Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What heaven has in store..

Eternal rewards for Muslims might include dates, pomegranates, non sin-inducing wine, and everlasting peace. Norse pagans look forward to freshly slaughtered boar and daily warrior fights. Mahayana Buddhists anticipate the music of birds, and trees hung with precious jewels.

Greek polytheists may find eternal sunshine, music, drinks, singing, dancing, and wrestling. Christians envision eternal life and becoming Godlike. Egyptian polytheists, more down home in taste, hope for feasts, boating, and checkers.

From Lapham's Quarterly, Winter 2010

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Purloined letters...

Shoplifting at book stores is on the rise. Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, said the most frequently stolen book is the Bible. "Some people think the word of God should be free," he said.

Bibles are even snatched at the Parable Christian Bookstore in Springfield, Oregon, despite the fact that if someone asks for a Bible, they will be given one free.

The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Your church's face to the world...

This sign says, "The end of your search for a friendly church." There you have it. Y'all come in.

There's a church near where I live that has a sign with interchangeable letters. For the past six months, that sign has read, "Welcome Rivendell College." It is such a sad sign, reflecting little pride in what the church has to offer passersby.

Church signs can be welcoming and engaging, or downright unfriendly. The letters on many signs are too small to read from the street. An effective sign makes it easy for visitors to figure out when they need to show up.

My favorite church sign dates back to 2003. In the baseball playoffs, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs were still in the running for the World Series. A church sign read, "Red Sox vs. Cubs. There is a God." I went to church there the very next Sunday.

Effective ministry...

In his book, The Habits of Highly Effective Churches, George Barna writes, "Effective ministry fosters significant and continual changes in how people live. When your church consistently facilitates a personal metamorphosis among its people, it is operating in the realm of effectiveness."

This is not often the case. Clergy and lay leaders usually do not believe they can challenge the way church members lead their daily lives. In turn, most congregants do not view the church as having any authority over them in this regard.

Something for everyone...

"Gradually, a plan took shape. Our goal was to transform our community. The rough idea included the significance of lay ministry, as well as the expectation that each church member would find a place of service."

Ah, such a simple yet profound idea.

Sue Mallory, from The Equipping Church

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An essential office function...

A minister recently said he was distressed because a letter from a parishioner went unnoticed. The parishioner was concerned about an issue at church, and upset that the minister had not responded.

Office staff should open and date-stamp all correspondence, including mail to the minister, unless it is marked personal or confidential. If mail is personal or confidential, office staff should date-stamp the envelope and notify the minister immediately.

Opening and date-stamping mail is a common practice in nonprofit and business entities, ranging in size from very small to extremely large. This is an important office policy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A capital idea...

I encourage clergy to ask congregants to give to the church's outreach efforts the same amount of money they spend on holiday gifts. This helps people of all generations give and receive in correct proportion.

This request to give does not require a board vote or a congregational meeting. This idea can be introduced at any time during the holiday season, and even beyond.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Presbyterian follies...

Some Presbyterians don't believe in Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and thus maintain when Adam and Eve were created, they were immediately issued the regulation church tie and denominational handbag.

Also, a poll found there are more Americans (3.7 million) who believe they have been abducted by aliens than there are Presbyterians (2.5 million), so someone suggested that the General Assembly appoint a committee to study the aliens' methods.

Finally, some Presbyterians have been know to rearrange books on a shelf so all the colors of the spines will be complimentary.

Bob Reed, from How to Survive Being a Presbyterian

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The First Pulpit project...

This idea is just waiting to happen. I believe about two percent of churches could go through a process of discernment and take on a special ministry - to call only newly-graduated seminarians for their very first pulpit, for a period of no longer than five years, and to ensure that minister has a positive experience.

The Lilly Foundation funds a similar program, but seminarians are placed in large congregations, in a multi-staff environment. Smaller churches with only a sole pastor could play this role equally well. The ideal church is likely to be 125-175 at Sunday worship, not riven by conflict, generally healthy, but looking for a new and engaging role or purpose.

A tricky topic...

There was a sermon to prepare. There always was; and the one for this Sunday the minister was going to call, "On the Perils of Personal Vanity." A tricky topic, requiring discretion, as he was hoping with its teaching to head off a crisis that loomed on the ecclesiastical horizon regarding the purchase of a new organ.

The decision as to whether the church needed a new organ took on some significance; the organist, Doris Austin, was ready to view any opposition as an assault on her personal character - a stance irritating to those who had a natural hesitancy toward any change. Reverend Caskey was opposed to the organ, but said nothing publicly, only tried through his preaching to make people think.

Elizabeth Strout, from her novel Abide With Me

A new Sunday School curricula?

According to the Nielsen Group, children today between the ages of 2-5 view television, video games, and other forms of media about 33 hours each week. For children ages 6-11, that figure is about 28 hours per week.

Author and family therapist Mary Pipher once wrote, "Television teaches children values far more effectively than any church." A frightening thought. Can the church's religious education programs possibly address this issue?

Thanks to The Christian Century, December 15, 2009 issue.

