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.

An Announcement

I had almost forgotten to make this announcement, because I was waiting until the folks at First Lutheran and Prince of Peace in Tulsa knew about it. But the letter is out, and the news is even “FBO” (Facebook Official): My family and I are about to become Floridians!

Bokeeelia, Florida

The good people of Christ Lutheran in Cape Coral, FL have extended me a call in their community, and I have accepted! This has been in the works for approximately two months now, and I won’t bore you with the whole story, much of which involved paperwork, telephone conversations, and Zoom meetings. (I won’t complain. The magic of Zoom is that it allows a speedier and much less costly Call process, if it’s conducted well. This one certainly was.)

It also included two trips down to Cape Coral. The first of which took place during the hideous snow storm we had here in Tulsa. When we left for the airport on the way to RSW airport, we faced freezing drizzle. By the time we were meant to return via St. Louis, TUL and OKC and even Dallas were frozen in, and so we were “stuck” in sunny Southwest Florida for several days, tortured repeatedly by beautiful weather, wining and dining by various council members, hospitality in multiple ways by others, and many sightings of Burrowing Owls and other gorgeous birds. It was awful. You would have hated it. Oh, and the seafood? It was fresh and delicious. Just so awful, you guys.

The second trip was similar, weather-wise, but we didn’t get to spend any extra time in Florida. That trip was a bit more business: meeting the rest of the congregation, locating a realtor, doing a little cruising in a borrowed Mini-Cooper and eating more seafood. (Somebody’s got to do it, and I guess we’ll take one for the team.)

In any case, things went well, obviously, and we begin our adventures together beginning on May 1. In the meantime, we’ve had to get home, endure a bit of waiting until the vote became official, informing the people here in Tulsa, starting to straighten up our home in preparation for placing it on the market. Did I mention that all of this is happening in the final weeks of Lent?

It has been crazy busy on both ends of this. The poor people back in Cape Coral have been jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops and ringing the bells in order to get my installation service set up at the same time that they’re planning their own congregation’s 60 year anniversary. It’s an interesting time, and our family is super excited to get down there.

At the same time, it’s hard saying goodbye to the place we’ve called home for the last eight years. We’ve met a lot of really great people here and have formed some friendships that are going to be hard to change by adding distance to the equation. People at church, people in the neighborhood, people at the kids’ school, people around town. It’s a bitter-sweet time, to be sure.

And hard work. Just did a two-day-long garage sale in which we got rid of most of the bulky furniture items that we don’t intend to drag with us, plus lots and lots (and lots!) of accumulated Schtuff from projects that now belong to the past. That, in itself, is hard to let go of.

All of this reminds me of the time when we were finishing seminary and were anxious about our first call. In addition to the school work, we had mobility paperwork to fill out, regional assignments to wait on, and after the regional assignments, synod assignments. Finally came the interviewing process with specific congregations.

During that time, we chose a kind of biblical metaphor to guide us as we waited. While we watched countless classmates getting calls from their bishops, we had to wait on ours. As we watched them getting interviews and first call placements, we had to wait on ours. The most fitting biblical narrative for us seemed to be “Wilderness Wandering.” We had to learn to trust. “Trust the process” was the catch-phrase, but even then I thought that was ridiculous. I did NOT trust the process. But we did trust God.

Eventually we got tired of waiting, watching a new class coming in for Summer Greek classes and then witnessing the fall semester begin. So we chose a new biblical metaphor: “Abram, Go.” We decided to pack up and move to Oklahoma, whether that would be our ultimate destination or not.
We weren’t in OK for more than a couple weeks before we got an interview at First Lutheran, and that’s where we landed. And it turned out pretty well, I dare say.

This move to Florida is out of character for this guy, who was really missing the Midwest, but it was also clear that we couldn’t stay in Tulsa any longer. I think the proper metaphor for this time, considering that we weren’t financially ready for this move and that we had to trust that things will fall into place SOMEhow is simply this: “God Provides.”

We are all grateful for our time in Tulsa. We are also grateful for the opportunity in front of us. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and we are humbled by all of it.

Stay tuned here for more adventures. Who knows what God (as one of our new friends says, “The Spooky Spirit”) has in store for Christ Lutheran and us? We sure don’t know, but we’re confident that God Provides, and we will do our best to serve faithfully among these folks, who have already shown us such love and support. I think it’s gonna be great!

Still Thinking about In-Person Worship

A couple of you saw and commented on my last post about worship, and at least one person (which means I know more are thinking it) said, “Wow. That means you might not see my spouse and me until as late as the end of 2021.”

That’s true. We might not. On the other hand, we might. We’re still trying to come up with creative ways we could gather, which is desired, while still keeping people safe, which is necessary.

One thing I mentioned is that we’ll continue to be an online presence. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and we all understand that. Some people, we though, might enjoy that option but can’t exercise it for one reason or another. If you know someone who would join us online, either live or after the fact, but can’t because of technological problems, please let us know, and maybe we can work out a way to make that happen.

Something I didn’t mention previously, but has been running around in my head, is doing more worship out of doors. This is also a problem in some ways, because as we enter the summer, the heat can be just as problematic for some folks healthwise as the virus is. But it might allow us some limited singing during worship, depending on who is interested in participating. An added bonus of doing outdoor worship is, as I’ve always contended, it’s great when people have a chance to actually see us. Not that we’re doing it for our own self-aggrandizement, but rather so that folks know that we are open and actively working. It’s evangelism by practicing in public.

