…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.


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…


Church Marketing

The next major task of the Communications Committee that I’m in charge of at church is to update our “church brochure”. This has actually been on our plate since I inherited the committee over a year ago, but got put on the back burner due to last spring’s Capital Campaign and the website update.

The previous chair of the committee had gathered an impressive collection of brochures from other churches. Some of them present their church’s programs like a brochure from a bank, outlining the portfolio of accounts they offer. Looking through the brochures I can’t help but get a LendingTree.com type of impression – “When churches compete, you win!”.

So my overall goal as we begin this undertaking is to avoid the “Look at everything we have to offer you!” approach, and instead try to present the information in this context:

“Here are ways that you can be a vital member of the Body of Christ, to accomplish His mission in this world”.

That seems like a more appropriate use for a church brochure.

Of course, at least 95% of the opportunities for involvement at Eastridge are focused strictly on interacting with people within the congregation, as opposed to showing the love of Jesus with the rest of “this world”. But that’s a rant I’ll save for another post…


Tunnel…light?

I’ve been helping lead a project to redesign the Eastridge website (both in terms of appearance and function). Committee and group representatives can now easily log in to the site and update their group’s information via simple text boxes. We (the Communications Committee, which was mostly James Ehly and I) started the process of selecting a suitable open source package last summer. We had hoped to have the new site ready to turn up in late fall, but that didn’t pan out. Then the target slipped to the first of the year. When January 1 came and went, I was determoned to turn it up by the time of the EPC annual meeting. That meeting was January 30th, and we did turn the site up that day (even though there are a few information holes to be filled).

Once some of the lingering issues get resolved in the next 2-3 weeks (we found out yesterday, for example, that the site doesn’t display correctly in IE 5.5), I really would like to turn my energy back towards getting an alternative worship gathering established at Eastridge, with a corresponding worship team to help carry it off. I wanted to start it last spring but got sidetracked with the Capital Campaign (see a previous entry) and then the website update.

Here’s hoping…


A (Perhaps Not So) Modest Proposal

(Note: The following is a letter that I’m contemplating sending to the PCUSA leadership. Some of the material includes thoughts and ideas previously posted in this weblog – I apologize in advance for the redundancy).

To the commissioners of the General Assembly and the Department of Constitutional Services of the Presbyterian Church, USA:

Greetings from the trenches! This letter has been some time in the making, and is the result of a great deal of thinking about the church and culture – two things that, I’m sure you’re aware, are intersecting with less frequency each day. It is my hope and prayer that this trend can be reversed, but I believe there are some fundamental challenges before the church that must be dealt with if such a reversal is to happen. I don’t purport to be a particularly profound source of wisdom in these matters, but I do have some ideas that I feel compelled to throw out into the public sphere – ideas that I believe could help the church regain its connection to a culture that is vastly different than that which existed from the time of the reformation to the middle of the last century.

Allow me to provide a bit of information about myself. I am 40 years old (on the cusp of being a “Buster”, if you adhere to those generational classifications). I was baptized in the Presbyterian Church as an infant, and raised going to church and Sunday School. I was confirmed as a 9th grader, and served as a deacon during my last two years of high school. Shortly after graduating from college and moving to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1986, I transferred membership to Eastridge Presbyterian Church. As I was completing college I began to feel a call to youth ministry, so for the last 17 years I’ve been a volunteer youth worker at Eastridge, primarily in the Sr. High youth program. I’m also nearing the end of my first year as an elder.

Much of much of what is contained herein is triggered from my observations, after many years as a youth worker, that an increasingly fewer number of young people – many of whom were extremely active in the youth program and church during their high school years – are returning to the church after graduation. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s a trend indicative of the culture at large – an increasing number of people, especially those under 40, have no interest in and see no need for the church. Most churches that are gaining members are doing so at the expense of other churches. There are very few new believers – people are simply transferring memberships from one congregation to another.

I would guess (and hope) that the leadership in the PCUSA is aware of the monumental changes that have been underway in our culture for the past 30-40 years, and our shift into what people are referring to as a postmodern culture. I would also guess (and hope) that you are aware of some of the basic characteristics of the postmodern mindset:

* truth is increasingly viewed as subjective rather than objective
* claims of objective truth are seen as attempts to gain power over others and/or tell them how to live their lives
* institutions (including the church) are fundamentally suspect
* hierarchy is increasingly less tolerated
* spirituality and spiritual seeking are seen as good things
* people tend to have a very positive view regarding the person of Jesus, and a very negative view of Christians
* etc.

