Want to kill your church? Start a program!

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What do programs do anyways?

Every Church I know wants to teach faith to their members, and often struggle to figure out what that looks like. But I am sure that most of us would agree that these things probably don’t work:

  • preventing people from attending worship
  • dumbing down faith into perverse moralisms
  • having ill-equipped leaders lead
  • providing an experience that doesn’t reflect the vast majority of life in the community of the church
  • segregating  members until they are deemed worthy of being a part of the rest of the community

But this is exactly how the most widespread program in churches operates – Sunday School. We just don’t think about what Sunday School is actually doing, and how it is often doing the exact opposite of what we think it is doing. Sunday School is just one of many dreaded “programs” that we use as churches and it is killing us.

Church as Corporation

Churches and Church institutions have been adopting the structures and behaviours of secular organizations for a long time… maybe since the 4th century when Constantine put Christianity in charge of his empire.

In the 20th century and into the 21st century, churches are looking more and more like corporations than ever. Pastors and Bishops are being treated like CEOs. CEOs of companies that don’t pay well and expect a lot. Council meetings are more and more business oriented than community and vision oriented. And it is not surprising. Our North American world is becoming more “corporatized” everywhere we turn.

Besides constitutions, bylaws, policies, budgets, goal-achievment-strategies… the “program” is probably the most pervasive corporate strategy to infect churches. Programs have become the most important thing that many churches think they are doing. We have programs for everything: Sunday School programs, youth programs, young adult programs, young families programs, women’s programs, men’s programs, seniors programs, worship programs, bible study programs, soup kitchen programs, confirmation programs, evangelism programs, volunteer programs, stewardship programs, maintenance programs, VBS programs, music programs, singles, programs, couples programs, AA/NA programs, seeker/new christian programs, and so on…

So here is the thing about programs. They don’t work.

Programs Don’t Work – Communities Do

Programs are for communities that have forgotten how to be communities. Programs satisfy our deep fears about being sufficient on our own to “attract” people to church. I have heard the question so often, “What can we do to (fill in the blank, get the youth back, have a worship band, build a Sunday School, reach out to young families, work with seniors, serve the homeless etc…)?” And the real question being asked is, “What can do we do to avoid the real issue of why we have forgotten how to be a diverse community of real relationships?

Programs seem like silver bullets or magic wands that will solve our problems. But really programs are the best at helping us to avoid being a real community. Programs, literally, give us words to say instead of our own. The map out our activity, our time, or goals and objectives. Only communities that have forgotten how to be real communities need that kind of help.

Programs need to be viewed as what they really are. Crutches for community. Communities that can’t walk on their own use crutches… but only until they are walking again. If we keep using the crutches, we will never walk.

Churches and church leaders should be deciding on their own what the vision, value and goals for community are. We should map out our own activities, time and objectives. We should speak our own words, the words passed on in faith through scripture and the timeless Body of Christ to each other. We need to speak with words specific to our context, our time and place. Programs are killing our community much more often than they are helping us to be a community. So let’s give them up.

Do I mean that churches need to stop doing all those things I listed above? No. But programs don’t teach our faith or serve the poor or “attract” youth to church or help different generations integrate or deepen our relationship with God and others.

Let’s Be a Community

Instead, let’s be churches or communities that teach each other faith and learn together. Let’s serve our neighbour together. Let’s help our young find their place among us together. Let’s grow in faith as we worship and share in fellowship together. Oddly enough doing these things as community might look a lot like a program. And if we do these things well as a community together, other communities might look at us and say, “hey, you guys are doing that well, tell us how” and that is how programs are often started.

Yet, doing these things together as a community means that we are figuring out how it will work – and work here. It means thinking about our people, not any people. It means planning what things will look like here. And we will start looking more and more like a real community that doesn’t need crutches. Because here is the thing about crutches… Jesus didn’t like them. Jesus just created a community that did stuff together… no program required.

One last thing.

Why programs need to die

A word about programs and generations, this blog is called “The Millennial Pastor”, after all.

Programs are a very post-WWII phenomenon. The G.I. generation started all kinds of programs for their kids. Sunday Schools, youth groups, choirs, service clubs, couples groups, singles groups, mom groups, ladies’ groups, etc… And many congregations have a hard time giving up these programs. Soup kitchens, women’s groups, Sunday Schools often have elderly people driving them and doing the work. As often as I am asked the question, “How do we get the young people back?” it is followed by, “They need to come and do their part around here”. Churches and long time members expect their kids and grandkids to come and carry on with the church. Not just carry-on in faith, or gathering for worship, but carry-on the Sunday School, the ladies’ group, the property care, the volunteer programs, the choirs (and their music), the committees and the the financial burden.

But the G.I.’s and the Boomers forget that they had the privilege of founding churches, starting programs from the ground and enshrining their passions in the bylaws of the congregation. These pet projects might have to die for the church to survive. Disbanding Sunday School isn’t a failure, it the realization that something needs to die for something new to start to grow.

