Church Growth (?)

Friends, In 2012 I was ordained as a pastor in the ELCA. In those four years, we centered on what’s truly central: God’s Good News to the world in Jesus Christ. Did we have discussions on church growth? Sure. But the focus was on “equipping the saints” (whether in New Start Congregations – aka Mission Developments, or in standing congregations – aka Mission Redevelopments) to foster life-giving relationships among one another, but also to serve God by serving the neighbor. That’s pretty much the mission of God, and there’s lots of scriptural backup for that. Read the New Testament for specific examples.

So that’s my training. I’ve done Mission Development Training, Mission Redevelopment Training, followed “Grasshopper Myth” authors, authors who assure us that “Dirt Matters.” I’ve read the Great Permission. I’ve read about emotional systems theory and conflict transformation. I’ve trained in pastoral care. I’ve trained in biblical languages, exegesis, homiletics, systematic theology, dogmatic theology, philosophy, anthropology, atonement theology, creation theology, stewardship, and a whole doggone bunch of things you probably have never really considered.

But when you get to the parish, the main things people tend to be hoping for are comforting those already gathered into the congregation and then getting more people into the congregation so that we can keep on doing what we’ve grown comfortable with. That’s understandable. It’s human. But is it what GOD wants? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s what we’re looking at. Without going into TOO much detail, following WWII, we saw people grappling with a second “War to End All Wars” within two generations. People were struggling with the depth of human depravity that would allow an entire nation to exterminate a perceived enemy and to do so in the most cool, calculated, inhumane ways possible. People were facing the aftermath of that war and the growth of “godless communism” in Eastern Europe and the Far East. With a mixture of hope and hopelessness, folks turned to the church. And so the years after the War saw a massive rise in church membership – something that hadn’t really ever existed on such a scale before. And they were taking their children, the so-called Baby Boomers, with them to church.

There were a LOT of Baby Boomers. They tended to grow up in one of two ways: they became extremely suspicious of institutions and raised children to be even MORE suspicious than they were, OR they stayed with the church, developed programs to attract (or bring back) seekers, who knew that suspicion wasn’t the best approach to life, and reminded them of their own childhood religion. Nostalgic comfort. I don’t mean it wasn’t sincere. By no means! But it did have to do with comfort and what was perceived as tradition, even though church membership following WWII was actually a novelty.

Well, ever since the late 1950s, church membership has been in decline. Yes, we have flare ups from time to time, particularly following great tragedies. Presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks, things of that nature. But the general trend in church membership has been on a downward track for decades. That feels threatening.

In the 1980s, we saw the rise of the “religious right.” And we saw many of their hero pastors fall to money and sex scandals. We turned to CEO pastors, who began treating the church like a business with a product to sell. That’s kind of the model we’ve been stuck in for the last 40 years.

We love our congregations. We want them to continue. And in an effort to make sure that happens, we grasp at every trend that comes along. Sunday School indoctrination, VBS, singles programs, widow/widower programs, small group programs, every conceivable program there is. We are literally “anxious” about the downward trend, and we will sell our souls if we have to in order to keep alive this institution we’ve poured so much of ourselves into.

Do our institutions “deserve” to continue? I don’t know. Probably. As a collective body, a congregation has a lot of good it can do in a community, but anxiety gets in our way. The will to survive often stands in the way of the need to thrive. As pastors called into struggling congregations (as if that term weren’t redundant), we feel the anxiety, too. It rubs off on us. And we depend for our own livelihoods on financially sound congregations. Let’s face that reality. And so it’s easy for us to get sucked into conversations and pressures to “grow the church.” Everyone is looking for a magic bullet approach.

The good news is, I’ve got one. If you want to “grow the church” by “attracting young families with children,” all you have to do is look to the non-denominational model. Take out the pews. Put in big screens. Host events on Saturdays, Sundays, and/or Wednesdays that a pastor either pre-records or broadcasts from offsite, and intersperse that pastor’s message with a band that plays electrified guitar praise music. Put in a coffee bar. Maybe add a rock wall and a video arcade in order to attract the kids’ attention. That’s what’s working and that’s the “magic bullet” for growing the church’s numbers. Period.

The less good news, or maybe the question that problematizes the good news: Is that what you want? More importantly, is that what GOD wants? I suspect that anyone reading this blog would say, “Not just no, but HELL no!” And I’m with you. What people WANT is to be catered to. That goes for the ever-elusive young families with children, AND it goes for the saints who already sit in our pews.