Much of this has been corroborated in conversations I’ve had with folks in the 20-40-year-old age group. An increasing number of volumes on these phenomena have been published in recent years as well – some dealing only with postmodernity, and some dealing with postmodernity and the church, such as:

Reggie McNeal’s “The Present Future”
Spencer Burke’s “Making Sense of Church”
Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian”
Alan Jamieson’s “A Churchless Faith”
Dan Kimball’s “The Emerging Church”

Hopefully all of these are on the radar of the PCUSA leadership. McNeal’s book, especially, should be required reading of every pastor and denominational official.

Churches – especially mainline denominations (and certainly including the PCUSA) – have been bemoaning a reduction in membership for years. Part of the problem, at least from my perspective in the trenches, is that in the face of a culture that is decreasingly interested in and served by our institutional forms, we (the church) insist on largely maintaining those institutional forms – forms of a bygone era. It seems a somewhat irrational position – to acknowledge cultural changes, but be unwilling to respond to those changes in a significant way and then complain about the culture’s lack of interest in us. Nearly all the attempts at “change” I’ve seen are programmatic – deploying some particular methodology or program to attempt to attract people into a structure that they clearly have no interest in. I scratch my head when I see evangelism programs that are primarily designed to “get the word out” about a particular church – as if people don’t know that churches exist in their town (the buildings kind of give it away), or aren’t generally aware that worship, bible study, and other gatherings happen there. People generally know all this – they just don’t care. I’m convinced that the key to reaching this culture with the gospel is not publicity or programs – it’s a matter of institutional structure and fundamental priorities.

I realize I may be stepping into a sacred pasture full of happily-grazing bovines, but I’ll continue anyway with the following thesis: Institutions are created to help realize or advance a particular purpose or cause. As such they can be thought of as a tool which is put into the service of the cause. (In the case of the church, the cause is of course the gospel of Jesus Christ). The problem with institutions is that, more often than not, they tend to take on a life of their own, and, in the case of the church, either become so intertwined with the cause that the institution and cause are seen as the same thing, or the institution becomes the primary object to which the original cause becomes subservient.

Herein lie the difficult and uncomfortable questions. How much of what we do, both at the denominational level and at the local congregational level, is done for the primary purpose of maintaining the institution, as opposed to advancing the gospel? We want to believe that the PCUSA exists to serve God (and I believe that it many ways it does), but in what ways are we really holding the institution as sacred and expecting God to adhere to our structures? Has our taxonomy of being the church and following Jesus (i.e. the Book of Order) become that which we hold most sacred?

I believe the governmental and organizational structure of the Presbyterian Church made sense and served a purpose for the culture in which it was created (the “modern” era which existed roughly from the enlightenment to the middle of the 20th century). I believe the Presbyterian Church can still serve a purpose in the postmodern culture. I believe that the theological positions of the PCUSA are sound. However, some of the hierarchical structure, and certainly much of the (arguably inane) minutia in the Book of Order, are antithetical to the postmodern mindset that is predominant in the brave new world we’re entering. I’m not advocating an absence of governmental structure – I believe guidelines and a set of checks and balances are crucial in maintaining a healthy and theologically orthodox church. But the preponderance of directives in the Book of Order, by default, places the emphasis on the institution rather than the cause for which the institution was created.

My proposal for a way to begin dealing with this dilemma is two-fold. One element is more general in nature, the other more specific. The general element is this: Deliberately encourage the PCUSA, at all levels from denominational headquarters down to local congregations, to pass all of their activities, programs, goals and policies under the microscope of the question posed earlier: Is the primary reason for doing this activity/program/goal/policy to advance the gospel, or to serve, obey, and maintain the institution? In other words, are we primarily doing this to meet institutional requirements, expectations, and/or traditions, or to communicate and demonstrate the love and good news of Jesus to a hurting world? I realize that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the question is still a sound one to ask. I also understand that it will probably take a while for many people (both clergy and lay-people) to get their head around the project of disentangling the church that Jesus founded from its current institutional form. The denomination should assist with this process.