So want to kill your church? Start a program or, even better, keep with the ones that aren’t working. Want to see new life in unexpected places? Start killing programs.

What do you think? Are programs bad for churches? Or do we need them? Share in the comments. 

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Christians are not good at asking, “why?”

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First off, if you are looking for more reading on Millennials there is a lot out there. If you are looking for some of the ones I find most interesting, click on “Articles on Generations” in the tabs above. 

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Questions are bad

Sometimes I forget that most Christians, most people even, think that questioning something is disrespectful or aggressive on the one hand, or a sign of weakness on the other. We have all been in group situations either at school, work or in the community where a leader, teacher or presenter asks if there are questions in regards to the topic being presented. Often no one does. And it is not because the material has been presented so well that there are no questions, but no one wants to sound like they don’t understand something or don’t know what is going on.

Well, in the Church and among Christians we take this idea to a new level.  In my experience, most Church members really don’t want to appear like they have faith related questions. Worse yet, when they do know something about the bible or faith doesn’t seem to make sense, many believe that questioning it might cause them to lose their faith. Often when I do pre-baptismal visits with families who are bringing their child to be baptized (too many times because grandparents want them to, not because they are active church folk) they end up asking questions about the Bible and God and the Church. Usually I am told that grandma and grandpa, other older relatives, previous pastors or other church folk have to told them not to ask questions – just “accept it on faith”.

A new generation asks why?

In an article I recently read on Hiring Millennials for tech startups, it suggests that Millennials are more likely to ask “why?” than previous generations, and therefore more valuable in helping companies finding focus and direction. I have no idea if this is true or even measurable, but some of my experience supports this claim.

As a strong ENTJ on the MBTI, my deep need and compulsion to ask “why?” may very well be a personality trait more than a generational trait. However, my need to ask “why?” is precisely why I am still a Christian. The fact that I asked “why?” and questioned my faith is at the foundation of why I became a pastor.

Even from a young age I had the feeling (or idea) that the Bible didn’t always make sense. As a teenager, I knew that things like creation, the flood, jonah and the whale, and many other biblical stories as presented by some fundamentalist church members didn’t jive with science class at school. Fortunately, Lutheran doctrine and a pastor who didn’t want to take a stand on anything, allowed the rest of us in my home congregation to feel like it was okay to be members and not buy into the literalism stuff.

But still, I could feel the questions beginning to stack up when it came to the bible and faith by the time I was finishing high school. I had great youth leaders who were introducing us to all sorts of ideas like helping the poor, the effects of poverty and our systems of wealth that enable it. They were one of the important pieces that kept me in church. I also stayed connected by being involved with music in worship, going to the Lutheran Student Movement in university, and working at Bible Camps in my summers.  My family was great, they left my questions room to be asked, even when my parents didn’t have the answers.

Questioning the questions

University was sometimes a struggle to keep up my faith. It seemed very ‘in vogue’ in 2001 for historians, political scientists and other liberal arts profs to dump on Christianity and the Bible. And if I hadn’t been fortunate to grow up in a church and family that was steeped in scripture, I might have believed their criticisms. But as much as my questions were stacking up in regard to the contradictions in the bible and contradictions in the church, the criticisms weren’t making sense either. I was taking history and religious studies, and I could tell that I wasn’t getting the whole picture. I would feel sick as profs described Christianity, not because my beliefs were being questioned, but because a fundamentalist Christianity, that wasn’t the faith I knew, was being questioned.

I soon became tired of religious studies and searched the course catalogue for something that I wanted to take, something about faith. And then I stumbled onto the small Roman Catholic faculty of theology at the University of Alberta. Half way through my Bachelor’s degree, I started taking as many classes as I could. Classes from professional theologians (not historians and religious studies profs). Classes on science and religion not science classes that referenced the bible. Classes on Christian doctrine and theology not a social science of Christianity. Classes on real biblical scholarship not English literature that included the bible. Classes on real church history, not history in which the Church was marginally present.

The profs and classes made me feel like I finally had a reference point for my questions. It was like they gave me the box with picture on it of the puzzle I had been working on. I finally knew what I image I was putting together.

Theology became a serious discipline. Biblical studies finally showed me a hermeneutic that made sense. Church history filled in gaps of the secular history I had been studying. But most importantly, no question was disallowed. Everything was on the table. And the questions we couldn’t answer, like “does God exist?”, were given a framework to know why we couldn’t answer them.

My last two years on my undergraduate degree were like the last half of a Survivor puzzle, everything was coming together faster and faster.

Questioning Faith

Add a Master of Divinity and 4+ years in the parish, and I know that I don’t have all answers, I never wanted them. What I do have is the tools to ask the best questions and then make my way through them… which usually leads to more questions.