Those of us already here have strong ideas about what we want in a pastor, for example: young, married, straight, white men or women, who will sacrifice their families for the sake of the membership. We want pastors who will sacrifice their very selves in order to fit into our preconceived notions of what a pastor ought to be (pedestal dwellers, who don’t cuss, who don’t drink, who don’t sin, moral exemplars for us to follow … and then to demonize when they fail to live up to our unrealistic expectations). They should know when we are sick or sad or hospitalized without our having to inform them of it. They shouldn’t be too pushy or intrude on our private lives. They shouldn’t talk about money, but they need to help us be good financial stewards. They shouldn’t talk about politics, but they should let us rant and rave about our political opinions.

Those of us already here have strong opinions about what our worship should be. Solemn but fun, worshipful but easygoing, traditional but flexibile, at the right time of day that doesn’t interfere with our non-church lives and dinners and football games, filled with inspiring music that isn’t too old-fashioned or too repetitive or too “modern.” There should be options for Communion elements: we should have wafers for those who don’t like the bread and bread for those who don’t like the wafers. There should be a gluten free option for those who have celiac disease, but don’t make all the rest of us who don’t have that condition suffer with a gluten free wafer. There should be grape juice for those of us who struggle with alcohol (which the pastor doesn’t struggle with because he or she doesn’t drink), but wine for those of us who grew up on wine at communion. It should be red wine, sweet but not too sweet, dry but not too dry. We should have the traditional liturgy we grew up with, but not done in a boring, rote, repetitive way.

Visitors should be like us when it comes to worship. They should love our liturgy, our vestments, our liturgical colors, our lectionary cycle, our songs, and while they may have their own preferences, eventually they’ll come to know and love us and will worship exactly as we do (even though not all of us are actually very comfortable with everything in our worship). Oh, but all are welcome!

I could go on, but you get my drift. After this lengthy preamble, I just have this to say: It’s not about us or our wants or our comfort. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Or as Jesus said many centuries before Bonhoeffer, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” “Take up your cross and follow me.”

We are anxious about losing our life – our congregational life, our comfortable faith life. That anxiety stands directly in the way of our finding our life. Our REAL life. Our BIGGER life. The one GOD wants for us. Not the smaller one we have cultivated and curated for ourselves. If we can lay that anxiety aside, put our trust in Christ … who, after all, is the ONLY one who can “grow the church” … then we will be free to focus on what it is that HE wants us to do. We already know WHO/WHAT he wants us to be: his disciples. Loving one another as he has loved us. Serving him by serving our neighbors. If we do THAT, we will surely attract all kinds of people, including the ever-sought-but-ever-so-scarce families with children.

The rest of this is just preferences. Distraction. Light as a puff of empty air.

Sermon notes: parable of the widow and judge

After the service today, a parishioner told me that her hearing aid had broken and she didn’t catch everything I said. Would I give her a copy of my manuscript, please? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t use a manuscript today, but I said I’d offer up my sermon notes, such as they were. That’s what you have here.

But I also wanted to say a couple of other things: First, this sermon was deeply inspired by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter on the Judge and the Widow in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. The whole book takes on the topic of anti-Semitic prejudices spewed from the pulpit (often unwittingly so), the ripping out of context of the various parables in a lectionary setting, and the seeming need to domesticate parables by turning them into analogies or fables or some other form of story with easily identifiable moral examplars. Levine warns preachers against doing that.

Second, with that in mind, I struggled in writing this sermon. With the ideas of justice, vengeance, persistence, prayer and so on so abundant in this parable, I really, really wanted to make this a social justice sermon. It would fit so easily, and this was my first inclination. I know a lot of preachers will have done that this weekend, and I don’t blame them. On the other hand, with Levine fresh in my mind, I really needed to preach a sermon that disturbed and challenged preconceived notions about this parable. In the end, I know there was ambiguity in the message I delivered, but I do think there was also challenge in the sense that our parable doesn’t give us any clear role models to be found in either the judge OR the widow. The only model we have, finally, is Jesus himself, who is THE righteous judge who refuses to judge (Luke 12:14, John 5:21 – 25; 8:15-16 where Jesus illuminates human history by the criterion of the victim who is the judge AS victim, and whose judgment is mercy, ultimately).

So, with those things out of the way, here’s a bit of the notation. Make of it what you will.

We read the entire lectionary passage, Luke 18:1-8, but re-read and focused on just vv 2-5, because this is the parable proper, without any commentary by Luke or Luke’s Jesus. Just the bare bones of the story.

What is a parable?
(Someone said it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.)

Story.
Stories have 5 basic parts. (People named them: Theme, Setting, Characters (Antagonist and Protagonist), Action or Conflict that drives the final element, Plot. We mentioned that there’s sometimes a title in a regular story, but parables are a bit different: In the original manuscripts, there is no title, which is a good thing, because when we impose a title on a parable, we’re revealing something about what we think the story is about, who the protagonist and antagonist are, etc.