The more specific (and uncomfortable for institutional advocates) proposal is this: Undertake a comprehensive program for review and evaluation of the entire Book of Order. This review would be carried out NOT by the PCUSA’s Department of Constitutional Services, but by diverse groups of lay people “in the trenches”. Their goal would be to start with the assumption that nothing in the Book of Order is sacred, and then attempt to hash out what makes sense to people in the emerging culture while also keeping a constant eye to scripture. Keep in mind that this doesn’t involve mucking with Presbyterian theology (the Book of Confessions) – this strictly deals with structural elements of how the church works, and how it should work in the emerging culture. I propose the following:

* Divide the Book of Order into manageable segments – something that could easily be discussed at some length within a 4-6 week period.
* Each segment would be reviewed by groups in multiple congregations, representing a diverse range of congregation sizes and geographic regions.
* Each local review group would include one person each in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s (assuming those age groups are represented within the congregation).
* Each local review group would include 2-3 people who are not a member of any church, and who don’t necessarily have any desire to join one. The primary purpose here is not to evangelize (although it would be wonderful if people were drawn into a local fellowship of believers through this process) – it is to get feedback and input from the people that the institution, in its current form, is not reaching. The local church would offer some form of compensation for their time (e.g. gift certificates to a local restaurant, etc.).
* Each group would spend at least 25% of their time together in prayer, asking God for wisdom, discernment, and guidance. This time of prayer should be at the beginning or the end of the gatherings so that the non-church folks could have the option of participating in the prayer time or not.
* The local pastor would be allowed to sit in on these discussions to observe and occasionally explain the past reasoning for certain rules, but NOT to defend or advocate the current rules, since most church members would likely defer to the pastor’s position on the issues, and many pastors would likely advocate the status quo.
* Each group would provide consensus feedback on their section of the Book of Order, intentionally weighting the non-church participants’ input heavily (except in such instances where that input may run counter to generally held scriptural principles). In doing so, each group would rewrite their assigned segment according to their consensus.
* Feedback would be returned directly to the Department of Constitutional Services. All feedback would be posted on the PCUSA website, organized (at least temporarily) according to the current Book of Order organization, so that anyone who was interested could see how various groups responded.
* The Department of Constitutional Services would then “average” the responses into a new governing document, organizing it with input from Presbytery and/or Synod volunteers.

All effort should made to keep the above process free of political wrangling by factions on both the left and the right within the denomination. This process should not be an opportunity for any group to “gain ground” on any current denominational issue, highly charged or otherwise. The purpose is to establish a structure that is conducive to reaching the emerging culture with the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

I realize that such an exercise – having lay people essentially develop a new church structure rather than enlisting “professional theologians” – would require an unprecedented amount of trust in the Holy Spirit. I also realize that the resulting document from such an endeavor would undoubtedly look significantly different than the current Book of Order (not to mention a corresponding complementary organizational change), just as a church that was focusing on the gospel first rather than the institution would likely look very different than the church today. But that’s good. In fact, it’s more than good – it’s crucial. We need to be willing to discard the old wineskin. Efforts to maintain an institution that is increasingly impotent when it comes to reaching the mainstream culture with the message of the gospel are misguided and run counter to Jesus’ commands in scripture. I believe that the PCUSA has the potential to be a powerful tool in the service of the gospel to the emerging culture, but only if it is willing to back off from its current institutional focus and institutional demands of people. To put it another way: The current institutional, “join and support our club” focus needs to give way to a more expansive, less restrictive “join the movement” approach.

Jesus said in Matthew 16:25, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. I believe the same applies for the institutional church. If we focus on saving the institution, we’ll continue on our current downward spiral. But if we’re willing to jettison our institutional priorities, and focus on being the hands, feet, and mouth of Jesus to a world of brokenness (both inside the church and out), we as a church will thrive. The gospel is sacred: our institutional forms are not.

Thanks for entertaining the thoughts of a broken, frustrated, yet hopeful traveler. May God give us wisdom and guidance as we seek to help one another walk the narrow path, and others to find it.