What makes me so sad is meeting people my age who are only loosely connected to their faith because their questions were shut down. They were told to fall inline and stop causing trouble by questioning the bible, the church, faith. I don’t know if that tactic really ever works, but I think Millennials have wanted to ask “why?” more than our parents. I think it is growing up in a world where we have been bombarded with media, marketing and sound bytes. I want something deeper, something with meat. Something that has room for questions.

Ask Us Anything

The Church has led the way in the “Don’t question us” department for decades. Maybe one of the things politicians and corporations have learned from us is that it is a lot easier to suppress questions than it is to answer them.

Maybe it is time for the Church to lead the way in “Ask us anything” department for a while. Maybe some of my Millennial peers might find getting the chance to ask “why?” is a compelling reason to try church.

Just remember, “just accept it on faith” is always a bad answer.
“I don’t know, so let’s find out together” is always a good one.

If we are serious as about sharing our faith, it is time for the church to allow room for a lot of “why?” questions. Everything has to be on the table… and it is not just Millennials who need to have some “why?” conversations – we all do.

A Sermon for the riff raff and huddled masses of the Saints

m.5111_all-saints-dayLuke 6:20-31

Sermon

Each year on November 1st, All Saints Day, St. David’s would hold a short service in the cemetery for those who had died. Father Angelo would meet, usually, a dozen members at the gate and they would sing, pray and share in the Lord’s supper in the cemetery as a reminder that we are always connected in worship to the whole Body of Christ, alive and dead.

This year, the new young assistant priest, Father Michael, decided he would hold a youth event the night before. An All Saints Eve or Halloween Vigil. The youth and young adults would gather in the cemetery to play games, eat candy, sing songs, and keep vigil through the Eve of All Saints Day. They wold pitch tents, camp out and join with All Saints worship in the morning.

As the Halloween Vigil was announced in the weeks prior, many members came to Father Angelo, voicing their concern that such and event would be ‘disrespectful’. And Father Angelo always encouraged them to be patient and see how things would go.

(Pause)

All Saints Day is an important day for Christians throughout the centuries. It has been a day of prayer to remember the saints and pray for those who have died. All Saints Day is even transferred to Sunday when it is on another day of the week so that we can all observe the occasion.

All Saints Sunday is a herald of the closing year and the coming of Advent. In only two weeks, comes Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of this church year. And so in this regard, All Saints takes us to places of beginnings and ends, birth and old age, life and death.

So perhaps it is worth asking, what exactly is a saint?

A saint is someone who is holy and blessed right?

Well that has something to do with the sermon that Jesus is preaching today. It is the familiar sermon on the plain or Beatitudes. However, not to be confused with Matthew’s more spiritual version of the sermon on the mount. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, where as today in Luke, Jesus simply says, Blessed are the poor”.

As Jesus announces blessings, he names conditions that don’t seem like blessings. Poverty, hunger, weeping, hatred. We can try to feel poor, and hope that in a room full of middle class Canadians we are poor enough to be blessed. But imagine if we were at the soup kitchen or mental hospital. Could we really hope that we are poor enough, hungry enough, weeping enough, hated enough to receive the blessing?

Normally we think of blessings as good things. Wealth and health mostly. But Jesus blesses the opposite. And Jesus curses conditions we consider blessings. Being rich, being full, laughter, being well liked.

As Lutherans we say we are sinners and saints, but Jesus is pretty clear. Maybe we are more sinner and less saint.

(Pause)

On All Saints morning, members of the congregation gathered at the front gate of the cemetery. They could see the youth and young adults scurrying about, getting cleaned up and ready for worship. Father Angelo arrived. He sensed the discomfort among the members gathered. Many who came for All Saints worship had loved ones buried in the cemetery. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People were whispering to each other and pointing into the cemetery. They seemed agitated. Father Angelo was suddenly worried, maybe the Halloween Vigil wasn’t a good idea after all. It was time to begin, so he led the procession to where the youth and young adults were waiting.

(Pause)

It is easy for us to get wrapped up in who is blessed and who is cursed, who is a saint and who is a sinner. We like these neat categories, they allow us to define and control the world around us. We can justify ourselves and pass judgement others.

 

But Jesus is not interested in our categories. Jesus wants to muddy the waters. Jesus wants to upset and overturn our nice and neat boxes.

 

Blessed are the poor

Cursed are the rich

Blessed are the hungry

Cursed are the full

Blessed are those who weep

Cursed are those who laugh

Blessed are the hated

Cursed are the well liked.

 

And if today were just about the beatitudes, it would be enough to say that Jesus redefines blessings and curses. But today is All Saints day and we are forced look at the mortality, the death of loved ones and our own death. And so we expand these blessings and curses to include life and death.

 

On All Saints we might add another set of blessings and curses to the sermon on the plain.

