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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Does corporate worship still matter?

Trends on worship show that to be called a "regular" attendee of corporate worship these days means that you attend about twice a month. Recently Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of he Resurrection (, sent out an email to his congregation acknowledging those at COR who had perfect attendance in 2016 as well as those who got an A+ (90% attendance or better). Today I had a chance to ask him about worship attendance at COR and their focus on celebrating that. First, how did it start?

15 years ago, he said, regular worship at COR meant someone attended 3 weeks out of 4.  More recently, they found that the average was 1.75 times a month. In other words, regular worshippers attended less that twice in a month. They realized that if they wanted to see a difference, they needed to pay attention to this aspect of congregational life. The first year he took everyone with perfect attendance to lunch. There were only thirteen. Thirteen, in a congregation with 20,000 members! They also acknowledge the folks with 90% attendance. The next year they gave out insulated mugs to all 90% or above. It cost them $6000 - clearly paying attention changed the behavior. 

After that, I asked him this: Take me deeper. Why does corporate worship matter?

Without hesitating, he answered (this is not verbatim but rather my summary of a conversation from a few hours ago. 

Worship matters because it's important to be able to teach and expound upon the word of God. 
Worship matters because it allows you to reinforce the vision of the congregation. 
Worship matters because it keeps people connected to each other. Lower attendance correlates to lower and lower engagement and more people leaving the congregation "through the back door."
Worship itself taps into the power and meaning of what it means to be community together
Worship teaches us what to pray for - to be reminded or shown what else is going on in the world and that we all need to lifting those things in prayer. 
Worship matters to God. Yes, we are to be worshipful everyday, in all we do, but God calls us to honor the Sabbath and make it holy - for God's people to come together in praise and thanksgiving. 

Finally, he shared that higher levels of worship attendance correlate with other positive behaviors. People who are in worship regularly are more likely to be engaged in mission, are more generous, are more likely to be involved in other spiritual formation opportunities and so forth. 

Worship matters. 

So, my thought:
What is your congregation doing to help people grow in the practice of worship? What might you do to positively reinforce the practice of worship? And since inspiring and meaningful worship is critical to the spiritual growth of people early in their faith journey (think visitors here!), what are you doing to make sure each worship experience is just that - inspiring and meaningful? Long-time members will tolerate mediocre music, messages and ministry. New visitors will not - they look elsewhere - or worse, stop looking altogether. 

So yes, worship matters!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Four Types of Churches that will Soon Die

Thom Rainer recently wrote a blog about the 4 kinds of churches that will soon die (See his post here). Maybe my interpretation isn't needed, but since I'm mostly writing to myself anyway, that's okay. With the work I do, it lets me think "out loud" so to speak.

The first one he lists is the "Ex-Bible" church. These folks no longer root their lives in the Scriptures. The Bible is just another book. I remember in one church I served we were dealing with a particularly challenging issue and we needed to make a decision. I invited the leadership into a study of relevant scripture and as they did, listen to what they heard God "saying" in terms of what decision would bring honor to God. After a while, the group began to talk and it became more and more clear what decision needed to be made. However, one person spoke up, seeing how things were unfolding and said, "Well, that's all well and good if you believe what's in the scriptures - and I don't!" I wish I could say that doesn't happen much, but unfortunately...

A less dramatic example of the Ex-Bible church is what might be called the do-gooder church. They are more like a civic organization than a church. Those in civic organizations, don't get on my case. I'm not denigrating the work of social organizations - it's necessary and valued. It's simply that the foundation of their work isn't the same as the church. The church only exists to continue to live the mission of its founder and sustainer - Jesus. The church is (supposed to be) the continuing presence of Christ in the world - a sent body - an incarnational representation of the Jesus in the world. Many churches are very good at doing good things, providing resources, offering free meals, running food pantries, etc. These are all good - but they are not incarnational representations of Jesus. They are generous acts. Generosity is part of the call. And so collecting money, socks, cell phones, turkeys, etc. is a very generous thing to do. The only thing is that it doesn't require a body. The scriptures keep pointing to a Body. It is THE radical difference between Christianity and other major religious - God took flesh and walked among us. The church is called to the same and can only live out it's mandate by staying connected to the story that reminds us of this narrative.

The third one Thom names is the "Bad Words" church, and by that he means churches embroiled in conflict. Unfortunately, this too is fairly common though I would argue that the conflict, at least in New England, is not as explicit as Thom describes. It tends to be much more passive aggressive. These are the churches that are ready to blame any and all for their continuing demise. "If we just didn't have sports on Sunday." "If our pastor would only....fill in the blank." "If we had a pastor who was married (oh, by the way, is a man married to a woman, they don't say) with 2.2 kids, we would grow."  All of this takes away from the energy needed to actually be the church. It's the scapegoat allowing churches to blame something out there for their own challenges.

Granted, there is something sad about seeing churches grow smaller and less effective. It's heartbreaking when good, loving, Christ-centered people see their congregation dwindle to just a shadow of what it once was. They are meant for so much more and in their history, they often were. But as I often say to churches who invite me to work with them in order to turn things around and become vital, if the only reason you are doing this is to "keep the club open a little longer," then let's all go home. Church's, like many organization, have a life cycle, and sometimes it means death. There is something harmful about maintaining a church beyond what it's intended life is. And unfortunately, what can often result in trying to keep this kind of church alive is unrest - conflict - damage. It is similar to artificially keeping a loved one alive long after they are ready to pass from this life to the next. The good news is that nothing is wasted in the economy of God. All churches leave a mark and the legacy of every church continues beyond its physical existence. The faithful who once lived out their mission pass on the legacy to the next generation. Sometimes the resources of closed churches give birth to new expressions of faith. Each generation of faithful followers of Jesus stand upon the shoulders of those who came before, and as Hebrews 11 reminds us, just because you are faithful, it doesn't mean you will actually see the promises of God fulfilled in your lifetime. But be faith-full anyway.

