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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is church turnaround possible?

This is a question I am often asked as I work with churches looking to, well, turn things around. And somewhere in the conversation, someone, sometimes me, sometimes someone else, will say, "For God, all things are possible." This Bible verse is quoted so often it almost feels cliche. And yet, cliches are cliches because there is often truth embedded within it. And the truth is this:

"For God, all things are possible."

Today I visited a church that is experiencing turn around and it is without question a work of God. They are not done. They have not "arrived" - but they are experiencing new life, growth and a life in the Spirit. Let me tell you a bit about them.

Two years ago, things were bleak. Worship attendance had dropped in half from only a few years before. The worship experience was lifeless. The music was technically good (they had and have great musicians) but there was little life and no sense of the Spirit. They were in deep trouble financially, burning through endowed funds that would run out quickly unless something changed. Ministries were in decline. A preschool owned and operated by the church was $17,000 in debt and had only 8 children in the program. No young people had been confirmed in years. The congregation was aging and no new families were coming - or if they were, they weren't staying. I think you're probably beginning to get the picture. Many of the signs Thom Rainer highlights in his book "Autopsy of a Deceased Church" were present. Unless something significant happened - anything short of a miracle - we would soon be doing an autopsy on this congregation.

I worshiped at that congregation today. The pews weren't full (it is a quite large sanctuary after all) but there were at least three times as many people present. There was a full choir. There were two sacred dance groups, adult and youth. There was both an organist and a band. There were LOTS of new faces. The preschool? Now debt free and there are 19 children attending! Recent confirmands were singing in the praise band. There was life! There is life! There are new partnerships with other churches and other agencies in the city and beyond. The church is multicultural both in attendance and leadership.

Here's the thing - the music wasn't great. It was pretty good, but technically, not great. There were mistakes - a few flubs even. But it didn't matter. The singing? It wasn't great. It was pretty good, but I've heard better. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter because every moment of worship was filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The music was played with joy in the Spirit. The songs were sung, by both choir and worshipers, with joy in the Spirit. Prayer was offered with joy in the Spirit. No deadly announcements. No deadly joys and concerns. Oh, joys were celebrated. Concerns were raised. They were offered in a deep, meaningful prayer, praising Jesus and crying out to God, by a lay person who was plugged into the community of faith and knew what was going on already and spoke to God with that knowledge.

What happened? Many things.

One thing was that they took a hard look at themselves. They engaged in an intentional process* where they took stock of who they were and where they were spiritually and emotionally. They analyzed the processes, or lack thereof, of hospitality, leadership development, and discipleship. They took stock of where they were in their faith practices, their devotion to the spiritual disciplines, the practice of generosity, and commitment to an outward focus. They analyzed the community around them, through demographic analysis and community leader interviews. After all of that, they asked the question: do we want to live or die?

They decided to live. Based on what they'd learned about themselves and their community, a strategic change in pastoral leadership was made. They were told that the new pastor wasn't going to hold their hand. Pastoral leadership as they knew it was over. There was a new commitment to an outward focused life. The pastor's priority was primarily to those not already part of the congregation.

Here's another example in how the congregation itself changed it's posture. As indicated above, the preschool was struggling. They decided that the preschool was an important part of who they are and they were going to invite families to enroll their children even if the family couldn't afford it. The vision of the preschool is to provide an environment in which children can develop both intellectually and spiritually and the church was committed to making that available. They believed this was part of God's call on the church. Soon, new children signed up. As word got out that they were providing spots, even if the family couldn't afford it, new partners came alongside, partners with money, partners willing to provide scholarships. As enrollment grew, other families signed their children up, some of these with the means to pay. And as mentioned above, today the school is financially strong.

In worship, they made a new commitment to celebrate God. They renewed their commitment to deep,
meaningful prayer. Small groups began to meet to explore what it means to experience a life in God. They began to experiment with new forms of worship. They renewed their commitment to service of the other, and not just service, but building relationships with those they served. A new group called "Mind, Body and Spirit" formed, providing space and support for people struggling with issues related to mind, body and spirit. The rhythm of the group includes a commitment to sharing how worship is part of a healthy and whole life.

It took time. But in the last year, nearly 20 new people have made commitments of faith. Young families are worshiping together. The worship is experience is diverse in language, in style, in format and in music. The congregation has begun to reflect the nature and make up of the community around it. And the community is noticing!