 

Cursed are the living, for they will face death head on.

Blessed are the dead, for they will be given New Life.

 

We add this set of blessings and curses because that is what All Saints day is about. The Messiness of death and the messiness of life. Today, we are reminded that God likes to mess with the categories, and where we can only see the clear distinctions of life or death, of being dead or alive, Jesus sees both. Jesus says we are both. Sinners and Saints. Both dead and alive.

 

(Pause)

 

As Father Angelo led the group of worshippers through the cemetery, they began to notice just what the youth had been up to. There was a small candle on every headstone, flickering in the early morning sun. And some headstones, there were notes. Notes that said things like, “Thanks for taking care of our church. Or thanks for letting us stay the night. Or thanks for sharing your faith with us”. Some had art work, others had flowers. The worshippers looked all around as they made their way to the place of worship.

 

The youth had set out folding chairs and prepared a table for communion. They were waiting with blankets and hymnals. As the group finally met the youth, Father Angelo was worried the worshippers would be upset. He held his breath.

 

One woman, whose husband had died just six months before marched straight up to the nearest youth she saw. Father Angelo could see a conflict about to erupt. Instead the woman wrapped her arms around the unsuspecting girl and said,

 

“That was the first night my husband hasn’t been alone since he died. Thank you. Will you stay with me one night when I am gone”.

 

The girl didn’t know what to say, but Father Angelo simply smiled to himself.

 

(Pause)

 

Jesus’ sermon about blessings and curses do more than overturn our categories. On All Saints Sunday the sermon reminds us what the Kingdom of God, what the company of saints truly look like. It is not an uniform group of holy and blessed people. But rather a diverse, rag tag, group of misfits and sinners. A group of people who wouldn’t otherwise be lumped together.

 

Today we remember those who had died, and Jesus turns that category on its head too. God proclaims that we, the living, are dead from the moment we come into this world. We are on our way to death, and in the waters of baptism we are drowned to sin. But in Christ, who is the first of the resurrection, God declares that the dead will be raised to new life. God declares that we, even though dead, are alive.

 

And on this All Saints Sunday, as the categories of blessed and curse, of sinner and saint, of dead and alive are muddied and confused, Jesus makes clear that we are all a part of the One Body of Christ, which is not limited by time or space, and nor by life or death. And so today, we may remember the saints in prayer, but it is God who gathers us together with them into the worship of the heavenly hosts. And as it happens each Sunday, the veil between us and them, between earth and heaven, between creation and God, is a little thinner.

 

This is what the radical sermon on the plain is all about, and this is why we hear it today on All Saints day. As we are faced with the categories of sinner and saint, of dead and alive, God is breaking down those barriers. God is reminding us that the difference between cursed and blessed is not as vast as we think. That life and death are not the great chasm we imagine. That sinners and saints don’t go to opposite places, but rather we are made one in Christ. Christ who brings us all into the One Body. Into One Body that worships together, prays together and cares for each other across boundaries that seem unbreakable to us, but are easily set aside by God.

Amen

So… what really does make for good worship? It is not what you think.

allsaintsorthodoxchurch3Christian worship can be a vague and nebulous experience. Worship planners and leaders undertake the Herculean task of facilitating worship that works for people who need concrete experience to be engaged, people who need mystery to feel connected, people who need emotion to feel included, people who need things to make sense and words to be carefully chosen to participate.

Worship wars over style, content, music, leadership erupt all over the place. If you spend any amount of time close to the worship planning systems of a congregation, you will know that it is one of the most volatile, sensitive, political, emotional parts of being a church. Everyone has a opinion and preference when it comes to worship. Christians fight over music, style, liturgy, non-liturgy, sacraments, preaching, musicians, leadership, prayers, planning or anything else imaginable when it comes to worship.

And in my experience most people making their way to church on Sunday mornings, and especially those involved in planning and leading, miss the point of what makes good worship. We get so taken up by personal preference and opinion that we forget why we are worshipping in the first place.

And if anyone says, “Worship is to glorify God” that is code language for “My preferences and opinions are next to divine”. God is not so narcissistic that our worship needs to be constant praise and adoration of the divine. Worship is so much deeper than that. Worship is a much more tangled mess of interaction between human beings and God. 

So what makes for good worship?

Indulge me for a moment:

Imagine yourself caught up in a big crowd, jostling, movie along, being pulled to an unknown and unseen destitution. It is a hot summer day, yet people are relaxed and easy going. Simmering underneath is a sense of excitement among this big, big crowd. Finally, you stop moving and there are people as far as you can see in all directions.

The event you have been waiting for all afternoon finally begins. And you hear a voice projected over loud-speakers across the wide-open outdoor space. And unexpectedly the voice is not really that exciting to listen to “I am happy to join with you today…”. The voice continues, but all you can feel is the glare of the sun, bodies breathing, sweating, moving, twitching, coughing all around you. It is hot and bright and uncomfortable. You are not engaged with what you have come to be engaged with.

