Lifecycles: The Life and Death of Congregations

William Shakespeare reminded us about the reality of life’s cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death in his play Henry IV, when he wrote, “We all owe God a death.”  No matter how hard we try, death is a reality for all living things. We can keep fit, avoid vices, take our vitamins and perhaps have some effect on stretching the life cycle out a bit. But, then again, those efforts may not slow death’s approach at all.

The same truth about life’s cycle applies to organizations, nations, governments, ideas, institutions and even congregations. Rome began, grew, matured and after some centuries, died. The Soviet Union fell. American Motors no longer makes Ramblers in Kenosha. I’m pretty sure the congregation founded by Paul in Corinth is no longer open for worship. Organizations can, however, have much more control over the length of the life-cycle than we humans possess. Congregations can move out of maturity and decline and redefine, redevelop, or be reborn to meet that changes that are pushing it into decline. It is not easy; it is not without cost. The longer an organization declines, the harder it is to go through some renewal. If one waits long enough to change, to bear the pain, to catch a new vision, the harder and less likely it is that death can be avoided. The chart below paints a picture of this phenomenon:

life cycle 2

Holy Trinity has been around for over 60 years. We have seen growth and we have embraced stability. These are good things. For some in our community, there is fear that we are declining and death is in our future. Some worry that other growing congregations will take all our members. That is highly unlikely. Others worry that change and acting faithfully will make folks mad and they will leave. Still others long for “good old days” – where things always seem better and the skies are not cloudy all day.

When I see nearly 300 kids and over a hundred volunteers come for VBS, I have to say I don’t worry about any imminent demise. The real causes of decline and death in a congregation is that it becomes more concerned about its survival than its mission. It is that plain and simple. The picture above reminds us that returning to our mission brings life. The choice we face as a congregation that has stabilized and matured is whether we will make the effort to be renewed and reborn through the power of the Spirit, or will accept the forces of gravity and begin a hopefully dignified decline into death.  Will we take survival as our mission – which is no mission at all? Or will we lay aside or anxiety and fear and see where God wants to take us? What do you think we should do?

 

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.

Boston Bombings: What Do We Do?

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Grace and peace to you in the name of the blessed, Holy Trinity.

As you have likely heard, today the Boston Marathon was the target of two bombs that left two dead and quite a few injured.  While the story continues to unfold, there are few concrete details other than the knowledge that death and suffering have once again come as a result of the apparently intentional acts of humans bent on harming other humans.  Our first reactions are emotional, of course.  An event like this evokes fear, terror, grief and the memory of past events.  Certainly we all experience shock at yet another example of violence.

I would ask first and foremost that we all engage in prayer to the Lord of the Resurrection, the Prince of Peace. Pray for victims and their families; for first responders and ER nurses and doctors; for law enforcement officials and our government as they try to understand and discern what has happened. Pray also for your own sense of peace and for faith to drive out the fear that can grip us when we feel attacked. Our nation will likely show a lot of rage in the days ahead.  The “peace that passes all understanding” and comes through the power of the Holy Spirit will provide calm in the storm. Through the peace of Christ we will not feed the rage or the fear.  Also – and this is the hard part – pray for the people or person who set off the bombs. God calls us to pray for our enemies.  But, this is not an act of passive or pious works that gain us favor before God.  Praying for our enemies is the first, and very powerful act of bringing peace and redemption.  The judgement of those who do violence belongs to God.  We will not add to their violence with our own call for revenge or retribution. So, pray – please.

Perhaps you are wondering why God would let this happen. Know that God is not in the bombing business. When we look at God revealed to us in the Christ of the cross we see one who is suffering with us – with the victims and the dead and grieving. We also see one who overcomes evil, suffering and death not through violent response, but by redemptive suffering; by taking the evil on, unmasking it for what it is, and by overcoming it through new life and resurrection.  You don’t have to understand how that all works, just look to Jesus and see that it does!

Perhaps you feel fear because it seems like this could happen to any of us at anytime.  On the one hand, that may be true.  We are not as safe as we think each day.  However, it is also true that violence does not befall all of us.  Death however is real for each. In Christ we have nothing to fear of what he conquered by his resurrection.

Perhaps you don’t know what to tell you kids. Tell them the truth, answer their questions and witness to the hope and faith you know — even if you don’t have a good handle on it at the moment.