Thom names two other kinds of churches - I'll tackle those in another post. If you are in a church like the two listed above - the Ex-Bible and the Bad Words church, all is not lost. It is sometimes possible to turn things around. I've seen it (see an earlier blog post of mine for an example.) Just know that some of the most challenging work you will every face is ahead of you. In Christ's peace...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Relaunching new life

Here's a video highlighting a new church start that moved into a facility of a former United Methodist congregation - a great example of new emerging from the old.

Jesus Life Center

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Healthy living means attending to the "little things"

So I did promise comments on love, life and the ludicrous. This is ludicrous but it's definitely illuminating...and loosening? Enjoy! (and I don't mean just the article....haha!)

Little things!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Foolish business

Those of us in the official "Jesus" business can get a little frustrated, downtrodden and even feel a little beat up. Seems to be even more the case in the current post-Christian, post-church context. Which is why it's helpful to read the works of others who have experienced the same thing.

As any of you in the Jesus business, particularly those in New England, ramp up for a new program year (those of you not in the church may be surprised that the rhythm of church in NE pretty much follows the rhythm of the school year), you may find these words from Frederick Buchner encouraging, originally delivered to graduates of the Union Theological Seminary in VA. A reminder that yes, we are a bit foolish. But there is more - so much more. Enjoy - and be encouraged!

"It’s a queer business that you have chosen or that has chosen you. It’s a business that breaks the heart for the sake of the heart. It’s a hard and chancy business whose risks are as great even as its rewards. Above all else, perhaps, it is a crazy business. It is a foolish business. It is a crazy and foolish business to work for Christ in a world where most people most of the time don’t give a hoot in hell whether you work for him or not. It is crazy and foolish to offer a service that most people most of the time think they need like a hole in the head. As long as there are bones to set and drains to unclog and children to tame and boredom to survive, we need doctors and plumbers and teachers and people who play the musical saw; but when it comes to the business of Christ and his church, how unreal and irrelevant a service that seems even, and at times especially, to the ones who are called to work at it."

He later goes on, quoting from Lord of the Rings and this is where I might add the word..."However..."

"The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road
has gone, And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then?
I cannot say."

May you be foolish - foolish enough to stay on the road, even though you do not necessarily know where it leads. But the good news is - the road is clear. The road is itself Jesus. "I am the way...." 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Aging, happiness and the church

This summer I was on the road, listening to the Ted Radio Hour and it highlighted Professor Laura Carstensen who is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. In her research, she discovered that as people age, they (on the whole) become happier. It seems counterintuitive since as one ages, other things become more challenging - health, friends who move or die, etc. But the research is clear. In general, happiness increases as one ages.

During the radio show, Carstensen referred to an interview she'd done with two sisters, both elderly, who talked about losing many friends over the years. And Professor Carstensen said to them that there were many people in the area who were like them that they could meet and get to know. And the sisters both said that they didn't have time for that. Carstensen's first thought was  "What are you talking about? You look like you have plenty of time on hand." But it turns out - they weren't talking about how much time they had in a day. It was how much time they had left in life.

Yes, we get happier as we age. But we also aren't as interested in making a new "old friends" because there just isn't enough time left in life. We are happy with our circle of friends and family, even if that circle is shrinking a bit. And we aren't going to invest the time to expand those networks - at least not in any significant way.

All of this makes me wonder about some of the smaller and older churches in New England. Attending many of these churches is like attending someone else's family reunion. There is lots of laughter, many hugs and people are genuinely pleased to see each other. They are, in general, happy places. (There are the toxic exceptions - a topic for another day!) If you are visiting one of the churches, the people will be polite. They might even offer you coffee and a delicious refreshment. But you aren't likely to be welcomed to the inner circle. They might ask you your name - then again, they may not. They may have a way of collecting personal information, but more than likely not.  I have spoken to many people who have shown up in these churches as visitors, new to the larger community, and even after many years of attending, still feel like they are outsiders. One person wrote me a long letter describing the experience and said that as long as they showed up to do the work needed, everything was fine. But should they try to cross the invisible line of deeper community, it was clear they were not welcome.

Could it be that this dynamic of going deeper into the relationships we have, with a reduced interest in getting to know new people is at work in older churches? At an unconscious level, have they moved into a place in life where the effort to make new "old friends" is just more than they want to give?

It seems to me that it plays at least some part in what happens in older congregations that are growing smaller. Certainly there are other factors. I confess that I, when in my 70's or 80's, may not be jumping up to join the evangelism committee. What this means for the future of congregations like this, I'm not sure. But it causes me to rethink our approach to the work of church renewal with churches at this stage of life. It causes me to want to slow down and dig deeper into what makes these congregations tick. It reminds me to give thanks for the richness of grace and love being enjoyed by the members of these congregations, that even as the time horizon grows shorter, these congregations are savoring moments many of us won't understand - at least right now.

To listen to (or read) the interview with Laura Carstensen, go here, or to listen to her full Ted talk, go here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

First Twelve Training

Earlier this month the New England Conference hosted a training event for potential church planters. The event, called First Twelve, focuses on how to gather and disciple the first twelve people who will become the committed core of a new ministry or new church start. Participants from both the New England Conference and Upper New York conference were in attendance.

You might find this video helpful if you are in the local church in New England to highlight how the faithful, generous giving of congregants makes it possible to do this important work in training leaders how to reach new people, more people, and younger people.   Enjoy!