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July 1, 2016, 12:00 AM

How Can I Serve You Better?

I mentioned in a sermon last month that we are down by more than two hundred in worship attendance compared to this time last year.  Easter was essentially at the end of spring break and it’s like people left for spring break and didn’t come back.  It seems to be part of the general trend beleaguering the Christian faith in this day and age in which the institutional church - the structures and hierarchies of organized religion - are holding waning appeal for a rapidly growing number of people.  That is definitely a trend that has led to much of my recent personal study (for example, on generational characteristics and use of social media) because, as I said in that sermon, I don’t preach a gospel of fear, but I do fear for the preaching of the gospel.  Fewer people to proclaim good news by word and example, fewer people to hear and experience the good news.  Long and short of it, we are not just moving toward, but are already in a post-institutional era, though we are still operating like the world revolves around the church, as it once did.  What is alarming is the impact it is having and will continue to have on St. Paul’s.

I know how to operate in the institutional church model.  All of us do because that is what we were raised in and how the Church has operated for decades, indeed centuries.  But the Church is now in a place it has never been before, uncharted territory, and few of us really have a good idea (any idea) of what model will resonate with the masses, largely because that model has yet to be formed.  In one sense, that is quite exciting because our generation (in the broad sense, meaning any active in the Church, leadership or otherwise) gets to develop what the Church will be for coming generations who are formed by technology: social media, on-demand, consumerism, entertainment, artificial intelligence...  But not if the trend as noted above continues.

So I’d really like to know, just among those of us who claim St. Paul’s as our church home (especially those whom we are seeing less and less of): What will draw you (back) into community?  What do you need to form you into mature disciples of the risen Christ?  What would interest you enough to (re)engage in the mission of the Church?  I am here to serve.  How can I serve you better?

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May 30, 2016, 12:00 AM

No, because... or Yes, if...

No, because… or Yes, if…  That is the difference between getting mired in the status quo or being proactive in the mission to proclaim the gospel in the 21st century.

Think about No, because…  There are always a hundred (a thousand) reasons not to do something: not enough money, not enough people, not enough energy, not enough, not enough, not enough - of anything.  It is approaching mission and leadership from a position of scarcity, of fear, of not trusting God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us to creative ideas and the resources to see them through.  It stops conversation before it even gets started.  Nothing left to do but, often with a sense of desperation, try to hang on to what once was - the status quo.  Trouble is, that’s not working out too well for the Church.  The decline of the importance of faith begun in the 1960s is seeing its inevitable outcome in the rapidly increasing numbers of people who have had no exposure to the life the gospel has to offer, no interest in whatever goes on in that old building over in that neighborhood.  (The percentage of people claiming no affiliation to any faith tradition - the Nones - has doubled in just the past seven years).

And the Church’s response?  How can we reach out to people who already aren’t interested when we’re struggling just to pay the light bill (or to keep the columns from crumbling)?  Meet people where they are with the good news of God in Christ?  No, because it may mean things can’t be the way I’m accustomed to.  No, because we don’t have the money, no because we don’t have the resources, no, because there isn’t enough…  End of conversation, end of proclaiming good news, and honestly, because without adjusting to ministry in the 21st century, what we know and love about our faith won’t even continue - end of the status quo.

Now think about Yes, if…  We still don’t have any more money than we did before, we still don’t have any more resources than we did at the beginning of this sentence, much less any more energy.  But if the proclamation of good news is still the primary purpose of the Christian faith - of Christians in the expression of their faith - then what happens when we engage mission and leadership in the 21st century from a position of abundance and hope and trust.  We still have all the same issues, but it allows God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us to creative ideas and often unexpected resources to see them through. 

Can we reach out to people who already aren’t interested when we’re struggling just to pay the light bill (or to keep the columns from crumbling)?  Yes, if we are careful about our priorities and adjust them accordingly.  Can we meet people where they are with the good news of God in Christ in a way the will resonate in the 21st century without losing what we know and love about our faith and has grounded the Church through the centuries?  Yes, if we are willing to allow the Spirit to help us become accustomed to ways of ministry and worship that is inspiring to a broader spectrum of people than just for myself.  Is it possible to stem the tide of the now decades-old decline of the Church that is reaching fever pitch?  Yes, if our money, resources and energy are directed toward being proactive in our mission to proclaim the gospel rather than getting mired in maintaining the status quo (that otherwise won’t be maintained anyway).  No, because… or Yes, if…  That is the difference.