Another possibility that I haven’t spoken about yet is adding worship services for smaller groups with the chance to clean and sanitize things in between. I kind of like this option, because it opens a door for building greater numbers of the gathered when the crisis is past its peak. Especially if we did something on, say, a Saturday evening or later on a Sunday, or even some other day of the week entirely. Would it be a lot more work for me? Of course. And something would have to give somewhere else. But it’s an option, and I think it’s a good one.

What other ideas do you have? Use those big brains of yours!

Reflection on All Saints Day

Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson devote a chapter of their book The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity to the sanctoral cycle¬†— a kind of liturgical calendar of its own (199ff) — which celebrates feast days of individual saints. The authors point out that the sanctoral cycle developed out of popular pietestic veneration of early Christian martyrs, generally on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms. Martyrdom was, for early Christians, “in all likelihood … understood as both a repetition of baptism or a substitute for it, and a sacrifice parallel and similar to Christ’s passion and the Eucharist, that is to say, as a redemptive sacrifice” (179). This manner of dying for the cause (as it were) sanctified the sacrifice and martyrdom became essentially synonymous with sainthood.

Bradshaw and Johnson state that, by the fourth century, several other categories of “saints” began to appear on lists of the Church’s annual celebrations: ascetics and monks, people who were confessors (and therefore “witnesses”), but who were not killed on account of their witness, per se, were nevertheless included as “martyrs by extension” (189). Bishops also began to make the list in the fourth century and, as the authors quote Pierre Jounel, “the difference between these two types of anniversaries must have been rather vague in practice” (190). Throughout that century, the categories continued to expand, and feasts for figures like Mary Theotokos, Emperor Constantine, and Theodosius I were added to the cycle, and so the sanctorum continued to grow, with localized variations, over time.

Laurence Hull Stookey (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church), along with much of contemporary Protestantism (in spite of continued anti-Catholic grumbling), embraces a much more expansive definition of a saint, citing the New Testament’s synonymous use of “saint” with “Christian” and “believer” (142). He points out that being a saint actually has nothing to do with being one of the “greats of History,” or indeed with any merit or effort on the part of humans, but rather, sanctity is necessarily intimately connected with and dependent upon identification with the holiness of Christ. We are ALL saints “because God’s [that is, Christ’s] sanctity is at work in us” (143).

Contemporary practice of commemorating a particular saint’s feast day still generally corresponds with that person’s death date (as it had been for the martyrs of the early church), unless some other festival or celebration (e.g. the Lord’s Day) takes precedence, or if the death date is not known, as is the case for biblical saints. Instead, those feast days are placed into the cycle largely according to convenience or in order to make a special comment on that saint’s “specialness” (e.g. Stephen, the protomartyr, who is considered noteworthy enough for his feast day to fall on the day after Christmas) (145).

In any case, the large number of saints whose lives are commemorated in the sanctoral cycle gives rise to a predicament: each day of the calendar year memorializes one or more saint’s lives. Stookey states: “Eventually a crisis developed, and a solution arose: Designate one day each year as a kind of omnibus occasion, a day on which to commemorate all the saints who cannot be accorded their own specific dates, and whose names have been forgotten” (148). The date of this commemoration, which we call All Saints Day, varies in the West (where it is often celebrated on November 1) and the East (where some rites celebrate it on May 13 and some on the Sunday following Pentecost) (148). And even in the West, there remains a disparity between Roman Catholics on the one hand, who celebrate only canonized saints on November 1, leaving “all other faithful departed” to be remembered the following day (the Feast of All Souls), and Protestants on the other, who celebrate All Saints Day, collapsing RC practices into one day: either November 1 or the first Sunday in November (148).

Protestant practice also makes no distinction between “recognized” saints (i.e. great historical figures) and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses,” including people who died in the previous year, many of whom belonged to our parishes and whose names we read aloud as part of our ritual celebration of the saints (148).

In our expansive definition of sanctity and in our ritual observance, we emphasize the catholicity of the church in all times and all places. We give thanks for the departed ones and for their faithful witness to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Stookey writes: “[T]hese persons [, though departed, continue to] bear testimony to us concerning the One of whom it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:4 RSV). Their stories point us to his story. And it is his story that enables us to bear all sorrow …. [It is] the sole source and focus of the entire liturgical calendar” (150).

The rites particular to All Saints Day manifest in the church’s use of time in the proclamation that all the saints across all times and places are sanctified in the holiness of Christ, which he shares with us as part of what Luther called “the happy exchange,” or what Orthodox Christians might refer to as theosis or deification. In other words, Christ takes on OUR sins which die with him on the cross. With us he shares, by his grace, the righteousness which belongs to HIM as the Son of God.

This Good News interacts with the faithful in our time in spite of the larger cultural orientation toward despair and the fear of death. As believers, we still grieve death — our own and that of those we love — but because God’s promise proves trustworthy, we can rest in the assurance that death does not have the final word. Instead, the final word belongs to God, whose promise IS life in Christ.

I think that All Saints Day aims, as a ritual event, to put us in mind, not only of all the saints who have gone before us, but also to remember that WE are the saints. Here and Now. We are examples in the world in real time. Our faith will also have impact on the generations that follow. Our understanding and way of being run counter to Culture (the “powers and principalities” of the kosmos, “the prince of this world”, “the patterns of this world,” etc.), and this gives us hope in the face of death and decay, in the face of every kind of darkness. It falls to US SAINTS to share this Good News, which we ourselves have already received — to share it with a world that desperately needs to hear it, aches to hear it.