In Christ,
Kyle Griffin


Evangelism revisted

There’s been a lot of talk at Eastridge in the past couple of weeks about evangelism. The rationale is, I think, fairly sound: fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians. More and more people have no church affiliation whatsoever. Certainly there is a great opportunity in terms of the number of folks that could be potentially reached with the gospel. And reaching such folks is certainly one of the tasks facing the church (both Eastridge and the church universal).

However, the methodologies typically utilized by the church are, to me, suspect. We tend to think in terms of “evangelism programs” – orchestrating evangelism into an Amway-like sales rally, where we think that if we come up with an attractive sales pitch or gimmick, and motivate the faithful, we’ll be able to successfully sell Jesus to the masses and, most importantly, get more people to join our particular Amway club.

I find at least two things troublesome about this approach. One is that, especially in the current cultural climate, programs tend not to be as effective as they may have once been. Besides, it seems to me that evangelism should be a natural by-product of discipleship, rather than a forced program. In other words, as people grow in their faith and their walk with Christ, their lives should be increasingly lived in a way that makes those around them notice the difference and want to know the reasons behind it. If that’s not happening within a given congregation, then the focus should be on finding new and creative ways to develop disciples within the congregation, knowing that evangelism will take care of itself.

The other troublesome thing about this approach is the form that such evangelism programs sometimes take. One of Eastridge’s “evangelism consultants” earlier this year told about a church that had a motorcycle rally as an outreach event. I see a couple of potential problems with such an event. One, a church’s version of such an event is likely to be seen as lame by those who like motorcycle rallies and who have actually been to “real” motorcycle rally events. Two, and more importantly, I think “gimmick” and “Jesus” are pretty much mutually exclusive, or at least should be.

I can think of another couple of problems with the way churches tend to approach evangelism. They both arise out of not understanding (or even trying to understand) the mindset of the people they want to evangelize. One is the notion that evangelism is primarily (or even significantly) an issue of publicity – that if we can just get the word out about our church and our programs, people will come…as if people are going to say “You mean there are churches in this town? You guys worship on Sunday mornings? I never knew that!”.

The second is the notion that most people really do want to be involved in a church…it’s just that they’re waiting for someone to invite them. Now, there may be a few who fit this description, but by and large the general population knows that churches exist, knows where they are located, and knows that worship, bible study, and fellowship take place there – they just neither care nor have any interest in being a part of those activities.

Am I suggesting that there’s no reason for evangelism, that we give up trying to reach such folks with the gospel? Not at all. But the bottom line is this: most people know about churches. If they were interested in being a part of what’s currently going on at churches, they’d already be there. We need to stop trying to entice people into a structure that they see no use for, and instead work to find new ways to address the needs and sensibilities of this culture. Our forms – the way we conduct worship, organize ourselves, “do” church – have been shaped by past cultures (in some ways infected by cultures of the past). The message of the gospel is sacred, but our institutional forms are not. We need to find new ways to be the church – ways that can connect to a culture that desperately needs Jesus. And in this culture, that connection is most likely going to be one-on-one, one person at a time, through the daily living out of the gospel by followers of Jesus – not high-return, “bang-for-the-buck” evangelism programs.


The Capital Campaign

Ever say “yes” to being involved in an activity or project when every fiber of your being was saying “no”?

That pretty much describes my involvement in the Eastridge Capital Campaign. I should have known better. I should have stuck to my guns. But instead I agreed to chair the Communications Committee for the campaign. The letter that came in January said something along the lines of “We’ve been praying, and we really feel God is calling you to do this”. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as UNcalled to any church-related function in my life.

I should have said “no”.

Let’s list the things I’m already involved in at Eastridge:

1. Sr. High sponsor
2. Session member
3. Communications Committee (the generic one, not the Capital Campaign one) chair
4. Youth Committee member
5. Worship band
6. Hoping/trying to get an alternative worship gathering off the ground

All of those (with the possible exception of #3) I actually do feel called to do.

I should have said “no”.

I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t have some sense of excitement, passion, or purpose about something, it’s going to be low on my priority list, and I’m probably not going to do a very good job. This played itself out last week when I kept forgetting to contact James about the delivery date for the campaign brochure so that I could let the Mailing Committee (don’t you just love the Presbyterian fetish regarding committees?) know when to expect them. Needless to say, they arrived without the Mailing Committee having prior warning. My apologies to the Mailing Committee.