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April 28, 2016, 8:14 AM

Life it Too Short For...

My friend, John, says that life is too short for bad cheese.  The highway billboard said that life is too short for bad TV.  Sometimes when counseling I’ve asked folks to consider that life is short: too short to put up with the difficulty any more or too short not to forgive?

This is a light month: Holy Week and Easter in March and summer activities not kicking in until later this month - so maybe it’s a good time to consider the nature of faith as it is lived in this short timeframe of life.

Go ahead and fill the blanks:

Life is too short for ________________________________________.

Life is too short for ________________________________________.

Life is too short for ________________________________________.

Life is too short for ________________________________________.

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February 29, 2016, 10:08 AM

Lent isn’t for Lent’s sake, Lent is for Easter’s sake.

Whatever we think about Lent, whatever we give up or do differently in that short season of preparation, it is not giving things up or doing something differently for their own sakes, but for a much larger purpose.  Lent isn’t for Lent’s sake, Lent is for Easter’s sake, the sake of putting ourselves in the best possible position to enter into and participate in the single most pivotal event in human history - Jesus’ resurrection.

Reflecting in the introduction to her Bible study on resurrection, Kristie Berglund notes that “the resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything.  When dawn broke on that first Easter morning, the sun rose on an entirely new world.  The very fabric of creation had been transformed.  The direction of history had been altered.  The power of death had been broken.  Life was victorious.  How are we to live in the light of that glorious day?  How does Christ’s great victory play out in our everyday lives?  As people of the risen Lord, our identity and calling are rooted in the resurrection.”

We will transition from Lent to Easter this month, from the incomprehensible emptiness of the crucifixion to the unfathomable lavishness of God’s love.  If we are, as Berglund suggests, a people of the risen Lord rooted in the resurrection, that sure has an impact on how we are to live.  There is plenty of emptiness “out there,” all kinds of brokenness and death.  But the resurrection emptied death of its power, rendered it impotent in the face of divine love.  How are we to live in the light of that glorious day?  By remembering that Lent isn’t about Lent.  Whatever we end up giving up is not for its own sake, but for a much larger purpose - reveling in the unfathomable lavishness of God’s Easter love as a people rooted in the resurrection.

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February 1, 2016, 8:17 AM

Focus on Joy

As the editor of our local newspaper for more than forty years, my dad used to write an editorial each spring imploring people of the community to refrain from using mowers and other noisy power equipment on Sundays.  It never made a difference as far as I could tell, but that never deterred him from writing it.  (I guess it did make a difference in one way, though: I don’t ever mow my grass on Sundays!  Although I have been known to use a power tool or two.)

Likewise, with some apparent futility I go to some lengths each year to try to point out that Lent often gets a bad wrap for being imposing with its heavy dose of penitence.  But as I point out in the explanation of the February forum series, the word “lent” actually comes from a word meaning “springtime,” as in new life.  Like Advent is a holy time of preparation for Christmas, Lent is a time of holy preparation for Easter - coming through the shameful and agonizing death of the cross to the irrepressible hope for new and eternal life that the cross makes possible.  As such, Lent is not a time for wallowing in self-mortification, but a springtime of good news as we become as ready as we can be for the greatest celebration the Church has in the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

So if you can accept that Lent is actually good news, now is actually a good time to focus on the joy of ministry.  It is awfully easy to get worn out with trying to juggle everything that life demands - all our family obligations and personal struggles, the barrage of bad news in the media, the people who just seem to sap all your energy just by their presence.  But if we take, say, Philippians 4:8 to heart (maybe as a good Lenten meditation), we can refocus our time and energy on all there is to celebrate and be joyful about in the service to our Lord.

Lent is not about Lent in its own right, but is about preparing ourselves, heart, mind, strength and soul, for the resurrection life we share in by the great gift of love God gave us in Jesus the Christ.  So take this Lenten time, not as a distasteful period of deprivation to be avoided at all costs, but as time for being better prepared to share in the celebration and joy of ministry for our Lord’s sake and in his risen name.

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