Saturday, August 29, 2015
What I believe
At the Big Tent I had a conversation with an affable stout gray-haired woman. She appeared to exude cheerfulness. As we were walking from worship to the next event, she began enthusiastically to tell me about her call as pastor of a small town congregation. Retired from her previous employment, she went to seminary and then received a call to ministry in a church that had seven members when she started there a year ago.
As we walked she spoke with excitement about her ministry. Along with deve-loping a food pantry, the congregation started another unique outreach. She told me the story. One day she was driving home from church, and she passed a field where several girls were playing soccer. She stopped to watch. A few days later, she stopped again, sitting practically alone on the modest bleachers. The next week the pastor came back with a member of the church.
They started attending the soccer games and practices on a regular basis, clapping and cheering as players made good plays and scored. After a while, out of curiosity, parents and grandparents of the players began to engage in conversation with the women from the church. Who were these crazy ladies showing up for practices and games? Surely they were relatives of the girls who were playing.
The pastor and church member explained that they were from the nearby Presbyterian Church, and they were there just to watch and cheer on the girls. Over time one conversation led to another and parents and grandparents started to become curious about the church about the women from the church and then the church itself.
So did the girls who were thrilled by their cheering section.
In response to the questions of the people they were meeting at the practices and games, the pastor and church member began to describe their congregation and its ministry. A few more church folks came to watch the games. Soon some of the girls on the soccer team and their family members started helping out at the food pantry. One contact led to another and after a few months congregation started to grow. The pastor proudly proclaimed, “We’re up to twelve members, and have a bunch of people attending worship as well as helping out with the food pantry.”
It all happened because the church look an interest in something that was going on in her neighborhood. Relationships were formed first, and the relationships grew into friendships, in the context of which members had an opportunity to invite people in to service and then into faith. Christ is growing the congregation one friendship at a time.
Mainline Christians are usually mortified by the idea of imposing faith on others. Some of us remember the days when ardent believers would buttonhole us on the street, assault us with the Four Spiritual Laws, and practically force us to let “Jesus save” our sorry souls. The editor of the Christian Century magazine, The Rev. John Buchanan, wrote about his first steps in faith. He recalls the pressure he received as a youth to go forward at a Baptist tent meeting and accept Jesus. He writes, “I don’t think I ever heard the gospel of love at those Baptist youth meetings, prayer meetings, and revivals. I did hear that there was plenty wrong with me and that I was in a whole lot of trouble. It took much longer for grace to penetrate and gain a foothold.
But not for a moment do I regret or resent what happened in that tent when a preacher placed his hands on my head and asked Jesus to save me.
It was one step in a journey that I’ve been on throughout my life and that has taken me places where I never expected to be….In some way, at some time, each of us has to get up out of our chair and decide to take a first step.” (“Editor’s Desk, Christian Century, 8.19.2015)
We are called to step out in faith. Congregations are called to step out in faith.
Leaders of congregations express anxiety over shrinking numbers of members and amounts of dollars to maintain buildings. Today we affirmed College Avenue’s decision to leave its building and focus on its mission in the Alton community. A first step might be figuring out how what your congregation does well can connect the church with its community. How we grow our congregations? We get to know our neighbors one conversation at a time. We connect. We step out in faith.
What I Do
One of the blessings of my ministry is the variety and depth of opportunities to meet and interact with others. Settings for interaction include committee, team, work group, mission, social witness and worship. Meetings with congregational planning teams and Sessions also has been an aspect of my work.
Recently, I teamed with Mark Miller to lead a one-day retreat with officers and members of Westminster with a focus on building connections in their neighborhood.
Worshiping with a different congregation of the Presbytery almost every week provides glimpses of our churches’ character, values, challenges, and witness. So far I have worshiped in 41 of our 81 congregations—past the halfway mark! In my ministry I visit with pastors and coach pastors in missional practices.
In addition to moderating the Leadership Team, I regularly participate in work group meetings and often attend ministry team, and committee meetings, and I try to coordinate the work of the Presbytery staff. Networking with colleagues in other presbyteries is important to learning ministry in our changing world. Everywhere I go, in the Presbytery, in the Synod, at the General Assembly, in conversations with our ecumenical partners, I hear about struggles and opportunities facing the church.
What I Think
Every pastor and most church leaders understand that we are living in a time of great change, and the Church, as it has for the last 2000 years, must adapt. Christian thinkers, such as Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass, describe this period as an epoch transition that occurs once every 500 years, a time when God reforms and transforms the church. We must change! It has been touted that the only people who like change are wet babies, but I swear, my first-born child would have crawled around all day in a wet diaper and been perfectly happy. It seems to me we may have a lot of people crawling around with wet diapers! Some people more readily embrace change than others.
Like it or not, change is the norm. Few societies are able to resist change for long without great focused effort. Fueling change is our connection with others. Technology enables conversations in real time almost anywhere in the world, so what happens in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Charleston is immediately known in Alaska and Antarctica, Switzerland and South Africa, Chile and China. We have the capability to access much more information than ever before in the history of civilization. Capacity for connection presents both opportunity and challenge for the Church. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name,” I am present.
Today people don’t have to be in physical proximity to one another to connect. Joining a church in order to connect with others in the community is no longer a driving membership growth. Yet, people still gather together in real time and place. They gather for picnics in the park, for dinners out, for concerts and festivals, for support group meetings and learning, for rallies and protests. What does it mean to be both the church that gathers for worship and ecclesia, the church called out? How do we help people connect to Christ?
My friends and colleagues, it’s time for the church to do what it already knows how to do, make connections, build community, cheer for people!