And then you hear this, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia…” and suddenly you no longer standing in the hot, sweaty crowd a the Lincoln Memorial, but you are on the red hills of Georgia. And then you are in the sweltering humid heat of Mississippi. And then you are in Alabama, surrounded by little children, of all skin tones and races, playing together.

Most people don’t know this, but the first 3 and half pages of the I have a Dream speech were… well… not as memorable as the last 2 pages. It wasn’t until Martin Luther King Jr. left his script and preached a sermon he knew well that the crowd actually was taken up by his words.

The speech was a defining moment for the civil rights movement. But the transition in the speech from delivering an address to preaching a sermon is an example of two aspects of Christian worship.

Two sides of the same coin that pastors, worship planners and leaders struggle to achieve, and find hard to grasp. The first part of the speech shows worship just “not really working” and the second part is worship at its best.

Think back to my description of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. Or imagine reading your favourite book, or seeing a great movie, or going for a great run/walk, or listening to fantastic music. All of these things make you forget you are doing them, while are you doing them. You get lost in the content, lost in the world that they create. You forget you are watching actors on a screen, forget you are reading an author’s words on a page, forget you are out putting one foot in front of the other for exercise, forget that musicians are making sounds with instruments. You start watching stories and characters and worlds come to life, sound and movement transport you to a place different than the one you are in.

Worship at its best makes us forget we are watching a pastor leading liturgy, or hearing an organist hits keys on an organ, or hear a member read words from a book. We are transported into the ever flowing worship of the saints. We are taken into the story of God’s people and we become characters who have a role, not audiences watching actors.

And how do you know you are there? Only when you are rudely jolted back to reality. It is that loud cougher that reminds you that you are in the theatre. It is eye strain that reminds you that you are reading a book. It is fatigue that reminds you that you are out for exercise. It is a wrong note or cramped leg that reminds you that you are watching an orchestra in a concert hall.

It is so hard to know what about worship will pull us out of our grounded self awareness and into that new world. But it is easy to identify the things that pull us back to reality. The running commentary by the pastor between prayers and hymns. Interrupted flow by the worship leader getting lost. The organist missing a cue or starting some liturgical music part way through a prayer. The band leader deciding to give a short mini-sermon after the sermon to fix what the pastor said. A children’s message gone horribly wrong. A reader who misreads ‘sexual immorality’ for ‘sexual immortality’.

Now this is the part where I tell you that I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to plan or lead worship that will feel like we are all watching our favourite movie for the first time, or like we are getting lost in a great book, or like we are going for that run where our body just moves effortlessly.

I have some suspicions of how to get there. It means getting out of the way as planners and leaders. It means dropping the commentary about worship while you are in worship. It means being deeply concerned with and aware of movement and flow, and knowing that worship is not a to do list, but a story that has a beginning, middle, climax and end. It is knowing that ‘Worship is to glorify God’ in the sense that when the Body of Christ gathers, we are taken into the story of God and God’s people, and the biblical narrative shapes us and becomes our story. It means being relaxed about the music styles that we use, being okay with many people participating even if they aren’t perfect, being joyful that the Body of Christ has another chance to gather this week and getting it right means simply being together.

All I can say is, enjoy the moments when you are lost in the worship of the saints, and pay attention to what jolts you away and snaps you back to that almost crushing awareness of yourself and the world immediately around you. And remember the best movies, best books, best music, best art are the best not because they are a certain style or only 60 minutes long. Nor the best because of who created it or because of the instruments that were used. They are the best because they draw us into their new worlds, even if for a moment. Just as God draws us into God’s world each week when we gather for worship.

So… what really does make for good worship? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Christian Self-Sacrifice: Your Pastor is doing it wrong.

washing_feet_01Christians are called to self sacrifice and to give of themselves, their time, talents, energy, finances, commitment and heart to churches and other ministries.

As Pastors, we are called upon to be the ones who lead the way, who exhort our people to give and to model a self-giving, self-sacrificing lifestyle. What this ends up looking is like is pastors working 60-70 hours a week, trying to get to every meeting, trying to make every visit, preach the perfect sermon, lead the best bible studies and have office hours for drop in visits… not to mention counselling appointments, sweeping up the kitchen after youth and taking that extra half hour to deal with parking lot concern in the “meeting after the meeting”.

And I regularly hear the statement, “How can I ask my people to give if I am not leading the way”.

This style of ministry is very well intentioned. But it is utterly wrong headed and counter productive. Yes… I know that my colleagues and friends might disagree.

So let me start by making a confession:

I can count on one hand the number of weeks I have worked more than 40 hours in nearly 5 years in the parish.

I have lost count of the number of 35 hour weeks I have worked in the same period.