Organizational affiliations are casual for many individuals, and a significant number of Christians view the church as just one more affiliation. This seems to be the only possible explanation for the high percentage of North American adults who nominally claim to be Christian, but whose beliefs have little or no power to shape their lives, let alone add value or significance to their communities.

Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church

Buyer's market religion?

The church has lost its ability to be a disciplined community because we're now, religiously, in a buyer's market. Christianity has to bill itself as very good for your self-realization, and that's killing us because we're not very good for your self-realization. We're good for your salvation, which is not the same thing.

Theologian Stanley Hauwerwaus, when asked about the church's lack of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. From The Christian Century, December 15, 2009.

The suspense of it all...

The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light, and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners entirely, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand.

The silence in the church is deafening because everyone is listening to it. Everyone is listening, including himself. Everyone knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?

Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Good place to meet a girl...

My parents' lives were shaped and sheltered by the Lutheran church and the intensely ordered culture of the near-north side of St. Louis. We had an understanding, my parents and I, that one could do no more nobly with one's life than to be a pastor.

My father met my mother by means of one of the great pickup lines of their era. After a social at the church, he followed her down St. Louis Avenue along the park to the streetcar stop. When he caught up to her, he said with the savoir-fare of a Lutheran Cary Grant, "Say, do you go to movies during Lent?"

Richard Lischer, Open Secrets

The satisfaction business...

People often harbor a basic misunderstanding about churches. They sometimes come into church and sit down in the same manner as they enter restaurants and performance halls; like spectators coming to enjoy what is being prepared for them, what is served up for their senses. Churches have adopted a satisfaction approach to their work, and this has not served them well.

As a result, most Americans have more experience being catered to than with the complex requirements of being a valued participant in a community of faith. Clubs, resorts, salons, and day spas are in the satisfaction business. Churches are not. Is that clear?

Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn, Living a Call: Ministers and Congregations Together

Strength for the journey...

A chronic form of ill health in the church is what we might call the trivialization of the church. It is nice, it is friendly, and on occasion it is
even touching. But in the end, nothing much is at stake. Nothing of ultimate significance is evident in the church's proclamation, faith, and life.

A healthy congregation is one where something important is at stake; where words and actions do matter; where lives are changed, healed, redirected to positive paths, and made new. Healthy congregations have steady, humble members who believe that what they are doing in and as the church matters, and matters a great deal. Otherwise, why bother?

Anthony Robinson, What's Theology Got To Do With It?

Lots of folks...

A recent survey revealed that 96 percent of Americans believe in God. We can explain this finding only when we grant that believing in God is rather easy. The concept of God can remain just that - a concept. This view of God is a "sacred blur."

We can refer to God and still sound theological, without severely compromising our worldliness or sophistication. Such a comfortably vague concept of God does not require much from us. We not only have little sense of what this God is like, but also few clues about what this God might expect of us.

Martin Copenhaver, To Begin at the Beginning: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An earlier era?

Back in the 1950s, the Big Three automakers offered Americans a choice between owning a Ford, a Chrysler, or a General Motors car. And so it was with religion -- the "big three" were being a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew. They held the franchise.

Since then, we've seen a period of hyper-evolution in automobiles, along with the meteoric rise of independent, nondenominational churches. Some are in small storefronts or in homes. Some have 15,000 members. But the message of too many traditional churches reflects the 1950s, along the lines of, "We like our Fords, Chevrolets, and Chryslers, and everyone else should like them, too."

Alas, many traditional churches tend to believe that those Toyotas, Hondas, and hybrid cars in the parking lot do not exist. Or if they do, surely they are of an inferior quality to what we offer.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Something old, something new...

New members, especially younger generations, prefer to create anew rather than perpetuate the old. Alas, most congregations, in Lyle Schaller's view, wish for young people to act like old people, and blend into the woodwork. But new members often feel like aliens when they join a standing committee of long-term members.

This raises an interesting question. In your church, is there anything new to do? If not, who decides what something new might be? A simple exercise is to ask congregants, "I wish our church could..." This may result in a very engaging list of ministries that newcomers might just claim as their own. Give those new members a long leash.

Exploring new territory...

The novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a memoir from a minister to his young son. The minister writes of his own father, who was also a minister. He said, "My father had nowhere to spend his courage, nowhere to feel it in himself. This was a great pity."

In churches today, do we help people find and spend their courage? In too many congregations, the tendency is to follow the familiar path. But St. John of the Cross wrote that those who seek God will follow a familiar path, but that path will end and there will be no path.

This is my hope for churches today, that they intentionally explore uncharted territory, and engage segments of the population previously unknown.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

From the pulpit...

Preaching deals with fundamental themes such as identity, anxiety, desire, fear, greed, love, and death. Preaching that does not respond to the needs of the human condition is irrelevant, no matter how scholarly, pious, or eloquent it may be.

Rev. Peter Gomes, Harvard University

Mark Twain and church...

It was pretty ornery preaching -- all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon. It did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.

From Huckelberry Finn