…assorted thoughts, musings, rants, etc…

Existing Church

What we can learn from the newspaper industry

I’m several episodes behind in my listening to This Week in Tech (TWiT). A few days ago I was listening to an installment from early July, and one of the topics discussed was the changing paradigm for newspapers in the internet age. Their particular example was the Tampa Tribune, whose editor came to the realization that the online component of the paper was no longer just an adjunct to the printed version – they needed to start viewing the printed version as an adjunct to the online content. And that if they don’t make this shift, NEWSPAPERS WILL DIE.
That shift in approach involves all sorts of changes to how the business of publishing the Tribune is carried out – economic, structural, and procedural. When news is a commodity easily acquired for free from a huge array of sources online, how do you maintain a business model?

There are a couple of things that papers like the Tribune are focusing on: becoming more “hyperlocal”, and shifting from becoming merely a dispenser of news to becoming more a facilitator for discussion. Becoming “hyperlocal” means focusing more on local issues and activities in the local community. In the Tampa Tribune’s case, one result was to shut down their Tallahassee bureau, since Tampa locals were less interested in Tallahassee happenings, and the local Tallahassee paper could probably do a better job of covering that scene (and putting it online for anyone to see).

Becoming a facilitator for discussion of the news means shifting from a one-way model of dispensing information to a two-way model that includes feedback and discussion. While there has long been a limited feedback loop in the form of letters to the editor, this new model of feedback and discussion is immediate and has a very low barrier to entry. And many old school reporters and writers don’t like this new model – they’d rather dispense to the public, not discuss with the public.

Why am I writing about newspapers? Well, I see a lot of similarities to the church. If the church wants to keep new generations engaged, it needs to

a) become more “hyperlocal” in its mission and outreach, providing many opportunities to serve those in need within the local community in a very active, hands-on way, and

b) shift from becoming merely a dispenser of theology to more of a facilitator for discussion about theology, faith, and living the gospel – including letting worship be more of a dialogue rather than a monologue.

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Church and the whole person

Emergent Village recently featured a post that is essentially a summary for a newly updated book called UnLearning Church. The book discusses the need to be aware of the different ways in which some people – especially younger people – are wanting/needing to engage the gospel. A couple of excerpts:

“UnLearning churches realize that people become engaged through environment and experiences. Such churches develop an environment that frees people and allows them to experience God in closer and deeper ways than they’ve ever experienced before. Too many people believe they cannot find an experience of God in the institutional church.”

“UnLearning churches focus more on connecting people to meaning than to activity. Fifteen years ago, we would have emphasized getting people to show up for church programs and listen-and-learn meetings. We would have sponsored a seminar and gauged its success by how many attended. Now we measure success by asking “How are people finding life change and purpose through the experience?” People are not looking for church meetings so much as for life meaning. We want to know if their church experience makes a difference in their relationships, parenting, Christian witness, and stewardship.”

While there’s a danger in focusing solely on personal experience and ignoring teaching/study/learning, churches would do well to consider these ideas. I’ve put the book on my “to read” list.


The God of Irony

I just got home from sitting in on a Budget and Stewardship committee meeting at Eastridge. It’s getting to be that time of year again, when church members will be asked to give just a little more than last year. I was asked to be there as a representative of the communications committee. They want my committee to make a DVD, with footage of Eastridge activities and interviews with certain people and narration and background music, to send to all the members of the church as we approach Stewardship Sunday in November.

As I sat listening to the discussion, I just sort of smiled to myself at God’s sense of irony. Just as I’ve been feeling increasingly ambivalent about the church (though excited about ministry), and feeling more and more that I’m being called away from the church in order to do ministry, I find myself in charge of making a video to get people excited about the church.

Who says God doesn’t enjoy a good laugh?


Can you get there from here? (part 2)

Last week I raised some doubts that major changes to the approach of “being the church” would be accepted or embraced by the established church. I’d like to expand on those thoughts a bit more, and try to explain the basis for my doubt.

I already talked about the fear and trepidation we experienced at Eastridge with relation to getting a contemporary worship service established on Sunday mornings. Not long ago I was talking with some ladies at church – ranging in age from early-50s to late-70s – about some of the characteristics of younger generations. Some of those characteristics are ones I’ve mentioned here before:

* a distrust of institutions and hierarchy

* a poor opinion of Christians

* a strong desire for community

* more experiential than philosophical in their approach to truth

* more interested in local, hands-on service than writing checks to an impersonal agency

* not as interested in church “membership” (at least as we currently define it)

As I talked about these characteristics, a couple of the ladies seemed increasingly perplexed and troubled. After I had commented about my desire to try and work around some of these issues in an effort to reach this demographic (and I hate using such a marketing-driven term, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment), one of the ladies said something along the lines of “Well, if they used our facilities, I’d expect them to become members and support our church”.