They are not done, but they are well on their way. And it has been a movement of God - a renewed commitment to live lives worthy of the calling of God, a renewed commitment to serve the community around the congregation and build relationship with the people who live in the neighborhood. They decide to live, and that even if they didn't make it, to live in a way that would bring life to others. Yes, turnaround is possible. "For God, all things are possible!"

*For more information about the assessment process this church used, give me a shout.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Much of my ministry today involves working with churches and church leaders who are struggling to help their church stay vibrant. Some are struggling just to keep the lights on. This situation is not unique to my denomination nor to the my part of the world. Many churches in the U.S. are facing the same challenges.

Thom Rainer has published a great little book, based on research of many churches over the course of his ministry, called "Autopsy of a Deceased Church + 12 Way to Keep Yours Alive." It is not
necessarily filled with new information, but it is an excellent summary of the factors that often lead to a church closing its doors for good, and the truth of how long the process toward that eventual end often is. The benefit of this book is that it could be a great conversation starter for church leaders as they review the 10 factors that Rainer highlights as leading to eventual death.

The book ends with good news - not easy news - but good news. There is hope. God of the resurrection can do all things through people willing to keep focused on the things of God. Much depends on the leadership of the congregation and its willingness to live sacrificially, toward each other and toward the communities in which they are located. If you are a leader in a local congregation, your leadership will be blessed by exploring the issues raised in this little book.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Continuing reflections on South Korea

As I'm sure is true for my fellow pilgrims, the trip to South Korea continues to stir my thoughts about faith and the church. Three practices of the South Korean church continue to provoke me - the practices of prayer, evangelism and hospitality. I plan to keep writing on these practices, along with the matter of ongoing Christian formation that is present in the Korean Methodist Church. I continue to wrestle with what translates across culture and what seems bound in the culture. And I don't think the issue is either/or but rather both/and. Some aspects of the practices of faith in the KMC are culturally bound but aspects of those practices clearly translate across culture.

Take prayer, for example. There is a deep commitment to the practice of prayer. Thousands and thousands of people show up every morning in churches across the nation to pray. This is a country who's largest church approaches 1 million members (Yoido Full Gospel - the sanctuary holds over 26,000 people!) The commitment to prayer - the willingness for so many to gather in community for prayer - is to be admired and even emulated. We as United Methodists have something to learn here.

But as We Chang notes in his comment on my previous post, many times prayer in the Korean church is tied to and affirms a system of oppression and materialism. The advantage of traveling as a pilgrim to another country is that often you can see things with greater clarity than you can when looking at your own culture - which in turn then allows you to see you own culture more clearly. In South Korea, at least in many of the places and in much of the narrative we heard, Caesar is closely aligned with the Church - if not in bed with then at least sharing the same chambers. Many celebrate U.S. intervention in the 1950's, a war which resulted in the democratic nation of South Korea, but at the same time fail to recognize the role the U.S. and other countries played that helped create the conflict to begin with. As for the church, it reflects the patriarchal society in which it exists and is only just beginning to deal with inequities related to gender. The authority that clergy seem to have over church members is overwhelming - and from the U.S. perspective, completely unbalanced.

The church in USAmerica has long struggled with sharing bed covers with Caesar. The narrative of what it means to be a good Christian and what it means to be a good citizen have been (and in some circles, still are) one and the same. The church's complicity in racism and militarism is well established in our nation's history. I'm reading Tavis Smiley's book on Martin Luther King Jr, a reflection on the last year of King's life. King's words from the 1960's continue to challenge us: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

All of which sends me back to the practice of prayer - of the ongoing need to "learn to pray with Jesus" - for the community of Jesus followers to allow Jesus to inform the content of prayer. Reading Matthew 5 and 6 these last few weeks has been challenging, and in light of the trip to South Korea, informative. The two chapters are closely linked. The teaching of prayer in ch. 6 is tied to the Sermon on the Mount which is tied to the call to fasting and cautions against storing up treasures. When the community of faith leans into prayer that is shaped by the teachings of Jesus, it can't help but challenge the culture around it. As Hauerwas writes, "Christians do not seek to be subversives; it just turns out that living according to the Sermon on the Mount cannot help but challenge the way things are." (Brazos Commentary on Matthew)

So there is a need for our churches to move more deeply into prayer as communities of faith, that much is clear. But the shape of that prayer is important. To repeat from my previous post, there is the ongoing to need to see prayer as joining Jesus in struggling against the powers of this world. I wonder: is there is a connection between the demise of the traditional church in America and it's failure to join Jesus in the struggle?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Collision of ideas

The group has returned from South Korea. I don't know about the rest of the group, but for me today was definitely a tough day of transition. My body and brain wasn't quite ready to do what I wanted it to do. Therefore, except for a few moments of activity, I've been taking it easy.