And guess what, not a single parishioner has ever asked about my hours. In fact most assume I am very busy (which I never say that I am), and most are very surprised when I can make time for them.

A part of this is that I am a fast writer. I can write sermons, reports, newsletter articles, blog posts in just a few minutes or short hours. I also very rarely have writers block. Now I know this might give me a good 5-15 hour a week head start on many of my colleagues. But now that I am done humble bragging, I think there is a much more important issue in regards to those other 20 hours that so many pastors are working over 40. And that issue is feelings.

Yup, feelings.

As pastors we encourage our members to give of themselves for many reasons. Because the hungry need to be fed, committees need members, Sunday school students need teachers, choirs need singers, sick and lonely people need visits, buildings need maintenance, etc…

But we also know that giving of ourselves is a very important part of our relationship with God and with our community. It feels good. And not in the self satisfying way, but in the soul- transforming-I-genuinely-know-the-other-and-God kind of way. So we encourage our people to give of themselves because we know that self-sacrifice is part of that soul changing work. 0511-1009-1319-0462_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Stressed_Out_Guy_with_the_Word_Overload_clipart_image

And because we know this as pastors, we often get ourselves into way too much of it and suddenly we are working 70 hours a week in a not so soul transforming way. I think there a few reasons for this:

  1. Pastors have hard time defining what our work is.
  2. It is an easy way to feel good when you are constantly on the front line of ministry.
  3. It feels really good to feel needed, and it is an easy way to be appreciated when we are praised for our busy-ness.
  4. Being busy is measure of value, specifically justification for our salaries.
  5. Many pastors lack the confidence to believe that our training gives us skills and knowledge that our people need. It just isn’t as evident to us as it is to doctors or lawyers or teachers who know very well that the people they work with need their expertise.

So here is the thing. We know that self-sacrifice and giving of ourselves feels good, and it is an easy way to justify our jobs.

But that stuff is in fact what we have been called out of and set apart from as those who fill the “office” of ministry in our congregations.

I went to a retirement party for a much beloved pastor. There were hundreds of people there, people from across the country. There were skits, songs, speeches, videos and many, many tears. And all night long there was this awkwardness because it was clear this pastor had sacrificed his family life… even brought home work for his family to do… The pastor’s family even gave speeches themselves saying their husband and father was never home and always working… but it was for Jesus.

I have heard colleagues tell me that their spouses won’t commit them to anything, or even tell them about kid’s concerts, sporting events or family functions because they know their pastor spouse will be absent.

This is more the sad norm than the exception.

Being a pastor changes the way we get to do that soul-changing work. We are set-apart from the normal stuff that everyone else gets to do and it is really hard, especially when you consider that most pastors were sent to seminary because they love and were good at that the stuff we call and exhort our parishioners to do. It is hard because the self-giving stuff that we encourage our people to do is above and beyond the 40+ hours they spend at their work, and we should be there too. It is hard because it is a powerful example to be leading the way in self-giving and sacrifice.

However, it always ends up messy. It is so easy for congregations to begin expecting 70 hour weeks, rather than seeing that those 30 hours as “extra”. Thom Rainer conducted an experiment to see what his council of deacons (or church council) expected him to be doing and how many hours a week he should spend doing it. The result, a 114 hour work week. And this was what the informed leadership expected of the pastor.

What begins as well intentioned modelling of self-sacrifice, morphs into congregations paying the pastor (and staff) to do most of the ministry of the laity or congregation. And a lot of my colleagues express this frustration, but don’t know any other way of doing things.

The answer is simple. The execution is hard. Stop giving 30+ hours of extra, dare I even say, “lay ministry” to your church.

This is extra hard for most pastors because leading the way in giving time and energy to the church is where that calling to ministry first grew.

This is what I know: My most important jobs are first and foremost Preaching the gospel and Presiding at worship. Doing those things with integrity takes 40% to 50% of my time. The rest is devoted to teaching, visiting the sick and dying, preparing people for baptism, marriage and funerals for another 20% to 30% and the last 20-30% is devoted to visioning, planing, getting everyone on the same page of mission and purpose.

What does that last piece look like? It is helping people to understand that the highest value and goal of being a church is to be a good worshipping community. A community that loves, respects and cares for each other, and a community that gathers and is formed first and foremost in worship.   When a congregation’s purpose is to be a good community formed in worship, the responsibility of the leaders becomes to name the destination and point the way. And it stops being getting all the jobs done… which is the goal of a church that is paying it’s pastor for 70 hours a week of ministry.

Liturgy – The First Social Media

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So a few days ago, a blog post, by a fellow Lutheran Pastor, Keith Anderson, started making the social media rounds. The post suggested the simple idea of getting people to check-in with their smart phones prior to the service using Facebook or foursquare and to tweet using a hashtag particular to the church.

Not a bad idea. Or is it?