I should have said “no”.

As has been posted previously in this blog, I have some doubts as to the necessity of all the items on the capital campaign list. For me the issue lies in the difference between “that would be nice to have” and “we really need this”. I’m still not sure where I think some of the items fall on that continuum.

I also have reservations about some of the methods being used in the campaign. To start with, the fact that we’re paying a consultant to tell us how to raise money from our congregation strikes me as a bit ironic. Additionally, as a part of this consultant-recommended campaign, we’re also spending some serious money on creating special campaign letterhead, multiple campaign newsletters, letters from the pastor, an 8-page full-color campaign brochure, invitations to special desserts and home meetings, food for special desserts, brunches, etc…..

I’m not sure I buy the whole “You have to spend money to raise money” argument. That may be true in a secular environment, but I’m skeptical of its necessity (or appropriateness) in the church. I’m generally not a fan of drawing a line between “Christian” and “secular”, but I do think we’re buying into the “ways of the world” without much critical and spiritual reflection.

Last night was the “Advance Commitments Dessert”, where a select (generally wealthier) few were invited to come and have an advance opportunity to make their 3-year campaign pledge ahead of this weekend’s “Celebration Sunday” (when all the common church folk will make their pledges). The idea behind it is to be able to say on Celebration Sunday, “Look how much has already been pledged! People are so excited about this Capital Campaign that they simply couldn’t wait to make their pledge!”, in hopes that this will somehow prompt the common church folks to open up their wallets a little wider than they would otherwise.

As one of the campaign committee chairs, I was “expected” to attend the dessert last night. I didn’t go. I realize I’m probably more cynical than most, but the notion of being wined-and-dined, cajoled, or otherwise manipulated just doesn’t appeal to me. And, though it’s probably a sign of immaturity on my part, the fact that I was “expected’ to attend made me not want to go all the more.

There is a bright side – the campaign Communications Committee will be done with our responsibilities in early May – we only have a couple of newsletters left. James and Claudia have done an excellent job on the materials – kudos to them. It should be over soon.

I should have said “no”.


Outreach or Out of Touch?

There’s a fair amount of activity recently at Eastridge in terms of spiritual growth and evangelism. I think that’s a good thing – those are both areas where we could really stand to do better. I’m pleased at the excitement that various folks are exhibiting with regard to these activities, and I hope their excitement continues and spreads.

However, I must confess that I have a few reservations about some of the approaches taken and/or proposed thus far. These reservations have primarily arisen as a result of my thinking this past year about how to effectively reach folks operating from a largely postmodern mindset.

Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Some of the folks involved in outreach have proposed a slogan: “Connecting the unconnected”. At first I really didn’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other (although as a rule I don’t think that the complexity of the Christian walk and the simplicity of slogans belong together). But as I’ve thought more about it, there are a couple of things that bother me. First, I wonder if some people might be offended by being referred to as “unconnected” – like we think they’re some sort of social leper or something. Secondly – and this is especially true of 20- and 30-somethings – most folks out there have numerous “connections” already with friends, family, coworkers, etc., and they aren’t necessarily looking for more connections with other people or an organization. I do believe that many of them are interested in connecting with something bigger than themselves – i.e. God (whether they realize He’s the source of their longing or not) – but I suspect that few of them are looking to connect with a “church” per se – at least not “church” as it’s conventionally done.

2. We’re bringing in an organization called Knox Fellowship for a weekend in the spring, whose emphasis appears to be spiritual growth for adults and teens. The theme is “A Beautiful Journey”. Knox Fellowship may be a great organization, and they may put on a great weekend this spring. But, again, I have a couple of issues. First, though the Christian journey is sometimes a very beautiful one, it’s also often (at least in my experience) difficult, annoying, exciting, scary, lonely, and challenging. So “A Beautiful Journey” strikes me as a very one-dimensional and incomplete sort of focus. Second, after working with teenagers for 16 years, I’m pretty confident that “A Beautiful Journey” is not going to be a particularly compelling theme for the Sr. Highers or Middle Schoolers.