Remember what the angels say time and agin in scripture; remember what God tells Moses as the Egyptian Army closes on them; remember what Jesus tells the disciples when it seems the boat will sink -DO NOT BE AFRAID, I AM WITH YOU.  Perhaps the words of a song we used in Advent will be helpful. They are by David Haas, based on Isaiah 43 and used her with permission:

You Are Mine

I will come to you in the silence,
I will lift you from all your fear.
You will hear my voice,
I claim you as my choice.
Be still and know I am here.

I am hope for all who are hopeless
I am eyes for all who long to see.
In the shadows of the night,
I will be your light.
Come and rest in me. Refrain

Refrain
Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me,
I will bring you home;
I love you and you are mine.

I am the Word that leads all to freedom,
I am the peace the world cannot give.
I will call your name,
embracing all your pain.
Stand up, now walk and live!”  Refrain

Text: David Haas, b. 1957

Text 1991 GIA Publications, Inc., 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. http://www.giamusic.com. 800.442.3358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Thanksgivings and Blessings

So, I was thinking my first order of business in this blog post is to say “Thank you!”  I asked for input about whether this was a helpful resource in your faith journey and your answers were gracious, affirming and informative.  Just what I needed to know as I think about what to think about in the days and weeks ahead!

Some of the feedback encouraged me to keep thinking as I have been.  So, I will continue to look around the headlines and the culture and see where faith seems to have something to say.  Some of you had some ideas for specific topics and I will work hard to come up with meaningful thought about these things.  A couple of you offered that you wanted to hear more about biblical insights, perhaps from the weekly lessons.  That makes me think that maybe a separate blog about the lessons might be helpful — weigh in on this if you think it an interesting project.

So, I was also thinking that this is Holy Week – the holiest time of the Christian year in many ways. It is a time like no other to ponder what Christ means to us in our daily lives.  It is a time to intensify our worship pattern as we gather on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and for the Vigil on Saturday at 7 PM to walk with our Lord as he loves us with every drop of life and beyond.

I am, each year, reminded of an ancient part of the observance of Good Friday called the “Solemn Reproaches.”        Each reproach begins with the voice of our Lord – “O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.”  Then the prayer proclaims some of the many ways God has blessed us and loved us.  And the people say, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.”  It is all we really can say in response to the question.  God blesses. We rebel.  God blesses, we forget. God blesses.

Let me leave you with two of the Solemn Reproaches that stick with me:

O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.  I opened the waters to lead you to the promised land, but you opened my side with a spear; I washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.  I lifted you up to the heights, but you lifted me high on a cross; I raised you from death and prepared for you the tree of life, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.

May the God who loves you enough to do all these things bless you with grace and mercy this week, and all the days of your life.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

One Foot in the Grave, the Other Searching for Solid Ground

So, I was thinking some more about the Church this week. I was thinking that it seems like we have one foot in the grave (see The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church post from last week) and the other searching for solid ground.  A dysfunctional family, a failing organization, an individual with all kinds of problems all find it easier to stay dysfunctional, to continue to fail, to live with problems than change.  It is not because people in these situations are stubborn or stupid. It is often because not only is change difficult, but even the act of imagining a different way of doing things is beyond our reach. Everyone thinks that things as they are represent “normal.” But as Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” “Normal” is a state of slavery to the past, it is a state of complacency and comfort – even if it brings death.

If you have ever watched the show Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network you can see the power that “normal” has over people who really want to succeed, but can’t.  Each episode brings the burly, Australian chef, Robert Irvine into a failing restaurant to see if he can turn things around. He is often abrasive and intolerant, mostly because he has to be.  You have to kill off “normal” before you can move ahead.  He rarely suggests radical things – other than remodeling the place.  He demands good food, healthy and responsible staff. committed leaders.  Usually all of these are lacking because the “normal” that has been established has normalized poor quality, low standards, lazy work and clueless leadership.  I often wonder if we could get this guy to do a show called “Church Impossible.”

So, I was thinking about “normal” in the Church and comparing that to what seem to be some core realities of the emerging world around us. I draw thoughts on emergence reality from studies from the Pew Forum on Religion systems theory and people like Phyllis Tickle in her book Emergence Christianity and Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity to name just a couple of sources.  My thoughts here are not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination.  Just an exercise in trying to imagine a new way of being the Church.

“Normal” in the Church is neat, tidy, familiar – even if it does not work. The emerging world is messy, confusing, and unfamiliar.  It calls every assumption into question.