Part of me understands the mindset she’s operating from – it’s an institutional mindset, and it’s the paradigm she has for understanding “church”. For these women (and for many people), the institution provides the framework for understanding the body of Christ, and so to serve the goals and priorities of the institution is to serve Christ’s church.

But how do you approach “church” when the people you’re trying to reach generally don’t give a rip about the institution or its priorities? And what institution, operating from a mode of self-preservation, would even encourage the pursuit of ministry guided by such scandalous and blasphemous thoughts? Even if an institution had a desire to reach such people, I suspect that the long term goal would be to attract them with some new method(s), and then “institutionalize” these folks as quickly as possible.

My goal would be almost the opposite. If we were to attempt to reach some of these folks at Eastridge, through an alternative worship gathering and an alternative approach to “being the church”, I would try to shield them from the institution as much as possible. Or, perhaps a fairer way to phrase it: I would try to shield them from the institutional aspects of the PCUSA.

I would lean towards viewing such a group of people as a “sub-congregation” of the larger congregation – a church plant within our own building. To be clear, I don’t see it as completely isolated from the larger congregation. I think there can and should be opportunities for interaction. But rather than forced social events, I think such interaction can best be fostered through service opportunities, where both “contingencies” have the opportunity to work together beyond the church walls. From there, perhaps a more organic interaction could begin and grow.

I also feel strongly that we would need to downplay (and/or redefine) the notion of “membership”. In many ways, the current notion of church membership almost works against the church. We send people through new member classes, thinking and hoping that as members they will be more invested in and committed to the life of the church. But in reality, once most people finish the membership process, they feel like they’re “done”. Becoming a member is viewed more often as a destination rather than a starting point.

Think about it – if membership resulted in more commitment and participation in the life of the church, then how come the same 10%-20% of a congregation always carries out 70%-80% of the ministry? So if there’s no significant correlation between membership and commitment, why are we so fixated upon membership (beyond bragging rights)?

If we are going to insist upon a membership focus, can we at least redefine what it means to be a “member’? Maybe we can define membership to mean a commitment to actively worship with, study with, pray with, pray for, serve with, and support one another, and to show God’s love and grace to whoever we can.

In any case, it seems to me that the cards are stacked against any of this happening within the current institutional structure, for the following reasons:

1. We need radical, not modest, changes to the way we operate if we hope to reach most folks in this culture.

2. The institutional hierarchy will resist (if not reject) radical change.

3. Most local Sessions and/or congregations are averse to radical change.

So that’s the basis for my skepticism. I know that with God, all things are possible. But it doesn’t follow that with God, all things are probable. 😉


Can you get there from here? (part 1)

I’ve been thinking more about emerging church / institutional church paradigms. This ties back to what I posted a few weeks ago about the church I long for vs. the program-oriented church. In terms of Eastridge, both Pastor Jim and Pastor J.P. have indicated interest in trying some new things. I very much appreciate their willingness to consider some “outside the bounds” ideas. Pastor Jim mentioned the existence of a group in the Presbytery that met recently to talk about declining membership and what the Presbyterian church could do to attract new members.

I’m glad people are asking these questions, and I hope they continue to do so. At the same time, I can’t help but think that, in many ways, trying to incorporate things that are significantly different within the existing institutional framework is problematic.

Eastridge is in the process of establishing a weekly contemporary worship service. There have been some pilot services this summer to give people in the congregation a chance to see what a contemporary-style service would be like, and to work out what’s really required to do one on a regular basis. It will go weekly in early September. I think it’s long overdue, and it will minister to a lot of folks at Eastridge. It’s taken a long time to come together, and it’s met some resistance and criticism. “It’s too loud”. “You make us stand too long”. (Uh…you do have free will, you know. You can sit whenever you’d like). “I don’t like the headset microphones worn by the pastors”. There have been lots of Session meeting discussions about why we’re changing anything. Some people will likely leave Eastridge over it, because while we’re only changing one of the Sunday morning services, we’re changing their service.

And here’s the deal. The approach of “being the church” that I’ve been contemplating makes the fear and trepidation associated with establishing a contemporary service seem like nothing by comparison. The contemporary service represents a stylistic change to one of the Sunday morning worship services, and though to some in the congregation it’s akin to setting their entire world askew, it’s really a relatively minor change in the grand scheme of things. Though there’s a worship team, and contemporary music, and the order of the service is a bit different, it still has all the elements of a fairly standard worship service. And that point was emphasized over and over again by several people as we discussed the issue during session meetings, in an effort to address the fears and concerns of those who were less than enthusiastic about the idea: “It’s really not that different”.

While there are stylistic elements associated with some of the things I’ve been thinking about, many of the ideas represent a fairly significant paradigm shift in the way people think about being the church. And I have to admit – I have a hard time seeing such a different approach being embraced by the establishment.

I’ll post more on this next week…


An attempt at being constructive

If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of the church, you know I have some criticisms of the church in its current institutional form(s) – our structures, our focus, our methods, our approach. There’s a lot that we could be (and should be) doing differently.