3. Another program called ALPHA is being proposed for next fall. Again, the focus seems to be on attracting people to social activities. And again, I suspect that this might be the wrong focus for a good portion of the population.

4. In general I have a problem with our recent habit of always seeking outside consultants to tell us how to do almost anything and everything – what our focus should be as a church, how to grow spiritually, how to raise money. In a sense we seem to be lost and looking for direction, with a sense that perhaps outside direction has more legitimacy. Sometimes an outside perspective can be healthy, but I’m increasingly convinced that real legitimacy comes from God and the Holy Spirit working through the many and various gifts of those in the congregation – not from outside “experts”.


Long-enough-range Planning?

We just had a congregational meeting today. One reason was to give the session and trustees pre-approval to act quickly if either of the two properties that we don’t own on our block come up for sale. That was a no-brainer.

The other issue had to do with the recommendations of the long-range planning committee (as influenced by a consulting company called Living Stones) for expansion/modification of the church property. That part was somewhat contentious.

The people who have thought about and worked on these plans have worked very hard over the past few months, and their effort is to be applauded. Given their assumptions (i.e. that the consultant was right, and that we should implement his recommendations), they did a great job.

I guess my basic issue is that I don’t necessarily buy as many of the conclusions and recommendations of the consultant that many others in the congregation apparently have.

Among the list of items on the building plan:

1. Expand the parking lot.
2. Buy a new organ.
3. Put a decent sound system in the sanctuary.
4. Remodel to change the location of the church offices and nursery.
5. Enlarge the chancel area in the front of the sanctuary.
6. Build a motel-style drive-through canopy at a new building entrance off the parking lot.
7. Completely enclose the courtyard and make it a new “Fellowship Forayer” with a new entrance into the sanctuary.

Some of my thoughts:

As a member of the Worship Band, I wholeheartedly concur that we need a new sound system. The current system was only designed to handle 2-3 mics, and doesn’t even work very well for that.

During today’s meeting it was posited that the new Fellowship Forayer would allow/encourage people to stay and visit after the service.

I’m not necessarily against the construction of a forayer, but I’m also not convinced that more/different space is going to necessarily cause more people to visit. The people who want to visit already do so. The fact that some people don’t want to visit is another issue – and one that should be addressed – but I’m skeptical that more space is a solution.

I agree that traffic flow in the halls is a problem on Sunday mornings.

Parking is also an issue (notice I didn’t use the word “problem”) for the 9:30 service.

Both of the above issues could be at least somewhat addressed by altering (radically in some instances – probably too radically for many/most in the congregation) the schedule/structure/approach to ministry at Eastridge.

The canopy issue: I think a canopy would be a good thing for those who are permanently or temporarily disabled. I don’t think it should be looked at as “bait” for drawing potential customers into the store.

I guess that’s another basic issue I have with the process. It really does appear to me that this “customer/store” mindset is largely the mindset in use so far, even though I doubt it’s intentional. Potential new members are being viewed as prospective customers rather than prospective disciples. We want to make the (church-) shopping experience pleasant so that customers will want to buy what we’re selling. And it seems to me that the type of “customer” who would be impressed (or worse yet, base a decision to attend) by a close parking spot or a convenient canopy is not likely the type of person who’s looking to take seriously the hard demands of the Gospel. That’s not to say that I’m completely anti-convenience – I’ve got all sorts of conveniences at home. It just seems a bit strange that we’re trying to make peoples’ church experience easy, convenient, and pleasant, which in my mind almost completely contradicts the demands of the Gospel and the reality of living out the Christian faith, which is often difficult, inconvenient, and even unpleasant.

It’s clear that the consultants were operating from a very “modern”, seeker-sensitive perspective. And that perspective/approach probably will be effective for much of the 35-and-over crowd. But that approach is merely a more convenient and pleasant version of the current approach, which is not terribly effective with the post-seeker-sensitive generation(s). I guess my concern is that they’re not looking far enough into the future. By the time we get these building projects done, the generation(s) it will have been effective for will be waning, and the newer generations (who we may or may not have the vision or courage to reach), if we can capture their imaginations with the truth of the Gospel, won’t really care if they have to park a few yards futher away or be in the rain for a few seconds rather then stopping under a canopy to get out of the car.