Monday, September 27, 2010

Helping People Understand and Discover

I just returned from a three day retreat in Indiana where I had plenty of time to create an environment of self reflection, lots of discussion, bible study and learning for a group of 50 people. It was about getting in touch with one's God-given passion, giftedness and call. The teachings were grounded in raising awareness of how the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us and is yearning to work through us so that others can see that glimpse of God. This is a new understanding for lots of Episcopalians to internalize. It has huge implications and becomes an avenue for spiritual growth or a barrier to it. Only on this foundation of understanding can one begin to discover and explore the possibilities of personal call to serve Christ. And call is so misunderstood in our denomination. It has been almost exclusively thought of in terms of those who feel called to ordination. We must help every person understand that God calls and equips them with passion and giftedness in addition to skill and innate talents and abilities.

There is alot of teaching, studying and discussion that needs to happen for people in our pews. This is foundational identity-in-God discernment. I think the church doesn't spend much time doing this work because it doesn't understand the value of it. And it is work. It is our loss because we don't emphasize discovery and discernment. Congregations will never be spiritually mature until the individuals in them do this critical stuff.

I think one of the reasons why leaders in congregations often act as if the church is just another non-profit is because they have never learned what differentiates the two. Leaders who understand the life changing call to be missional have a hugely different motivation to serve than leaders in non-profits. They are both about serving, but missionary leaders understand their call comes from God and doesn't eminate from any other need.

The 'aha' lightbulb moments this weekend were fun to watch. People began to say, "I now understand how God has uniquely made me for ministry." Holy visions surfaced, a number of persons left convicted with what they were called to do. I had a tremendous sense of gratitude knowing this effort was fruitful. Some told me it was "life changing."

There is lots of work to be done in our churches in this regard. I hope we will spend more time helping people understand and discover God's unique design on their lives. The results could be transformative and holy. What is more important than that?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Caring Enough

I was recently in a conversation with a young priest about his congregation. It is a young church with leaders who love it and want it to grow. It has much to offer in spirit and opportunity. Yet when I asked him how he gathers contact information about first time visitors he said, 'we are inconsistent, we try but aren't always successful.' I was really surprised and pondered on this response for a couple of days. Why wouldn't a young church with energy and potential not be more intentional about gathering information from visitors?

What does it say about a church that doesn't seem to care enough to put high priority into this task? Do they think they are being too pushy if they systematically do this? Is it one of many things needing to be done that just doesn't get done very well?

I decided to think about the visitor's perspective. Here is a person who screws up courage to visit a church they have never been to before. They might have impressions of what to expect born out of previous experiences with churches. Or perhaps this is a person who is so unchurched that this visit may be the first EVER to a church outside of a funeral or wedding.

The following might be a few thoughts running through this first time visitor's mind:

" The people seemed nice enough, but I was surprised that no one asked my name".
"I really didn't want anyone to approach me because I am not sure what I want. However, I left that church really not too impressed. I have no idea if there is anything there for me anyway."

"If they really are interested in me, you would think they would have taken down my contact information. I want to know more about the church and not sure what I need to do to find out. I guess I will visit their website. Maybe I will try again later."

Of course, these are just a few possible responses. But one thing is for sure, visitors have an unspoken expectation that they will find something that represents God at a church. Isn't God caring? Loving? Does God care about me? Isn't that what churches are supposed to do?

Not caring enough to capture contact information from visitors is like saying, 'we are doing well enough here without you'or 'we don't value your visit enough to respond to you'. Anyway you slice it, not caring enough to capture contact information and responding to it with at least a 'thank you for attending' says 'you really don't matter to us'. That is personal. That is counter to every thing we profess as Christians in terms of caring for others.

Let's raise our awareness of how well we do this critical 'welcome' ministry in our churches. It should be very high priority. It truly represents how much we really care.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Target Audience of 5 Year Olds

Yesterday I had the privilege of worshiping in a congregation that was celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding. What a turn around story!! This was a church that had a number of 'dark' experiences in its past. This was a church that lost much of its will to exist, falling from a congregation of about 100 average Sunday attendance in 2000 to about 45 souls struggling to hang on. Yesterday the church had 175 people in attendance, 40 of them children and youth.
What happened?

This is a classic example of faithful, mission minded leadership. A middle aged priest felt he was called to this church five years ago. He was so sure that God wanted him to go there that he and his wife put money down on a home near that location before he ever visited with the Bishop about having the opportunity to go there. This church, this move, would be 175 miles from his cure. He was certain God was calling him there and it was going to happen. Once he had the opportunity to visit with the Bishop about his hope to move he was told that the congregation simply couldn't afford a priest, it was an impossible situation. But two days later, the leaders of that church called the Bishop saying they were willing to take one last chance and offer up 6 months salary for a full time priest. The rest is history.

This priest had an inspired vision for this congregation which evolved around children. He set about to identify with the parishioners a new sense of mission, core values and a vision that focused on five year olds. He instilled a 'with God's help all things are possible' attitude. He worked to empower and release very talented parishioners for ministry. The church was spruced up. Much emphasis was put on invitation and welcome to newcomers. A comprehensive and very creative rotation Sunday School for children was established. Cheerful spaces were created for children of all ages. Families began to come, stay and get connected into relationships and ministries. The liturgy began to reflect the casual and contemporary style of the congregants. And the children became central to the closing of the main service every Sunday. A new practice of inviting children of all ages to come to the front of the church was encouraged. Baskets brimming with musical instruments and noise makers always await little hands to dive into for the selection of their choice. As the children pour into the front of the nave, some in mothers' arms, a cacophany of joyful noise builds to a crescendo as the recessional concurs. This precious moment is a powerful,joyful noise unto the Lord!

Watching this activity unfold yesterday made me reflect on the numerous congregations that lament that they have no children in attendance. I know there are no simple answers. But I also know the power of faithful, prayerful leaders who are determined to believe 'with God's help all things are possible'. This church is a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform a congregation. Focusing on five year olds has born great fruit.