In the past couple years, it has been becoming clearer that social media is here to stay. People are getting more and more connected through virtual community, and more importantly social media use is becoming a seamless part of our lives. We interact with online communities almost automatically.

It has also become clear that churches will need to have a social media presence if they want to be a part of people’s lives away from Sunday mornings. It used to be that Churches would have a small ad in the local paper or phone book. Churches knew that was a given in order to be known in the community. Social media is now our local paper and phone book, Facebook pages and twitter accounts are the new given for community presence.

However, the idea of “checking-in at church” generated some interesting discussion. Checking-in at church means smart phone use at church. Smart phone use at church means checking social media during worship. And that idea is not as exciting, I am sure, for most pastors. I even wrote a post about putting down the iPhone in church recently. I don’t know if I am ready to look out into the pews and see the white smartphone glow on faces staring down at knees while I am preaching. Part of me loves the possibility for live-tweeting a sermon, and I also know that I watched a video about cats stealing dog beds this morning. 3 times. Maybe twitter can wait until worship is over.

But churches and social media are, at their core, all about community. Social media and church are only going to become more entangled over time. Understanding how and why people use social media might help churches understand themselves.

The wikipedia definition of social media is about online virtual communities. Social media is where people share content (posts, updates, comments, shares etc…) through virtual community media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, Reddit etc…

I think that definition is too narrow.

“Social” is simply a word that describes human interaction in community. “Media” is the vehicle for that communication. Social Media doesn’t have to be online. Social Media really is just naming a medium through which people interact socially, or in other words, through which people share themselves and their lives with others who are sharing.

The liturgy is exactly that. It is a social or community experience. It is a medium through which we are shared with and to each other. Worship should be a similar experience to opening Facebook and seeing the updates from your community. It is medium for ritualized and filtered community. We greet each other as the whole assembly. We share in common experiences in song and prayer. We hear anew the news, opinion, and thoughts of the timeless community of faith in scripture. We share our concerns in prayer and reconcile in the peace. We open and bind ourselves to each other in the Holy Bath and Holy Meal. We promise to return to the community as we are sent out into the real world.

Liturgy is the first form of social media.

But more importantly, there is a clue to what people are looking for in community and at church. So often we think it is the medium that “attracts”. We think that if we become the newest phone or computer or website or viral video sensation that we will have people camped outside our doors three days before worship, like early adopters before an apple product launch.

Yet, take a look around you the next time you go to the mall or coffee shop or take the bus. Look at people’s phones. Some are the latest version. Most are scuffed, beat up, covered in ugly yet functional cases, sometimes severely cracked, barely functional devices. People don’t seem to care that much what their phone looks like as long as it still gets them online. One of the most popular activities on Facebook is complaining about Facebook. People hate the features of the site, but they need the community that they find there. If they didn’t need it they would be somewhere else… (Google+ maybe?)

Church people make the mistake of thinking it is the flashy screens or cool guitars or cushy pews or hip sermon references that will bring people to church. Yet, every time I ask church members why they keep coming back to their church, the first answer is always community. Everyone who is at church is there for the community yet we try to attract new members, our youth, inactive and drifted away members with buildings, music, programs, projectors and screens, staff, and whatever cool features we hope will work.

Is it that we hope the medium will be the message?

Or that most congregations find it hard to believe that they are the reason that they come, that each other and the community we form are what people are actually looking for?

When Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered, he didn’t add, “on Facebook or in architecturally post-modern buildings or wherever drop down projection screens have been installed” I am there.

And it is no mistake that the church, that our community, is called the Body of Christ.

Churches are the medium.

Liturgy is the social media of the Body of Christ. It the place where our community is hosted, updated, friend added, followed, and shared.

Community is the reason we all keep coming back… maybe it is time to give in and accept that community is what God is actually using to bring us to the Body of Christ.

A Sermon for the Last of the Millennials

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sermon

Confirmands, today you have done something bold and courageous. Something that, in fact most, people on the street would consider crazy. Something that, many people here today would not do, even for money. You have stood before us and pointed to God, and specially to the things that God is doing in your life.

 

Next week I have to talk about the Reformation, something that happened 500 years ago, and Baptism and Affirmation of Baptism, things that Christians have been doing for 2000 years. So today I am going to talk about you, and about what you shared, your faith. And of course about God, and what God has to say about you and your faith.

 

Let me begin by saying that I am you.

 

Or rather you and I are a part of the same generation. Most of the adults in the room probably don’t know this. And you guys might not really get what a generation is. But we are Millennials. Millennials, our generation, have been in the news a fair bit lately. Our parents, the Baby Boomers have been calling us lazy, they have been telling us to get jobs, they have been complaining that we grew up in a world where everyone gets a soccer trophy, and every game ends in a tie, and the thing that we have all been taught growing up is that we are special and deserve special treatment.

 

That doesn’t sound very good does it?