Part of the reason for my posting such criticisms is to vent frustration. But they’re also posted in hopes that it might get people in the church to start thinking about what we do and why we’re doing it.

I know that criticism can easily be a one-dimensional, negative exercise, and I’ve probably been guilty of that on these pages at times. So I’ve decided to respond to my own criticisms by trying to write something constructive. Rather than simply talk about the ways that the church is falling short or is mis-focused, I’ve decided it’s time to “put up or shut up”, and present some ideas abut how the church should (and actually could) be focused.

Case in point: I’ve been critical of the “programmatic focus” of the church – the “We need to offer lots of programs to attract new customers” approach. I don’t believe that programs are inherently bad or evil. But I’m wary of programs for a few main reasons:

1. Programs are often the starting point, rather than an intentional (and dynamic) response to an intentional (and dynamic) purpose/mission statement of a congregation.
2. Programs often exist either because a) they’ve been in existence for years (sometimes decades), and they come to be considered sacred, or b) other churches (often those churches considered to be “successful”) have a certain program, so our church should have one so we can compete in the church marketplace.
3. Every program that’s in place takes resources – in the form of peoples’ time and energy (both those that plan and lead the program and those that simply participate), as well as the church budget. And often these spent resources have little to do with the fundamental call of the gospel.

So if I were starting a church (especially one that would seek to connect with the unchurched as well as the “churched”), what would the focus be? What would be the basis around which all church activities would revolve? I’ve actually given this quite a bit of thought in the past few months, and here’s what I’ve arrived at.

A) Exploring/deepening spirituality

Spirituality is in. Even unchurched folks (sometimes, ironically, especially unchurched folks) are open to spirituality. Now, many of them may initially be wary of or even hostile to the Bible, so one would need to tread lightly in terms of how one approached Bible study, and would likely have to deal with some unorthodox ideas. I’m not suggesting that scripture be avoided – the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through the reading and studying of scripture. But that’s just it – we have to rely on the Holy Spirit’s ability to convey Truth to folks, rather than our own. To paraphrase Eugene Peterson, it’s about hanging around people while they acquire a taste for grace.

B) Pursing transparency

I believe that most people, at their core, long for the opportunity to be more transparent. They long to be able to put aside the brave face, the veneer that they “have it together”, and to be open about their doubts and struggles. Unfortunately, church is often the last place that happens, because while the church says it’s a place for broken people, it often doesn’t want to deal with brokenness and messiness. Sure, the pastors often deal with it, but the average church member would rather not have to really face other peoples’ messiness, because it’s uncomfortable and awkward. In many ways I think that the Presbyterian Church, with its emphasis on things being decent and orderly, is a hostile environment for the disorderliness in most of our lives. The church I long for would embrace messiness.

C) Serving those in need

Let’s be honest – most people (even those in the church) aren’t actively looking for ways to help the less fortunate. But in my experience, when people are given the opportunity and put in a situation where they can make a real difference, they begin to discover a sense of meaning and passion that helps them move beyond themselves. Unfortunately, most of the time when the church asks people to “serve”, it’s to serve the church and its programs – be on committee, organize a building campaign, benefit the institution. And even more unfortunately, many people end up being drained by the experience rather than energized by it.

Certainly there are needs that must be met within the fellowship of believers. Yet I can’t help but think that if the church could shift its focus more towards serving those outside the church rather than serving itself (see point 3 above), its members would be more inspired and more committed, and the church would be much more effective at reaching the culture.

These three elements – exploring spirituality, pursuing transparency, and serving those in need – would form the tripod – the basis – for a fellowship of believers. And I don’t think you’d need a lot of programs to accomplish it – you might not need any, at least in the conventional sense of the term. But I believe that these could serve as the foundation for a vibrant, committed, real, messy, and effective church.

Anyone want to help?


Church Marketing – Part 2

So I’m finally just about done with the new brochure for Eastridge. James and I decided to go with a brochure that we could print ourselves, and that could be easily updated by the office staff as information changes (which meant designing the brochure in Microsoft Word). We bought a color laser printer using the “Brochure” line item in the Communications Committee budget, so the brochures can be printed a few at a time as needed.

I came up with the basic layout, which is predicated on the capabilities of the folding machine in the church office. James supplied the design elements. If early feedback is any indication, I think people will be generally pleased with it.

And the content and approach is almost precisely what I didn’t want it to be. (See my earlier post on the topic).

But as I thought about it more, I came to realization that the brochure probably needed to reflect what the focus of our church really is, as opposed to what I wish it was. Eastridge is a program-oriented church – that’s our focus. We are about a smorgasboard of programs that we assume and hope will draw people in, with the accompanying assumption that people will encounter Jesus through the programs. And maybe that is the most effective way to attract a certain segment of the population who are church-shopping. The bottom line is that I’ve decided to stop playing the role of Sisyphus, and to just leave the rock at the bottom of the hill.

At any rate, I can soon check that project off my list…