“Normal” is thinking of the Church as an institution that plays a role in shaping culture, or as an organization that must be sustained. Today, institutions are losing their grip as expressions of collective wisdom and power. There is a general mistrust of institutions of all kinds and shapes, even government and higher education. You may be thinking, “But what else could the Church be but an institution, a denomination, an organization?” (See how hard it is to imagine the new?)  Well, the Church was not always an institution of culture. In its earliest form, the Church was the followers of Jesus, hiding from culture. The Bible often tells us of not institutions, but families as expressions of God’s people in the world. The emergent reality seems to be that we will not create institutions to further our principles and visions.  It will be (and is already becoming) the other way around.  People of shared commitments, visions and commitments come together in covenant.  Networks of small groups, individuals working together on a common mission, relationships expressed in a shared vision of life – these all create community, but not through an institution.  They can later become institutionalized, but that is a different matter. Lutherans should know this.  We are not Lutherans because of institutions like the ELCA, LCMS, LWF or other alphabet soup organizations.  We are Lutherans, in a messy and diverse manner, through common confession of faith as articulated in the Book of Concord. Common values, beliefs, vision and mission will tie people together more than organizational structures and that will provide solid ground.

“Normal” is thinking that science and “religion” are at odds with one another; that scientific knowledge is the enemy of faith. The advent of the “modern age” was tough on the Christian faith.  It poked holes in biblical stories and challenged the cosmic and moral vision of scripture. A war broke out that still rages – creationism or evolution; scientific fact vs. religious belief.  Emergent thinking embraces scientific reality AND seeks spiritual dimensions of life in a unified manner.  The “normal” Church standing firm against scientific realities makes the Church irrelevant and look foolish. If forced to make a choice between faith and science (a false choice) people will ultimately choose science because they want drugs that make them better and technology to improve their lives. Putting science and faith in dialogue and synthesizing meaning for life from both is a path to solid ground.

“Normal” is stating ultimate truths as monologue. The institution of the Church, for centuries, spoke with a singular voice of authority on moral and religious matters. There was one answer to every question. Today, people leave the church in droves precisely because it speaks in this fashion.  That is because in our age, dialogue is valued over monologue, and contextual realities teach us that what is true in one place is not always the same someplace else.  It is true in science, where we know that the observer asserts influence over the observation. It is true in all other areas of life. The strident tones of TV evangelists and preachers who pronounce eternal truths (and then break their own rules) will not sustain us. Dialogue, honoring context and allowing for multiple interpretations seems essential to finding solid ground.

“Normal” is not technological. The Church still seems to think one of two things: Either technology is a passing fad and so it needs no attention; or that technology is a savior and will solve all our problems. These are two sides to the same coin.  Neither takes the challenge of technology seriously.  Technology is not just making churches use email, Facebook and text messages. It is not just screens and video in worship. Technology is changing the way we relate to each other; it is redefining the way in which we interact with the world. Technology is shaping our brains to receive information and remember in different ways. It calls for us to re-think our faith in ways we never imagined.  Solid ground will not be found if we ignore technology.

“Normal” is homogeneous.  Through common doctrine, common traditions and rituals, the goal of Christian community was to create a unified community. The result in today’s world is that “church” in nearly any form, does not reflect the racial, economic, intellectual, cultural diversity of the culture. We don’t know how to be a congregation unless everyone looks, acts, thinks, and believes the same way. But that homogeneous vision can’t be realized.  It will not give us a path to solid ground.

“Normal” is expecting that everyone wants what you offer. In the movie Field of Dreams a voice said, “Build it and they will come.” So, a guy built a ball field in Iowa and they came. The Church used to, and still does try to, operate that way.  If you started a little church and hung a sign out front that said Lutheran, all the Lutherans would come. That was because everyone wanted what you were offering. If you gave them a cup of coffee and welcomed the people who looked just like you into your group, they stayed. That was enough hospitality. That is no longer the case. Many are not looking for what we offer.  If they do come, they come checking us out — are we doing what we say? Are we living out the life we proclaim? They are looking for transformed lives and they want to find people whose live have been transformed. In addition, when they come, it takes more than a cup of coffee and a doughnut to connect. Newcomers are looking for healing and hope and they need deep friendships and meaningful involvement that changes the world.  Radical hospitality that welcomes people into our lives, not just our lobbies is a path to solid ground.

“Normal” tries to maintain distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, in and out keeping the world neatly black or white. Sadly that is not how people view the world today – maybe they never did.  Life is paradox, it is gray, neither black or white.  Good guys and bad guys look the same.  Solid ground will be found in finding how we live in the “muddle of the middle.”