 

So what really makes us Millennials? I am 30 years old, and I was born in the second last week of 1982. Which means that I was born in the 20th century, but I didn’t become an adult until the 21st century. I am among the oldest of our generation, and you, confirmands, are the youngest. Most of you were probably born in 1998 or 1999? Right? So you were also born before the year 2000 but you won’t be adults until 2016 or 2107, the 21st century. But it isn’t our just our birth year that makes us millennials. Important events of history have also shaped our lives. You might not remember it, but September 11th, 2001 changed our world forever. You were in diapers, and I was in my 2nd week of university. The world was all of a sudden at war with terrorists. Five years ago in 2008, Banks started failing and the world economy entered a recession that was last experienced by our great-grandparents. And just recently, we have been praying about this government shutdown in the US. This too is now part of the history that defines us.

 

But we are also the first generation to have computers the whole way through grade school. We are the first to grow up with internet, with cell phones, smart phones and with texting, with facebook, twitter, youtube.

 

This is a world very different than that of your parents and grandparents. And having faith today, is very different from the way your grandparents and parents had faith.

 

When your grandparents and parents were born, most people went to church. Most of their family, their friends, their neighbours were church goers.  Being born in Canada usually meant you were born a Christian. The weird people were the ones who DIDN’T go to church.

 

But for us, most people don’t go to church. Most of our friends, family and neighbours stay home on Sundays. Being born in Canada today means you can be a Christian, or a Jew, or Hindu, or Buddhist or Muslim, or Atheist, or Agnostic, or a Jedi, or nothing. And weird people are the ones who DO go to church.

 

When your parents and grandparents were born, being a Canadian, and going to church because everyone else did was a good enough reason to be a Christian.

 

But today for us, we need more reasons than that. And your parents and grandparents need more reason than that these days too.

 

You have all just shared your faith with us, and so I want to tell you why Jesus is important in my life too.

 

Remember the bible reading that I started with? The story of Unjust judge who doesn’t  care about anyone, not even God. And the widow who bothers him so much that he finally gives in and gives her what she wants? Well, most people these days think God is kind of like that unjust judge. That God is up in heaven deciding who is good and who is bad. And some people say that if God is like that, they don’t want anything to do with God, or the Church or Christians. And other people say that if God is like that judge, we better be really good Christians and have lots of faith or we are all going to hell.

 

Now for me, if I thought that God was an unjust judge I would never be at church. But even if God was a kind and friendly judge who was deciding to let most people into heaven, even if you didn’t have try very hard for God to choose to let us in. I would not be a pastor, I would not be a Christian, I would never come to church.

 

So then why I still am a Christian, why I am a pastor? Because I was lucky enough to have a family, to have a church, to go to and work at Bible camps, to go to university and have teachers and professors, to have pastors in my life, and confirmation teachers and youth leaders like yours who taught me something different.

 

They told me about Jesus who is not like the judge at all. They told me about Jesus who is much more like the widow.

 

Jesus is the one who keeps coming, and bothering, and annoying and interrupting and trying to be a part of my life. Jesus is the one who will keep trying to find me and who keeps loving me no matter what.

 

Church is not a place for perfect Christians or good people. In fact, if any of us were perfect Christians or truly good people, we wouldn’t need to be here. Instead, Church is a place for weird people. For widows, for broken people, for sinners, for sick, depressed, lonely, losers like you and me. Church is a place for people who need to be loved and cared for. For people who need justice like the widow in the story today.

 

As you grow up and go out into the world, there are going to be a lot of people who will tell you that God needs you to be a better person and that God needs you to be a good Christian with lots of faith. And there are also going to be other people who tell you that God is evil and bad, and that God probably doesn’t exist at all.

 

They are ALL wrong. Don’t believe any of them.

 

Remember the widow… the one who just keeps coming until she gets what she wants. That is who Jesus is like. Jesus will just keep coming for you, bothering you, annoying you, interrupting you until realize that God loves you unconditionally. Church is not for better people and good Christians with lots of faith. God’s church is for broken and sinful people, people like us who need healing and forgiveness. God’s church is for people with weak faith or no faith, people like us who need good news. God’ church is even for people who aren’t sure if God exists, people like us who God believes in and who God has known since before time. Jesus always has a place for you here. A place at church, and a place at his table. A place here with all these other broken and sinful people, here with God’s people.

 

Confirmands, today, you have told all of us about how Jesus is important in your life. And we have been honoured to hear it. You have done something bold and daring. But there is something else you need to hear. Something that overshadows Jesus being important in your life. Something that is a good enough reason for Millennials, like you and me to go to church. And that reason is that you are important to Jesus. You are the ones that Jesus will keep coming for and Jesus will never stop until he gets what he wants, until Jesus gets a hold of you, and you know that you are important to God and that you belong here.

 

Amen.

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An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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