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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

No one is actually leaving...

People who write on the internet are pretty convinced that people are leaving Christian congregations at a rapid rate. They aren't, of course, but that makes for such a a boring headline, and how will we get enough hits on our blogs to justify our not getting a real job? So theologian after blogger after writer after pastor posts that people are leaving Christian congregations. I repeat: they are not. What they are doing is re-forming Christian congregations.

Christian congregations as permanent sites (the Roman Catholic understanding of a "parish" is helpful here) had a good run. But it's over. People don't need to gather at the same place at the same time with the same people in order to be a Christian congregation these days. You can be a congregation that meets once a year. A congregation that meets in different places at different times. A congregation of 2 couples and couple more babies. A congregation that meets in non-traditional places (like a bar). Christian congregations take all shapes and forms, and so although one form of Christian congregations may be softening its margins, others are solidifying in their newness. To repeat: Congregations don't die, they just re-form.

What people who bewail the "death of Christian congregations" often seem to forget is that those congregations exist in relationship with a living God.

Living people+Living God=Re-forming congregations. 

I will admit that some of this re-forming has caught a few people by surprise. When I was doing my doctoral research in congregations 20 years ago there were a few people who knew that congregations were going to be re-forming in some radical ways. Leslie Newbigin was one. Gibson Winter was another (and his major work on the subject was published in 1961! The stuff you're reading on websites has been around for 50 years, even if the people writing about it haven't.) Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza was my favorite, as she was talking a lot about how congregations would re-form based upon how they lived with the call of God. Letty Russell thought congregations should be in the round. (Prairie Table Ministries  owes a major debt to Dr. Russell's articulation of "church in the round." That's why we meet around round tables.) Loren Mead. Craig Van Gelder. Patrick R. Keifert.  (I just wanted to get my doctoral advisor's picture in a blog. Thanks Pat for all the guidance.)
All these scholars were pointing to a major re-forming and re-shaping of Christian congregations.

I understand it makes great headlines to say people are "leaving." They are not. They are taking their relationship with God elsewhere, and that's what interests me...where's the "where" those relationships are now being lived out? How is your faith in God through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit being re-formed these days? Where is it happening? When is it happening? With whom?

May your tables be full and your congregations be true.

Monday, January 12, 2015

So you don't go to church...I'm not sure God's too concerned.

Facebook tells me I have 283 friends. (That includes--at least--one bar no longer in business.) All my friends know I am a pastor and work for God and congregations. But not all my friends go to church. Some aren't interested. Some aren't Christian. Some don't believe. Some believe, but don't really like to go to church. My friends, it turns out, do not have to go to church in order to be my friends. When it comes to friendship, going to church is not the defining characteristic.

What if friendship with Jesus also does not have going to church as a defining characteristic? Now, I know there are a lot of people who make a lot of money from people who go to church, and I am sure they want to convince people that Jesus "really wants you to go to church" because that keeps their business going. But, if all you want is friendship with Jesus, going to church may not be a requirement for that friendship.

 So we are in another run of "why people DON"T go to church" times, and everyone seems to know why people don't go to church. It's the music is too boring. (Lame, more like it.) The preaching too disconnected from....(insert favorite pop pysch term here). Pastors don't get out of their offices enough. (Or they spend too much time on Facebook and not in the office). People don't like to be told what to do. The reasons are endless for why people don't go to church. The interesting question is rather: why does anyone GO to church?

I mean, why are there countless Christian congregations across this country that have lots of old people who attend them? What do Senior Citizens get out of church that younger folks don't even try for in their experience? I did my first work with a Christian congregation in 1982. The pastor told me then that they had too many old people and not enough young people. Guess what? The congregation is still around, and according to their records, they have about the same amount of people in worship in 2014 as they did in 1982. (For those math-challenged that's 32 years.) Am I to believe the 70 year olds from 1982 are the 102 year olds in 2014? There may be a few, but they didn't all make it. So where were all the 70 year olds back in 1982? How did they get to this congregation in 2014?

People go to church for one reason, and one reason only (admittedly there are variations on this theme): people go to church to connect with someone or something Holy. It may be God, it may be a religious leader, it may be music, it may a liturgy, it may be a book. Doesn't matter, it's why people go to church. Congregations are where humans connect with the divine, connect with the Holy.

So, if you go to church where do you find the Holy? For those of you who don't go to church, where do you find the Holy? For those of you who don't care, why don't you care about the Holy? Relating to the Holy is not a skill of youth. It takes patience, wisdom, and the ability to live outside of your own ego (not traits generally associated with youth--and youth who do those things are often called "Old Souls" for a reason.)

So if people aren't going to your church it's because they don't find the Holy there. Is your congregation connecting with the Holy? How and why and where and when? Maybe you connect with the Holy in a way most others do not? Maybe you have a very specific way of connecting to the Holy and others can't track that way? And there are always people who don't have the time, effort, or desire to connect with the Holy no matter how your congregation does it. But the reason people don't come to your church is that they don't find a way to connect with the Holy there.

(I remember a man who told me he couldn't worship at our congregation because we took God seriously. He told me he couldn't risk it that God might take us seriously too, and he'd have to sell his yacht. He wasn't ready for that just yet.) Come all without. Come all within!

When I work with congregations we do not spend one minute of our time worrying or wondering why people don't come to our church. Rather, we spend out time focusing on why we do come, and how we can share that with others. Focusing on why you actually show up at church is way more beneficial than wondering about those who don't.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A New Year. Happy New Year!

2014. A year of interesting things...
     --my dad died in January. I miss him every day. I never went more than a week or two talking to my dad (even if I had to call collect--do we do collect calls anymore?) and now it's almost been a year. Wow. I love you dad.  (and mom too!)

--Chris and I got snowed OUT of Minnesota. That's right, it snowed so hard in Iowa that we couldn't get to Minnesota...that is how January 2014 ended.

--I got to spend a wonderful year with the folks of Shepherd of the Hills, Omaha, NE. Our Easter worship was so inspiring. May God bless their future. 

                            --this summer I got to grow a sunflower (first time ever), and started on rhubarb and strawberry beds...for the pie of course! 

--I met Don Henley in September, and talked to him about raising kids and church.

         ---in the Fall I got to go to LA (Hollywood) to pick up Maddy and move her back with us. Chris Pine bumped my shoulder at The Pikey. I should have sued. Here's a complimentary Chris Pine photo.  (Yes, he plays James Tiberius Kirk.)

--started up with a new congregation in Blair, NE called First Lutheran Church. They are an excellent group of people, and I look forward to many good times with them. 

In 2015 I am scheduled to be a grandfather...

Even more amazing is how the years seem to blur as so many people run in and out of my life. (besides, Mr. Henley and Mr. Pine.) The Spirit of God blows across time like one of those North Dakota tumbleweeds used to blow across my yard. It just keeps going and going and going.

But I also feel that God connects me to so many of you, both in real time, and on Facebook, and cherished memories. That is so cool that God puts no limits on friends...I feel more connected through the activities of God's Spirit than so many other things that try to connect me. Schools come and go (and I have graduated enough to earn a death by degrees.) Congregations come and go. Groups come and go...but friends remain. I picked up some good friends in 2014, and I got to relish in the lives of so many other good friends. It was a good year.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.