This parable is set in “a certain city” (that is, just some nameless city. Could be anywhere) some time in the past (indicated by the past tense verb “was”).

The characters include a judge, a widow, and the widow’s adversary.

The conflict occurs between the widow and her adversary, an between the widow and judge (and vice versa). When prompted, 3 people picked with widow as the likely protagonist. Nobody picked the judge, which leads me to believe that about 39 people abstained from the vote. 🙂

We identified the plot in the following way: There was a judge whom a widow kept pestering to grant her vengeance against an adversary. At first the judge refused, but eventually he relented, because he wanted the widow to stop giving him work to do.

The theme wasn’t terribly clear apart from Luke’s “help.” It was a matter of interpretation, and how we interpret it reveals something about us and about what we believe about the character of God (given that Jesus was telling the parable).

Protagonist and Antagonist?
People weren’t confident choosing.
I asked what a first century audience might have thought about which was which by asking, “What do we know about widows? What do we know about judges?”

Most people said that widows are marginal characters, oppressed, lacking rights, vulnerable.

But we mentioned several passages from the scriptures that indicated how widows (along with orphans and aliens) are a protected class, preferred somehow by God as vulnerable people.

People noted that judges were a bit of a mixed bag: meant to be righteous, but that was the ideal. Many were appointed injudiciously and were corrupt.

Then we challenged both of the preconceived notions we have about widowns and judges: THIS widow of the parable doesn’t appear helpless or voiceless. If anything, it’s the opposite. We don’t know that she’s financially oppressed. She couuld be well off, but the text doesn’t tell us. It just speaks of her persistence against an adversary, whom, frankly, we don’t know is a “bad guy,” either. Maybe her complaint against this adversary against whom she seeks vengeance (not “justice”) is itself unjust.

We know a little about the judge. He neither fears God (which the scriptures tell us we ought to do) nor does he regard human beings. Not fearing God need not be construed negatively: We can have very good Atheist judges, or Muslim or Buddhist or any other kind of judge, who does his or her duties conscientously and justly.

And it’s possible to construe this judge’s disregard of humans in a positive light – he can’t be swayed to injustice by reputation or wealth or anything else. Isn’t that what we desire in a neutral, objective judge?

But this judge finally IS corrupted by the widow’s persistence. Not by the justness of her cause, but simply because she’s a pain in the neck and he wants to get rid of her.

What we end up with between these 2 characters is no clear moral example to follow. Neither widow nor judge is CLEARLY in the right.

And with this kind of ambiguity, we’re left to wrestle with the parable. We’re left to allow it to disturb and challenge our presuppositions. We’re left seeking some kind of way to let this story by Jesus lead us to an ethic that can’t be found among people, but CAN be found in him — in his life, his teachings, his ministry, where the things that comprised HIS ethic were things like love, forgiveness, reconciliation. It’s also what we find in his death (Father forgive them) and his resurrection (Peace I give you, not as the world gives).

Once Luke puts in his two cents — that this is about persistent prayer, that this story can only be understood as an allegory where we are the widow and God is the judge who will do what we ask him if we just pester him enough (Prosperity Gospel, anyone?) — he really ends up killing the joke, domesticating the parable, solving the puzzle for us so that we don’t get to do the work that Jesus intended us to do.

At the end of the sermon, people DID seem baffled, disturbed, and challenged. Mission accomplished. 🙂

Sermon manuscript (more or less accurate)

Pentecost 13 or something C
28 August 2016
Luke 14: 1-14ish

In John’s Gospel
Jesus defines himself as the True and Living Way
Or as our translations usually state it:
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Both of those are valid translations from the Greek
And they can both mean the same thing.

Some people will say that it means
There is no other way to God than through Jesus.
I can get on board with that,
And John seems to bear that out in other places,
But that’s not what I want to focus on today.
It’s a good discussion for another time.

What I DO want to highlight here
Is that Jesus is telling us
That he has an ethic —
A way of behaving in the world.
And as his followers
His disciples
His students
He is the one we’re called to imitate.

We imitate one another all the time,
But that doesn’t do a lot of good
Because our imitation of one another all too often turns to rivalry
Which can lead to resentment and damaged relationships
And even, in extreme cases, to violence and death.

But we’re called to learn from Jesus,
This living and true path
To turn away from imitation of one another
And towards HIM.

Case in point,
The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading.

When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast,
do not sit down in a place of honor.