Got to my devotions late this afternoon - I've been reading Stanley Hauerwas' commentary on the book of Matthew - and it only took one sentence before there was a collision of ideas - a sentence that stopped me cold and sent me to this blog. I'm in the 6th chapter, which comes on the heels of a very famous chapter that includes the Beatitudes. But ch. 6 is really a continuation of what we read in the Sermon on the Mount. Chapter 6 is where things get put into play - where action is required. And the most important action is prayer. Boom! Collision!

Here's the sentence: "Learning to pray with Jesus, therefore, is to become part of his struggle with the powers of this world."

Maybe it doesn't hit you the same way it hits me. But then again, you may not have been in South Korea this week. In South Korea, we were up every day at 5 a.m. to join 1000 other people in prayer. Loud prayer! Earnest prayer! Hand clapping, arm shaking, shouting prayer. I'll probably never pray like that. Even after a week of immersion with the church in South Korea, it is unlikely that Tong Sung Kido will become an natural, authentic expression of prayer for me. But here's what I will take away: Prayer is not tame. Prayer is not innocent. Prayer, at least prayer that joins Jesus, is earth shattering - transformative - a whole body experience.

"Learning to pray with Jesus, therefore, is to become part of his struggle with the powers of this world."

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: "Our Father...." This is where we learn to pray with Jesus. For many months now I've been using the Lord's Prayer as a template for my own prayer. Each phrase becomes a way of expressing the deep truths of the prayer - the holiness of God, the reality of God's reign filling the whole earth, the need for daily sustenance, the need for forgiveness, etc.

To think that this is also a prayer about struggling with the "powers of this world." Gives me pause.

So as I learn/relearn to pray, I'l be praying so that the dominant thought of our world - retributive violence - will be set aside. I'l be praying that I and the community I'm part of can offer another way. Retributive violence believes that if we can just snuff out the haters/violent actors/terrorists, then all will be well. (Almost a direct quote from one of our leaders in Washington, by the way). I'll be praying for the way of Jesus - a refusal to use violence as a means to an end.

I'm praying for the kingdom and against the ways of revenge.
I'm praying for peace and against division and violence
I'm learning to pray with Jesus.

If the trip to South Korea taught me anything, it taught me the real power of prayer. Prayer matters. Prayer matters because it gets God into me. It doesn't get God to do what I want God to do. It gets God into me. It gets the ways of the kingdom into me. Prayer gets love into me. Prayer gets forgiveness into me. It's a collision between the kingdom of God and my own tendency to love the ways of the world. It's a collision of ideas. I pray that I can live into a new pattern of prayer - a pattern that continues to crash me into God so that God - the reign of God - the beauty of God - will continue to shape me and mold me into the likeness of Jesus.

That's a collision to which I can look forward.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Things to remember

Today's post is a simple one. I've been thinking about the moments we've had, moments I will remember from our time in South Korea, in no particular order:

  • incredible hospitality!!! ( see Erica's post ( for a great theological reflection on that)
  • great food (kimchee, kangaroo tail, sushi, octopus, grilled toothfish, pickled radish, escargot, beef tartare, oysters, duck, and much more!)
  • the song leader in morning prayer banging out the beat on the lecturn
  • the rapid pace of those songs!
  • always dressing up for church (at least for clergy)
  • the roof top garden area
  • being bleary eyed those early days of the trip
  • the high level of urgency around sharing faith
  • the incredible commitment by congregation to prayer, generosity and hospitality
  • that this church's budget is as large as our entire Annual Conference budget and there are less than 1/10 the people (thanks again to Erica for that insight)
  • the cacophony of morning prayer
  • traffic!
  • the huge sanctuaries