So, that is what I have been thinking about the challenge of having one foot in the grave and the other gingerly seeking solid ground.

Pax Christi – Pastor Tim

The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition.  I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing.  You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.

When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t.  5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972.  Today it is 16%.  People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation   This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.

More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society).  The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years).  Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week.  Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.

The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious.  The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:

¨The Way Things Were
  • You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
  • Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
  • Christian faith was expected of most everyone
  • Institutions played an important part in our lives
  • Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
  • Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
Look at how things have changed:
¨The Way Things Are
  • People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
  • Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic.  So, spirituality is about living daily
  • Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
  • Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
  • Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
  • Keeping the faith = living with integrity
The Church, as we remember it, even as we long for it, is dead, mostly.  But that is not “bad news.”  God is faithful and the Spirit is always moving.  We have the challenge and blessing to be living in an age when the Spirit is rewriting, re-imaging what it means to be the Church.  To be part of that means we will need to wander in the wilderness (sounds familiar) we’ll have to change our attitudes (not the first time), We will have to live our faith in a way we have not for some time (likely a refreshing change).  We will have to adapt the way we engage in mission to the reality of our world.
The great news is that God gives life to the Church in every age.  The Church may suffer many deaths, but God is in the resurrection business.  So what do you think about the death, and the life of the Church today… and tomorrow?
Pax Christi,
Pastor Tim

Life in the Blender: Changing the Church in a Changing World

So, I was thinking that one of the biggest causes of anxiety and fear today (at least for me – but I don’t think I’m alone) is the pace and depth of change. Change to every aspect of life happens at a dizzying pace.  The changes are not minor adjustments, they are huge shifts in the way we think, work, eat, spend, and yes – worship & believe.  It is as if somebody stuffed the world as we know it in a blender and pressed the highest speed — and left it there!

Think about just a few things: In 1900 there were less than 10,000 cars in the US.  We send 247 billion emails every single day. 20 years ago most of us didn’t know what email was. The youngest among us believe that email is a dinosaur and use it less and less. I got my first cellphone in 1996. In 2000 there were 93 million cell phones. Ten years later it was 293 million. I typed my first term papers in college on a portable typewriter.  Then I moved to a “PC” – which is now obsolete, replaced by my smartphone and tablet.  In 1970, nearly 90% of the American population was “white.”  In 2008, less than 75% were “white.”  By 2050 it will be closer to 50%.  College educations and home ownership, two foundations of middle-class stability, are in serious decline.

Welcome to life in the blender. Change is the agenda for every day in the world around us. It is an exhausting way of life.  It is then very natural and expected that we will come to church hoping to avoid the whirling blades of change. After all, as the Bible declares, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) The world can change, but leave the church alone, we might declare.  Unfortunately, Jesus also says: “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) 

So, the reality is that church has to go in the blender too. There is no way to insulate ourselves from the change, or somehow just wish it would go away. Consider just a few facts: The fastest growing group in the religious landscape are “nones” – those who claim or desire no religious affiliation. The growth in the ranks of “nones” comes from previous church members. We often think that when someone leaves our congregation they go somewhere else.  The fact is that up to 90% just leave and go nowhere. In 1980, most of your neighbors went to church on Sunday morning. You are a serious minority when you pull out of the drive and head to church today. 25-40% of Christian congregations will not exist in the next decade or two.  Of the 4-5 generations that could inhabit the church today, we are losing (or have lost) 3.5. Studies show that when young people disappear after confirmation or high school graduation, they do not often return when they start raising families.  Welcome to the church in the blender.

I know by now you are saying “Thanks for completely ruining my day.” That is not my intent.  The fact is that the church, and the world, have been through the blender before and God has always made some tasty dish out of the mixture. Change is not evil, nor is it the enemy, it just is what it is.  How we respond is the challenge is the crucial issue.  Sadly, while everything in the world has changed, the reaction of the church has been to make its mission to stay the same, which makes us irrelevant.

Over the next several weeks, we are moving into the 5th and final section of Foundations – the course on the Christian faith that meets every Wednesday evening.  In this module, called Our Calling, we will look at the changes that we face and examine how we answer God’s call to change both as a congregation and as individual disciples.  We will work to discern where we are going and what God is calling us to do.  If you have been curious, frustrated, angered, worried about the changes around us and in the church, come and join us.  If you would like to be part of the discussion about how we respond to the changes in this world as a congregation, come and join us.  We meet at 6 PM on Wednesday in the sanctuary.

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim