{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Can Churches Ask Too Much?

stressed family  “Will you be loyal to the church and uphold it with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?”

These are the familiar vows of church membership in The United Methodist Church. Whenever you join a United Methodist Church, you affirm these vows of membership stating that you promise to give of yourself to the church in a holistic way.

But what if we expect too much from people? Worse yet, what if we expect the wrong things?

After 3+ years of ministry in a large, historic, urban church I’ve learned a lot not only from people who are faithful and active in the ministries of the local church — I’ve also learned a lot from the people who are no longer active. I’ve heard numerous stories, cautionary tales if you will, from people who were once active and slowly but surely were overworked and became burned out. They were asked to serve on or chair one too many committees. They were guilted into one too many pointless and unproductive meetings. They were pressured to join one too many bible study/community group/prayer group/Sunday School class. And now they’re out of the habit of attending worship regularly — they love the church and want to support it, but the seemingly never-ending work sucked too much life out of them.

Whenever I hear this story I can’t help but wonder — Do we emphasize church work in place of faithful living? When someone joins out church, are we quick to sign them up to serve on a committee or to volunteer for an activity because that’s the only way we know how to define discipleship?

Over the last 50 years, the Church has seen its place in society shift from the central station of life to just another outpost. It used to be you joined a church to make all of your social and business connections and you knew that your kids could be taught how to be decently well behaved and law-abiding people  to boot. You’d hear a sermon on Sunday and you knew the Bible was an important book whether you read it regularly or not.

But things are different now. In most towns or cities of any significant size, a person joining your church will likely have their closest friends in other areas of life. With social media and the Internet, business connections happen in less personal ways and coffee shops and restaurants have become a more casual, non-threatening meeting place to discuss business. Things like sports, scouts, dance, and other edifying activities have become just as central as youth groups and children’s choir. And people’s lives are too busy to locate its central point of existence in any one place.

In other words, people by and large do not consider the church the central station of their lives anymore. Gone are the days when you can say, “So and so is here at the church whenever the doors are open.” Here are the days of, “Well let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, people should prioritize their faith more. You can’t be a Christian by yourself and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” points to a shared belief that somehow you can be a Christian without the help of others. On the other hand, I’m a parent of a toddler and I know how ding dang hard it is to get anywhere. When two parents work full-time jobs the last thing they need is to be told they have to attend one more meeting or take their kid to one more practice. And church can become a life-sucking force like any other activity or commitment in life.

So is it possible to be active in the church and in your faith without being worked to death?

I think it could be.

For starters, pastors need to look long and hard at the committees that function in the local church. Do you really need all of them? Do they need to meet as often as they do? Could more work be accomplished by utilizing technology and not asking people to take 60-90 minutes out of a Tuesday evening to come to a meeting? Or better yet, can churches stop treating committee work and volunteerism as the totality of your discipleship?

Secondly, do we really need to programatize everything? Can we be a part of something without it being a weekly/monthly commitment from now until eternity? Can we be in ministry that is not so programmed and structured? Can the church find an important place in people’s lives without demanding a big chunk of a person’s schedule be devoted to whatever frivolous activity or program is going on in the church building?

Finally, Sunday morning matters a lot. Don’t let Sunday morning be a shallow, humdrum experience of worship and then tell people if they have deeper or more complicated questions, they need to join a weekly study or class. Give Sunday worship some depth. Remember that the purpose of Sunday worship is to glorify God and, in doing so, connect people with God. Life is too complicated for shallow messages and simplistic themes.

“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” does not mean signing people up for every committee seat and program idea and we should really consider new and alternative ways of helping people grow in their faith. But if you do approach it that way, I’d be willing to bet you might lose as many potential disciples as you “make.”

Debt and Questions About Digital Giving

debt and givingIt seems like everything is moving into the digital world these days. The Internet has quickly become a world unto itself where we can share the highlights of our life, purchase gifts, and do a day’s worth of work all from the comfort of our favorite spot on the couch. Online banking, which was once a little-trusted novelty, has now become the norm for keeping track of purchases and paying bills.

So it only makes sense that the church consider ways to offer digital means for giving. After all, what church could afford to say they’re taking in so much money through traditional measures that they don’t need to worry with this new way of giving?

Insightful articles have been written and even published on this site encouraging churches to make the leap into the digital age when it comes to giving. I strongly encourage an article by Shane Raynor from April 2012 for starters.

I’ll even echo much of what the experts say about giving patterns in the 21st Century: I don’t carry cash; I pay all but two of my bills online (those two bills are local companies who refuse to get into the digital age); and I prefer electronic banking.

If churches want to keep up with the ways people manage their money, then they must consider digital methods for giving.

But this article is not another in the long stream of articles encouraging churches to offer digital giving opportunities. This article is intended to offer some questions we should ask before we implement digital giving as a norm in our churches.

What methods of giving should you encourage when considering digital giving?

Do you offer debit card-only giving or do you allow people to use credit cards as well? This may sound like a no-brainer but it’s much more complex than we might think.

A CNNMoney article says the average American household with at least one credit card has over $15,000 in credit card debt (in 2012). The average interest rate runs in the mid-to-high teens at any given moment. Those are staggering figures. Credit card debt should already carry with it ethical concerns for Christians considering the biblical admonitions against charging interest to debt (see Exod. 22:25 for example).

Debt is real and churches have a theological obligation to not encourage the incurring of more debt. This doesn’t even address the gray area created in giving through credit—is it really giving of ourselves to give money that we don’t have? So if you’re looking to set up digital giving, you should ask some hard questions about the idea of asking people to give via credit cards.

Many churches who offer digital giving only accept debit cards. This is a purposeful decision on the part of churches to say that while digital giving is accepted, not every means of giving is encouraged. Deciding on a “debit only” system is something churches should talk about before encouraging digital giving. It’s not for everyone but it should certainly be a part of the conversation.

What else should you consider when setting up digital giving?

Before you invest in new kiosks and software, you should also consider some other additions to your church life. Namely, plan to offer small group studies about money and debt management. I personally think this is an absolute necessity for churches whether you’re considering digital giving or not. Churches have an obligation to help people live into the wholeness of life God offers, and that wholeness can all too quickly get lost under a mountain of personal debt. Further, if churches want to encourage digital giving as a means of taking in more revenue, then we better offer a wholistic approach to managing money lest we become just another life-draining source of debt.

Some ideas for curriculum to offer include:

Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity by Adam Hamilton

  • The title gives away the premise — in a consumption society, we need to learn when enough is enough. Adam offers some great biblical insight and Wesleyan theological perspective to some very practical material on managing money and growing in generosity.

Financial Peace University

  • This one is very popular in local churches. It’s the Dave Ramsey program and it stresses very practical ways to address issues of debt and financial management.

Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate by J. Clif Christopher

  • This book is a great resource for pastors, leaders, and anyone who works with church finances. It addresses the issue of trust between givers and organizations and offers some practical guidance for churches to become better at managing the gifts they receive while also doing a better job of capturing the imagination of the givers.

A friend recently told me, “digital giving is the new frontier for church stewardship and we better wake up to that reality.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. But let’s boldly discover this new frontier with some caution and integrity. Jesus’ promise for abundant living and the coming of the kingdom means so much more than just taking in bigger weekly offerings.

[This article was originally published on Ministry Matters on Sept. 9, 2013]

Prayer for New College Students

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Loving God,

It’s finally sunk in — there comes a point in my life when my parents will not make every decision for me.

Where I am timid to befriend others, give me the courage to humbly witness to your love and grace for all people.

Where I am tempted to make difficult choices, help me remember the lessons of faithfulness from my childhood.

Where I am nervous about the coming days, give me the peace that passes all understanding.

I am thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow into adulthood,

but help me also know this is a time to learn and grow in my faithfulness to you and my service to others.

Grant me the grace needed to grow into a mature follower of your Son, Jesus Christ,

in whose name I offer this prayer. Amen.

A Prayer For Parents Dropping Their Child Off At College

Gracious God, Source of Life, Giver of every good and perfect Gift:

You are the loving Parent whose example I have longed to follow as I raise my child. I give you thanks for the gift of (name).

I am reminded on this day, just as on the day they were born, that your grace is very present in their life — even when we do not always know it.

Give me the courage today to trust in that grace. Help me remember that before (name) was mine, they are yours.

May your grace continue to form (name) into your image, that they may spend this new phase of life better learning to love you and their neighbor; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Next Post: A Prayer for the New College Student

There’s Just One Thing Missing: Our Missional Misstep in The United Methodist Church

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“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

If you’re a United Methodist, then you probably recognize this as our mission statement. As a denomination, we proclaim these words make up our missional identity in how we exist as the church.

We crafted these words as our denominational mission statement over the last 20+ years and, in the process, we’ve worked on perfecting the language, teaching the biblical basis for the statement, and ensuring that no United Methodist forgets those important words.

We’ve plastered these words on letter-head, banners, websites, flashy ads, and church signs.

We’ve used this statement to justify just about every change and argument against change that comes our way.

We use this statement to set our goals, cast our vision, and critique those who may fall short of our desired outcomes.

If you know your Scripture (and if you’re reading this blog I’m assuming you at least know some Scripture), then you know this mission statement is based on Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)

I’ve been a Methodist pastor for 3 years now. And I’ve been raised as a United Methodist for my entire life. But it’s only been recently that I’ve noticed something missing from our mission statement and how it aligns to Jesus’ words in The Great Commission. Maybe you’ve heard it explained how important the verbs are in this statement: We’re called to make disciples by teaching and baptizing.

The only problem is, we tend to forget one very important verb when we talk about the mission of the Church…

GO!

As we grow into a more heightened awareness of what ails the church, we naturally search for solutions. It’s only normal that when there’s a problem, we look to find the solution. But why is it that so many of the resources out there on how to “make disciples” says so very little on the church’s need to go? We talk a lot about what we need to do but so much of it seems to be confined to what happens within the walls the church buildings and program calendars.

I know what you’re thinking: “We have more and more out there on how to attract people who are outside of our church walls.”

Yes, but how much of that involves the church leaving its walls to go and find and be with those who are outside? Too much of our mindset is geared around attracting people to us when we ought to be following the Spirit’s call to go and leave the comforts of our buildings and programs and agendas.

Theologian, Marva Dawn, puts it this way:

“When we say we go to church on Sunday mornings, we’re exercising a bad theology. We don’t go to church. We participate in worship so we can be church everyday of our lives.”

We measure things like membership and worship numbers in order to gauge the health of a congregation. And these are important things to measure…to a degree. But too often we forget how easy it is to sit in a pew and never be a true follower of Jesus. And we fail recognize that what we need most are not more studies, meetings, circles, and small groups. What we need most are people who have the guts and inspiration to try to live like Jesus in their normal, everyday lives. And we pray that we learn to do that with some sense of community as the Body of Christ.

If we want to find our missional identity as the church, then it means confessing and asking forgiveness for the sin of self-preoccupation and narcissism. It means being willing to seek out real and authentic relationships with people for no other reason than because they are children made in the image of God. And it means learning to worry a little less about opening our doors, so that we can worry a little more about closing our doors behind us so we can go into the world where God is active and alive and at work in surprising ways.

This short (3 mins) video says this even better:

 

The Heart of Worship, The Heart of Discipleship

"Celebration" by John August Swanson

“Celebration” by John August Swanson

It’s 1:30pm on Sunday afternoon. I’ve finished my lunch and settled in for another routine Sunday afternoon filled with reading and writing and baseball whenever I’m not chasing my 16-month old daughter around the house. By all accounts it’s a typical Sunday afternoon except for the fact that this particular afternoon didn’t follow a typical Sunday morning worship service. You see, I felt the Spirit of God this morning in a way I’ve haven’t experienced for some time. And it all came about because of a simple change in rhythm.

This month at Mulberry we’re changing the rhythms of worship a bit. We’ve asked for people to submit their favorite hymns – preferably ones they haven’t heard in worship in a while. We received a good many submissions so we’ve decided to tweak our order of worship a bit to include more singing each Sunday during the month of July.

Maybe the change of rhythm was at fault, but I found myself noticing things in worship I’ve never noticed.

As we listened to a wonderful soloist, I noticed a mother and her 8-year old son on the 4th pew. The son had his head settled in his mother’s lap for the music. The mother sat and gently stroked the hair on the back of his neck. And for a moment, while everyone around her was focused on what was happening in front of them, she seemed to be taken to a special place. I watched as she stared at the back of her son’s neck gently stroking his hair relishing in a moment where her baby who was too big to be called a baby anymore found quiet rest in her arms. He soon will be much too big for these moments and yet, by God’s grace, they found this moment in the place and space where we worship the eternal God. And I got to peak into this moment where the in-breaking of God’s grace was quietly evident for this family.

My senses must have been heightened after that because I couldn’t help but see grace in other moments during the worship service – in the face of a squirming child; in the quiet dedication of couples who had been married much longer than I’ve been alive who innately know how to worship together; in the faces of families facing loss and heartache and stress and yet know that they need to be in worship even if they can’t fully explain it. Grace, present and palpable all around us.

Holy Communion was especially grace-filled. I found myself noticing peoples’ hands as they took the bread and dipped it into the cup.

“This is the body of Christ broken for you…”

Hands of all shapes and sizes and ages. Some were young and delicate. Some trembled as they approached and were visibly worn because years of love and work and dedication have a way of leaving its proof on our hands.

“This is the blood of Christ shed for you…”

I saw children bounce up the stairs to our chancel area to join their families around the altar for prayer. I saw young couples at the very genesis of adulthood kneeling together in prayer. I noticed one woman slowly make her way up the stairs with the aid of her cane. Aches and pain and a lack of mobility would not dare keep her from the altar of prayer.

We fit some more hymn requests into the communion time. Soon I heard the words of one of my all-time favorite hymns begin to add even more depth to the tapestry of this scene of grace. 

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!…”

“This is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for your sins and the sins of the world…”

I saw faces in the communion line light up as the congregation sang. Everyone began to sing that hymn particularly loud. It was as if we all knew that through this sacrament – this simple bread and grape juice – we were, in fact, sharing in a foretaste of God’s eternal glory.

The sacrament ended and we closed the Table. Timing worked out perfectly to where we had one more verse to sing together before we could proceed.

“Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior and happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above. Filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior, all the day long.”

By the time we finished no one needed to say a word. We knew this worship service was delightfully surprising. Together we gave thanks for the holy meal and asked God to send us out into the world in the service of others. You could almost hear in the collective recitation of the prayer that this particular sending forth carried with it a certain hope and enthusiasm.

You know, we spend a great deal of time worrying and trying to brainstorm new ways to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We even run the risk of programming and gimmicking ourselves to death. Today I was reminded that our most basic (and primary) act as disciples is to faithfully offer ourselves in worship to the God who alone is worthy to be praised. So I challenge you to consider shifting your rhythms of worship and look around and listen. God is there, active and present, calling us all to be a people of worship. We are called to gather in praise. We hear God’s Word. We share in the holy meal together. And we are sent forth into the world to offer ourselves in service to all of God’s children. Sounds to me like the very heart of worship is also at the heart of discipleship.

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