Friday, September 26, 2014

To fully rely on God

Today's adventure in South Korea included another couple of new church starts. We keep hearing stories of these starts that turn into churches with an average of 2000-3000 or more people in worship attendance.  In addition, they usually started with the planter and maybe one other person. Such was the case today. It finally occurred to me to ask the planting pastor: how did you live in the early days? The answer? Prayer. Even though he had been sent out of a mother church (our host church, Bupyeong), he never asked for help. Never. Never called to say he needed food or money or anything  He simply trusted that what he and his family needed would be provided when it was needed. He prayed daily at length.  And at the right time money or food would show up. Every time. They understand that planting a church is an act of faith and if they are listening properly after spending the necessary time in prayer, (which is lengthy, let me assure you!), they trust that God will provide. 

It was an incredible testimony, a powerful witness of what it really means to depend on God. How many of us can say we live with such a sense of dependence? I confess my own failure in this regard. I can remember a time in my ministry when I did - when I trusted God would provide the means for me to feed my family, provide support or resources I needed. But that sense of dependence has waned over the years. My tendency toward self-sufficiency, shaped by the culture I've grown up in, moves to the front. 

What would it take to lean into God in that way again? How can I live with a greater sense of freedom knowing God will provide my "daily bread," not to surplus but to sufficiency?  How about you? What would it look like for you? Your church? 

It's been another day with the Holy Spirit poking and prodding, inviting me to consider the church with fresh eyes. My prayer is that these new insights bear fruit in New England, bringing a new level of health and vitality. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's leadership...

Yesterday I reflected on the call to churches to live out the core practices of faith - a commitment to prayer, generosity, and gathering for worship and in small groups. Today (Thursday) we visited more churches, and one in particular, Doonsan first Methodist in Daejon City, causes me to think about the call on pastors.  This church started in 1993. Today 5,000 mostly young adults gather weekly for worship and to meet in cell groups. They too embody the practices mentioned above, but today I was reminded of what a pastor does. A pastor leads. 

There are many things that go into leadership but today a few practices stood out. First, the pastor leads through strong preaching and teaching. There is the need for a compelling message, a sharing of the power of the gospel, embedded in a worship experience during which those who gather encounter the living God. That means Saturday night specials don't cut it. Last minute scribbles supposedly coming from the Spirit are inadequate and too often an excuse for poor preparation.  The pastor at Doonsan spends at least 2 hours a day crafting his message so that by the weekend, there is a fully developed message that helps connect scripture to life and life to scripture, a message that is relevant and helps the listener understand how they fit into the story of God revealed in Christ. As I said, this message is embedded in a worship event during which participants experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The pilgrims from New England today simply watched a video of this church's experience and the group was moved to tears, shouting, clapping and anointing. It was incredible! The presence of God was palpable! We drank from the well of living water like people who'd been wandering for days in a desert!

Second, there is the need to develop and implement a comprehensive discipleship system. Most churches in New England know our mission (to make disciples of Jesus Christ) but don't have any idea how to move someone forward in their walk with Christ. Doonsan has developed a clear, concise system that teaches someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Christian faith, guiding him/her to a place where they come to know and love God, to profess Christ as Savior and live their lives in light of that new relationship. This is supported through the ongoing practices of small groups, worship and so on. The pastor trains the congregation in discipleship and raises up leaders to continue the work so that in time, a disciple is someone who, along with living out the core practices of the faith, is also making new disciples. 

What would happen if all of our pastors devoted this kind of preparation to weekly messages, taking responsibility to teach, cast vision, and help the congregation experience the power and presence of God through preaching? That even part-time pastor ensured that their best was given to preaching and teaching and left congregational care to the congregation? What would happen if pastors helped design a vital worship experience during which the congregation anticipated experiencing the presence of God, an experience that connects with the hearts and minds of the unchurched? What if each congregation, under the guidance of a skilled practitioner/pastor, developed and implemented a comprehensive system of spiritual formation, helping each person, young and old, to grow in love of God and neighbor?

We may not see people come to Christ in numbers like we've seen in South Korea (though after this experience I'm not so sure - all things are possible) but one thing is clear. Many expressions of church in USAmerica are church in form only, lacking the substance, the commitment to core practices, and commitment to leadership focused on intentional discipleship making. There is much to learn from brothers and sisters in South Korea.