First of all, I should point out this idea of a marriage feast.
When Jesus talks about a marriage feast,
We ought to keep in mind that he’s talking about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like a marriage feast.
There’s an eschatalogical component to Jesus’ teachings about weddings
And feasts and banquets
And it goes back to Isaiah’s prophecies
Concerning feasts where the poor and hungry will be fed and so on.

Anyway, we should always keep that in the backs of our minds.

But
When you’re invited to a marriage feast
Don’t sit down in a place of honor.

Why?

Lest someone greater be invited to take YOUR seat
And you will be shamed and will be seated at a less honorable place.
That would be awkward, wouldn’t it?

No, when you’re invited, go to the lowest place
So that when the host comes and sees you there,
He’ll say, “No, you move up to a higher place.”
That way you’ll be honored in front of everyone.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that you’ll displace someone else,
Causing THAT person DISHONOR or SHAME:
Just that you will be invited to greater honor.

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled
And he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Whoever claims honor for himself will find shame
But those who begin in humility will be honored.

See how Jesus is playing honor and shame off of one another?

We Westerners don’t really understand honor and shame
In the same way that people in other cultures do.
We’re too individualistic to really “get it,”
Because we care less about what THE GROUP
Or the rest of the culture thinks about us,
As long as we have our self-esteem, right?

Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
C’est la vie.

Adolescents probably get shame more than we adults do.
When we’re teenagers, our peers’ opinions matter a LOT,
Which is why so many people despair when bullies
Fat shame them
Or thin shame them
Or slut shame them
Or any permutation of that phenomenon.

It feels like permanent judgment to adolescents
But most of us,
When we get out of high school
Learn to take all that stuff in stride and move on.

That’s what Western society teaches us to do.
And there’s some good in that.

But that’s not the case in the Middle East, for example.
To be moved from a place of honor to a LOWER status
Meant social death.
That’s what THEIR society taught them.
Do this, avoid that, so that you may maintain honor and stay away from shame.

Our imitation of culture in the west teaches us to blow it off
Because the individual is more important than the group.
The imigation of culture in the Middle East
Teaches people to take what the group says seriously
Because the collective is more important than the individual.

Imitation.
Jesus, the living and true way,
Is telling us to learn – not from culture, but from him.
Go to the place of least honor first.
Not because dishonoring ourselves is good,
But because claiming honor for oneself means the dishonoring of others.
It creates rivalry
That can lead to discord and violence.

Take yourselves out of that system
Is what Jesus is telling us.
Go to the bottom of the heap
And you will be exalted.

The last shall be first
And the first shall be last.

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.
Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is the ethic of God’s Kingdom.
Pour yourself out for the sake of the other.
That’s what Jesus did for us.

He had every right to claim the throne,
But instead he chose the cross.
And in doing so, he was lifted to the Father’s right hand
And given the name above all names.

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.
Not because it’s noble to suffer.
Not because it’s Good to be dishonored.
But because it’s the only way out of human rivalry that threatens to doom our species
And maybe all species on the planet.

As Americans, where do we claim the place of honor?
Most powerful nation on earth?
Maybe.
Once upon a time that was Rome.
Once upon a time that was Britain
And France
And Spain.
Where are they now?

Where else do we claim the place of honor?
In our rights?
I have the RIGHT to free speech.
I can say whatever I want, no matter how much it defames you.
There may be consequences to that, but I have the RIGHT to it!

I have the RIGHT to open carry my sidearm (and to dare and call it a peacemaker)
Even though the presence of this lethal technology might terrify and intimidate you.

I have the RIGHT to sue your ass off for some petty infringement on my liberties,
Even though doing so may bankrupt you and put you on the streets.

Our government has the RIGHT to defend its political and economic interests at home and abroad,
Even if it means a whole lot of “collateral damage.”

I have the RIGHT to an abortion,
Even though it snuffs out a human life,
Even while my neighbors might be suffering from infertility and wanting to share their love with an adopted baby.

(See, I’ll skewer the left as well as the right. Just so you know I’m trying to be “Fair and Balanced.”)

The point is,
We very often insist on our rights
Even when having them upheld means that others will suffer for it.

We’re ALL guilty of taking a seat in the place of honor
When taking a lower place would eliminate the curse of imitative rivalry.

The lowest place Jesus went was to the cross and to the grave,
Although he was God
He did not consider equality with God something to cling to
But rather he emptied himself
Taking the form of a slave
Taking the spot without honor at the table
He EMPTIED himself.
Of honor
Of dignity
Of his RIGHTS.

Let THIS mind be in you
that was also in him.

Amen.

[Inspired primarily by Michael Hardin’s lectionary commentary at Preaching Peace, and by Paul Neucherlein’s commentary on the Girardian Lectionary site.}