not the case. I'm pleased that some of those things have happened in recent years, but for a very long time I operated under some false assumptions that you can only consider yourself a writer if you achieve some measure of success.

Simply put, writers write. If you write something, you're a writer. And some writers want to write things that reach a wider audience, whether through a personal blog, periodical, or book. That takes a little more effort and discipline. It's not impossible, but it does call for intentionality. So a writer who wants to set some higher goals will need to buckle down in order to pursue them.

I'm far from an authority on what works, as I'm still discovering that myself. But here are five things that I've found helpful to do in order to improve my writing while striving for larger platforms.

1. Sit down and write. It seems like such a no-brainer, doesn't it? And yet for a very long time I thought and talked and talked and thought about being a writer; going after those magazines and books and whatever else. But there was one problem: I didn't actually sit at my computer to draft inquiries and proposals, let alone an actual manuscript of any kind. Thinking and talking about it was the easy part.

Now, sure, it may be that when you do make it a point to sit down and open the laptop, you'll still end up staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. But hey, that's still progress! You've taken a step! Hooray! At this point, it may be beneficial to just start typing and see what happens. This will help get you into Writing Mode, and develop a habitual ease with moving beyond talk and getting to work. When it comes down to it, the only way you're going to write something is if you actually write something. Again, this seems so simple, but it can take quite a bit of self-starting.

2. Carve out the time. Closely related to sitting down to write is to make time to do so. I can't recall just how often I've said to myself, "I'd love to write, but I have so many other things to do." I have a wife, two kids, a career, I try to maintain a workout routine, and I have several other obligations. It's natural to look at all that and think that there will never be any time to write anything.

To be honest, this will take creativity and, no surprise, intentionality. Carving out the time to write will mean sacrificing something else. It may involve setting the alarm earlier or staying up later than the rest of your household. It may involve hiding in another room of the house away from the family for a while. It may involve giving less attention to another hobby or interest. If you want to sit down and write, you have to make the time to do it.

3. Outline, outline, outline. Okay. You're sitting at your desk after canceling your Saturday tee time or after everyone else has gone to bed. And that blinking cursor is still taunting you, daring you to make it do something. You've accepted its challenge, and you've got some ideas forming. But how do you flesh those out into an 800-1000 word essay or a 4000-5000 word book chapter, let alone many essays or chapters?

My solution has been to outline what I'm going to do, and how I'm going to do it. First, list off the main ideas that you want to include and see how they fit together. What makes sense to come first, then second, and so on? Then return to each main point and figure out what information or illustrations might be helpful in developing them. Again, this will help you discern how the main points fit together. You can see whether the story you tell at the end of Point One helps segue into the start of Point Two, whether you'd be better off moving Point Three to the top, and so on.

4. Take breaks. An otherwise busy person may treasure the time he or she has set aside to write, and may feel an obligation to produce something during those sessions. But there also come times when, if you've been at it long enough in one sitting, your brain might start to feel a bit crunchy and the quality of your work is going to suffer. While I'd argue that you have to give yourself a significant stretch to get the muse rolling during a writing session, there also comes a point where you might want to step away instead of willing yourself forward.

Sometimes, this may just be a few minutes. Stand up and stretch, go get a cup of coffee, walk around the house for a bit, and then get back to it. Other times, you may just find that you've hit a good stopping point and it's better to recharge than to force yourself to continue. No matter our work, being able to rest is what helps us return and keep working at a productive level. This includes the work of writing.

5. Treat yourself. I've found that having something to look forward to is helpful to my own writing process. Whether I'm working with a deadline or just want to be able to get something done, I like having a carrot dangling at the finish line. At times this has been giving myself permission to order a new book or album, at others it's been ice cream. You know what your favorite (legal, healthy) indulgences are, so make a deal with yourself that once you finish a writing project, you can enjoy it. Even name the specific thing that you'll go after, e.g., "Once I turn in this essay I'm going to download the new Dead Weather album," or "I won't head out to see this movie until I finish this chapter draft." This is different for everyone, but giving yourself positive reinforcement; knowing what awaits you when you hit your latest goal, can help you stay motivated and focused on the task at hand.

There are plenty more writing tips out there, and I haven't really covered any new ground. But these are at the top of my own list. I'm also not an expert. I just figured out what works best for me. So take what's helpful for you and add your own. Have at it, fellow writers.

Pastoral Prayer for Those Seeking Peace

based on Philippians 4:1-9

Faithful God, we can't often understand what peace looks or feels like, but we know when we don't have it. In the hurriedness and uncertainty of our lives, we are unsure if we would even recognize inner comfort when it finally comes. We might be too distracted to notice it, or too worried that we will lose it, or too skeptical to receive it. The lasting peace that you promise surpasses our understanding; we long for it, yet don't know where or how to seek it for ourselves.

And so we bring our frazzled and frantic selves to you, happy to leave them at the altar yet quick to snatch them up again to continue the pace we're accustomed to. Perhaps if we at least offer our deepest struggles, it will at least open our hearts enough for your Spirit to speak gentleness to our weary and wary souls. We hear so often that you are with us, but we need to calm our racing pulses enough to get in sync with the rhythm of grace you are playing into our lives.

God of Peace, be with us. Guide, strengthen, soothe, make well all our bruised and cracked places. Show us again the way of love, for our sake and for that of others. Amen.

Image via Pixelbay

Book Review: Blessed Are the Misfits by Brant Hansen

If American church culture makes perfect sense to you and you fit in seamlessly, don't read this. Seriously, return it immediately, before you spill something on this book and can't get a full refund. Because this book is for the rest of us. In fact, it's full of nonstop good news for the rest of us: the misfits, oddballs, introverts, and analytical types who throw ourselves at God's mercy, saying, "Yes, I believe...but help me in my unbelief." - Brant Hansen, Blessed Are the Misfits

I've been a fan of Brant Hansen's writing for quite a long time. I can still remember my first encounter with his words over a decade ago: a blog post declaring that he and his family were giving up church attendance in favor of a different sort of gathering with other people of faith. At that time, he kept a blog called Letters From Kamp Krusty, where he sometimes poked fun at the strangeness of church culture, at other times tackled more serious issues such as acceptance and doubt, and at other times engaged in outright silliness such as singing (sometimes literally) the praises of toast.

What I always noticed and appreciated even in those earliest days was Brant's repeated observations that many Christian circles don't often know what to do with those who don't quite fit the mold. It's easy to welcome and accept and engage with the ones who seem well put together, those who carry themselves confidently or who are articulate about faith issues. It's more difficult to do so with the shy or awkward, those struggling with disorders or disabilities, the ones who dare to express doubts or questions.

In that sense, Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They're Missing Something is a culmination of what Brant has been writing about for years. The warning he includes at the very beginning (partially quoted above) names that he wants to speak to all those who have often or always found trouble trying to relate to fellow believers in traditional contexts or ways.

Much like the title, many of this book's chapters follow the model of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, declaring various groups of misfits "blessed." He addresses groups such as those who can't easily access their emotions, those who struggle with prayer, those who struggle with "imposter syndrome," skeptics, and those on the autism spectrum, among many others. Every chapter provides a combination of personal anecdote, scriptural insights, and assurances that one shouldn't feel so alone; that in fact there are many others wrestling with similar issues, and that God loves them all regardless.

Brant is quite open with his own struggles throughout his book. As a self-identified introvert, skeptic, and "Aspie" (person diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome), he weaves his own story into many chapters. This is not a memoir per se, but one of the reasons he wants to include and reassure many of the groups that he does is because he falls into them himself. He knows the issues well, and his form of self-confession and exploration allows the reader dealing with similar things to enter into what he shares more easily.

I found Blessed Are the Misfits a wonderful exploration of why so many don't feel like they fit into traditional church culture or ways of expressing faith. He helps show that such things don't mean they aren't or can't be loved by God. In fact, he says, we often see that Jesus tends to spend more time with the outcasts, the square pegs in the culture's round hole, who have been deemed unfit, unclean, and unworthy. As he has been doing for years, Brant wants to show that what was good news for Jesus' original audience is still good news for many who need it today.

Blessed Are the Misfits releases on November 28, 2017.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Small Sips Is on a Committee

God and our own reflection. You may have heard actor and evangelical figurehead Kirk Cameron call Hurricane Irma a message from God to repent (while, by the way, he was waiting for a plane to evacuate the area). Jon Pavlovitz has a response to him, and offers some thoughts on the relationship between our theology and our own personality:
Maybe we who claim faith should refrain from pretending we understand how this world works when it comes to faith and pain and suffering.
Maybe we should admit the mystery, discomfort, and the tension that spirituality yields in painful, terrifying times.
Maybe when people are being terrorized by nature or by the inhumanity around them, instead of shouting sermons at them—we should shut up and simply try to be a loving, compassionate presence.
Maybe we should stop trying to make God into something as petty, hateful, judgmental, and cruel as we are.
Pavlovitz says this all so well that I don't feel like I need to add much. If one's theological statements tend to be tone deaf to real human need, that's less "just speaking the truth in love" and more just an excuse to be a jerk in the name of Jesus.

He has a point. Carl McColman reflects on the relationship between contemplation and privilege:
Maybe this is more prevalent because I live in the south, but when I’ve spoken or led retreats in other parts of the country, it often seems that even there, the same types of folks keep showing up. Folks who, frankly, look and talk like me. 
Some of this may have to do with the demographics of Christianity in America. Contemplation seems often to be most warmly embraced either by liberal Protestants — Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so forth — or by progressive Catholics, folks who are familiar with the writings of contemplatives like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, or Richard Rohr. And since mainstream Protestants and liberal Catholics tend to be white, educated, and affluent… well, you get the picture.
I've been thinking about this point lately, that contemplative exercises tend to appeal to a certain demographic. Or, alternatively, a certain demographic tends to have the time and resources for such practices. Like McColman, this is rooted in experience more than any kind of statistical analysis, but it seems like a study would back this up.

McColman does go on to note that historically, these practices have had much more global appeal, in part because some of them originated in places far different than WASP America. Furthermore, he explores how contemplation tends to make one aware of one's privilege by nature of its call to self-awareness and reflection.

Why "dones" become done. On his Holy Soup podcast, Thom Schultz interviews Andrea Syverson, a self-proclaimed religious "done" who wrote a book about her experience.
She writes: “Maybe the Dones need a bit of rebranding. They may not be so much about being done with church as they are about coming full circle and realizing that it’s all done. God did it all for us! We can’t do anything to change that–not by building a church, not by going to church daily, not by attending a Bible study every day, fasting for 40 days and nights, not by any other holy, holy, holy means we can think of. God already did it all for us. It’s done. He simply wants us to be in relationship with him and receive his gifts.”
The interview is worth a listen. I'm putting her book on my reading list, too.

Partnership, Not Micromanagement. Jan Edmiston shares her thoughts on what makes an effective Church Personnel Committee:
1. Agreement on Why The Church Exists and a culture of working side by side to make the Church’s Mission flourish. The Church doesn’t exist to prop up the Pastor, perpetuate an institution, or ensure that the floor is always clean and the flower arrangements are always fresh. Jesus didn’t die for any of those things.
2. Authentic relationships based on trust and the reality that Church isn’t about us. If we trust each other, we can say pretty much anything (even hard-to-hear-things) and it’s not nearly as threatening. Because we are serving something greater than ourselves and it’s about That.
There are ways for people in the church to relate to one another that are constructive and productive for both pastor and congregation, and there are ways that are...not. When all sides are able to recognize that they're in this together and that they're meant to be partners in ministry, the church has a better chance of flourishing. When staff in particular hears that they are appreciated and supported, their mindset will allow them to do better work. A quality Personnel Committee goes a long way to helping this happen.

Obviously. Pie chart:


Misc. Jon Pavlovitz also gave the Nashville Statement the "plain reading" treatment, helping show that it's a simplistic, hateful gasp from a dying institution. Jan Edmiston again on the voices in our heads. Rick Chromey on how churches created the Millennial exodus through over-programming.

Who Is Your Pastor to You?

I'll soon mark 13 years in full time pastoral ministry. I've served two churches over that stretch and ministered to a few hundred people in different contexts and with different needs. Before sitting down to write this, in fact, I hadn't considered just how many people I've related to in some way as a pastor, whether they've been considered members of the church I serve or not.

I suppose that I could make it a point to think hard to try to come up with an exact number, but I don't have that kind of time. The point is that it's been a lot.

The more interesting thing for me to consider is who I've been to each of them, or to put it a different way, how each of them have viewed me in my pastoral role. Depending on how I've needed to interact with them; by virtue of how different relationships develop, I can say with safety and certainty that as a pastor, I have not been viewed the same way by everyone. Different people have needed or wanted me to be different things to them.

Over the years, some have viewed me as more of a friend than a pastor. This is inevitable.

Some have viewed me more strictly as an employee or staff person.

Some have viewed me as the hired help (mostly when it comes to weddings).

Some have viewed me as a resident expert, whether in terms of theology or church governance.

Some have viewed me as the boss who signs off on everything, while others have viewed me as a consultant to the congregation who offers one opinion among many others.

Some have tried to use me as an amateur therapist (resist this, colleagues; we ain't got the training).

In a select few instances, some have viewed me as their personal social worker (again, colleagues: RESIST).

It is often the case that individuals hold more than one of these images of their pastor at once. Depending on the moment, need, or desire, a different image may come to the forefront at different times. People might appeal to Pastor Joe the Boss during a council meeting, then hope that Pastor Joe the Friend can make it to their party on Friday. People might express appreciation for the change that Pastor Mary the Consultant made in the worship service, but then question whether Pastor Mary the Employee should be given a raise during budget season.

As you can see, this can get complicated.

How people view their pastor affects how the two parties relate. And as with any relationship, some of this will be positive and life-giving, and others hold the potential to be destructive.

If you view your pastor primarily as a friend, will you be able to receive constructive pushback from them? And when they move on to a different ministry setting, will you be able to accept the person who comes in to replace them?

If you view your pastor primarily as an employee, will you be able to work with them as they deal with medical-related limitations, or understand when they sometimes prioritize their child's ballgame over the scheduling of a meeting?

If you view your pastor as a consultant or as the boss, will you recognize that they can't truly provide the programming you want all by themselves, and that congregations are meant to do the work of ministry and planning together?

Images matter, because they affect behavior. And behavior matters, because only some of it will reflect who pastors are really meant to be to their people, and in turn who the church is meant to be in general.

Not every pastoral relationship is going to be the same. But the question for the church is whether there will be enough grace in any of them for healthy ministry to take place.